Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 27 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Jane Ellis—a woman constantly surrounded by three “gelatinous orbs” that contain “a likeness of one of her daughters”—steps up and tells Willie her story. As a child, she explains, she once helped her father tie a deer to his carriage, and she remembers driving through the countryside feeling like “a new species of child,” a girl destined for more than the narrow existence of serving tea and living in a small town. Indeed, she resolved to visit distant cities, but she eventually married a man who was neither “handsome” nor “generous,” a man who never took her abroad. Though he himself was deeply incompetent and always losing his job, he wrote Jane off as “silly” whenever she spoke her mind. Before long, she was disgusted at the very sight of him, hating that he expected her to have sex with him and wait on his needs.
Jane Ellis’s story includes a certain aspect that is common to many of the tales the Bardo-dwellers tell about their lives. Namely, her desire to travel and live a fulfilling life went unsatisfied in the living world, and this is why she’s unwilling to accept the fact that she has died. What’s keeping her in this liminal realm, then, is a yearning to return to her previous existence and live the way she always wanted to live. And although Jane’s story is of course specific to her, the overall narrative (regarding a lack of fulfillment as a reason for staying in this transitional space) is quite pervasive throughout all the Bardo-dwellers’ stories.
Themes
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Jane Ellis continues telling Willie her story, saying that she had three children with her despicable husband. “In those girls I found my Rome, my Paris, my Constantinople,” she says, explaining her ferocious love for these children. Her husband, on the other hand, cared little about the girls, though he often used them to make himself look good in public. “Is he to care for them?” Jane asks Willie. “In my absence?” Of course, she adds, she’s only come here to rest during a minor surgery, so she will indeed return to them soon. “A rare opportunity, really,” she says, “for a person to pause and take stock of her—”
When Jane Ellis mentions her children, she provides yet another reason why she’s unable to let go of her existence in the living world. On another note, the intense love she feels for her daughters reminds readers of the fact that President Lincoln is still mourning Willie’s death, allowing Saunders to sustain his engagement with the ideas of loss and mourning, especially regarding parents and their children.
Themes
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Loss Theme Icon
At this point, the Reverend interrupts to describe Jane Ellis’s appearance. Sometimes, he explains, the three orbs that surround her with images of her children “bear down upon her” so much that they “crush out her blood and other fluids” as she tries not to scream, for she doesn’t want to scare them away. Sometimes, though, the orbs disappear completely, at which point Mrs. Ellis frantically looks for them. Worst of all, the orbs will occasionally turn into life-sized versions of her daughters and complain about things she can’t possibly fix. Interrupting this description of Jane Ellis, Mrs. Abigail Blass makes her presence known, but Mrs. Ellis ignores her, asking Willie to check on her daughters if he’s “allowed back to that previous place.”
Once again, Saunders makes clear that the Bardo-dwellers often physically represent the various preoccupations they still have with the living world. As if to further illustrate just how tied Mrs. Ellis is to her previous life, she asks Willie to check on her daughters if he’s “allowed back to that previous place,” a request that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bardo. Indeed, Mrs. Ellis—along with seemingly everyone else in this realm—mistakenly believes it might be possible for a person to venture back into the living world, a belief that denotes her failure to grasp that she is dead. After all, the Bardo is a place of transition, meaning that people can only move on from it, not retrace their steps.
Themes
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As Mrs. Ellis’s story ends, a cacophony of voices emerge, each one narrating snippets of their own stories. Nonetheless, Mrs. Blass—who is “notoriously frugal, filthy, gray-haired, and tiny (smaller than a baby)”—manages to tell her tale. Apparently, she spends her nights running around and chewing on rocks and twigs, which she hoards in her resting place, constantly counting and recounting her “possessions.” “I have one thousand three hundred dollars in the First Bank,” she begins, embarking upon a monologue in which she catalogues all the assets she has left behind.
Mrs. Blass is yet another example of someone who is unable to let go of their previous life. In fact, everyone in the Bardo exemplifies this attitude, which is made clear by the way large groups of them crowd around the “white stone home” and try to tell their stories. As the voices swirl around Willie, there emerges a strange sense of discordant unity. On the one hand, the Bardo-dwellers exist only as individuals who talk over each other and think only of their own stories. On the other hand, though, they might form a cohesive whole if they stopped to consider the fact that they’re all in the same situation. Each of them wants more or less the same things: to tell their stories, to remain in the Bardo, and to someday return to their old lives.
Themes
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Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
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Willie listens to the stories and watches the “shifting mass of gray and black” that stretches before him—a collection of souls waiting to talk to him. As he surveys the scene, Lieutenant Cecil Stone makes his way to the front and brags about his appearance, saying that he used to “cut a fine Figure” when he walked about in uniform, causing his “SHARDS” to step aside; “This is what I should like the young Swain to know,” he says. “And many was the time I pounded my Lust out in the Night to good Result; pounding my good Wife or, if she was indisposed, pounding my SHARDS, whom I called SHARDS, for they were, indeed, dark as Night, like unto so many SHARDS of COAL, which did give me abundant Heat. I need only Seize a SHARD-LASS up, & Ignoring the Cries of her SHARD-MAN, would—”
When Lieutenant Cecil Stone speaks, readers remember that Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the Civil War, a conflict that largely centered around the abolition of slavery. As Stone rants and raves in this racist manner, it becomes clear that his preoccupation with life—the reason he won’t move on from the Bardo—has to do with championing the bigotry he so fully embodied while existing in the living world. Since he’s a lieutenant, it’s reasonable to assume that he fought for the Confederacy in an effort to save slavery from abolition. If this is the case, then his racist vitriol in the Bardo logically represents his life’s project to oppress black people—and it’s worth noting, of course, that this vile project has impeded his ability to successfully transition into the afterlife. Whereas other people find themselves confined to the Bardo for more wholesome and understandable reasons, Lieutenant Stone remains in this realm because he’s utterly incapable of letting go of the antagonistic ideas he tried to force upon the world while he was still alive.
Themes
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“Good Lord,” interrupts Hans Vollman. “He is in fine form tonight,” Roger Bevins III remarks. “Bear in mind, Lieutenant,” says Vollman, “he is but a child.” Nonetheless, Lieutenant Cecil Stone holds forth with his racist monologue, and the Reverend explains—as an aside—that the Lieutenant often grows very tall while spewing such bombastic words, reaching the heights of a pine tree and becoming as thin as a pencil. Meanwhile, Eddie and Betsy Baron approach and tell Willie in exceedingly vulgar language how they lived in extreme poverty but spent their lives partying, always upholding that their children—whom they neglected—had no right to criticize them because they hadn’t walked a mile in their shoes.
In this portion of Lincoln in the Bardo, Willie faces a number of eccentric, vulgar, and wild characters who deliver troubling stories. As such, Saunders emphasizes once more that Willie—as a child—doesn’t belong in this realm, where macabre souls curse and spew racist vitriol as if they have nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, many of Willie’s fellow Bardo-dwellers are full of vice, whereas he is the sweet and well-loved child of a President fighting for equality.
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“Enough,” the Reverend says to the Barons. Vollman agrees that these two souls are too vulgar to speak to Willie. “Drunk and insensate, lying in the road, run over by the same carriage, they had been left to recover from their injuries in an unmarked disreputable common sick-pit just beyond the dread iron fence,” Vollman explains, “the only white people therein, thrown in with several members of the dark race, not one among them, pale or dark, with a sick-box in which to properly recover.” The Reverend adds that it’s not ideal to have the Barons talking to Willie. “Or be on this side of the fence,” Vollman says. “It is not about wealth,” says the Reverend. “It is about comportment. It is about, let us say, being ‘wealthy in spirit.’” Still, though, the Barons can go wherever they like, “the fence not being an impediment to them.”
Saunders delivers an important piece of logistical information in this moment: not all of the souls in the Bardo physically occupy the same space, though they do all exist in the same realm. Indeed, the Barons’ actual bodies have been interred in a mass grave, where they are the only white people. This detail is worth noting because it calls attention to the ways that the outside world’s prejudices—particularly surrounding race and class—threaten to make their way into the Bardo. Although all the souls in this space are forced to carry out more or less the same kind of existence, there is a delineation between the people who were disenfranchised in the real world and the people who enjoyed the fruits of equality and riches. This is an important dynamic to keep in mind as the novel progresses, since race and equality factor into the burdens Lincoln feels as the president of a country at war with itself.
Themes
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Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon