Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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The president of the United States during the Civil War, and Willie Lincoln’s father. When Willie dies of typhoid during the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln and his wife Mary are distraught. To make matters worse, he must find a way to forge forward in his duty as the leader of the Union, though many of the citizens he represents are vehemently against his efforts to keep the South from seceding and free the country’s slaves. After Willie’s funeral, Lincoln returns to the graveyard during the night and visits his son’s crypt, where he slides the coffin from the wall, opens it, and holds his son. Unbeknownst to him, his son and many other Bardo-dwellers—including Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend—watch as he does this, shocked to see a living person interact so intimately with a dead body. As he fusses over his son, Lincoln wonders how he can possibly go on under the weight of his grief. Throughout the night—which he spends walking through the cemetery, returning to the crypt, and visiting the graveyard chapel—Lincoln periodically lets his mind turn to the Civil War, wondering if what he’s doing is right and feeling guilty for inflicting so much violence on the country. Many of the Bardo-dwellers enter Lincoln’s body at various points in the evening, and they feel this tension within him, a tension between his desire to fight for equality and his reluctance to bring violence upon the nation. Of course, the souls in the Bardo also witness the president’s thoughts about his son, and Willie eventually discovers by inhabiting his father that he (Willie) is dead, a realization that finally encourages him to leave the Bardo. Upon Willie’s departure, Lincoln feels as if a weight has been lifted. With this sense of closure, he leaves the cemetery, newly resolved to lead the country and “freshly inclined” to fight for equality, a sentiment perhaps instilled in him by Thomas Havens, a former slave who jumps into his body and refuses to leave, ultimately accompanying the president back to the White House.

Abraham Lincoln Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo

The Lincoln in the Bardo quotes below are all either spoken by Abraham Lincoln or refer to Abraham Lincoln. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Unity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Random House edition of Lincoln in the Bardo published in 2018.
Chapter 21 Quotes

It has done me good.

I believe it has.

It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln (speaker), Willie Lincoln
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 36 Quotes

We are here by grace […]. Our ability to abide by far from assured. Therefore, we must conserve our strength, restricting our activities to only those which directly serve our central purpose. We would not wish, through profligate activity, to appear ungrateful for the mysterious blessing of our continued abiding. […] We must look out for ourselves […]. And, by doing so, we protect the boy as well. He must hear nothing of this rumor, which would only serve to raise his hopes. As we know, only utter hopelessness will lead him to do what he must. Therefore, not a word. Are we in agreement?

Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 45-46 Quotes

Why will it not work. What magic word made it work. Who is the keeper of that word. What did it profit Him to switch this one off. What a contraption it is. How did it ever run. What spark ran it. Grand little machine. Set up just so. Receiving the spark, it jumped to life.

What put out that spark? What a sin it would be. Who would dare. Ruin such a marvel. Hence is murder anathema. God forbid I should ever commit such a grievous

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln (speaker), Hans Vollman, Willie Lincoln
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 48 Quotes

Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which—which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with their happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln (speaker), Hans Vollman, Willie Lincoln
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 54-55 Quotes

Upon Mr. Bevins’s exit, I was immediately filled with longing for him and his associated phenomena, a longing that rivaled the longing I had felt for my parents when I first left their home for my apprenticeship in Baltimore—a considerable longing indeed.

Such had been the intensity of our co-habitation.

I would never fail to fully see him again: dear Mr. Bevins!

[…] We would be infused with some trace of one another for forevermore.

Related Characters: Roger Bevins III, Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 74 Quotes

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Related Characters: Abraham Lincoln (speaker), Hans Vollman, Willie Lincoln
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 80-81 Quotes

And though that mass co-habitation had jarred much loose from me (a nagging, hazy mental cloud of details from my life now hung about me: names, faces, mysterious foyers, the smells of long-ago meals; carpet patterns from I knew not what house, distinctive pieces of cutlery, a toy horse with one ear missing, the realization that my wife’s name had been Emily), it had not delivered the essential truth I sought, as to why I had been damned. I halted on the trail, lagging behind, desperate to bring that cloud into focus and recall who I had been, and what evil I had done, but was not successful in this, and then had to hurry to catch my friends up.

Related Characters: The Reverend Everly Thomas (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 93-94 Quotes

He must (we must, we felt) do all we could, in light of the many soldiers lying dead and wounded, in open fields, all across the land, weeds violating their torsos, eyeballs pecked out or dissolving, lips hideously retracted, rain-soaked/blood-soaked/snow-crusted letters scattered about them, to ensure that we did not, as we trod that difficult path we were now well upon, blunder, blunder further (we had blundered so badly already) and, in so blundering, ruin more, more of these boys, each of whom was once dear to someone.

Ruinmore, ruinmore, we felt, must endeavor not to ruinmore.

Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.

Related Characters: Roger Bevins III (speaker), Hans Vollman, Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.

He would lead the rabble in managing.

The thing would be won.

Related Characters: Roger Bevins III (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 95-96 Quotes

I began to feel afraid, occupying someone so accomplished. And yet, I was comfortable in there. And suddenly, wanted him to know me. My life. To know us. Our lot. I don’t know why I felt that way but I did. He had no aversion to me, is how I might put it. Or rather, he had once had such an aversion, still bore traces of it, but, in examining that aversion, pushing it into the light, had somewhat, already, eroded it. He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness. And now, though it sounds strange to say, he was making me sadder with his sadness, and I thought, Well, sir, if we are going to make a sadness party of it, I have some sadness about which I think someone as powerful as you might like to know.

Related Characters: Thomas Havens (speaker), Abraham Lincoln
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:
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Lincoln in the Bardo PDF

Abraham Lincoln Character Timeline in Lincoln in the Bardo

The timeline below shows where the character Abraham Lincoln appears in Lincoln in the Bardo. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
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...in the White House,” by a former slave who eventually became the confidante of Mary Lincoln. In this excerpt, she explains that President Lincoln is expected to “give a series of... (full context)
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Another historical excerpt explains that Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, was quite sick when the president threw one of his large receptions.... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...brother, Isabelle Perkins—a woman who lives across the street from the cemetery— describes seeing Willie Lincoln’s funeral procession. She watches the group enter the chapel, and then later leave the graveyard.... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...same day, meaning that his father has no doubt seen him “quite recently.” Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln approaches the white stone home, “sobbing” as he goes, and Willie runs toward him and... (full context)
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When Lincoln reaches the white stone home, he keys it open and goes inside, where he slides... (full context)
Chapter 17
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Returning to the historical accounts of Willie’s illness, Saunders outlines the Lincolns’ sorrow after the boy’s death. One observer notes that he has never seen anybody as... (full context)
Chapter 18-19
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Once again culling information from letters and biographies, Saunders portrays Willie Lincoln as a “lovable boy” whose charm gave him the air of a small, well-mannered adult... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Back in the white stone home, Lincoln picks up Willie’s lifeless body and cradles it. At this point, the Reverend realizes a... (full context)
Chapter 21
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Inside his own physical form, Willie listens to Lincoln whisper in his ear. His father assures him that, though their “bond has been broken,”... (full context)
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...was. I had forgotten somewhat already.” Because holding Willie has helped him remember his son, Lincoln decides that he will allow himself to “return as often as” he likes. This, he... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Jack Manders writes in Oak Hill Cemetery’s watchman’s logbook about seeing President Lincoln arrive at the cemetery gate at one in the morning. Manders explains to Tom—an unidentified... (full context)
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Manders remarks that Lincoln arrived at the cemetery alone on a small horse, upon which his feet dangled almost... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community,” Hans Vollman says regarding Lincoln’s time in the cemetery. As the man interacted with his son’s body, many souls emerged... (full context)
Chapter 25
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...making animal noises.” Despite this love, though, nobody has ever come to hold them like Lincoln held Willie. (full context)
Chapter 36
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The Reverend sees that Vollman and Bevins are “intrigued” by the news that Lincoln is still on the premises. Gesturing for his friends to join him in private in... (full context)
Chapter 45-46
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When Bevins (who is younger than both Vollman and Lincoln) enters the president, the man experiences a rush of youth, suddenly remembering his own escapades... (full context)
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Lincoln continues to think about Willie, wondering what has happened to his boy. “Why will it... (full context)
Chapter 47
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...excerpts, Saunders provides an account of the nation’s response to the Civil War. “Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the casualty lists from the Union victory... (full context)
Chapter 48
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Back in the cemetery, Lincoln continues thinking about Willie. “He is just one,” he considers. “And the weight of it... (full context)
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“Trap. Horrible trap,” Lincoln thinks. “At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will... (full context)
Chapter 49
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Bevins and Vollman continue observing Lincoln’s thoughts, seeing that he feels “distraught” as he prods the far reaches of his brain... (full context)
Chapter 50-52
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...or “resplendent in a new mode of being,” Vollman and Bevins find themselves saddened by Lincoln’s hopes for his son. As such, they try to convince the man to return to... (full context)
Chapter 53
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...about to lose heart, though, they realize the lock to the stone home is in Lincoln’s pocket. Indeed, he has forgotten to lock the crypt, so Bevins and Vollman think about... (full context)
Chapter 54-55
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Bevins and Vollman are astonished at their success. When Lincoln stands, he leaves them sitting inside one another, a “configuration” that allows them to fully... (full context)
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...III now know seemingly everything about one another, but they also know many things about Lincoln, too. “Removed from both Vollman and the gentleman,” Bevins remarks, “I felt arising within me... (full context)
Chapter 56-58
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Saunders quotes an account written by a White House guard. This guard notes that Lincoln has still not returned to the White House at two in the morning. The guard... (full context)
Chapter 61
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...white stone home, declaring triumphantly that they’ve succeeded in persuading Willie’s father to return. Indeed, Lincoln follows not far behind, making his way toward them as the moon shines on his... (full context)
Chapter 62
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A number of excerpts describe President Lincoln’s physical appearance, contradicting one another regarding the color of his eyes and whether or not... (full context)
Chapter 63
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Lincoln approaches the white stone home, goes inside, takes Willie’s coffin from the wall, puts it... (full context)
Chapter 64-65
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Once again, a crowd forms around the white stone home, since news of Lincoln’s return spreads quickly. “All craved the slightest participation in the transformative moment that must be... (full context)
Chapter 67-68
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As commotion ensues outside the white stone home, Lincoln hears nothing. Just as Willie is about to step into his father, though, a lantern... (full context)
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Manders enters the crypt and says, “Ah. Here you are. Sir.” Getting to his feet, Lincoln shakes Manders’s hand, and Manders offers him a lantern. Because Lincoln doesn’t want to deprive... (full context)
Chapter 69
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When Vollman steps into Lincoln once again, he discovers that the man is trying “to formulate a goodbye, in some... (full context)
Chapter 70
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...he talks to you, punches his fists under your ribs,” notes another. Others suggest that Lincoln will go down in history as “the man who could not read the signs of... (full context)
Chapter 71
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Inside Lincoln, Hans Vollman bears witness to the man’s thoughts, as the president says to himself, “Well,... (full context)
Chapter 74
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Inside the white stone home, Lincoln looks one last time at Willie’s body and, in a moment of strange hope, tries... (full context)
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Immersed in Lincoln’s thoughts, Vollman realizes he’s neglected to convince the man to stay. “Stay,” he thinks. “It... (full context)
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While Lincoln grapples with his grief, Vollman listens and tries to tell the man that Willie can... (full context)
Chapter 75-76
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...Bevins tear their way through the tendril around Willie’s waste. As they do so, though, Lincoln closes Willie’s “sick-box,” puts it back, and walks outside into the “now-hushed crowd.” The effect... (full context)
Chapter 77
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The Reverend hesitates to enter Lincoln. The last time he went into a human, it was when he and his friends... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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!” (full context)
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The many souls inside Lincoln look at one another and are astonished to discover that their physical appearances have changed.... (full context)
Chapter 78-79
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...land—to fly ahead and collect any additional souls who might be able to help convince Lincoln to stay. Because the Bachelors dislike commitment, though, they refuse to do this. Losing hope,... (full context)
Chapter 82
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...friends jump at the sound of a somebody clearing his throat. Turning around, they see Lincoln sitting pensively at the front of the chapel, “where he must have sat during the... (full context)
Chapter 83
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Writing again in the watchman’s logbook, Manders recounts escorting Lincoln away from Willie’s crypt. As they approached the front gate, he explains, Lincoln saw the... (full context)
Chapter 84-85
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...once again has the chance to become one with his father. As he sits inside Lincoln, he tries to communicate that he’ll leave this place if that’s what his father tells... (full context)
Chapter 88-90
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...the funeral. One attendee remembers approaching the president after the service and offering his condolences. “[Lincoln] did not seem to be listening,” this attendee writes. “His face lit up with dark... (full context)
Chapter 91
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 93-94
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As soon as Willie departs, Lincoln jolts, looks around, stands up, and leaves, “the lad’s departure having set him free.” On... (full context)
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Making his way out of the chapel, Lincoln feels ready to “believe anything of this world,” since his grief and loss have made... (full context)
Chapter 95-96
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...from entering the chapel, since in life they were generally forbidden to do so. When Lincoln emerges, though, he walks right through her, and she briefly glimpses his internal world, which... (full context)
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Havens notices that Lincoln has been changed by the souls who recently inhabited him, an experience that has opened... (full context)
Chapter 98
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...Perkins includes a post-script in her letter to her brother, saying that she saw President Lincoln exit the cemetery, mount his horse, and ride away. Looking across the road, she opened... (full context)
Chapter 99
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In the logbook, Manders confirms that Lincoln has finally left the cemetery. He notes that he saw Isabelle Perkins in her house... (full context)
Chapter 108
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Thomas Havens remains inside President Lincoln as the man mounts his horse and rides out of the cemetery. Together, they pass... (full context)