Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Jack Manders writes in Oak Hill Cemetery’s watchman’s logbook about seeing President Lincoln arrive at the cemetery gate at one in the morning. Manders explains to Tom—an unidentified character—that he had no choice but to let Lincoln into the graveyard, though “protocol states” that nobody should be allowed in after the gate has been locked. Nonetheless, Manders was tired from a long day playing with his three children, so he wasn’t in the mood to protest Lincoln’s wishes. “Did not question Pres as to what he was doing here or something like that only when our eyes met he gave me such a frank friendly somewhat pained look as if to say well friend this is rather odd I know it but with eyes so needful I could not refuse him as his boy is just today interred,” Manders writes.
A father himself, Manders finds himself unable to refuse Lincoln when he asks to be let into the cemetery to visit Willie. By showcasing this interaction, Saunders spotlights the strength of parental love—a love so common and yet so strong that Manders, a cemetery groundskeeper, is able to empathize with Lincoln, a man to whom he’d probably never otherwise be able to relate. In this moment, these two men unite as two fathers, their differences dropping away as Manders pities the president.
Themes
Unity Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon
Manders remarks that Lincoln arrived at the cemetery alone on a small horse, upon which his feet dangled almost to the ground. The President, he writes, asked for the key to the Carroll crypt, which Manders gave him without question. “I handed it over and watched him wander off across grounds wishing I’d had courtesy at least to offer him loan of lamp which he did not have one but went forth into that stygian dark like pilgrim going forward into a trackless desert Tom it was awful sad,” he writes. Now, hours later, the President hasn’t returned. “Where is he Tom,” Manders wonders. “Lost is he lost. Lost in there or fell and broke something lying there crying out. Just now stepped out listened no cries. Where is he at this time do not know Tom. Maybe out there in woods somewhere recovering from visit indulging in solitary cry?”
The empathy Manders feels for Lincoln slowly turns into a sense of foreboding worry. After all, Lincoln holds the highest office in the land, and Manders has just allowed him to venture into the night alone without a lantern. Although he begins to worry, he also seems to understand the magnitude of parental loss, guessing that Lincoln is most likely “indulging” in a “solitary cry.” Manders, it seems, is cognizant of just how difficult it would be to lose a child, and though readers know Lincoln isn’t “out there” crying in the “woods,” Manders is correct that the president remains in the cemetery because of his overwhelming grief.
Themes
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon