Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo


George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Back in the white stone home, Lincoln picks up Willie’s lifeless body and cradles it. At this point, the Reverend realizes a crowd has formed outside the crypt, as other souls want to watch the scene unfolding inside. Meanwhile, Willie becomes so frustrated that Lincoln won’t interact with him—but only his corpse—that he reenters his own body, causing Lincoln to “sob anew, as if he [can] feel the altered condition of that which he [holds].” Overwhelmed and not wanting to witness something so “private,” Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III leave the white stone home, though the Reverend stays, “transfixed” and “uttering many prayers.”
This scene of Lincoln cradling his son’s body is likely historical, and was the image that inspired Saunders to write the book in the first place. In this moment, Willie finds himself tormented by the fact that he can’t interact with his father. In this state, he can’t do anything but watch the real world pass him by as life unfolds without him. As such, Saunders creates a stark division between the living world and the Bardo, illustrating that the souls existing in this liminal space are utterly incapable of uniting themselves with the reality they want so badly to rejoin. Lincoln, for his part, also experiences this division. Since he doesn’t know Willie is watching, however, he doesn’t see himself as having been divided from his child so much as having lost his child.
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