Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo


George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 54-55 Summary & Analysis

Bevins and Vollman are astonished at their success. When Lincoln stands, he leaves them sitting inside one another, a “configuration” that allows them to fully understand one another for the first time. Having never entered Bevins before, Vollman feels the “great beauty of all the things of this world” and desires “the man-smell and the strong hold of a man,” while Bevins sees “Anna’s face” and comprehends his friend’s “reluctance to leave her behind.” Greatly renewed by this experience, the two friends wonder why they’ve never done this before. When they get up to follow Lincoln, they suddenly miss each other and feel that they will “be infused with some trace of one another forevermore.”
Even though Vollman and Bevins have known each other for a very long time, they’ve always been too focused on their own experiences—their own reasons for staying in the Bardo—to fully inhabit one another. When they do so for the first time, then, they’re shocked by the revitalizing and rewarding experience. In turn, Saunders shows that coming together gives people an opportunity to truly understand and empathize with one another, as Vollman now comprehends Bevins’s various predilections, and vice versa—a mingling of experiences that leaves them both feeling “infused” with one another in a positive way.
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Not only do Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III now know seemingly everything about one another, but they also know many things about Lincoln, too. “Removed from both Vollman and the gentleman,” Bevins remarks, “I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was president.” Vollman, on the other hand, knows that Mr. Polk occupies that “esteemed office.” Nonetheless, they can’t deny that they now know Lincoln is president, along with a number of other new facts, like that trains now run beyond Buffalo, that there’s a machine called the telegraph, that theaters are now lit by gaslight. Giddy and baffled, the two friends quickly follow Lincoln.
The fact that Vollman believes James Polk is president means that he died between 1845 and 1849. Bevins, on the other hand, thinks Zachary Taylor is president, meaning that he must have died between 1849 and 1850. In this way, Saunders manages to inform readers how long these two souls have been in the Bardo; since Lincoln in the Bardo takes place in 1862, it has been somewhere between twelve and seventeen years since Vollman and Bevins died. That they’re surprised to discover time has passed indicates once again the extent to which they believe they can simply exist in stasis—they refuse to move on from the Bardo, and so they assume the living world has stood still, waiting for them to join it once more.
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