Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Lincoln in the Bardo can help.

Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 74 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Inside the white stone home, Lincoln looks one last time at Willie’s body and, in a moment of strange hope, tries to get him to rise like Lazarus, though this only makes him feel foolish. He then tries to talk himself into a more rational state of mind, upholding that he was “in error” when he saw Willie as a “fixed and stable” being who would be in his life forever. “He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst,” he thinks, realizing that he always knew this but never truly admitted it to himself. “He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness,” he says to himself. Thinking this, he tells himself once and for all that it is time to go.
As Lincoln tries to collect himself, he thinks about the inherent ephemerality of life, acknowledging that Willie was never a “fixed” being. Rather, the boy was in a constant state of change—always growing, never staying the same. Nonetheless, humans let their affections for one another overshadow the fact that life (and even the concept of self) is temporary, and so Lincoln convinced himself that he’d always have Willie as he was in the present. By admitting that Willie “came out of nothingness” and that now he has “return[ed] to nothingness,” Lincoln is the first person in the novel—other than the Reverend—to fully acknowledge life’s impermanence.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Immersed in Lincoln’s thoughts, Vollman realizes he’s neglected to convince the man to stay. “Stay,” he thinks. “It is imperative that you stay.” Despite his efforts, Lincoln straightens up in preparation to leave. Readying himself for departure, Lincoln seeks closure, saying to himself, “Look down. At him. At it. What is it? Frankly investigate that question. Is it him?” He then admits to himself that he’s not looking at Willie, but “that which used to bear him around.” Indeed, Willie’s body now lacks the “spark” that made him alive. “Absent that spark, this, this lying here is merely—” Lincoln muses, urging himself: “(Think it. Go ahead. Allow yourself to think that word.) I would rather not. (It is true. It will help). I need not say it, to feel it, and act upon it.
Although Lincoln has acknowledged that Willie came from “nothingness” and now has returned to that “nothingness,” he still can’t seem to fully face the fact that his boy is dead. When he says, “Think it,” he urges himself to come to terms with the blunt truth, which is that Willie has died. By refusing to do so, though, he resembles Vollman and the other Bardo-dwellers who adamantly avoid admitting the truth. In turn, Saunders shows just how much humans struggle with the idea that life is temporary.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon
While Lincoln grapples with his grief, Vollman listens and tries to tell the man that Willie can still benefit from his help. However, he’s unsuccessful, and Lincoln decides to leave, thinking that from now on he won’t think about Willie as occupying the crypt, but instead “look upon” him in his “heart.” He thinks: “I will do it now. Though it is hard. All gifts are temporary. I unwillingly surrender this one. And thank you for it. God. Or World. Whoever it was gave it to me, I humbly thank you, and pray that I did right by him, and may, as I go ahead, continue to do right by him.
In order to summon the courage to leave his son in the crypt, Lincoln tries to reconcile himself to the fact that Willie’s existence on earth was temporary. He does this by trying to reframe the boy’s death, altering his mindset so that he doesn’t see his son’s life as a tragedy, but rather as a brief but wonderful “gift.” As a result, Saunders accentuates the mental gymnastics people put themselves through so that they can come to terms with loss and impermanence.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon