Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen,” begins Hans Vollman, who explains that, contrary to all expectations, he did not consummate his marriage because he “refused” to “mortify” his young bride. Coming upstairs after the wedding party, he found her wearing a “thinnish thing” forced upon her by an aunt. He noticed she was trembling—an observation that stopped him from “excercis[ing] the marital prerogative.” Instead, he told her she was beautiful and that he was ugly, explaining that he knew their marriage “had its roots not in love but expedience,” since her family had betrothed her to him because they were poor. Vollman also told her he wouldn’t ever touch her under these circumstances, suggesting instead that they become friends.
As Hans Vollman tells the story of his wedding night, Saunders quickly establishes that he is a kindhearted, empathetic man. Judging by the way he treats his young bride, it’s clear he’s attentive and doesn’t want to force his will upon anybody. Since the novel engages so extensively with the difference between virtue and vice, it’s important to keep this in mind, remembering that Hans is an overall good person, not someone who deserves to be unhappy or to suffer. 
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Continuing the story of his wedding night, Hans Vollman explains that he told Anna—his bride—that she should pretend to everyone that they consummated their marriage, though in truth they decided to simply be friends. In this way, he says, they grew closer and closer, eventually coming to enjoy each other’s company. “She is here,” Hans would think sometimes, “still here.” Then, at a dinner party one night, Anna spoke kindly of him in front of their friends, and he could tell she meant the flattering things she said. The next day, she left him a note telling him that she’d like (to use her words) to “expand the frontiers of [their] happiness together in that intimate way to which [she was], as yet, a stranger.” Concluding the note, she asked Hans to “guide her in this.”
Once again, Saunders shows that Vollman is an empathetic person, someone willing to hold off on his own desires in order to make a loved one feel comfortable. In doing so, Vollman finds that love often develops naturally, as evidenced by the fact that Anna soon comes to feel affectionate toward him. In this way, Hans’s empathy fosters an environment in which a mutual fondness can actually take root and blossom.
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Related Quotes
After Anna left her note, Vollman explains, the couple spent a joyful night kissing and cuddling in bed. The next day, they both felt “the rising tide of lust” and knew that they’d finally consummate their marriage that night. Hans, for his part, was “not an inexperienced man,” since he had been married before and, in the aftermath of that marriage, had also taken to visiting prostitutes. Nonetheless, he found himself giddy at the idea of making love to Anna, and was hardly able to concentrate on his work at his printing office. “And that day—alas—was the day of the beam,” he says, cursing his luck. As he sat at his desk in the printing office, a ray shot down and hit him, incapacitating him so that his plan with Anna had to “be deferred.”
That Vollman gets hit by this “beam” right before finally making love to Anna is a testament to the fact that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Saunders hasn’t yet revealed the nature of this “beam,” but it becomes clear that Vollman has to accept that he must wait to consummate his marriage. Indeed, he believes the plan must “be deferred,” an approach that suggests he sees his situation—whatever it is—as impermanent, something that will eventually pass and thus enable him to proceed with his life.
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“Per the advice of my physician,” Hans Vollman says, “I took to my—A sort of sick-box was judged—was judged to be—” He falters at here, and the voice of Roger Bevins III enters, saying: “Efficacious.” Thankful for this help, Hans says, “Efficacious, yes. Thank you, friend.” He then continues his story, explaining that he lay in his “sick-box” in the parlor of his home, where the physician and his assistants soon returned and carried him to a “sick-cart” to take him away. “I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed,” Hans says. “What a frustration! When, now, would I know the full pleasures of the marriage-bed?” After waxing poetic about what it would be like to finally have sex with Anna, he says that he and his wife will have to wait until his “recovery” is “complete.”
In this moment, Vollman is interrupted by Roger Bevins III, yet another disembodied voice. As such, readers realize that Lincoln in the Bardo doesn’t follow narrative conventions, but rather takes an unexpected shape, wherein multiple voices float in and out, helping one another tell their stories. In this way, Vollman’s narration becomes a communal process, one aided by Roger Bevins III. On another note, it becomes rather obvious at this point that the “beam” that hit Hans has killed him. After all, there’s no such thing as a “sick-box,” which is clearly an alternative way of referring to a coffin. In turn, readers see that Vollman is in denial when he says that he will make a full “recovery.” Rather than embracing the fact that life is impermanent, he clings to the idea that he’s merely sick.
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Hans Vollman admits that, though he has somewhat come to terms with the fact that he must wait to consummate his marriage, he didn’t feel that way when he first took to his “sick-box.” In fact, when he was placed on the “sick-cart,” he found that he could “briefly leave” his sick-box and create “little duststorms.” He even broke a vase sitting on his porch, though Anna and the physician didn’t notice, as they were too busy talking about his “injury.” As such, Hans threw “a bit of a tantrum” by passing through several dogs and causing them to “yip” and dream about bears. “I could do that then!” he exclaims. “Those were the days! Now I could no more induce a dream of a bear in a dog than I could take our silent young friend here out to dinner! (He does appear young, doesn’t he, Mr. Bevins?)”
Although Vollman hasn’t yet managed to accept the fact that he’s dead, he has at least succeeded in coming to terms with his new limitations. Indeed, he knows he’s no longer capable of doing certain physical things, thereby tacitly recognizing the impermanence of his own body. What’s more, he can’t pull off the same kind of ethereal hijinks he could perform when he first took to his “sick-box,” suggesting that a person’s abilities deteriorate the longer they stay in whatever place Hans exists (which readers know from the novel’s title is the Bardo, a liminal space between death and the afterlife). Lastly, Vollman indicates that he and Bevins aren’t alone, though he doesn’t yet fully turn his attention to this third person.
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Resuming his story, Hans Vollman explains that he eventually reentered his sick-box. “[I was] weeping in that way that we have,” he says, “—have you come to know this yet, young fellow? When we are newly arrived in this hospital-yard, young sir, and feel like weeping, what happens is, we tense up ever so slightly, and there is a mildly toxic feeling in the joints, and little things inside us burst.” After giving an account of what this feels like, Vollman says, “Goodness, are you a child? He is, isn’t he?” Roger Bevins III agrees that the heretofore unnamed person before them does indeed seem young, and Vollman apologizes for speaking so morbidly to a child. “Good God,” he says. “To be confined to a sick-box while still a child.”
In keeping with the fact that Saunders has already established him as an empathetic person, Hans Vollman now takes pity on the child before him. Although he seems to have more or less made peace with his own situation, he frames the Bardo as a place unfit for children, and is unable to fathom what it would be like to be “confined to a sick-box” as a young person. In turn, Saunders suggests that it’s unnatural for children to occupy this realm.
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