Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Roger Bevins III now tells his own story, saying he discovered early in life that he was attracted to men. He calls this attraction a “certain predilection” and adds that, though this “predilection” has always felt “quite natural and even wonderful” to him, nobody else ever seemed capable of seeing his love of men in such a favorable light. “I wished to be happy (as I believe all wish to be happy), and so undertook an innocent—well, a rather innocent—friendship with a fellow in my school.” This “fellow” was named Gilbert, and Bevins quickly came to love him. Unfortunately, though, Gilbert told him one afternoon that he wanted to end their secret love affair in order to “live correctly.” In turn, Bevins lost all desire to live.
Bevins believes his attraction to men—his “predilection”—is “quite natural and even wonderful,” but this unfortunately doesn’t influence the way his surrounding society views homosexuality. Indeed, the people around Bevins frame his romantic and sexual preferences as the product of vice—an idea to which Gilbert clearly subscribes, considering that he decides to end his relationship with Bevins in order to “live correctly,” a statement implying that homosexuality is shameful. Bevins, on the other hand, is unwilling to come to terms with this idea, which is why he loses his desire to live: this life, it seems, cannot accommodate him.
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Bevins continues his story, explaining that losing Gilbert led him to slit his wrists with a butcher’s knife, leaving behind two notes—one to his parents, which said (in so many words) “I am sorry,” and another to Gilbert, which said (also summarily), “I have loved, and therefore depart fulfilled.” As soon as he cut himself, though, he regretted his decision. “Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub,” he says, “I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind.”
Although it is a sad and ghastly act, Bevins seems to understand and accept life’s fleetingness when he slits his wrists. Indeed, he comes to terms with the fact that his life will end someday, thus deciding to take matters into his own hands sooner rather than later. Despite his sadness, he believes his love for Gilbert has made the experience of being alive inherently worthwhile (though painful), an idea that perhaps helps him come to terms with ending his time among the living. He decides to end his life, but he also seems to have an appreciation for it, too—and it is exactly this appreciation that makes him suddenly “change [his] mind.”
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Lying on the kitchen floor next to the porcelain tub over which he slit his wrists, Roger Bevins III suddenly realized “how unspeakably beautiful” the world is, “How precisely engineered for our pleasure.” Each small physical occurrence (a slant of sunlight, the scent of food on the wind, everything) has now become unspeakably lovely for Bevins—so lovely, in fact, that he can’t stop enumerating them now as he remembers the world he’s left behind. “Sir. Friend,” interrupts Hans Vollman. “Am I—am I doing it again?” asks Bevins. “Take a breath. All is well. I believe you are somewhat alarming our new arrival,” Vollman replies. “Many apologies, young sir. I only meant, in my way, to welcome you,” says Bevins.
Loss, Saunders intimates in this moment, fuels appreciation. Just when Bevins starts bleeding out, he feels a deep sense of longing for the world—a place he wanted to leave only minutes before. This notion also applies to the idea of impermanence, as Saunders illustrates that life’s ephemerality only makes people want to cling to it even tighter.
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Resuming his story, Bevins explains that he now lies prostrate on the kitchen floor, waiting with his head next to an orange peel for his mother to find him so that he can “be revived, and rise, and clean up the awful mess […] and go outside, into that beautiful world, a new and more courageous man, and begin to live!” He resolves to follow his “predilection” with “gusto,” loving whomever he pleases because he is has been “freed now of all fear, hesitation, and timidity.” Listing the many things he’ll fully enjoy once he recovers, he waxes poetic yet again about the many sensory delights of life on earth. “Friend. Bevins,” Vollman interrupts, stopping him once more.
For clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that Bevins isn’t actually lying on the kitchen floor when he says this. Though he thinks his physical form is waiting to be found, he exists in the Bardo, where he tells his tale. In this way, Saunders shows that Bevins is unwilling to admit his life has ended, instead reveling in the idea that he’ll be able to “go outside, into that beautiful world” and live with “gusto.” Adamant that his time on earth hasn’t yet come to a close, he romanticizes life itself, his appreciation for existence swelling even as he languishes in the Bardo.
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Related Quotes
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At this point, Willie Lincoln finally speaks, saying, “‘Bevins’ had several sets of eyes     All darting to and fro     Several noses     All sniffing      His hands (he had multiple sets of hands, or else his hands were so quick they seemed to be many) struck this way and that, picking things up, bringing them to his face with a most inquisitive     Little bit scary.” Apparently, as Bevins tells his story, he grows so many new “eyes noses and hands” that his body disappears beneath the many added parts. “Eyes like grapes on a vine,” Willie notes, “Hands feeling the eyes     Noses smelling the hands     Slashes on every one of the wrists.”
As Willie describes Bevins’s appearance, readers come to understand that souls in the Bardo manifest into physical forms that reflect their preoccupations with the world they’ve left behind. Indeed, Bevins’s body parts multiply because he’s obsessed with the many sensory pleasures of being alive. On another note, Willie’s strange use of language reminds readers that he is still trying to adjust to the Bardo—his fragmentary manner of speaking suggests that he isn’t yet used to this place, which seems to have a notable effect on his ability to communicate. This is worth keeping in mind, as Saunders later explores the ways in which children are negatively influenced by remaining in the Bardo.
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Vollman explains that Willie Lincoln observes Bevins from the roof of his own “sick-house” (a “white stone home”). Bevins interjects that the boy also periodically glances at Vollman himself, but Vollman tries to shush his friend. Nonetheless, Bevins is correct that Willie has noticed Vollman’s odd physical appearance. As the boy notes, “The other man (the one hit by a beam)     Quite naked     Member swollen to the size of     Could not take my eyes off     It bounced as he     Body like a dumpling     Broad flat nose like a sheep’s     Quite naked indeed     Awful dent in the head     How could he walk around and talk with such a nasty—” Interrupting the boy, Vollman announces the arrival of their friend the Reverend Everly Thomas, who sprints over looking like he always looks: “eyebrows arched high, looking behind himself anxiously, hair sticking straight up, mouth in a perfect O of terror.”
In this scene, Saunders offers more descriptions of the Bardo-dwellers and their strange physical appearances. Once again, it’s clear that these souls take forms that reflect their preoccupations with whatever they obsessed over in their previous lives. Vollman, for instance, sports an eternal erection that denotes the lust and excitement he felt just before dying. The fact that these people take such forms says something about just how attached they still are to the way they lived their lives—unable to accept that they’re dead, they cling to the things that defined their last moments.
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“A newcomer?” says the Reverend in a calm voice, despite his startled demeanor. “I believe we have the honor of addressing a Mr. Carroll,” says Mr. Bevins, but the young boy only stares at him blankly. “No doubt you are feeling a certain pull?” asks Vollman. “An urge? To go? Somewhere? More comfortable?” Despite these urgings, though, Willie merely says, “I feel I am to wait.” When Vollman asks what, exactly, he intends to wait for, the boy says, “My mother. My father. They will come shortly. To collect me.”
When Vollman asks if Willie feels a “certain pull” to go somewhere “more comfortable,” he implies that children aren’t meant to occupy this liminal realm. The fact that he assumes Willie is uncomfortable here further illustrates the notion that stasis is unfit for children. After all, children constantly undergo change, growing quickly into adults. As such, it’s against nature for them to remain fixed, a fact that applies to their experience in the Bardo.
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Hans Vollman shakes his head somberly, telling Willie that his parents may indeed come, but they won’t collect him. “In any event, they will not stay long,” he says. “All the while wishing themselves elsewhere,” adds Roger Bevins III. “Thinking only of lunch,” says the Reverend. Despite these pieces of advice, though, Willie decides to stay, thinking about how he has barely even had the chance to play with his new Christmas toys and considering the fact that soon spring will come. “I am to wait,” he says.
The fact that Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend rarely receive visitors suggests that people outside the Bardo quickly move on from their losses. Indeed, they soon find ways to continue their lives without their loved ones. This stands in stark contrast to the Bardo-dwellers’ own attitude, which keeps them from accepting that they’ve left behind their lives for good.
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