Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo


George Saunders

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Transition and Impermanence Theme Analysis

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.
Transition and Impermanence Theme Icon

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 that they’re merely recovering. This highlights a deeply human quality in the characters: a fear and aversion to the fact of life’s impermanence. Instead of accepting that life will end, they devise elaborate ways of tricking themselves into thinking they’ll soon return to the lives they used to lead. These departed souls aren’t the only ones to struggle against life’s ephemerality. In fact, President Lincoln himself realizes that he has ignored the fleeting nature of life, allowing himself to think that he would be with his son “forever.” Saunders shows this to be an unrealistic belief, and intimates that states of transition and impermanence define human life. By presenting lack of change as an inherently unnatural state for humans, he ultimately suggests that people should appreciate life by realizing that it is a gift—one whose value is not lessened by its impermanence, but rather increased.

The very way that the Bardo operates communicates to the souls therein that change is natural and, conversely, that stasis is unnatural. For instance, “light-blobs” bombard the Bardo-dwellers on a regular basis, trying to tempt them away from their resolve to stay. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they taunt, reminding these souls of a familiar rhythm of change, suggesting that, like a “wave” washing up on the “shore,” life is a transitory, impermanent thing—something that will inevitably fizzle away. Although Bardo-dwellers like Vollman and Bevins refuse to admit they’re dead, they do seem to be aware that transition is an inherent part of life. This awareness comes across in the language they use, since they frequently employ the phrase “that previous place” when referring to the world they lived in before the Bardo, inadvertently conveying a sense of succession. Unfortunately, though, they’re unwilling to acknowledge that any transition has taken place, instead insisting to themselves that they must not be dead, since they can talk and listen and feel—a theory they think proves they’re alive, though it really only suggests that there is some form of life after death (a form of life, moreover, which they would do well to embrace).

Another indication that lack of change is unnatural—and even harmful—is what happens to children if they don’t quickly “move on” from the Bardo: they slowly become rooted to the place by a hardening carapace that strangles out the “light,” “happiness,” and “positive aspiration” so characteristic of young people. This suggests that children are especially negatively influenced by stasis. They are built, Saunders implies, to proceed, not to “tarry.” This makes sense, considering that children, as their bodies and brains rapidly develop, are constantly undergoing change, always progressing to a new stage of life. The detrimental effect of stasis in the Bardo ultimately underscores the notion that children exemplify the inevitability of change and growth, life’s most natural phenomena.

Amongst the living, President Lincoln also struggles to reconcile himself to transition and impermanence. Looking at his son’s corpse, he realizes why it’s so hard to accept Willie’s death: he has, until now, failed to consider that Willie could die. He reflects, “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?” Lincoln expresses in this moment a sentiment the souls in the Bardo are apparently incapable of articulating—namely, that human life is “a passing, temporary energy-burst” and that nothing about life is “fixed” or “stable.” Instead, everything is impermanent and in a constant state of transition, like Willie was as he grew up. “He came out of nothingness,” Lincoln continues, “took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.” This, readers come to understand, describes the journey of all humans through life, though certain souls insist on denying the truth of impermanence, distracting themselves from the fact that they come “out of nothingness” and will someday “return to nothingness.” 

The souls in the Bardo eventually come to realize that they are, in fact, no longer part of “that previous place.” Having entered Lincoln’s body and witnessed his father thinking about his funeral, Willie announces to his fellow Bardo-dwellers that they are—all of them—dead. He then finally moves on from the Bardo. Having seen this, Bevins and Vollman are soon ready to do the same. Before he progresses into the unknown, however, Bevins stops to consider everything he loves about the world and life, cataloguing the many pleasures of existence until saying to himself: “These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.” Soon thereafter, he finally leaves the Bardo. With these parting words, he echoes Lincoln’s assertion that the things of existence (including people themselves) come “out of nothingness.” Instead of becoming depressed about this, though, Bevins recognizes that being alive and loving that which is impermanent is a beautiful thing in and of itself. His life has passed from nothing to nothing, but he has loved along the way, and that has made it worthwhile. In turn, Saunders assures readers that ephemerality is intrinsic to life itself—a reality not worth fighting, and indeed, one worth celebrating.

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Transition and Impermanence Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo

Below you will find the important quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo related to the theme of Transition and Impermanence.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Hans Vollman (speaker), Anna
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Feeling nauseous at the quantity of blood and its sudden percussive redness against the whiteness of the tub, I settled myself woozily down on the floor, at which time I—well, it is a little embarrassing, but let me just say it: I changed my mind. Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing: swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arriving breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a child autumn—

Related Characters: Roger Bevins III (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Will I follow my predilection? I will! With gusto! Having come so close to losing everything, I am freed now of all fear, hesitation, and timidity, and, once revived, intend to devoutly wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please; touching, tasting, standing very still among the beautiful things of this world […].

Related Characters: Roger Bevins III (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
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 Characters: Elise Traynor (or “The Traynor Girl”) (speaker), Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, The Reverend Everly Thomas, Willie Lincoln
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 29 Quotes

The lead angel took my face into her hands as her wing swished back and forth, putting me in mind of a horse’s tail as that animal feeds.

Are you thriving here, Reverend? she said, wing extended lazily above her. Is He whom you served in life present here?

I—I believe He is, I said.

He is, of course, everywhere, she said. But does not like to see you lingering here. Among such low companions.

Her beauty was considerable and increasing by the second. I saw I must end our interview or risk disaster.

Please go, I said. I do not—I do not require you today.

But soon, I think? She said.

Her beauty swelled beyond description.

And I burst into tears.

Related Characters: The Reverend Everly Thomas (speaker)
Page Number: 100
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?

Related Characters: The Reverend Everly Thomas (speaker), Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln
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 61 Quotes

I have been here since and have, as instructed, refrained from speaking of any of this, to anyone.

What would be the point? For any of us here, it is too late for any alteration of course. All is done. We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgment pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means. Our work there is finished; we only await payment.

Related Characters: The Reverend Everly Thomas (speaker), Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III
Page Number: 194
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 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: