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 such treatment. Racking his brain, he finds himself unable to pinpoint the vice that cost him admission to heaven. In doing so, however, he does succeed in recognizing a number of flaws in himself. Similarly, when President Lincoln considers whether or not to forge ahead with the Civil War, he realizes that his decision to embark upon such a bloody battle encompasses both a virtuous concern for humankind (namely, the belief that slavery should be abolished) and a morally troubling resolution that those who support slavery must surrender or die. Through these two characters, then, Saunders suggests that humans are complex beings capable of embodying both virtue and vice. At the same time, though, the Reverend and Lincoln both examine their own shortcomings instead of ignoring them, which Saunders suggests makes them virtuous characters despite their moral failures.
When the Reverend Everly Thomas dies after a lifetime of priesthood, he arrives at a large diamond door, where he receives judgment from a “Christ-emissary.” Much to his dismay, this judgment is quite damning, and just before the doors of hell open for him, he turns and runs away, eventually reaching the Bardo. As he flees, a being whispers in his ear that he mustn’t tell anybody what he’s seen, or else his judgment will be even harsher upon his return—a statement implying that his return is inevitable. Determined to wait for eternity in the Bardo, the Reverend desperately tries to piece together why he’s been damned, reflecting “I did not kill, steal, abuse, deceive; was not an adulterer, always tried to be charitable and just […]. And yet was damned. Was it my (occasional) period of doubt? Was it that I sometimes lusted? Was it my pride, when I had resisted my lust? […] Was it some sin so far beyond my ability to comprehend it that even now I remain unaware of it, ready to commit it again?” He concludes that he can’t know. The Reverend’s utter confusion underlines the fact that humans aren’t always capable of articulating their own vices. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the Reverend doesn’t simply push the matter from his mind and assume that the Christ-emissary has made a mistake. Instead, he examines his various shortcomings, admitting to himself that he has not led a perfect life despite the fact that he always tried to remain pious. This, Saunders insinuates, is all there is to do, since vice is seemingly unavoidable—after all, if even a well-behaved, lifelong reverend has earned damnation, it stands to reason that most people have serious vices of their own as well. Rather than providing a singular reason why the Reverend doesn’t make it into heaven, Saunders lets the ambiguity sit with readers, thereby emulating the complex way virtue and vice coexist within a single person.
Like the Reverend, President Lincoln can’t deny his own failures, shortcomings, and immoral actions. His sins, though, are more tangible. Indeed, as he grieves over the loss of his son, he can’t deny the fact that he—as the leader of the Union during the Civil War—has caused many people to die. “He is just one,” he thinks, referring to Willie. “And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys.” In this moment, Lincoln can’t avoid the truth, which is that he is responsible for more than three thousand deaths—a fact that is hardly virtuous. However, he also knows that there’s a reason why he’s fighting this war: after all, if the Union doesn’t stop the South from seceding, then slavery will continue, thereby elongating a humanitarian crisis of genocidal proportions. Because of this, Lincoln’s otherwise indefensible support of violence and murder takes on a righteous quality. In turn, Lincoln himself comes to represent a clash of vice and virtue, a dynamic he recognizes while mourning Willie’s death. As he thinks about the grief he feels, he realizes that he has brought this same hardship upon many parents, but he also remembers that he’s doing so for an admirable reason. “Did the thing merit it,” he asks himself. “Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?” Asking himself this question, President Lincoln determines that he must “not be ruined” by his grief and indecision and feelings of guilt. Rather, he “must go on” with the bloody Civil War, since so many people have already died for the cause. By examining and weighing the vices and virtues related to his decisions, then, Lincoln finds a way to move forward with the war more surefootedly than before, suggesting that the best way to handle one’s own vices is to acknowledge them and act with an awareness that they are there.
In keeping with Saunders’s suggestion that people should examine their vices, the only souls in Lincoln in the Bardo who are portrayed as decidedly evil are the hell-beings who refuse to examine their sins. Indeed, the Reverend encounters this moral apathy when he listens to these condemned beings, who are physically embedded in the tendrils that wrap around Willie Lincoln, binding him to the Bardo and robbing him of his youthful “light.” These souls explain that they’re in hell, but they reject the idea that they deserve their punishment. For example, one of them—who’s in hell for killing her husband—says, “Was I born with just those predispositions and desires that would lead me, after my whole preceding life (during which I had killed exactly no one), to do just that thing? I was. Was that my doing? Was that fair? Did I ask to be born licentious, greedy, slightly misanthropic, and to find [my husband] so irritating? I did not. But there I was.” After she says this, her fellow hell-dwellers agree that they’ve all been “predisposed” toward evil, ultimately attempting to downplay their own agency and, thus, their culpability for whatever heinous things they have done. As they do so, readers see that the behavior of these souls stands in stark contrast to Lincoln and the Reverend, who periodically probe their own characters to uncover their vices and consider the ways they’ve failed to be virtuous.
As the Reverend hears these condemned souls blame their vices on their “predispositions,” he finds himself disgusted by their refusal to take responsibility for their own actions. “To be grouped with these, accepting one’s sins so passively, even proudly, with no trace of repentance?” he laments. “I could not bear it.” Humans, he seems to understand in this moment, are full of contradictions: good and bad, virtue and vice, morality and immorality. To consider “one’s sins so passively” without taking any responsibility for them is, in his eyes, the ultimate failure. Though he himself has perhaps failed to lead a fully virtuous life, he acknowledges and repents of his sins. Finally, then, he decides to own up to whatever judgment awaits him, for at least this means he won’t be like the hell-dwellers. He scoops up Willie Lincoln and dashes away from the evil tendrils. When the tendrils catch up to him and wrap around his body—securing him to the earth—he decides to move on from the Bardo to return to the gate of his final judgment, knowing that when he does this a “matterlightblooming” ray will shoot down and take him away and, in the process, momentarily eviscerate the tendril. His courage and resolve in this moment clearly stems from his own refusal to be like the hell-dwellers, who deny the depravity of their sins. Unlike them, he acknowledges that he’s comprised of both virtue and vice, and this consideration leads him to action. In the same way that President Lincoln’s internal debate regarding the morality of his wartime actions enables him to proceed with the Civil War with a clear resolve, the Reverend’s soul-searching regarding his own sins ultimately inspires him to move on with a new sense of resolution. In turn, Saunders implies that acting morally sometimes means embracing the fact that humans contain both virtue and vice—and that perhaps the greatest vice is the inability to acknowledge one’s own flaws, while repenting may even bring redemption.
Vice and Virtue ThemeTracker
Vice and Virtue Quotes in Lincoln in the Bardo
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
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.
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.
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?
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—
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.
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.
Whatever my sin, it must, I felt (I prayed), be small, compared to the sins of these. And yet, I was of their ilk. Was I not? When I went, it seemed, it would be to join them.
As I had many times preached, our Lord is a fearsome Lord, and mysterious, and will not be predicted, but judges as He sees fit, and we are but as lambs to Him, whom He regards with neither affection or malice; some go to the slaughter, while others are released to the meadow, by His whim, according to a standard we are too lowly to discern.
It is only for us to accept; accept His judgment, and our punishment.
But, as applied to me, this teaching did not satisfy.
And oh, I was sick, sick at heart.
We were as we were! the bass lisper barked. How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment.
By Fate, by Destiny, said the Vermonter.
By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do, the bass lisper said.
And then are cruelly punished for it, said the woman.
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.