Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo


George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo Themes

Themes and Colors
Unity Theme Icon
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Empathy and Equality Theme Icon
Loss Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Lincoln in the Bardo, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


At the outset of Lincoln in the Bardo, characters from many different walks of life exist independently from one another in the Bardo, a liminal space between death and the afterlife. Even though each character is in the exact same situation, these characters don’t band together. Instead, they focus on themselves and their individual desires to remain in the Bardo. This dynamic changes when Willie Lincoln (the son of Abraham Lincoln) appears, as…

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Transition and Impermanence

The characters in Lincoln in the Bardo are in a state of transition. Souls like Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, Reverend Everly Thomas, and Willie Lincoln are literally in transitional states, since they exist only in the Bardo, a Tibetan word Saunders borrows to refer to a transitory place occupied by people who have died but have not yet moved on. These souls refuse to admit that they have died, instead insisting…

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Vice and Virtue

The characters in Lincoln in the Bardo exemplify the fact that humans are made up of contradictions. The Reverend Everly Thomas perhaps represents this best, since he has dedicated his entire life on earth to following God, and yet he discovers upon his final judgment that he has somehow not earned a place in heaven. When he flees—making haste back to the Bardo to avoid damnation—he tries to discern what, exactly, he did to deserve…

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Empathy and Equality

In Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders examines how people frequently fail to see beyond their own differences. For instance, white souls like Lieutenant Cecil Stone occupy the same spiritual realm as black Bardo-dwellers, but they still find themselves incapable of embracing the idea of equality, instead clinging to their bigoted belief that there’s a fundamental difference between white people and black people. Meanwhile, in the world of the living, President Lincoln fights this…

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In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders sets forth the notion that mourning is a process that ideally ends in acceptance. Loss is difficult, he upholds, because it denotes the end of something cherished. At the center of the book is the loss President Lincoln experiences when he’s forced to say goodbye to his beloved child, Willie. Distraught, he finds the idea of carrying on without his son unfathomable. By the end of the…

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