Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Lincoln in the Bardo can help.

Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 102 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“Suddenly Mr. Bevins did not look well,” Vollman says, looking at his friend and noticing that the man’s flesh has thinned. Bevins remembers his final day in that previous place, when he saw Gilbert in a bakery with another man and felt “crestfallen.” Distraught, he went home and “proceeded.” Thinking this, he now falls to his knees and flickers through his past selves, moving from “an effeminate but affectionate young boy” to a “red-faced distraught disaster” clutching a “butcher knife.” Turning to Vollman, he asks if his friend remembers when he—Bevins—first came to this place. “You were so kind to me,” he says. “I just remembered something else,” he adds. “Your wife once came to visit.” Startled by this turn in the conversation, Vollman denies this memory, but Bevins says, “Friend. Enough. Let us speak honestly. I am remembering many things. And I suspect that you are, too.”
When Bevins first begins to flicker (indicating that he’s on the verge of leaving), he still avoids articulating that he is dead. Indeed, he says that he went home after seeing Gilbert with another man, at which point he “proceeded.” Note that he doesn’t say what, exactly, he “proceeded” in doing—he stops short of saying that he “proceeded” to kill himself. What’s interesting, though, is that the language he uses implies life’s natural course of progression, a sentiment that frames stasis—or “tarrying” in the Bardo—as antithetical to existence. After all, the word “proceed” denotes a sense of movement and succession. In this way, Bevins slowly comes to terms with the fact that he has left behind his previous life, even if he hasn’t quite reached the point where he can fully articulate that he has died. In this state of mind, he turns to Vollman and tries to get him to see that they’re both finished with life—“that previous place.”
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Vollman denies Bevins’s words, but his friend pushes on, recounting Anna’s visit to the cemetery. She came, Bevins says, and thanked Vollman for putting her “on the path to love,” explaining that she met the love of her life after his death. She then told him that she wouldn’t join him when she herself died, because she belongs with her husband. “You,” Vollman interrupts, “you cut your wrists and bled to death on your kitchen floor.” “Yes,” says Bevins. “Yes I did.”
Finally, Vollman and Bevins both face the truth: they are dead. In order to exist in the Bardo, they—along with everyone else—have focused monomaniacally on their own situations, adopting an individualistic mindset in order to remain in this liminal realm. Now, though, they work together to help one another come to terms with the truth, again suggesting that unity and empathy ultimately incite progress.
Themes
Unity Theme Icon
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
“Ah, God,” Vollman says as he too begins to flicker, moving from a “fresh-faced apprentice in an ink-stained smock” to a “heavy-set, limping, wooden-toothed forty-six-year-old printer.” Observing this, Bevins says, “Shall we? Shall we go together?” As he says this, he circles through the forms he never had the chance to become: “The contented lover, for many years now, of a gentle, bearded pharmacist”; “A prosperous, chubby, middle-aged fellow”; “An old geezer of nearly a hundred, blessedly free of all desire […] being driven to church in some sort of miracle vehicle.” Vollman agrees that they should depart, but there’s one last thing the two friends know they must do, and so they swoop toward the “dreaded iron fence.”
By revealing all the forms Bevins never had the chance to attain, Saunders emphasizes once again the fact that being alive means existing in a constant state of change. In turn, this accentuates life’s fleeting, ephemeral nature. Nothing, it seems, can ever be “fixed” in place, a sentiment first expressed by Lincoln in chapter LXXIV, when the president acknowledges that he was “wrong” to think of Willie as a “stable” and permanent being in his life. Now, Bevins literally embodies this spirit of transition, demonstrating that even if he hadn’t died many years ago, he wouldn’t now be the same person he once was.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon