Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

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Last Updated on January 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

Goodness, are you a child! He is, isn't he?

Hans Vollman says this when the inhabitants of the cemetery in which Willie Lincoln is to be buried first catch sight of Willie's childlike body.

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They have been loaned a place in the crypt belonging to Judge Carroll, & imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one's precious son into that cold stone like a broken bird & be on your way.

This quote is in Isabelle Perkins's letter to her brother. It captures the pain President Lincoln and his wife must feel upon depositing their son, Willie, into a cold crypt. The author of the letter compares Willie to a bird with a broken wing, emphasizing his fragility.

The other man (the one hit by a beam) Quite naked Member swollen to the size of Could not take my eyes off.

These are Willie Lincoln's disjointed thoughts, not even punctuated with periods, when he first arrives at the cemetery. He becomes more lucid after being visited by his father, President Lincoln. 

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It is soon to be spring The Christmas toys barely played with.

These are more of Willie Lincoln's fragmented, wistful thoughts. The author tries to capture the emotions of a young boy who misses his toys.

He emitted a single, heartrending sob.

The dead in the cemetery, existing the "bardo," or afterlife, observe President Lincoln's visit to Willie in the cemetery and note his overwhelming grief.

His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.

Observers of President Lincoln note how grief makes him weak with pain. Willie's death makes him seem like a child.

The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.

Roger Bevins III, one of the inhabitants of the cemetery, observes President Lincoln pick up Willie in his arms. In this scene, Lincoln and his son, Willie, resemble Michelangelo's Pietà, the image of Mary with Jesus in her arms.

And yet, no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.

The inhabitants of the cemetery note that, since their deaths, no one has held them the way Lincoln cradles Willie.

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