Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

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Last Updated on January 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

The word "bardo" refers to a Tibetan Buddhist concept: a state of existence between death and rebirth. Saunders decided to engage with this concept after reading about a series of events in the real life of President Abraham Lincoln. In February 1862, during the Civil War, President Lincoln's eleven-year-old son, Willie, falls ill with typhoid fever. After the boy's sudden death, his body is temporarily laid to rest at a cemetery in Georgetown. Lincoln, grief-stricken, goes to the crypt several times alone, at night, to hold his son's body.

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The novel is set during one of these evenings. The narrative unfolds in the course of a single night, as Lincoln visits the crypt to hold his son's body.

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One central idea is laid out in the title. The bardo might be a Buddhist concept, but the idea of an in-between state exists in many cultures and religions. One familiar example is the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, a place between heaven and hell. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is a state of "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven." In this novel, it's not just Willie and his soul that are in an in-between state. Lincoln also finds himself in a strange supernatural state between the living and the dead.

Indeed, ghosts play active roles in the narrative. The concepts of loss and denial are important here: the ghosts, trapped in the bardo, don't quite know that they're dead. The ghosts think they're only sick, and they hope to recover. In the meantime, the ghosts grapple with their individual pasts and linger on the regrets they feel and the dreams they never achieved. Lincoln is alive, but like the ghosts, he's in denial. In returning to the crypt to hold his son's body, it is clear that he hasn't fully accepted Willie's death.

This paternal love is another key through-line of the novel. Lincoln is well-known for his political accomplishments, but his personal life—and the incredible tenderness he felt for his son—may be surprising for some readers. The novel offers a rare glimpse into Lincoln's private life: though it's technically historical fiction, the narrative is based on truth.

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