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 80-81 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend reach the white stone home, they find Willie on the floor, “cocooned to the neck” in the tendrils, which have fully hardened into an unbreakable carapace. “It was over,” the Reverend remarks. As the three friends huddle around the boy to say goodbye, though, a voice sounds from the carapace itself and tells them in a woman’s voice that “HE” would have “no objection” if they wanted to “transport the boy back up to the roof, so that he might serve out his (infinite) interment there.” As this female voice finishes speaking, a bass voice with a “slight lisp” sounds out, saying, “Mind you, none of this is by our choice. We are compelled.” Looking closely at the vine, the Reverend sees that it is comprised of people, tiny seed-sized beings with “writhing” bodies and “twisting” faces.
Although Saunders hasn’t yet revealed who, exactly, these speakers are, it’s worth noting that they are quick to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Indeed, they say, “Mind you, none of this is by our choice,” as a way of distancing themselves from Willie’s situation. “We are compelled,” they add, perhaps because they understand that what they’re doing to this poor and helpless boy is cruel. As such, they refuse to accept any sort of culpability in Willie’s “interment,” despite the fact that they are the ones wrapping around the boy.
Themes
Unity Theme Icon
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Bevins asks the tendril-people who they are and why they’re “compelled,” but the female voice declares that she and the others will not discuss those matters. “Mistakes were made,” adds the bass voice. “My advice?” says a British voice. “Do not massacre an entire regiment of your enemy.” Offering his own advice, the bass lisper says, “Never conspire with your lover to dispose of a living baby.” And though she said she wouldn’t discuss such things, the woman’s voice proffers, “Rather than murdering your loved one with poison, resolve to endure him.” A final voice—this one with a Vermont accent—adds, “Sexual congress with children is not permitted.”
It becomes quite obvious that these people have sinned in their lives and, because of those sins, have been placed in the tendril. It’s also rather evident that these people aren’t in the Bardo, as they talk about their past lives as exactly that: past lives. Indeed, they seem to accept that they’ve died and that the vices they exhibited while still alive earned them their place in the tendril. Unlike the Bardo-dwellers, then, they recognize life’s impermanence.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
The Reverend asks these strange voices if they’re in Hell. “Not the worst one,” says the British voice. “Are not compelled to bash our skulls against a series of clustered screw-drivers at least,” chimes the female voice. “Are not being sodomized by a flaming bull,” adds the bass. Suddenly, the Reverend is overcome by disgust, unable to believe he could ever be associated with people who have committed such egregious sins. “What will it be then?” the British voice asks, interrupting the Reverend’s thoughts. “In here? Or on the roof?” Inserting himself in the conversation, Bevins asks if these hell-dwellers can make an exception—a suggestion that invites nothing but laughter from the carapace. Vollman insists that Willie is a “fine child,” but the hell-beings say, “We have done this to many, many fine children before,” adding that “rules are rules.”
It makes sense that the Reverend is shocked in this moment, since he believes that he, too, is supposed to be in Hell. Although he can’t pinpoint precisely why he deserves eternal damnation, he’s certain he never did anything as despicable as these hell-dwellers, who have killed and raped people. After all, he was a priest who lived his life in accordance to religious dictates, which forbade him from even thinking lustily. That these people have done such awful things only further confuses the Reverend, suggesting once more that vice is perhaps more complicated than humans understand.
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Bevins asks the hell carapace why children are subject to different rules than adults, suggesting that this is unfair. “Please do not speak to us of fairness,” the female voice says. “Did I murder Elmer?” she asks, and when the Vermonter says, “You did,” she asserts, “I did. Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find Elmer so irritating? I did not. But there I was.” In a similar fashion, the pedophilic Vermonter blames his “predisposition” for his perversity, just as the bass voice claims that killing his newborn baby was the mere result of his flawed sense of goodness.
In this moment, the hell-dwellers deny their own agency in order to absolve themselves of all responsibility for their sins. This is yet another difference between the Reverend and these beings, since the Reverend—who doesn’t seem to have sinned very severely in the first place—tries desperately to think of what he must have done to have deserved damnation. These people, on the other hand, simply blame their vices on “predispositions” they claim were out of their control.
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Get the entire Lincoln in the Bardo LitChart as a printable PDF.
Lincoln in the Bardo PDF
As the hell-beings drone on about their “predispositions,” Vollman looks at the Reverend and detects a “flicker of resolve” or “defiance” in his face. Indeed, the Reverend is repulsed by these beings, thinking, “To be grouped with these, accepting one’s sins so passively, even proudly, with no trace of repentance? I could not bear it; must I, even now, be beyond all hope?” Thinking this way, he wonders if true faith is believing that God is “ever receptive to our smallest good intention.”
Listening to the hell-dwellers, the Reverend finds himself more confused than ever regarding why he deserves damnation. It’s worth noting, though, that this experience seems to give him a small amount of hope. Whereas before he believed that nothing he could do in the Bardo would ever reverse the nature of his judgment, now he considers the limits of faith, positing that perhaps God recognizes even the “smallest good intention.” This idea, it seems, might extend beyond life itself, suggesting that perhaps the Reverend can do something in the Bardo to change his fate.
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
The hell-dwellers repeat their question about whether Willie should be affixed inside the white stone home or on its roof. When Willie doesn’t respond, the Reverend tells the carapace that it would be best to put the boy on the roof. “Very well,” the tendril says, releasing Willie. “If I might request the honor of carrying him up there?” asks the Reverend, and when the tendril assents to this, he stoops, picks Willie up, and dashes out of the crypt into the night.
There’s little doubt that the Reverend’s brave act is doomed to fail, since he obviously can’t escape the Bardo itself. At the same time, though, he has run away from fate before (when he evaded the yellow-footed beings), and this time he actually has a noble cause: to save Willie. This, it seems, is the Reverend’s plea for God to recognize even the “smallest good intention.”
Themes
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon