Lincoln in the Bardo Summary
In this imaginative novel, Willie Lincoln, the President's son who died of typhoid fever in 1862 in the White House at age 11, is trapped in a kind of afterlife. Saunders's narrative uses secondary sources to comment on the official function Lincoln was holding when his son fell ill upstairs. When Willie dies, his body is brought to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. A commentator at the time wrote, "Imagine the pain of that . . . to drop one's precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird, & be on your way" (23).
While observers at the time feel that President Lincoln has moved on, the reality is that both Willie and the President are trapped in a kind of purgatory. The afterlife of the dead is referred to by the Tibetan word "bardo." Willie, speaking in a disjointed way, meets several characters in the cemetery who have been trapped in an early stage of the afterlife because they still feel that they cannot leave earth. For example, Hans Vollman, whose narrative begins the book, was crushed by a beam as he was about to consummate his marriage to a younger woman. Roger Bevins III has many sets of eyes, noses, and hands, and as Willie notes, "his body all but vanished" (page 27). These men are joined by the Reverend Everly Thomas, who feels he must have sinned to be caught in the afterlife.
As Willie is about to enter a white stone house in the cemetery and be transported away to a different stage of the afterlife, something "unprecedented" happens. Willie is visited by the President, and Vollman sees Willie that "drew himself in closer, until his head was touching his father's head" (page 59). Willie's connection to his father as his father holds him delays his transportation to the afterlife.
The observers fear that Willie will be grabbed by a vine-like tendril and remain in the bardo, as a cemetery inhabitant named Elise Traynor was. When the President goes back to lock the crypt and then leaves, these strange tendrils grab Willie. The Reverend Everly Thomas then rescues Willie. After Willie merges with his father, he finally passes into the afterlife, as do many of the inhabitants who have been trapped in the bardo. Lincoln is then able to go on with his work for the nation.