Review: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ weaves history into a tale of grief

by Mia Nelson | 4/9/19 2:06am

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders is a luminary novel depicting a single night of grief. Set in a graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, is buried, the story follows Lincoln’s visits to the tomb where several ghosts discuss their lives and their deaths. The novel is narrated by these ghosts who all occupy a purgatory-like existence called, after the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, “the bardo.” The ghosts in the bardo have all decided to stay between the living and the dead for a host of reasons. For instance, one of them, a preacher, knows he will go to hell if he leaves the bardo. The most common reason for staying, however, is that most of the ghosts are convinced that they are simply “sick” and set to eventually return to the realm of the living. For Willie, the choice between leaving for heaven or staying in the bardo is only complicated by his father’s return to his tomb. While the other ghosts try to convince Willie to leave — for the bardo is a complicated place where the young often go crazy — he desires nothing more than to stay with his father.

Though the story is simple, Saunders weaves truth and fiction together to create an atmosphere that depicts history as nothing more than a series of unreliable ghost stories. While no formal dialogue from Lincoln exists in the book, his character in the novel is stitched together by various fictive testimonials that are often in contradiction with one another. For example, a description that states “none of his pictures do him the slightest justice” is followed immediately by a different source who claims that Lincoln was “the ugliest man I ever saw.” This very pattern of assertion and doubt is recreated throughout the novel as newspapers and servants argue over Lincoln’s appearance, his reaction to Willie’s death, his culpability in the episode and finally, his position as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War.

One of the book’s most poignant chapters is pieced together by the ghosts of soldiers who died in the Civil War. The soldiers alternate between cursing Lincoln to cursing war, cursing weapons or simply begging to go back home. This chapter, which occurs in the middle of Lincoln’s grieving of Willie, helps to remind the reader of the concentric circles of sorrow in his life; the smallest being Lincoln’s personal grief for his son and the largest being the nation’s great loss during the Civil War. Before this chapter, Saunders had evaded writing about the Civil War and I had assumed that the book would eschew it entirely, focusing more on Lincoln’s personal life. However, by reminding the reader of the great burdens of his presidency, we are able to fully grasp how horrible it must have been to lose a source of joy — his child. As we feel deeply for Lincoln’s loss, we are reminded of all of the fathers who lost their sons simultaneously to war. In fact, I would venture to say that Saunders is attempting to parallel the loss of Willie to a loss of innocence throughout the whole nation. 

A question asked by a fictive source in the book reads, “Why, some asked, was a child riding a pony about in the pouring rain, without a coat?” This question seems to imply that Lincoln’s lack of supervision over Willie is what caused the sickness that killed him. This accusation is almost analogous to the argument that Lincoln did not watch the nation carefully enough, and thus let the nation corrode. In both circumstances, Saunders is arguing, Lincoln should have known better. 

Nonetheless, this novel, despite its focus on historical figures and events, can still be boiled down to a story of loss. Reading its masterful prose encourages a reconciliation with the reader’s own grief. By creating a world of ghosts, Saunders briefly gives us hope that our loved ones who have passed live on in the same shadow realm where Willie Lincoln lives. But then, Saunders dashes that hope by imbuing that realm with the same sadness and disbelief we have in our world of the living. In the bardo, the ghosts are melancholy, longing and petty. Yet, they have no chance at redemption as we do while being alive: They do not get to see spring unfold, read books or breathe fresh air. This is why “Lincoln in the Bardo” goes beyond beauty — it is also a realization that our brief time on earth is precious.