Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 29 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“They entered in lengthy procession,” Vollman says. “each of us apprehending them in a different guise,” adds the Reverend. Vollman, for one, sees a group of attractive young brides “arrayed in thinnish things.” The Reverend, on the other hand, sees angels. For Bevins, these beings manifest as “hundreds of exact copies of Gilbert.” One of these Gilberts kneels beside him and whispers, “Come with us. Here it is all savagery and delusion. You are of finer stuff. Come with us, all is forgiven.” Another Gilbert chimes in, saying, “We know what you did. It is all right.” Bevins contests this point, saying, “I did not do it. It is not complete,” but the Gilberts disagree. “I may yet reverse it,” insists Bevins. “Dear boy,” says a Gilbert. “Soften, soften,” intones another. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore.”
When the group of Gilberts insists that Bevins should depart from the Bardo, saying that “it is all right” that he committed suicide, he vehemently denies the notion that the act of killing himself has been completed. “I may yet reverse it,” he says, once again demonstrating his unwillingness to believe that he’s dead. This, of course, is a mere “delusion,” and the group of Gilberts tries to get him to admit his own ephemeral nature, saying, “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” a line that intimates a certain kind of transience, since waves disperse upon the shore and cannot return to their previous form.
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“Kindly don’t bother,” Bevins says to the group of Gilberts. “I have heard all of this—” Cutting him off, one of the Gilberts says in a suddenly harsh voice, “Let me tell you something. You are not lying on any floor, in any kitchen. Are you? Look around, fool. You delude yourself. It is complete. You have completed it.” Adding to this, another Gilbert says, “We say these things to speed you along.”
In this moment, the Gilberts drop all pretense of wooing Bevins into leaving the Bardo. Instead, they simply try to reason with him, attempting to force him into admitting that he’s dead. The fact that these beings are so intent upon “speed[ing]” him along suggests again that the static life he lives in the Bardo runs contrary to the progression of a natural life cycle. These beings—who are presumably heaven-sent—don’t want anyone to tarry in the Bardo, so they seek to free Bevins of his “delusions.”
Themes
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The beings that speak to Mrs. Abigail Blass take the form of comely country girls who remind her of herself. “Abbie, dear,” one of them says, “allow me to show you something.” She touches Mrs. Blass’s face, and suddenly Mrs. Blass looks upon a wonderful place where she can have everything she has ever “needed.” “You never in your life was given enough,” says the being, and Mrs. Blass’s eyes tear up. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore.” Resolving finally to leave this place, Mrs. Blass realizes that she has been “tired” for a long time. “I believe I will come with,” she says. Nearby, Hans Vollman hears a shout “of terror or victory” and then the “familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.”
Part of convincing the Bardo-dwellers to depart, it seems, is playing into the very narratives that have kept them in this liminal realm for so long. Indeed, Mrs. Blass has spent ample time talking about how many things she has earned for herself, since she believes she was never “given enough.” In turn, the heaven-sent beings take a cue from this mindset, using it to their advantage by “softening” Mrs. Blass with the words, “You never in your life was given enough.” In doing so, they subvert the narrative itself, now using it to help Mrs. Blass move on instead of staying in the Bardo, where nobody actually cares about hearing her story. For the first time, Mrs. Blass feels like someone is actually listening to her, and so she decides to leave.
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Motivated by Mrs. Blass’s departure, the beings double their efforts. Willie, for his part, sees ten versions of his mother. “Come with us,” one says. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” says another. Meanwhile, a bride asks Vollman when he’ll “know the full pleasures of the marriage-bed.” Another bride answers this question, saying, “I’ll tell you when. Never. That’s finished now.” They then suggest he’s being dishonest with himself, urging him to “admit” that he isn’t “sick.” Feeling himself weaken, Vollman employs a defensive tactic by asking them, “To whom do you speak? Who is hearing you? To whom do you listen?”  Seeing their mounting confusion, he says, “Here I am. I am here. Am I not?” As the beings try to formulate a response, two more occurrences of the “firesound” associated with the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” bleat into the night.
One of the things that helps people remain in the Bardo is the very fact of their continued existence, even if this existence is of a limited nature. This is why Hans Vollman states, “Here I am. I am here.” By saying this, he’s able to convince himself that he hasn’t yet died. Of course, this interpretation leaves no room for the truth, which is that Vollman is in a transitional state. While he sees life and death as binary—thinking that a person is either fully alive or fully dead—he fails to grasp that there might be a kind of existence that takes place between these two states.
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While his friends endure their own attacks, the Reverend speaks to a beautiful angel, who asks him if he thinks God is present in this place. “I—I believe He is,” the Reverend replies. “He is, of course, everywhere,” says the angel. “But does not like to see you lingering here. Among such low companions.” Unable to take this conversation any longer, the Reverend says, “Please go. I do not—I do not require you today,” to which she responds, “But soon, I think?” In this moment, her beauty “swell[s] beyond description,” and the Reverent breaks into tears. Thankfully, though, the “onslaught” comes to an end, and everything returns to the way it was. “And all was dismal again,” the Reverend says.
The Reverend’s heaven-sent beings appear as angels because he is a deeply religious man. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t argue with these beings. Unlike his friends, he doesn’t try to convince himself and his tormentors that he hasn’t died. Instead, he simply tells them that he doesn’t “require” them “today.” In turn, readers sense that the Reverend is perhaps a bit more accepting of his situation, though he still refuses to move on from this liminal space.
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