Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

by

George Saunders

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Sick-Box Symbol Icon

When Hans Vollman refers to his coffin, he calls it his sick-box. In doing so, he avoids admitting that he is dead, instead spinning a harebrained narrative that enables him to indulge his sense of denial. This evasive tactic comes to stand for the many ways in which the characters in Lincoln in the Bardo delude themselves. Rather than acknowledging that his inert form lies in a casket, Vollman goes to great lengths to uphold that he’s simply “recovering” from an illness. He even says that he “took” to his sick-box “per the advice of [his] physician,” a ridiculous claim, considering the fact that the only thing his physician has done is place him inside a wooden box because he is, in fact, dead. Nonetheless, Vollman goes out of his way to interrupt his friends whenever he senses they might use some other word when referring to the boxes that hold their physical forms. In this manner, the so-called “sick-boxes” that populate Lincoln in the Bardo represent the Bardo-dwellers’ elaborate attempts to stave off the realization that their lives have ended.

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Sick-Box Symbol Timeline in Lincoln in the Bardo

The timeline below shows where the symbol Sick-Box appears in Lincoln in the Bardo. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
“Per the advice of my physician,” Hans Vollman says, “I took to my—A sort of sick-box was judged—was judged to be—” He falters at here, and the voice of Roger Bevins... (full context)
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
...to consummate his marriage, he didn’t feel that way when he first took to his “sick-box.” In fact, when he was placed on the “sick-cart,” he found that he could “briefly... (full context)
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
Resuming his story, Hans Vollman explains that he eventually reentered his sick-box. “[I was] weeping in that way that we have,” he says, “—have you come to... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon
...has been touched is when something has gone wrong: either they’ve required removal from their “sick-boxes” for maintenance purposes, or they’ve been disinterred for ghastly experiments by medical students. (full context)
Chapter 27
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Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
...several members of the dark race, not one among them, pale or dark, with a sick-box in which to properly recover.” The Reverend adds that it’s not ideal to have the... (full context)
Chapter 61
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
...“Am not ‘sick,’” he says, “not ‘lying on a kitchen floor,’ not ‘being healed via sick-box,’ not ‘waiting to be revived.’ No.” He then describes his own “end,” which took place... (full context)
Chapter 75-76
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Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
...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 of his departure... (full context)