Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 37-41 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bevins and Vollman zoom out of the white stone home and make their way across the grounds, passing familiar souls who mumble their stories and enact their obsessions. For example, they go by a man who can’t stop thinking about the many properties he owns—every time a “new property-worry” comes to mind, his body pitches forward onto the ground and spins to face the direction of that particular house. Bevins and Vollman also pass two men who are in “perpetual conversation,” though their linguistic abilities have deteriorated into nonsense, a meaningless stream of words focused loosely on the things they were obsessed with in “that previous place.” These men have been here for a long time, and Bevins and Vollman worry that they may someday be “destined for a similar fate.”
It seems here that the Bardo has a negative effect not only on children who tarry, but on everyone—even adults. Indeed, Bevins and Vollman fear that they are “destined” to become like the two men they pass who are in a “perpetual” but nonsensical conversation. Once again, then, Saunders suggests that this space—which is only supposed to be transitional—isn’t a place people are meant to stay for long periods of time, thereby implying that progression, succession, and change are natural parts of the life cycle and that stasis is not.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
On their way to Willie’s father, Bevins and Vollman come across a group of souls standing around “a freshly filled sick-hole.” Approaching the crowd, they listen to the new arrival, a Civil War soldier who delivers a monologue loosely structured as a letter to his wife. He explains that he has just experienced a day of “Unholy slaughter and fear” and that, unfortunately, one of his comrades didn’t make it. “I arrived here at this place by Distant journey,” he says. “And confin’d all the while. It was a terrible fite as I believe I rote you.” Slowly, he begins to feel a “foreboding” sense that he shouldn’t “linger” in this place, though he can tell that something is keeping him here. At this point, he emerges from his “sick-hole” and starts flickering, going invisible, which Vollman says is common when somebody is about to depart.
In this scene, the Civil War brings itself to bear on the Bardo. Watching this newly arrived soldier, Bevins and Vollman listen to him detail the horrors of the war, which he characterizes as “unholy.” The fact that this soldier is even in the Bardo means that something is keeping him from moving on. In other words, he must have unfinished business in the living world, though he does experience the “foreboding” sense that he isn’t mean to tarry in this realm. The fact that he so quickly intuits this suggests that whatever’s keeping him from departing is perhaps not quite as strong as the things preventing people like Vollman or Bevins from leaving. Nonetheless, it’s clear he must confront something in order to leave, even if he’s on the verge of moving on.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
“I am here, am trapped here and I see of this instant what I must do to get free,” the soldier declares, still addressing his wife. “Which is tell the TRUTH.” Moving on, he confesses to having slept with another woman. Feeling wretched for having done this, he finally clears his conscious, and then “a blinding flash of light” appears, taking the soldier away with the “firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Feeling as though the soldier didn’t even “give this place a proper chance,” Bevins and Vollman move on from the crowd, resuming their quest to find Willie’s father.
The soldier enables himself to depart the Bardo by telling the truth, which is that he had an affair while he was still alive. In doing this, he serves as a perfect example of someone who embraces his transition from death to the afterlife. Instead of fighting the notion that he has died, he responds accordingly by unburdening himself of his vices and thus freeing himself of any ties to his previous life. It’s no surprise, of course, that Bevins and Vollman find this incomprehensible, as they’ve grown so accustomed to the Bardo that they can’t fathom how anyone could possibly decide to leave it so quickly.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon