The Reverend hesitates to enter Lincoln. The last time he went into a human, it was when he and his friends influenced the young arguing couple to make love. Although this couple later married because of this experience, the husband returned a year later to reminisce about that fateful day, and the Reverend and the others reentered him to see the effect of their influence. In doing so, they learned that the marriage was never meant to be, ultimately resulting in great unhappiness and leading the woman to poison herself. Horrified by the effect of his actions, the Reverend promised himself that he’d never occupy a person again. However, because he feels such “affection” for Willie, and also harbors a sense of guilt for having failed to free the boy from the tendrils, he “renounce[s]” his oath and joins Bevins and Vollman inside the president.
That the Reverend has misgivings about entering humans shows just how hard he tries to behave morally, even in the Bardo. This desire to be completely virtuous partly has to do with his experience with the Christ-emissary, but his moral integrity also seems a natural part of his personality. In this moment, though, acting morally means bending his own rules, since entering Lincoln is the only possible way he might be able to save Willie from an undeserved eternity of internment.
Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend swoop through the crowd and jump into Lincoln. Intrigued, several other souls follow them. Soon a large mass of individuals leap inside, entering both Lincoln and one another, “becoming multiply conjoined.” Having eluded Lieutenant Stone, the black “contingent” rushes inside, along with “too many” souls to “enumerate.” “So many wills, memories, complaints, desires, so much raw life-force,” Bevins says. As Lincoln walks behind Manders, Vollman asks the large group inside to focus its collective attention on telling the president “to stop.”
For the first time ever, it seems, the Bardo-dwellers unite without paying any attention to the various things that normally divide them from one another. For instance, nobody protests the comingling of white and black souls, and this kind of unadulterated unity results in a “raw life-force” the souls have never before beheld in their time in an otherwise divided climate like the Bardo.
“Stop,” Bevins thinks, and everybody else expresses the sentiment in their own way, chanting: “Pause, cease, self-interrupt, desist, halt, discontinue all forward motion.” This experience, Bevins finds, is unprecedentedly wonderful. “What a pleasure,” he says. “What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Mr. Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!”
As the many Bardo-dwellers occupy the president, Lincoln becomes a true representation of democracy and unity. In the same way that he is politically in the midst of bringing the country together across political and racial divisions, he now literally embodies a diversity of spirit that speaks to the kind of equality for which America has always claimed to strive. What’s more, the souls inside him suddenly feel enriched by the experience of having come together, suggesting that the mere act of congress is something that enhances peoples’ lives.
The Reverend notes that he and the other souls haven’t always “been so solitary.” In fact, in “that previous place,” they often engaged in group activities, interacting with other people in many different circumstances. “My God, what a thing!” says Vollman. “To find oneself thus expanded!” The Reverend, for his part, wonders how he could have possibly forgotten the joys of coming together with others, a question Bevins answers by pointing out: “To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.” Now, though, the souls find themselves “restored somewhat to [their] natural fullness.”
Staying in the Bardo requires telling one’s story over and over again, dwelling on why one wants to remain. This inevitably leads to an individualistic way of thinking, a mindset that doesn’t take other people into consideration. By inhabiting Lincoln and each other, then, these souls suddenly remember what it’s like to empathize with other people. In turn, they find themselves “expanded” by the experience, a fact that frames the act of coming together as fundamentally enriching.
The many souls inside Lincoln look at one another and are astonished to discover that their physical appearances have changed. Vollman, for instance, is no longer naked, but clothed, and his member is a normal size. Similarly, Bevins has the correct number of body parts, and the Reverend no longer looks eternally shocked or scared. “Poor multiply raped Litzie became capable of speech, her first utterance consisting of words of thanks to Mrs. Hodge for speaking for her, during all those mute and lonely years,” Elson Farwell notes. Despite these wonderful transformations, though, Lincoln keeps walking—in fact, he even speeds up, eager to leave.
Uniting inside Lincoln has overwhelmingly positive effects for the Bardo-dwellers, but it does nothing to persuade Lincoln to stay in the cemetery. By juxtaposing these two occurrences so drastically, Saunders intimates that the act of congress—and the empathy it engenders—is inherently worthwhile, even when it fails to bring about the intended effects. In turn, this idea sheds light on the novel’s consideration of the Civil War, ultimately suggesting that Lincoln’s uphill battle to defeat the Confederacy is intrinsically worthwhile by mere virtue of the fact that it embodies an attempt to unite the nation and achieve a sense of equality.