Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

Lincoln in the Bardo was inspired by a tale that author George Saunders heard about how Abraham Lincoln would sometimes visit the cemetery in Georgetown where his eleven-year-old son, Willie, was buried just so he could hold the body. The term "bardo" comes from a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to the time between our life on Earth and our reincarnation when the soul remains disconnected from a corporeal body.

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The story features narration by 166 different ghosts, some of whom admit they're dead and some who do not. Some appear only to utter a sentence or two. The story begins with a discordant mix of voices based on a combination of historical record and make-believe. However, Saunders eventually settles on three main ghosts as our primary narrators, all of whom reside in the Oak Hill Cemetery.

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The first is Hans Vollman, a well-endowed printer who died during a night of intimacy with his much younger wife when he was crushed by a falling ceiling beam. He's not aware he's dead and often trips over his own erect penis as he moves about the cemetery, pining for his wife while steadfastly holding to the notion that they will one day be reunited.

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Latest answer posted February 27, 2018, 8:05 pm (UTC)

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The second is Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay man who decided to commit suicide and whose body now has many extra limbs covered with additional ears, eyes, and noses. This has nothing to do with punishment but is rather a manifestation of his willingness to see, hear, and smell as much of the world's beauty as he possibly can.

The third is Reverend Everly Thomas, the only one of the three who admits he's not only dead, but damned as well. He comes across as a bit of an impresario and is sophisticated in his manner of speaking, but he holds dark secrets on why he chooses to stay in the bardo.

All three comfort Willie upon his arrival but also encourage him to leave as soon as possible because the bardo is filled with chaos, including a cadre of other ghosts, some of whom are filled with rage and hate and nearly all of whom are intent on affecting the actions of the president.

Characters

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is brimming with different voices and characters. As a reader, it can seem overwhelming and surreal. To identify the characters more clearly, they can be split by their function in the overall narrative. The main narrators are Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. They are assisted by various minor characters in the Bardo. Next, there is Willie Lincoln, the character whose death sets in motion the novel's events. Finally, Abraham Lincoln is a central figure in the story and is the only character not in the Bardo. His actions move the plot of the story forward.

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas are the three central narrators of the story. They are the most detailed characters, each revealing a complex backstory as to how they died and why they remain in the Bardo.

Behind these three protagonists sit the rest of the Bardo's residents, each coming forward to share parts of their stories and tell the one we see unfolding in the novel. Some of these minor characters speak just a line or two but serve their purpose, which is to show us the depth of the Bardo. Important minor characters include Thomas Havens, Mrs. Abigail Blass, and the Barons.

William Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln's son. He died of typhoid fever in 1862, at the age of eleven, as the various historical extracts in the novel tell us. His arrival in the Bardo establishes the plot of the novel.

Abraham Lincoln is the main driver of the novel's plot. He is the only character who is alive, which is why he never speaks a line (other than through the minds of others). As the only living character, he is free to leave the Bardo and come back as he chooses, giving him a freedom the other characters envy. Much of the novel is centered around the residents of the Bardo trying (and often failing) to influence Abraham Lincoln's actions.

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