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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

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....

(The entire section contains 2216 words.)

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1831

Author: George Saunders (b. 1958)

Publisher: Random House (New York). 368 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1862

Locales: Oak Hill Cemetery; Washington, DC

Award-winning short-story writer George Saunders’s first novel melds historical fiction with earnest metaphysical inquiry as he considers the post-death fate of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie and the other souls that exist in a limbo between the world of the living and the afterlife.

Principal characters

Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States and father of Willie; based on the historical figure of the same name

Lincoln in the Bardo

Courtesy of Random House

George Saunders

© David Crosby

Willie Lincoln, his son, a spirit in Oak Hill Cemetery; based on the historical figure of the same name

Hans Vollman, a spirit in Oak Hill Cemetery

Roger Bevins III, a spirit in Oak Hill Cemetery

The Reverend Everly Thomas, a spirit in Oak Hill Cemetery

It is human nature to cling to life. Although some among the dying welcome their death as an end to suffering, there is an instinct as human beings, both physically and mentally, to resist. People use euphemisms for illness, insist that they are doing better than they really are, and fight off the end with every ounce of willpower. Similarly, those who are destined to remain among the living while their loved ones depart for some undefined afterlife often have trouble letting go. The first stage of the Kübler-Ross model of grief is, after all, denial, and those on both sides of the death spectrum—those about to die and those coming to terms with the loss of a close relative or friend—must overcome this tendency to negate the truth to achieve closure.

In his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, award-winning short-story writer George Saunders considers each side of this divide by drawing on and expanding a historical anecdote involving US president Abraham Lincoln. Saunders had read that Lincoln visited the grave of his eleven-year-old son Willie several times in the days immediately following the boy’s death, even going so far as to open his tomb and hold the lifeless body of the child. Whatever the historical accuracy of this anecdote, it sets up a poignant image that stands at the center of Saunders’s structurally playful, meditative, and moving novel about the death of Lincoln’s son, Willie, and his parents’ subsequent grief during the Civil War.

One of Saunders’s signature strengths as a short-story writer is his ear for voice. Many of his stories are told in the first person and involve a protagonist using a very specific vernacular to narrate an absurd situation. What draws the reader’s attention are the improbable setups of the stories, many of which offer dark commentary on the contemporary world. However, what makes the works stand out as more than mere curios is the precision with which Saunders captures his characters’ unique speech patterns and thus their essential humanity.

Because of the limited scope of these works, Saunders inevitably confines himself to a single voice in most of the stories; in Lincoln, however, he uses the broader canvas to skillfully introduce a multiplicity of voices that add a richness to the work unavailable in his shorter pieces. The book is narrated in two different formats. In the first format, Saunders assembles a range of historical voices, taken from biographies, letters, diaries, and other real-life source material, and arranges these different perspectives in a collage of short quotations. These passages not only provide the historical background that is required but also comment on the process of making history. If all these contemporary eyewitnesses differ (if only slightly) in their reports, then it must be accepted that there is no such thing as a totally objective, monolithic history.

Having established this subjective stance toward history, Saunders is then free to play with it as much as he pleases, and, in the second format, he fashions a metaphysical tragicomedy out of a broad array of (mostly) fictional voices. These passages, which take place in Washington, DC’s Oak Hill Cemetery, are narrated by a series of characters who all exist as spirits, trapped between the living and the dead in some sort of limbo. (The “bardo” of the book’s title refers to such a liminal state in the Buddhist religion, although Saunders’s theology exists without reference to any specific faith.) In a series of quotations attributed to the various spirits, these passages outline the characters’ metaphysical quests. In addition, they give Saunders a chance to try out different narrative voices. Although the main characters all speak in a somewhat similar language, Saunders has fun giving most of the lesser characters more distinctive speech patterns, allowing him to show off his virtuosity.

The principal speakers are a trio of spirits, Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who occupy the Oak Hill graveyard, resting in their graves during the day and coming out to talk at night. Although it is clear to the reader that they are dead, the characters do everything they can to deny this fact, referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” as if they will suddenly recover and return to the living.

The spirits are soon joined by a new resident at the cemetery, Willie Lincoln, and Saunders uses this plot point to show the refusal of the living to let go of life. Willie’s father, amid the struggles of the Civil War, comes to visit his son’s grave several times and holds him in his arms, refusing to acknowledge his death. In these moving scenes, readers are given access to the elder Lincoln’s thoughts: “I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten somewhat already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers.”

Because his father keeps coming to visit him, Willie refuses to allow himself to move on to the real afterlife, tarrying behind in the liminal state of the graveyard. Children who stay in this state suffer special torments that the adults do not, such as being continually bound by growing tendrils, and so Vollman, Bevins, and Everly attempt to persuade Willie to move on to the afterlife proper. But as long as his father keeps visiting him, Willie refuses. Therefore, the trio proceed to enter Lincoln’s body—a bit of trickery that creates a melding of the dead and the living—to persuade Lincoln to try to convince his son to let go. This refusal to let go on both sides—the living of their dead, and the dead of their lives—ignites the book’s central plotline.

By rendering a vividly evoked netherworld in which the not-yet fully dead and the half-dead living can interact and voice their metaphysical concerns, Saunders has created a philosophical staging ground for humanity’s various hopes and fears. This is particularly evident in one memorable scene where two spirits, Professor Edmund Bloomer and Lawrence T. DeCroix, appear and are given voice. Readers are told that these spirits are literally “conjoined at the hip from their many years of mutual flattery,” and indeed they do go to ridiculous lengths to flatter each other, DeCroix vouching for Bloomer’s unpublished scientific studies and Bloomer testifying to the excellence of the other’s pickle business. However, while there is an element of comedy to these scenes, they ultimately serve as a poignant reminder of the inability to leave a lasting impact on the world and the sadness that comes from understanding that many go unremembered. “Strange, isn’t it?” ponders DeCroix, “to have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labor utterly forgotten?”

Of course, this sense of historical oblivion does not apply to Lincoln, who, in many ways, is the book’s central character. His deep grief over his son’s death mingles with his apprehension over the Civil War, which, at the time of the narrative, is not going well. Lincoln’s meditations form the spiritual heart of the book and the way in which his reflections on personal death meld with that of the vast national slaughter going on around him is skillfully handled throughout. “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln ponders about the Civil War, after visiting his son’s body for the last time, “merit the killing. On the surface, it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?” Just as Lincoln struggles to find meaning in his son’s death (or accept its meaninglessness), so he has to justify in his mind the death that he is causing by his decision to pursue the Civil War.

That this death is about more than just the concept of the Union is something that both Lincoln and Saunders understand. In one of the more startling passages, Saunders details the horrors that a young slave girl has suffered. Because she has been rendered mute by her repeated rapes, the woman who looks after her (also a slave), narrates what has happened to her and the visceral horrors of slavery are presented to readers in such a way that they understand the necessity of pursuing the Civil War. Thus, when Lincoln struggles over the need to fight that war, readers are firmly in his corner, even as they understand the difficulty of his situation. Because men must be killed, a whole country is confronted with the imminence of death and Saunders expertly uses this confrontation to ask the reader to consider all its implications as well. While he draws on a highly fanciful scenario, with its very specific conception of a post-death limbo to push forth his inquiry, the questions he raises and ponders are those that affect all human beings regardless of what they expect to find on the other side of death.

Review Sources

  • Crain, Caleb. “The Sentimental Sadist.” Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The Atlantic, Mar. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/the-sentimental-sadist/513824/. Accessed 31 July 2017.
  • Kakutani, Michiko. “Review: Lincoln in the Bardo Shows a President Haunted by Grief.” Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/books/review-george-saunders-lincoln-in-the-bardo.html. Accessed 31 July 2017.
  • Kunzru, Hari. “Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Review—Extraordinary Story of the Afterlife.” Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The Guardian, 8 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/08/lincoln-in-the-bardo-george-saunders-review. Accessed 31 July 2017.
  • Mallon, Thomas. “George Saunders Gets Inside Lincoln’s Head.” Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The New Yorker, June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/george-saunders-gets-inside-lincolns-head. Accessed 31 July 2017.
  • Sheehan, Jason. “Letting Go Is the Hardest Thing for Lincoln in the Bardo.” Review of Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. NPR, 18 Feb. 2017. www.npr.org/2017/02/18/514376361/letting-go-is-the-hardest-thing-for-lincoln-in-the-bardo. Accessed 31 July 2017.
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