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 Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas take an interest in encouraging the child to leave the Bardo, which is unfit for young souls. Working together with their fellow Bardo-dwellers, they do everything they can to convince Willie to leave. At one point, a large group of them even enter President Lincoln’s body and try to influence him to help them persuade the young boy, but their plan doesn’t work. However, though the Bardo-dwellers ultimately fail in their attempt to affect President Lincoln, each character is renewed and uplifted by the experience of having temporarily united as an undivided whole. In this way, Saunders suggests that unification is an intrinsically good and worthwhile aim—so much so, in fact, that it is rewarding even when it fails to bring about tangible change.
Although everyone in the Bardo occupies the same liminal realm, each soul thinks only of him- or herself. No one, it seems, ever stops to consider that they might have anything in common with another soul. To them, this kind of individualistic thinking is necessary if they want to remain in the Bardo. Roger Bevins III makes this clear when he says, “To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.” This focus on the self naturally leads to a divided community—one that is unable to band together.
Saunders challenges this individualistic thinking when Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend enter President Lincoln’s body and convince their fellow Bardo-dwellers to do the same. They do this because they hope to influence Lincoln, who is about to leave his son’s mausoleum. As he walks away, the Bardo-dwellers enter him and try to get him to return to Willie’s grave, hoping this will allow Willie to enter his body and see that Lincoln would want him to move on from the Bardo. In this moment, the true spirit of democracy comes to the forefront of the novel, as Lincoln suddenly houses “many wills, memories, complaints, desires, so much raw life-force.” In the same way that Lincoln is subject to a cacophony of conflicting viewpoints in the real world—where people both criticize and praise him for his handling of the Civil War—here he literally embodies the spirit of unity. Indeed, a typically divided mass suddenly comes together in this moment, united with a common goal: to convince Lincoln to turn around. As they try to do this, Saunders provides a representation of the democratic process itself, in which a diverse set of people seek to inform the decisions of an appointed official by uniting to express a common will. Moreover, this takes place in a moment when the democratic process has all but broken down in the real world, with the Civil War being the ultimate manifestation of division and disagreement. As such, Saunders juxtaposes the Bardo-dwellers’ spirit of unity with America’s political discord, thereby showing readers what true democracy might look like.
When they come together inside Lincoln’s body, the Bardo-dwellers are astonished by the effect the process has on them. As they endeavor to “harness” the “mass power” of their collective thoughts, they delight in their togetherness. “What a pleasure,” Bevins rejoices. “What a pleasure it was, being in there. Together. United in common purpose. In there together, yet also within one another, thereby receiving glimpses of one another’s minds, and glimpses, also, of Mr. Lincoln’s mind. How good it felt, doing this together!” As he thinks this, the entire group thinks the same, and feels the same kind of happiness. “My God, what a thing!” exclaims Vollman. “To find oneself thus expanded!” The word “expanded” in this sentence suggests that unity does more than simply help people achieve tangible goals by rallying behind a majority opinion—it also enriches and rewards those who participate in the act of coming together.
Unfortunately, the Bardo-dwellers are unable to influence Lincoln. Instead of turning around to visit his son’s grave once more, he actually speeds up, eager to leave the cemetery. As he does so, the souls exit his body, disappointed to have failed in their mission. At the same time, though, they find that the experience of uniting with one another has renewed them. “We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness,” Bevins says. This sentiment suggests that solitary, individualistic thinking is taxing and inhibiting. Banding together with others, on the other hand, brings a soul to its “natural fullness.”
Although the Bardo-dwellers aren’t able to convince Lincoln to turn around, they still benefit from their collective effort. In this way, Saunders shows that the act of coming together is worthwhile even when doing so doesn’t result in a tangible victory. Unification puts people in the position to interact with one another in ways that ultimately “expand” their own lives, an idea easily applied to Lincoln’s effort to bring the nation together during the Civil War. By endeavoring to keep the South from seceding, the president strives for a national togetherness that will not only benefit the Union, but also individuals throughout the country.
Unity Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo
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.
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?
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.
And though that mass co-habitation had jarred much loose from me (a nagging, hazy mental cloud of details from my life now hung about me: names, faces, mysterious foyers, the smells of long-ago meals; carpet patterns from I knew not what house, distinctive pieces of cutlery, a toy horse with one ear missing, the realization that my wife’s name had been Emily), it had not delivered the essential truth I sought, as to why I had been damned. I halted on the trail, lagging behind, desperate to bring that cloud into focus and recall who I had been, and what evil I had done, but was not successful in this, and then had to hurry to catch my friends up.
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.