Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 103 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Vollman and Bevins reach Elise Traynor, she is in the form of a “smoking wreck of a rail car, several dozen charred and expiring individuals trapped within her.” “We are sorry,” the friends shout. “Sorry that we did not do more to convince you to go, back when you still had the chance.” One of the perishing individuals inside the wreck points out that they did “slink away” as the girl succumbed, and this comment shames Vollman so much that he draws himself up and approaches the car, all the while manifesting as his future forms: “A beaming fellow in a disordered bed, the morning after he and Anna would have consummated their marriage”; “A father of twin girls”; “A retired printer with bad knees, helped along a boardwalk by that same Anna.” Taking a deep breath, he steps inside the rail car and departs.
Vollman has spent many years focusing on himself. This, readers now know, is what a person must do in order to have the strength to stay in the Bardo. Now, though, Vollman has finally accepted that he has died, and this acceptance enables him to compensate for the kind of individualistic thinking that kept him from helping Elise Traynor in her time of need. Coming to terms with the fact that he must now move on, he uses his last moments in the Bardo to act empathetically in an attempt to free the Traynor girl from her terrible internment.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
The train explodes with Vollman’s departure, throwing Bevins to the ground. When he stands, he sees that the iron fence is the only thing left standing. Advancing toward it, he thinks one last time of the world’s myriad sensory pleasures—“None of it was real; nothing was real,” he tells himself. “Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now must lose them.” Bidding his final farewell, he says: “I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant.”
Bevins asserts that everything starts as “nothing,” but then humans “name” and “love” these things and, as such, bring them forth until, eventually, they return to nothing. This line of thinking recalls Lincoln’s idea that Willie emerged from “nothingness” and has now gone back to that nothingness. As Bevins prepares to depart, he suggests that life isn’t futile simply because it ends—rather, he upholds that love makes life worthwhile, even if existence is fleeting. The brief “burst” of life that takes place between birth and death is a beautiful thing, he suggests, and though it is ephemeral, humans may still cherish the time they spend in that very transience.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon