Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo


George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of George Saunders

George Saunders was born in 1958 in Amarillo, Texas, but he grew up in Chicago. When he was eighteen, he attended the Colorado School of Mines, where he graduated with a geophysical engineering degree in 1981. Upon graduation, he worked as a field geophysicist in the oil-fields of Sumatra, an island in Southeast Asia. Perhaps because the closest town was only accessible by helicopter, Saunders started reading voraciously while working in the oil-fields. A year and a half later, he got sick after swimming in a feces-contaminated river, so he returned to the United States. During this time, he worked a number of hourly jobs before attending Syracuse University, where he earned his Master’s in Creative Writing. While studying at Syracuse, he met Paula Redick, one of his peers in the writing program. Three weeks later, they were engaged to be married. Within three years of their marriage, the couple had two daughters, and Saunders took a job as a technical writer. At this point he began writing books, eventually publishing his first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Known primarily as a master of short fiction, Saunders also writes travel and profile pieces for well-known outlets like The New Yorker and GQ. In 2017, his long-awaited debut novel was published and won him the Man Booker Prize. He has also won Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, as well as the PEN/Hemingway Award. He currently teaches at Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program.
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Historical Context of Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in February 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln’s third son, William Wallace Lincoln, died of what historians suspect was typhoid. As the president and first lady grieved over their loss, the Civil War was only nearing the end of its first year, meaning that the nation was just beginning to fully grasp the magnitude of the conflict. Indeed, the war would last for another three years, totaling roughly 620,000 deaths (and perhaps even upwards of 750,000, as it’s difficult to estimate the death toll of a war fought before modern recordkeeping). Nearly a year after William’s death, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the nation’s slaves. This is of historical significance to Lincoln in the Bardo, since the novel ends with the soul of a former slave entering Lincoln’s body and traveling back to the White House with him—an image that alludes to Lincoln’s resolve to end slavery.

Other Books Related to Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo borrows the term “Bardo” from The Bardo Thodol, a Tibetan text more widely known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Tibetan Buddhists use the word “Bardo” to refer to any transitional period, including life itself, since life is simply a transitional state that takes place after a person’s birth and before their death. Written in the fourteenth century, The Bardo Thodol is supposed to guide souls through the bardo that exists between death and either reincarnation or the attainment of nirvana. In addition, Lincoln in the Bardo sometimes resembles Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, since Saunders’s deceased characters deliver long monologues reminiscent of the self-interested speeches uttered by condemned sinners in The Inferno. Taken together, these two texts inform Saunders’ look at the afterlife, combining these Eastern and Western theological writings with a comedic look at spirituality.
Key Facts about Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Full Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
  • When Published: February 14, 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Experimental Fiction
  • Setting: As the title suggests, the majority of Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in the Bardo—a liminal space between death and rebirth—but this particular Bardo is set in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • Climax: The Reverend Everly Thomas sacrifices himself by moving on from the Bardo, thereby summoning a shock of “matterlightblooming” energy that blasts through a hellish tendril wrapping around Willie Lincoln.
  • Antagonist: A tendril made out of hellish souls. This tendril wraps around children who remain too long in the Bardo, securing them in place for eternity. In a more general sense, the true antagonist of Lincoln in the Bardo is the Bardo-dwellers’ inability to accept that they’ve died.
  • Point of View: Lincoln in the Bardo is narrated as a series of monologues, as well as excerpts from both authentic and invented historical sources documenting Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Extra Credit for Lincoln in the Bardo

Film Rights. The actors Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally—who are married to one another—purchased the film rights to Lincoln in the Bardo shortly after the novel was released in 2017.

Audiobook. When George Saunders decided he wouldn’t be able to serve as the sole reader for the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally offered to become involved, eventually bringing on an array of famous actors and authors, such as David Sedaris, Rainn Wilson, Carrie Brownstein, Lena Dunham, Mary Karr, Miranda July, Ben Stiller, Susan Sarandon, and many more.