George Saunders is an American writer famous for writing short stories, essays, novellas and children’s books. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize in Fiction. Saunders imagines a moment of history and brings it to life in Lincoln in the Bardo. The story revolves around Willie Lincoln’s death who was the son of Abraham Lincoln.
Willie wakes up in the Bardo, a small space between the afterlife and the world. This place gives an option to people to pass to the afterlife or stay where they are. Willie befriends few people and stays on so that he can take birth again with the help of his father. Lincoln then returns to the cemetery to revive something which has been forgotten.
A kind reverend helps Willie in meeting his father. The father and son finally come together and see each other only to understand that Lincoln is no more. Saunders tries to imagine Lincoln’s death by giving it a personal touch. He explores the possibility of the president son’s death which takes a toll on the president’s health and gives motivation that death is welcomed in this possibility.
This is like a balm to a man’s death which was a national tragedy for the country. When Willie is the main hero and the story focuses on him, his plot tries to explain the historical event of his father’s death and humanizes the historical personality after he loses his son. The setting of Bardo emphasizes the necessity for acceptance.
Bardo is the limited space where people who die stay before final submission to death and going to the afterlife. They remain as ghosts in the Bardo. Roger and Hans have been staying in the Bardo for some time as they have failed to accept that they have died. Due to some personal reasons, both of them hold on to their previous lives and choose to stay in between.
Willie on his part thinks that he can bring change in the material world through Bardo which shows his youthful immaturity. He can neither interact with his father nor undo his death but Willie remains in the Bardo as long as possible. The narration of the novel is all about progression but we do not know where the things are leading us to.
Willie is determined to reach his father from the other side but the time is limited according to Hans and Roger. He has to do something before the tendrils tie him up like other visitors in the Bardo. Although he is pressed with time, Willie continues to stay in Bardo as he strongly believes that something will happen.
He is not willing to believe that he will be staying here forever. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, has a superstition that something strange has happened after his son died. Willie and Abraham are shocked and relieved to understand that Abraham’s death was the object of threatening sense.
Memory plays a major role in the story as it keeps Willie in the Bardo and makes Abraham return to the cemetery. The common theme of the novel is forgetfulness. If we look at Willie, his memory is stuck at the time before his death. He wakes up thinking that he is alive and has no memory of his death.
This lack of memory is something that makes him not pass into the afterlife as he has not received a closure of his death. He feels in a way that he does not belong to the dead. Abraham’s memory is filled with his son well and alive.
He is filled with grief and is entrapped in the happy memories of his son. He returns to the cemetery because he thinks that he has left something there. It is doubtful to understand whether Hans and Roger affect him or not. The western word for Bardo is Limbo. Saunders did not pick the word Limbo for his novel and chose Bardo which is a reference to the Tibetan book of the Dead.
This decision echoes throughout the novel because Willie depends on some events in real life to pass through the afterlife. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s life is passed within the Buddhist folklore frame. Willie meets few people in the Bardo who dies around the time when he died. The two men are guides for him as they know much more about life.
They are a symbol of Willie’s young and tragic death as they are older to him and their death is in a stark contrast to Willie who has died at a tender age of eleven years. They understand the risks of his journey when going to the afterlife and show him the dire need to pass through the Bardo.
Hans and Roger remember a girl who did not get to complete her death journey to the afterlife and was stuck in Bardo for a lifetime. She is the symbol of Willie’s risk in the journey and also contrasts it as Willie can pass through the afterlife but she couldn’t. This contrast is shown via different genders to make the comparison.
There are ghosts, entities, spirits and cemeteries and all have a desire to wake up in the real world. There is a ghostly tone in the novel which provides it with a horror feel. Willie’s journey towards death is said to be tragic and horrifying as well as mind-boggling and gentle. The supernatural element is in its full form in the novel.
Using Abraham Lincoln as a symbol brings a lot of meaning to the novel. This is because he played an important role in American history. His legacy lies in the fact that he freed all the slaves to end the Civil War, but got executed. After Lincoln’s death, the road to Willie’s salvation is clear.
This completely flips the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln on his head as it suggests that he had to depart from the earth to save his son and brings out a Buddhist motive as well as frames a philosophical argument about death, life and strange games of fate. The word coffin is not used throughout the novel because the residents of Bardo think that they are alive.
The term sick box is used instead of a coffin. The sick box is a literary device for the coffin in which all the dead men of Bardo live. The party at Lincoln’s place which is held when Willie is seriously ill is described in depth. All the attendees are described including the Casten sisters who are called flowers which are pure and sculpted as though they are made of alabaster.
A lively band is heard at Lincoln’s party. Willie’s condition is very lonely and desolate as he hears the sound of the band. The device also focuses on the fact that Willie will soon join the spirits far away from him. The moon has been described in a conflicting manner throughout the novel.
At times, it is bright and clear otherwise it is hidden and pale. The moon is personified and humanized and gives close attention to the real world which is shown in the novel throughout. Willie Lincoln has been depicted in the novel favourably which increases the sense of loss after he dies. A character recalls an incident where they passed the White House and bowed when they saw Willie Lincoln.
This shows how diplomatic and mature Willie Lincoln is both in life and death. When Abraham Lincoln visits the cemetery his charm and personality fascinate all the spirits. Lincoln is shown as a rural man who can be related more closely to the summer barn than to the White House.
Willie leaves the dinner table one night as he is feeling ill. After the doctor’s consultation, he is said to be suffering from a cold. When he dies after few hours, everybody around him are shocked. The typhoid effects are so quick in Willie that even the doctors fail to notice it. Abraham like any other grieving parent hugs Willie’s body at the cemetery.
He believes that nothing will happen from this hug because it is a part of normal human psychology. As Willie and his companions see the hug, they feel that Willie might take birth again. The hopeless gesture of the father lends inspiration and hope to the dead son. Hans and Roger want Willie to go to the afterlife as he might not do so later.
It is however surprising that both of them do not go to the afterlife and remain stuck in the Bardo forever. Willie stays in the Bardo hoping to reunite with his father. He tries to form a connection with his father so that they can stay in the real world. The bond is established but the father himself joins his son in the Bardo.
Although the novel is named after Abraham Lincoln, it focuses very little on the president. Willie is the main hero, narrator and important part of the novel. His story becomes the primary part of the novel and pushes Abraham Lincoln’s story to the subplot. The unexpected twist in the title rests upon the fame of Lincoln who has been the former President of the United States.
The pictures of the afterlife are inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist scripture that describes what a soul goes through in the afterlife. The place is titled Bardo where Willie Lincoln finds himself and needs to pass through this passage to go to the afterlife. This image suggests a universal problem as many people die but do not know how to go to the other side which is suggested in Bardo.
The plot is based on the afterlife and death. Therefore, we see that the location in the novel is of the cemetery as it is where a soul’s journey begins. There are some demonic tendrils which torture the soul and makes the possibility of resurrection zero. The spirits of the dead keep on roaming around as ghosts on earth due to this. The image is completed when Abraham Lincoln, Willie’s dad is assassinated and joins him in death.