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Final Essay on Abraham Lincoln in the Bardo

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Refusing to leave the only world they know, spirits are unable to move on through the Bardo to the next step in the cycle of life, creating a recurring theme of the desire for immortality tainting reality in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. They are held back by their regrets of things they left undone in life or wishes to remain with their loved ones, not realizing that they are dead and that there is no way to go back to their lives.

The desire for immortality paints the storyline of Lincoln in the Bardo. The spirits have left things undone back in the living world, and they hope to return, so they delude themselves, believing that they are simply ill, and not truly dead. They use softer terms to underplay their unpleasant conditions. The coffin is a “sick-box” (Saunders 5), the hearse is a “sick-cart” (Saunders 6), and dead bodies are simply “sick-form[s]” (Saunders 58). Being dead makes one “unlovable” (Saunders 70), and the ghosts of Oak Lawn Cemetery yearn for love more than anything. When Willie Lincoln arrives in the Bardo and his father, Abraham Lincoln, visits his grave to hold his lifeless body, the other souls in the Bardo are shocked. This creates the hope that their loved ones will come back for them, too, allowing them to reunite and go back to that life with them. “To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still—Healthy. As if one were still worthy of affection and respect? It was cheering. It gave us hope. We were perhaps not so unloveable as we had come to believe” (Saunders 70), Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman, and the Reverend Everly Thomas say. They continue to hope that their current state is only temporary and that they can go back to the world and remain immortal. This is the understanding and mindset of the souls in the Bardo for the majority of the book until this hope is taken away from them by Willie’s revelation on their condition.

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After Willie realized that he was dead through hearing his father say it himself, he turned to the Bardo-dwellers and told them “May I tell you something?…You are not sick…There is a name for what ails us…Do you not know it? Do you really not know it?…Dead…Everyone, we are dead!” (Saunders 195-196). Suddenly, the matterlightblooming phenomenon occurred, and those who succeed are transported into the next realm. This clears the shocked souls of their desire to stay behind. The souls are unintelligent, and their fear of “leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world” (Saunders 140) takes on an unrealistic magnificence, as even after Willie’s claims, many continue to refuse the truth. But little by little, more are able to move on through matterlightblooming. However, some continue to remain in the Bardo to await those who are still alive in joining them, that desire for immortality remaining, even in the slightest. Although they have accepted that they cannot be immortal, they still linger because of their attachment to the living world. The Bardo is a place of unfinished business, nostalgic longing, and hope for interaction with the living.

These souls refuse to admit that they have died, instead insisting that they’re merely recovering. This represents a human quality in the souls: the fear and hostility to the fact that life is impermanent. Instead of accepting that life eventually ends, they create ways of fooling themselves into believing that they will soon return to the lives they once led. President Lincoln himself realizes that he has been ignorant towards life’s impermanence, thinking that he would be with Willie forever. Saunders shows this as an unrealistic belief, and implies that change and impermanence are what make up human life. By presenting a lack of change as unnatural for humans, he suggests that people should appreciate life by understanding that it is a gift whose value is increased by its impermanence, not lessened. Saunders emphasizes that the time we have should not be taken for granted because we never know when it will be taken from us, so we should do our best to not have regrets and to express our love before it is too late. But even if we are unsuccessful at this, we should not dwell on it and should realize that everything happens for a reason.

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Final Essay on Abraham Lincoln in the Bardo. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from
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