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 divisive worldview by leading the Union in the Civil War, though he himself also harbors certain prejudices. However, these prejudices “erode” once he stops to fully consider them. What’s more, they drop away even further after he feels—in a firsthand, supernatural way—some of the many hardships that black souls like Thomas Haven have been forced to endure. In this way, Saunders proposes that bigotry begins to break apart when a person embraces empathy.
Many souls in the Bardo retain the racist views they held in life. Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the first year of the Civil War, meaning that many of the Bardo-dwellers cling to the pro-slavery sentiment that whites and blacks are essentially different, and that white people should have dominion over black people. As such, the Bardo’s ranks are starkly polarized, as characters like Lieutenant Cecil Stone work to confine African American souls to the mass grave in which they’ve been buried. Lieutenant Cecil Stone even goes so far as to suggest that black people are subhuman, saying that they can’t “weep, since to weep one must possess human emotions.” In uttering this hateful notion, Stone dehumanizes his fellow Bardo-dwellers, thereby framing himself as superior, though it’s worth noting that this supposed superiority does nothing to change the fact that he—like the black people he wants to oppress—is also dead. Nonetheless, he subjects black souls like Elson Farwell (a former slave) to a constant stream of hateful language, often ordering them to return to the mass grave in which they’ve been buried. Failing to see that he and these souls are in the same spiritual situation, he champions the kind of bigotry that has followed them throughout their entire life, extending an oppressive racial narrative beyond the grave.
Unlike Lieutenant Cecil Stone, President Lincoln overcomes his racial prejudices. While pondering the diverse nature of the United States, he thinks, “all of it, all of that bounty, [is] for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” His emphasis on the word “everyone” speaks to his commitment to fight for equality, and a recognition of the fact that there’s nothing about black people that renders them less worthy of happiness and “bounty” than anyone else. It is perhaps because of this mindset that Thomas Havens finds himself wanting to stay inside Lincoln when he unexpectedly jumps into the president’s body. “I was comfortable in there,” he explains. “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.” In this moment, Saunders shows that Lincoln is not a perfect man when it comes to empathy—in fact, he bears “traces” of racism and bigotry. However, Thomas Havens senses that Lincoln’s “aversion” is eroding because the President has “examined” it, which ultimately suggests that bigotry quickly deteriorates under the “light” of reason.
Thomas Havens also notes that he and his fellow black Bardo-dwellers have influenced the president by entering him. This is an event that takes place when Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend convince a number of souls to go into Lincoln’s body with the hopes of getting him to return to Willie’s grave. As Thomas Havens now rides along inside Lincoln’s body—the sole inhabitant—he realizes the effect this moment had on the President: “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.” Since what Thomas describes in this passage is the way Lincoln has taken on the emotional quality of the black souls who entered him, it’s worth looking at the word empathy, which Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary refers to as “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” With this in mind, it becomes clear that President Lincoln has been “opened up” by souls like Thomas because they have caused him to “vicariously experience” their feelings. This, it seems, has further “eroded” any “aversion” Lincoln might have had to black people. By taking on the emotional qualities and experiences of these souls, the President finds himself expanded and suddenly even more disposed to fight for the abolition of slavery.
Thomas Havens, for his part, feels a similar kind of fondness for Lincoln and thus decides to stay in the President’s body. In this way, Lincoln in the Bardo concludes with Lincoln riding back to the white house with a black man’s soul inside of him. “And we rode forward into the night,” Havens says, “past the sleeping houses of our countrymen.” With these final words, Saunders suggests that Thomas and Lincoln have empathized so fully with one another that they’ve essentially become one person, a merging of identity indicated by Thomas’s use of the word “our.” Thus, Saunders argues that empathy “erodes” categorical divisions between people and ultimately fosters equality.
Empathy and Equality ThemeTracker
Empathy and Equality Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo
And that is how we lived. We became friends. Dear friends. That was all. And yet that was so much. We laughed together, made decisions about the household […]. To see her brighten when I came in, find her leaning into me as we discussed some household matter, improved my lot in many ways I cannot adequately explain. I had been happy, happy enough, but now I often found myself uttering a spontaneous prayer that went, simply: She is here, still here. It was as if a rushing river had routed itself through my house, which was pervaded now by a freshwater scent and the awareness of something lavish, natural, and breathtaking always moving nearby.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.