Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Abraham Lincoln’s son, who dies of typhoid during the first year of the Civil War. As Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln grieve, Willie goes to the Bardo, where he resolves to wait for his father, who visits his crypt a number of times on the night of his funeral. Indeed, President Lincoln even opens Willie’s coffin and holds the boy’s lifeless body, an act that stuns Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend, along with all the other Bardo-dwellers. Encouraged by his father’s willingness to interact with his dead body, Willie ignores the advice of his new friends in the Bardo, deciding to stay in this realm even when a tendril creeps up from hell and wraps around him, threatening to fix him in place for eternity. Despite these dismal circumstances, Willie remains optimistic and good-natured, thinking that he will be able to interact with his father once again. Because of this attitude—and because Lincoln shows such an interest in his dead son—many of the Bardo-dwellers come to see the young boy as an emblem of hope, thinking he might be able to return to the living world. As such, they crowd around his crypt and tell them their stories, wanting him to relay their tales to their loved ones if he’s able to go back to “that previous place.” However, Willie eventually enters his father while the president remembers his funeral, and this experience helps the boy realize that he is dead. Exiting Lincoln, he tells the Bardo-dwellers the truth about their situation, yelling, “Everyone, we are dead!” As a result, souls begin departing in great numbers, and it isn’t long before Willie himself succumbs to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon,” which carries him away.

Willie Lincoln Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo

The Lincoln in the Bardo quotes below are all either spoken by Willie Lincoln or refer to Willie 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:
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). 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 13 Quotes

I want ed so much to hold a dear Babe.

I know very wel I do not look as prety as I onseh. And over time, I admit, I have come to know serten words I did not formerly

Fuk cok shit reem ravage assfuk

[…] I did not get any. Thing.

Was gone too soon

To get

Only forteen.

Yrs of aje


Plese do come again sir it has been a pleasure to make your

But fuk yr anshient frends (do not bring them agin) who kome to ogle and mok me and ask me to swindle no that is not the werd slender slander that wich I am doing. Wich is no more than what they are doing. Is it not so? What I am doing, if I only cary on fathefully, will, I am sure, bring about that longed-for return to

Green grass kind looks.

Related Symbols: The Iron Fence
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
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 66 Quotes

Of course, there was always a moment, just as an order was given, when a small, resistant voice would make itself known in the back of my mind. Then the necessary job was to ignore that voice. It was not a defiant or angry voice, particularly, just that little human voice, saying, you know: I wish to do what I wish to do, and not what you are telling me to do.

And I must say, that voice was never quite silenced.

Although it did grow rather quiet over the years.

Related Characters: Thomas Havens (speaker), Willie Lincoln, Elson Farwell
Page Number: 219
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

Whatever my sin, it must, I felt (I prayed), be small, compared to the sins of these. And yet, I was of their ilk. Was I not? When I went, it seemed, it would be to join them.

As I had many times preached, our Lord is a fearsome Lord, and mysterious, and will not be predicted, but judges as He sees fit, and we are but as lambs to Him, whom He regards with neither affection or malice; some go to the slaughter, while others are released to the meadow, by His whim, according to a standard we are too lowly to discern.

It is only for us to accept; accept His judgment, and our punishment.

But, as applied to me, this teaching did not satisfy.

And oh, I was sick, sick at heart.

Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:

We were as we were! the bass lisper barked. How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment.

By Fate, by Destiny, said the Vermonter.

By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do, the bass lisper said.

And then are cruelly punished for it, said the woman.

Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 92 Quotes

Flying out window, allowed, allowed (the entire laughing party of guests happily joining behind me, urging me to please, yes, fly away) (saying oh, he feels much better now, he does not seem sick at all!)!

Whatever that former fellow (willie) had, must now be given back (is given back gladly) as it never was mine (never his) and therefore is not being taken away, not at all!

As I (who was of willie but is no longer (merely) of willie) return

To such beauty.

Related Characters: Willie Lincoln (speaker)
Page Number: 301
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:
Get the entire Lincoln in the Bardo LitChart as a printable PDF.
Lincoln in the Bardo PDF

Willie Lincoln Character Timeline in Lincoln in the Bardo

The timeline below shows where the character Willie 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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Another historical excerpt explains that Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, was quite sick when the president threw one of his large... (full context)
Chapter 3
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...and her husband,” reads one historical account. “They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all.” (full context)
Chapter 4-6
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The historians assert that Willie can hear the Marine Band piping out its songs as the reception progresses merrily below.... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...her 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... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Historians describe Willie’s temporary tomb. “Nothing could have been more peaceful or more beautiful than the situation of... (full context)
Chapter 9
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At this point, Willie Lincoln finally speaks, saying, “‘Bevins’ had several sets of eyes     All darting to and fro    ... (full context)
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Vollman explains that Willie Lincoln observes Bevins from the roof of his own “sick-house” (a “white stone home”). Bevins... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Vollman tells Willie to follow him, Bevins, and the Reverend. “There is someone we would like you to... (full context)
Chapter 12
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As Willie walk-skims with Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend, a woman joins them and lists off the... (full context)
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...fastened there so long that she has ultimately become part of the boundary itself. As Willie and his guides approach, Elise Traynor “manifests” as a “horrid blackened furnace.” With sorrow in... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Elise Traynor tells Willie that a number of young men used to “desire” her as they sat together on... (full context)
Chapter 14-15
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Leaving Elise Traynor, Willie asks Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend if the same thing will happen to him if... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...irregular,” the Reverend notes. “It was after hours; the front gate would be locked.” Indeed, Willie has only been interred that very same day, meaning that his father has no doubt... (full context)
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...reaches the white stone home, he keys it open and goes inside, where he slides Willie’s coffin from the wall, places it on the floor, and opens it. Looking upon his... (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... (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... (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 crowd has formed... (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... (full context)
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Continuing to narrate his father’s thoughts, Willie says: “And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Watching Willie’s father leave, the Reverend reenters the white stone home and finds Willie sitting in the... (full context)
Chapter 25
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...noises.” Despite this love, though, nobody has ever come to hold them like Lincoln held Willie. (full context)
Chapter 26
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...of souls surround the white stone home. Everybody, Vollman explains, wants to associate themselves with Willie, hoping to know what “this apparently charmed being” thinks of their “particular reasons for remaining.”... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...three “gelatinous orbs” that contain “a likeness of one of her daughters”—steps up and tells Willie her story. As a child, she explains, she once helped her father tie a deer... (full context)
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Jane Ellis continues telling Willie her story, saying that she had three children with her despicable husband. “In those girls... (full context)
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Willie listens to the stories and watches the “shifting mass of gray and black” that stretches... (full context)
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...and becoming as thin as a pencil. Meanwhile, Eddie and Betsy Baron approach and tell Willie in exceedingly vulgar language how they lived in extreme poverty but spent their lives partying,... (full context)
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...to the Barons. Vollman agrees that these two souls are too vulgar to speak to Willie. “Drunk and insensate, lying in the road, run over by the same carriage, they had... (full context)
Chapter 28
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As the souls crowd around Willie, “certain familiar signs” hint at the fact that “trouble [is] brewing.” First, a “hush” falls,... (full context)
Chapter 29
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Motivated by Mrs. Blass’s departure, the beings double their efforts. Willie, for his part, sees ten versions of his mother. “Come with us,” one says. “You... (full context)
Chapter 30
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...exposed. As the trio of friends makes their way across the grounds, they assume that Willie was one of the three souls to have moved on, since it is “unlikely that... (full context)
Chapter 31
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As Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend approach the white stone home, they’re astounded to see Willie sitting cross-legged on its roof. Unfortunately, “the effort of resistance” has eroded his physical strength.... (full context)
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Willie reminds the older souls that his father promised to return, but Vollman insists this won’t... (full context)
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...wanders the grounds searching for her husband. As this woman screams out her husband’s name, Willie finds himself suddenly overtaken by the roof itself, which has “liquefied” so that he now... (full context)
Chapter 32
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...become engulfed by the very same material, so they know that the tendril will overtake Willie and fasten him to the roof of the white stone home. Once he’s fixed in... (full context)
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...make clear, are not “inconsiderable” and “have not lessened in the meantime.” Now, they watch Willie tossing back and forth in discomfort as the chapel bell tolls three o’clock—indicating that the... (full context)
Chapter 33
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Drifting in and out of consciousness as the tendril wraps around him, Willie dreams of his mother and father, fantasizing about the candy served at the Lincolns’ receptions... (full context)
Chapter 34-35
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Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend start digging at the tendrils wrapping around Willie. Above, the Three Bachelors fly about while laughing and making jokes. “Having never loved or... (full context)
Chapter 37-41
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On their way to Willie’s father, Bevins and Vollman come across a group of souls standing around “a freshly filled... (full context)
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...proper chance,” Bevins and Vollman move on from the crowd, resuming their quest to find Willie’s father. (full context)
Chapter 42-44
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...of the many “home-places” of souls who have long since moved on. Finally, they find Willie’s father sitting with his legs crossed in the grass, looking like “a sculpture on the... (full context)
Chapter 45-46
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...muddy path. Not wanting to dwell upon this illicit flashback during such a somber time, Willie’s father redirects his attention, trying to recapture his son’s face in his mind’s eye. To... (full context)
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Lincoln continues to think about Willie, wondering what has happened to his boy. “Why will it not work,” he muses. “What... (full context)
Chapter 47
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...historical 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... (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 about to kill me.... (full context)
Chapter 49
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...for any kind of “consolation.” In order to soothe himself, he tries to think of Willie as existing in a place void of suffering. “All over now,” he thinks. “He is... (full context)
Chapter 50-52
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Knowing Willie isn’t “in some bright place, free of suffering” or “resplendent in a new mode of... (full context)
Chapter 53
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Inside Willie’s father, Bevins and Vollman try to “persuade the gentleman.” Thinking about the white stone home... (full context)
Chapter 60
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Meanwhile, the Reverend toils in solitude, working to free Willie from the tendrils. As he does so, an orgiastic group approaches to watch, finding the... (full context)
Chapter 61
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“For I am different, yes,” the Reverend admits, though he doesn’t say this to Willie. Unlike Bevins, Vollman, and everybody else in this place, he knows “very well” what he... (full context)
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As the Reverend concludes his tale, he sees that Willie’s situation has worsened, the tendrils having engulfed the boy. As he notices this, Hans Vollman... (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 on the ground, kneels, and opens it. Vollman, Bevins,... (full context)
Chapter 64-65
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...[is] not appropriate,” as a number of black souls approach the group and talk to Willie. “Let them have their chance,” somebody calls out. “In this place, we are all the... (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 light wobbles in the distance.... (full context)
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...to wait. This entire ordeal strikes Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend as a “catastrophe” because Willie hasn’t gone into his father yet. In fact, the boy hasn’t even advanced from the... (full context)
Chapter 72-73
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Excerpts from historical texts and letters indicate the nation’s response to Willie’s death, showing that many believe the boy’s illness could have been avoided if his parents... (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 to get him to rise like... (full context)
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While Lincoln grapples with his grief, Vollman listens and tries to tell the man that Willie can still benefit from his help. However, he’s unsuccessful, and Lincoln decides to leave, thinking... (full context)
Chapter 75-76
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Meanwhile, the Reverend and 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... (full context)
Chapter 77
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 78-79
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...souls exit Lincoln and, upon doing so, Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend remember they’ve left Willie at the white stone home. (full context)
Chapter 80-81
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 82
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...the Reverend’s departure temporarily damages the tendrils. Kicking the now-viscous vines, Vollman and Bevins extract Willie. While digging, they find an imprint of the Reverend’s face and see that his “countenance”... (full context)
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“I know this place,” says Willie inside the chapel. Vollman isn’t surprised to hear this, since everybody has passed through 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 chapel and decided... (full context)
Chapter 84-85
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In the chapel, Willie once again has the chance to become one with his father. As he sits inside... (full context)
Chapter 86
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Once more, historical writings describe Willie’s descent, explaining how his fever eventually developed into typhoid, which “works slowly and cruelly over... (full context)
Chapter 87
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“Wait,” Willie says inside his father, confused by the man’s thoughts. Watching this scene play out, Vollman... (full context)
Chapter 88-90
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As Willie sits “stock-still, eyes very wide” inside his father, Saunders describes (once again using historical excerpts)... (full context)
Chapter 91
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Willie stands and exits his father. Looking at Bevins and Vollman as a crowd of souls... (full context)
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When Willie reveals that everybody is dead, three people immediately succumb to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” “Dead!” the... (full context)
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Willie tells his friends he wants to “do good” by going where he “should have gone... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 92
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In his final monologue, Willie asserts that he is simultaneously himself and not himself. Now “allowed” to do whatever he... (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... (full context)
Chapter 100-101
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...to continue into eternity. Moving on, Bevins and Vollman can’t help but feel “shaken” by Willie’s words. Skimming across the grounds, they watch as Betsy Baron flickers and manifests as all... (full context)
Chapter 107
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...from visiting the Carroll crypt to make sure everything is all right. Inside, he saw Willie Lincoln’s coffin poking out from the wall, so he pushed it back in and thought... (full context)