Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo: Chapter 91 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Willie stands and exits his father. Looking at Bevins and Vollman as a crowd of souls gathers around the chapel—many of them even squeezing inside—his face goes pale. “May I tell you something?” he says to Vollman. “You are not sick.” At this, the surrounding souls start fidgeting in “nervousness and agitation,” but Willie presses on, saying, “That thing in my box? Has nothing to do with me.” Backing away from the boy, the crowd starts trying to leave the chapel. “Stop talking,” Vollman orders. “You will kindly stop talking at once.” As everybody tries to run away, chaos takes hold. “There is a name for what ails us,” Willie says. “Do you not know it? Do you really not know it? It is quite amazing.” And just as Vollman pleads with him to be quiet, he says: “Dead. Everyone, we are dead!”
Having witnessed his father thinking about his funeral, Willie finally understands that he is dead. In turn, he spreads this knowledge throughout the community of Bardo-dwellers, much to their extreme dismay. What’s perhaps most interesting about this moment is that, though the Bardo-dwellers have so much conviction when it comes to remaining in this realm, their resilience is easily undone by a child’s simple sentence: “Everyone, we are dead!” In this way, Saunders shows just how powerful language can be in undoing delusional thinking. Indeed, people like Vollman have built their entire existences in the Bardo around avoiding saying words like “dead” or “death” (or even “life,” instead referring to the “previous place”). Now, though, Willie forces them to admit the truth, and they find themselves defenseless against such blunt veracity.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
When Willie reveals that everybody is dead, three people immediately succumb to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” “Dead!” the boy shouts. “Dead, dead, dead!” As the crowd of souls scrambles to leave the chapel—some of them visibly on the verge of departing for good—Vollman reasons with Willie, saying he must be wrong. After all, who is the boy talking to, if everybody’s dead? But this tactic doesn’t work, and Willie destroys “years of work and toil with each thoughtless phrase” (according to Bevins). Indeed, Willie assures his friends that his father said he is dead, and this leaves Bevins and Vollman speechless, since they don’t believe Lincoln would lie about something so serious. “I have to say, it gave me pause,” Bevins says. “In my early days here, I only now recalled, I had, yes, for a brief period, understood myself to be—”
Vollman and Bevins find it difficult to argue against the notion that they are dead because they trust Lincoln, having inhabited him and thus discovered that he is an honest man (and in this moment, readers might recall the president’s real-life nickname, Honest Abe). Still, Willie’s exclamations negate “years of work and toil,” a notion that proves just how much effort these souls have put into deluding themselves by insisting that their lives have not yet ended. When Willie yells, “Dead!”, Bevins suddenly remembers that he used to “underst[and]” the true nature of his situation, though that understanding has clearly been erased by the “years of work and toil” he put into convincing himself that he’s not dead but merely waiting for his mother to find him on the kitchen floor.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Willie tells his friends he wants to “do good” by going where he “should have gone in the first place.” He now understands that nobody here will be able to return to “that previous place.” He entreats everybody to join him, since there’s nothing left for them here. “We’re done,” he says. With these words, three more souls disappear with a loud crack, and Willie’s skin flickers “between the various selves he had been in that previous place: purple newborn, squalling naked infant, jelly-faced toddler, feverish boy on sick-bed.” Wheeling through these forms, he then manifests into all the things he would have been: “Nervous young man in wedding-coat; Naked husband, wet-groined with recent pleasure; Young father leaping out of bed to light a candle at a children’s cry; Grieving widower, hair gone white; Bent ancient fellow with an ear trumpet.”
In keeping with the idea that Willie was in a constant state of change as a child, he now whirls through his past and future forms, proving that all humans—regardless of age—are always changing. Of course, children grow at a faster rate than adults, but even the oldest human beings still undergo subtle transformations as they make their way toward death. As Willie flickers, then, Saunders reminds readers once again that embracing life’s impermanence is simply part of being alive and human. The fact that Willie says he should have moved on from the Bardo “in the first place” further suggests that change and transition aren’t things that are worth fighting, for they are simply part of existence.
Themes
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Looking at Vollman and Bevins, Willie says, “Oh, it was nice. So nice there. But we can’t go back. To how we were. All we can do is what we should.” With this, he closes his eyes and departs, the strength of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” knocking Vollman and Bevins off their feet.
Again, Willie uses the word “should” when referring to the act of departing the Bardo, ultimately suggesting that embracing transition and impermanence is what humans are meant to do, for it is truly the only sensible option in the face of the realities of life and death.
Themes
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
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