Narrated in a series of monologues, Lincoln in the Bardo begins with the voice of Hans Vollman explaining how he died, though he won’t admit he has actually passed away. Just when he was finally about to make love to his much younger wife for the first time, he was struck by a light beam, rendering him unable to consummate their marriage. Since then, he has been dwelling here, in the Bardo, where he lies in what he calls a “sick-box.” Each night, he rises from this “sick-box” and joins people like Roger Bevins III, a friend of his who now interjects to help him narrate his story, having heard it so many times. Bevins eventually tells his own story, too, explaining that he slit his wrists because Gilbert, his lover, ended their furtive relationship. As soon as he cut himself, though, Bevins regretted it, realizing that life is a beautiful gift. Like Vollman, he doesn’t think he’s dead—rather, he insists that he’s lying on the kitchen floor in a puddle of blood and waiting for his mother to find him.
Like all the souls in the Bardo, Vollman and Bevins physically represent their attachments to the real world, attachments that ultimately keep them in the Bardo, a transitional space meant to be a stopover for souls moving from life to the afterlife. Vollman, for his part, has an eternal (and very large) erection, which he must drag around wherever he goes. Bevins, on the other hand, has many eyes, noses, ears, and hands, all of which multiply when he thinks about the vast sensory pleasures of being alive. As these two souls explain their physical appearances, they take note of Willie Lincoln, a young boy who has just arrived in the Bardo. Children, they say, aren’t meant to “tarry” here, so they encourage him to “go on,” saying he must surely feel the urge to leave. Despite their attempts, though, Willie merely says, “I feel I am to wait.”
As Vollman and Bevins try to convince Willie to move on from the Bardo, their friend arrives. The Reverend Everly Thomas is an older man whose hair sticks straight up and whose face is in a permanent state of shock, though Saunders doesn’t yet reveal why. Like Vollman and Bevins, he too tries to get Willie to leave, and the three men take the boy to see the Traynor girl, the only other young person they know to have stayed in the Bardo. Apparently, she “tarried” so long that tendrils crept up from the earth, wrapped around her, and hardened into a “carapace,” permanently affixing her to a ghastly iron fence that marks the limit of where souls in the Bardo can “venture.” Since then, she has been unable to move, constantly “manifesting” as various horrible things. As Vollman, Bevins, the Reverend, and Willie approach, for example, she has taken the form of a “horrid blackened furnace.” At first, she’s unwilling to speak, instead “transmuting” into a series of dismal objects. When the group almost leaves, though, she turns into her human form and tells Willie her tale, explaining that she always wanted a baby but never grew old enough to have intercourse, despite the fact that many suitors were interested in her. Her speech is very strange and punctuated by strong expletives, all of which she has learned in the Bardo and now can’t keep herself from using.
Listening to the Traynor girl has the intended effect on Willie. When he leaves the fence behind, he tells his older guides that he now wants to move on, if he’s fated to become like her. Relieved, Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend prepare to say goodbye, but Willie’s eyes suddenly fix on something behind them. Turning around, they see Abraham Lincoln walking toward them.
Throughout the novel, Saunders intersperses the text with excerpts from various historical accounts of Lincoln’s presidency, including biographies, letters, and other archival writings. Though too numerous to list here, these snippets provide a look at the President’s public life, his private life, and the wide-ranging national opinion of him as a man and leader—an important perspective, considering that Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the first year of the Civil War. Using this method, Saunders describes a grand reception held at the White House several weeks before Willie’s death. As politicians made merriment downstairs, Willie was upstairs succumbing to his illness. All the while, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln fretted over their boy, though the doctors assured them he’d make a fully recovery. This, of course, proved false, and Willie died several weeks later—a fact that invites equal parts criticism and sympathy from the nation.
Lincoln makes his way toward Vollman, Bevins, the Reverend, and Willie, though he can’t see them. Coming to Willie’s mausoleum, he opens the door and goes inside, where he slides his son’s casket from the wall, sets it on the floor, and opens it. As he does so, Willie and his Bardo-dwelling friends drift into the mausoleum and watch him reach down and cradle his son’s lifeless body. All the while, Willie tries to talk to his father, but Lincoln can’t hear him. In an attempt to get his attention, Willie slips back into his body, and, in doing so, accidentally goes into his father’s body, too. Suddenly he knows what it’s like to be an adult, and he can feel Lincoln’s thoughts and feelings. Beside himself with grief, Lincoln tells himself that he can return to the mausoleum whenever he wants. “Dear boy,” he thinks just before leaving, “I will come again. That is a promise.” With this, Lincoln exits the mausoleum, leaving Willie sitting in the corner. At this point, Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend urge the boy once again to leave the Bardo, but he says he can’t because his father is going to return.
Because it’s incredibly rare for a human to interact with (let alone touch) the people in the Bardo, many curious souls approach the mausoleum. Vying for Willie’s attention, they tell their stories and hope he’ll relay their messages next time Lincoln comes, though nobody knows of a surefire way of communicating with living humans. This, it seems, is a hotly debated topic, as Vollman and Bevins claim to have once influenced two people by entering them, but their exact methods weren’t particularly reliable.
Suddenly, “light-blobs” descend upon the Bardo-dwellers. These “blobs” are beings sent to convince each soul to “move on.” Taking the form of loved ones, they lure the souls into leaving. When a soul succumbs to this, the entire Bardo echoes with a “familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon,” a beam of light that takes away the soul who has decided to leave.
When the attack subsides, Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend assume one of the “firesounds” must have been Willie leaving the Bardo, but they find the boy sitting atop the mausoleum, looking gaunt and weak. They then notice that tendrils have started wrapping around him, trying to fix him in place forever. While the Reverend tries to uproot these tendrils, Vollman and Bevins sneak off to find Lincoln again, hoping to convince him into returning so that Willie can enter him. If they can do this, they think, surely Willie will see that his father wouldn’t want him to stay in such a dismal place. Finding the man sitting down on a path of grass, they inhabit his form, suddenly understanding everything about his life, including that he’s president. Thankfully, Lincoln has forgotten to lock the mausoleum, so Vollman and Bevins focus their attention on the lock lying in his pocket. Before long, he wraps his hand around it and realizes he must return.
While weeding the tendrils, the Reverend admits that he’s not like his friends, because he understands that he has died. Indeed, after a life of priesthood, he peacefully died, at which point he found himself walking along a path with two strangers. One, who walked in the front, was wearing a yellow swimsuit. The second was wearing a funeral suit. Before long, the group came upon a diamond palace where a Christ-emissary sat before a large bejeweled door. Calling the bathing-suited man forward, the emissary and two helpers considered at how the man lived. Finding the results quite favorable, they danced forth and sent him through the diamond doors, giving the Reverend a glimpse of heaven. The doors then shut, and the second man went forward. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as lucky as the first, and when the doors opened for him, the Reverend saw into hell itself. The doors shut again, and the Christ-emissary and his colleagues went about evaluating the Reverend’s life. When their initial reaction suggested that the Reverend had lived even more disgracefully than the second man, the Reverend turned and ran. Thankfully, nobody pursued him, but several beings whispered in his ear as he fled, telling him he must never tell anybody about what he’s seen, or else his judgment will be harsher upon his inevitable return. After running as far as he could, the Reverend collapsed, and when he woke up, he was in the Bardo, where he has remained ever since.
Lincoln returns to the mausoleum once again, wanting one more look at his son. Realizing that the tendrils only prevent Willie from moving forward, backward, or side to side, the Reverend, Bevins, and Vollman push the boy through the mausoleum roof to be with his father. Unfortunately, the groundskeeper, Manders, appears in this moment to check on the president, and the two men agree to go back together once Lincoln takes a moment alone with his son. Manders agrees and waits for him outside, but Willie is now held to the wall by tendrils, preventing him from going into his father. As Bevins sets to work untangling the boy, Vollman tries to delay Lincoln, who is in the midst of saying goodbye for the final time while also feeling guilty, for he now knows the pain of losing a child—a form of grief he feels he has inflicted on thousands of people because the Civil War rages on at his command.
Before Willie can break free from the tendrils, Lincoln leaves, walking out into the masses of Bardo-dwellers (whom he can’t see). Trying to get him to turn around, Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend jump into his body and convince all the spectating souls to do the same. Suddenly, then, Lincoln holds an entire mass of souls, including black men, white men, black women, and white women. “What a pleasure it was being in there,” says Bevins, explaining that the experience of inhabiting not only Lincoln, but so many other Bardo-dwellers is deeply satisfying, “expand[ing]” each soul and allowing them to better understand one another. Despite this elation, though, Lincoln keeps walking, and the souls start dropping out one by one.
Returning to Willie, the Bardo-dwellers find that he has been overtaken by the tendrils. At this point, a bassy voice with a lisp asks if they’d like to move Willie to the roof of the mausoleum so he can remain there for eternity instead of inside the dark building. Taken aback, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins realize that the tendril is comprised of bean-sized people “writhing” and “twisting” their faces. These beings, they learn, are in hell, though not in the worst level. Although they all admit they’ve done bad things, they insist that their evilness was never their fault, since they were always “predisposed” to do terrible things. The Reverend—who still doesn’t know why, exactly, he deserves eternal damnation—is disgusted by the hell-beings and their apathetic, “passive” attitude regarding their own sins. When the tendril-souls ask again if they should move Willie to the roof, the Reverend says yes. When they release the boy, the Reverend says he will carry him to the roof. Taking Willie into his arms, he dashes out of the mausoleum, running away from the tendril and setting off for the cemetery’s chapel, thinking that God’s influence will keep such vile beings at bay.
The tendril chases after the Reverend, catching up to him and tripping him. In the tendril’s effort to secure Willie, it also wraps around the Reverend, threatening to secure him in place forever. Knowing what he must do, the Reverend shouts in fear, saying, “That palace. That dreadful diamond palace!” before succumbing to the beam of light. This successfully frees Willie from the tendril, and Vollman grabs the boy and runs into the chapel, where, to their surprise, they find President Lincoln.
The tendril reforms and waits outside the chapel, warning Willie and his helpers that it’s merely regaining its strength before coming inside. Meanwhile, Willie enters his father while many Bardo-dwellers flood into the chapel through its walls. Inside Lincoln’s body, Willie learns that he has died, a fact that helps him accept the fact that he must move on. When he exits, he looks around at the many souls and tells them what they don’t want to hear: they’re all dead. As soon as he convinces them of this, the Bardo-dwellers start succumbing to the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” in great numbers, and Willie himself does the same. Vollman and Bevins, for their part, are hesitant to admit that they’re dead, but they help one another come to terms with this staggering truth. Before they leave, though, they go to the Traynor girl and situate themselves so that the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” breaks through her incapacitating tendrils, effectively setting her free.
Once Willie leaves, Lincoln feels a sudden release. In keeping with this, he stands up and leaves. As he does so, Thomas Havens—a former slave—jumps into his body and matches his strides, delighting in the feeling of being inside such an important man. In fact, Havens enjoys the experience so much that he mounts Lincoln’s horse and rides away inside the president, contentedly moving “past the sleeping houses of [their] countrymen.”