Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Inside his own physical form, Willie listens to Lincoln whisper in his ear. His father assures him that, though their “bond has been broken,” it is a bond that “can never” truly break, since he’ll love Willie forever. The man then breaks into tears, and Willie decides to enter him so they can interact better. Once inside, he suddenly feels extremely connected to his father. “Could feel the way his long legs lay,” Willie notes fragmentarily. “How it is to have a beard     Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best.
When Willie inhabits his father, he forges a new kind of unity, one that allows him to know everything about Lincoln. However, there still exists a sense of division between them, since Lincoln himself doesn’t know his son is inside of him. What’s more, Saunders uses this technique as a way of divulging Lincoln’s most internal thoughts, showcasing the man’s fear that what he’s doing—by holding his son’s lifeless body—is “unholy.” Indeed, the president worries that what he’s doing is “wrong,” but he eventually decides that—as Willie’s father—he has the right to “decide what is best,” thereby giving himself permission to address his sense of loss in whatever way he thinks might alleviate his grief.
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Continuing to narrate his father’s thoughts, Willie says: “And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten somewhat already.” Because holding Willie has helped him remember his son, Lincoln decides that he will allow himself to “return as often as” he likes. This, he resolves, will be a secret he can keep, one that will enable him to manage his grief. “Dear boy,” he speaks aloud, “I will come again. That is a promise.”
That Lincoln has already “forgotten” aspects of Willie is yet another indication of life’s fleeting quality—no matter what, memories fade, even of loved ones. Furthermore, Lincoln frames holding Willie as something that helps him navigate his loss. Because of this, he decides he ought not be ashamed of what he’s doing, even if it’s unconventional. In turn, Saunders demonstrates that grief and mourning often inspire people to do strange things.
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