Empathy in Sorrow, Freedom in Truth: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Here’s a look at George Saunders’ new and acclaimed book, Lincoln in the Bardo (appropriately released just […]

Mockingbird / 3.2.17

Here’s a look at George Saunders’ new and acclaimed book, Lincoln in the Bardo (appropriately released just in time for these days of Lenten journey). This review was written by Ethan Richardson & CJ Green.

…As in the land of darkness, yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death,
And buried; but, O yet more miserable!
Myself my sepulchre, a moving grave.

— Milton, Samson Agonistes

The first two pages of Lincoln in the Bardo detail a charming, Beauty-and-the-Beast kind of love story, albeit in a very George Saunders style: an older, overweight, lame-legged, toothless printer, a beautiful and young woman, their arranged marriage. The printer, whose shame at himself and respect for the young woman lead him to surrender the “marriage bed” for a lifelong friendship, slowly warms his bride to the intimacy he could only have dreamt of. But, then, at the almost providentially worst possible moment, a steel beam falls on him at work, and the intimacy so patiently longed for, so often thought impossible, is torn from him by his death.

Not that he knows he’s dead, but still. This is Hans Vollman, one of our central narrators in the story (one of the 150-plus voices we hear throughout the novel), and the reader’s first blush with the Georgetown Cemetery (called Oak Hill Cemetery) where the near-entirety of the novel is set. More than that, the thwarted-love story is also a chance to set the thematic scene of the novel’s many thwarted lovers; it is an absurd entrée to the kind of afterlife Saunders is imagining.

And what an afterlife it is! Hundreds of the dead “run-skimming” around the cemetery grounds at night, not spooking and haunting, but haunted; not transfigured in any noteworthy way, but instead returning to the same tired thinking they’ve always known. If they are transfigured at all, they are disfigured all the more by their own neuroses. All of this, in a way that is characteristic of Saunders’ comedic love for the absurd, shows a flock of dead people who are determined to ignore the fact that they are dead. Their coffins are “sick-boxes.” Their decaying bodies are their “sick-forms.” Their lengthy stay in the cemetery is merely their time to “properly recover.”

The trivial pursuits of righteousness (and control) also continue to fester in the graveyard. An overbearing mother overbore by three gelatinous orbs, each of them one of her daughters, getting on without her; a bloodthirsty hunter, Trevor Williams, now sitting alongside a pile of the dead animals he killed in his lifetime, now forced to pet them and love them, one by one, in accordance with how much he made them suffer. There’s Percival “Dash” Collier, perpetually stressed about his multiple houses and fine possessions and who’s taking care of them:

Proceeding here for a more prolonged rest, only to find it not restful at all, since, while ostensibly resting, one finds oneself continually fretting about one’s carriages, gardens, furniture, home, et al., all of which (one hopes) patiently await one’s return, not having (Heaven forfend) fallen into the hands of some (reckless, careless, undeserving) Other.

There’s Mr. DeCroix and Professor Bloomer, whose fragile egos have become “conjoined at the hip from their many years of mutual flattery”:

In my time, I made many discoveries previously unknown in the scientific pantheon, for which I was never properly credited. Have I mentioned how dull my peers were? My research dwarfed theirs in importance. Yet they believed their research dwarfed mine. I was regarded by them a minor figure. When I knew very well I was quite major. I produced eighteen distinct brilliant tomes, each breaking entirely new ground on such topics as—

Many apologies.

I find myself temporarily unable to recall my exact area of study…

professor edmund bloomer


There, there. Do you know what became of my pickle factory? Not to change the subject? It stands. Of that, at least, I am proud. Although pickles are no longer made there. It is now some sort of boat-building establishment. And the name of DeCroix Pickles has been all but—

lawrence t. decroix


So unfair! My work, my ground-breaking work, went up in a cloud of—

 professor edmund bloomer

And so on. The ratrace, the fretting for approval, continues pathetically beyond the grave. There is a scene where Abe Lincoln returns to his son’s tomb and, while there, the entire ghoulish mass of the cemetery seems to surround him. (Lincoln doesn’t know this, of course.) All of them are droning on and on about the misfortunes they happened upon, the lives they could have lived had they not been so victimized, the terrible things they did (and may have even enjoyed). Two of them drop through the ceiling to get even closer—it is a bizzarro “healing of the paralytic” rendition.

I wonder what Saunders is getting at here. The irony is not how “alive” these dead people are. It how similar we are to these dead people. Like Jesus calling out the “whitewashed tombs,” we are the dead, waking and sleeping, but always trapped in our circuitous thinking and self-righteousness and denial.

So how does one get free? How does one elude the trap of being the living dead? Of being constantly fixated on your Pickle Factory? Well, for Saunders, you get free by calling a thing what it is. In short, by suffering. It is not until Abraham Lincoln has suffered the loss of his son that is able to actually see the Civil War for what it is. Accepting the loss of Willie—affirming that his body is a dead body—allows Lincoln to intimately understand the massive scope and travail of all the dead sons in the war.

Saunders recently commented on Lincoln’s character arc for The New York Times’ book review:

What moved me about Lincoln’s arc during his presidency…was the way that the burdens of the office — the floundering war effort, intense public criticism, the mistakes he made that were costing so many lives, the death of his son — beat him down and made him sorrowful, but also, almost causally, seemed to expand the reach of his empathy, so that, by the end, it included soldiers on both sides and the millions of Americans being enslaved by other Americans. It seemed to me that the empathy was somehow a byproduct of the sorrow — a burning-away of his hopes and dreams that resulted in a kind of naked seeing of things as they really were. For me, the book was about that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end. What do we do with that? How can we keep going and live positive lives under that shadow? I came to understand Lincoln as someone so beat down by sadness and loss that he developed a sort of crazy wisdom — as if, in sadness, all of the comforting bromides that normally keep us from the harsher truths were denied him. Empathy might even thrive best in this state, where the easy comforts are denied us. Conversely, empathy doesn’t do well in a climate of fear or anxiety, when one forgets the particular and individual and, in a panic, begins theorizing about whole groups of people without knowing many of them.

Let it be known, then, that in this story we get to know many of them. With an audiobook that boasts a whopping 166-person cast (and what a cast it is!), Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds according to the alternating monologues of the ghosts recounting their life stories. It is through their winding, self-reflective narratives that we get peeks into the real-time development of Lincoln’s own story as it transpires in the cemetery. The story becomes less about Lincoln, however, and more about the ghosts themselves as they sift through their grudges and grievances, turning over and over their memories and searching the components of them.

It quickly becomes evident that the stories the ghosts tell themselves (about themselves) — though all-consuming — are incomplete, somehow shortsighted — or even entirely blind. They cannot see things as they are. In one particularly moving scene, a fleet of [what the Reverend perceives as] angels enters the graveyard and attempts to coax the ghosts out of it, into the great Unknown. Trying to reveal to Hans Vollman his denial of death, one angel asks, “Are you so honest regarding your own situation?”

Saunders is showing us that the stories we tell ourselves cannot bear the full truth. In this sense, dialogue is critical: we need someone else to tell our stories for us. And thus you have Saunders’ groundbreaking — but initially perplexing — narrative structure wherein historical snippets (some true, many fictionalized) interact with the ghostly monologues, and the ghostly monologues interact with each other.

One of the earliest, most outspoken professors of “dialogue” was the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote that “I cannot manage without another, I cannot become myself without another…recognition cannot be self-recognition. I receive my name from others, and it exists for others (self-nomination is imposture).” Appropriating Bakhtin’s study of dialogue into what she calls a “dialogic theology,” Carleen Mandolfo discusses a similar means of reading the Bible that focuses on the interactions between the books and the books’ various speakers. This, from her thesis, Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets:

The Bible’s authority for me rests in its ability to mirror the diversity and complexity of human existence. It brings together in one book voices with, at the most extreme, diametrically opposed worldviews. And the books it contains do not come with headers cautioning that this particular voice should be censured, and that voice embraced (128).

Dialogic structures make the mountains low. Though conflict is inevitable, the disenfranchised speak up alongside the empowered, the dead along with the living.

When the ghosts tell their stories, it is hard to know exactly what is true and what is romanticized; and although the certainty of “facts” is lost to the wind, Saunders nevertheless wants us to listen to his characters. There is yet something about their dialogue which, though skewed, is still worth hearing.

Empathy, not problem-solving, is the thing that Saunders attempts to create in his readers—that very same empathy which was expanded in Lincoln over the course of his lifetime. The conflicts facing Saunders’ cast of haunted ghosts aren’t resolved in the classic ways—rescuing Peach, fighting Hook, escaping Wonderland, etc… In the graveyard, there is one ultimate enemy. And it renders the living helpless: “The President could only stand and watch, eyes wide, having no power at all in this new-arrived and brutal realm.” The leader of the free world — arguably the most powerful living man — is at a loss, as we all are, when it comes to that “last enemy,” Death (1 Cor 15:26; HP7).

Confronted with the deep sorrow of this ultimate enemy, our only remaining tool against it is empathy, the least tooly of tools, the least productive and most left-handed. Mandolfo explains that dialogic theology illuminates for us an empathetic God, one who listens to our stories, no matter how self-justifying, self-orienting, or self-aggrandizing they may be:

A thoroughly mutable god in this context is not a ‘bad’ god, it is a necessary god. We need a god who models listening and openness to change…I am not championing a willy-nilly morality based on a “relativistic” god, or god as mere project. Rather, a fully relational god can be a god that resists reductive pressures, while still forcing us to admit we have no stable moral ground on which to stand (22).

And it’s true: though we’ve compromised our moral ground, still, God listens to us. He is close to the broken-hearted, to the ghosts who cannot let go of the confusion and pain that they have taken with them into the graveyard. Christ demonstrated his love for us by coming down to our level, as God with us. Still —

Though we have the freedom to speak, our stories cannot save us. One of the most moving examples of this comes from a character named Litzie, a slave ghost, whose life of injustice renders her unable, or unwilling, to speak in the graveyard: after a pivotal moment, she is set free (more on this below), and she finds her voice just in time to give it up again: “Sad though,” she says. “I’d only just gotten my voice back, and now it was time to leave.” Saunders is suggesting that our voices are not the critical endgame; rather, they are just another thing to give up to death. Though he gives voice to the most chatty of characters — gives them space to speak, to express themselves — it is clear that their stories and self-expression cannot do for them what they most need: get them out of the graveyard, back to reality. They are still ultimately in the bardo—lost in the drift of their own selves, the selves they wish they were, in denial of the selves they truly are.

What a dialogic theology is in danger of missing is that God himself is both a listener and a proclaimer: a wounded healer, a rescuer.

And so a proclamation is necessary. Without giving too much away, the ghosts (Willie included) need to be confronted with the truth that they are, well, you know, dead. There are several uninhabited graves in the cemetery, ones whose ghosts have already gone off to their afterlife by way of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” We are left to imply that these people were released when they died. The characters we hear speak, then, are those who have for years/centuries denied it. And from their perspective, those who surrendered to the afterlife were cowards. Unwilling to stick it out and wait to get better. (The irony here is evident.) All of this changes when Willie, in one final, uh, exchange, with his father — realizes that he died.

Saunders doesn’t paint any grandiose afterlife picture — there’s no theology to speak of. But he does show us how liberating it is to finally let go of a lie about yourself. Willie’s discovery that he is dead is such a relief to him (“I knew something was off with me!”), that he can’t help but share it with his companions in the cemetery.

He was hopping with joy now, like a toddler too full of water.

Look, join me, he said. Everyone! Why stay? There’s nothing to it. We’re done. Don’t you see?

This proclamation, in fact, is President Lincoln’s proclamation. And while the sadness would never leave him (Willie’s remains were eventually moved with President Lincoln after his assassination, to Illinois), it is the truth which set them free. Vollman and Bevins III (another of our key narrators) describe Abe’s departure from the cemetery that day:

He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished.

roger bevins iii


Ready to believe anything of this world.

hans vollman


Made less rigidly himself through this loss.

roger bevins iii


Therefore quite powerful.

hans vollman


Reduced, ruined, remade.

roger bevins iii


PS (Stray observations):

  • There is a magnificent scene in which the ghosts — needing Lincoln to return to the graveyard in order to save his son’s soul — pile into Lincoln’s body as he is walking away from the grave. They are all in him together, urging him to return, trying to change his mind. Uniting, for a moment, for this common cause, they become buoyant, joyful because of it. They become more like themselves — happier, more humanlike, more beautiful. Ultimately, however, they remain unable to change Lincoln’s mind, and he continues walking. Discouraged, the ghosts tumble out of his body. After this, the unresolved situation feels only more desperate.
  • Saunders is so good at making his absurdities say something about human life as it really is. But he’s just as good at simply injecting absurdity for the sheer fun of it. Upon “inhabiting Lincoln,” the ghosts realize, not only is Lincoln the President, but they have been dead for a very long time indeed. But what is more impressive is that theaters are now lit with gaslight: “The facial expressions of the actors are seen most clearly”… “Allowing for an entirely new level of realism in the performance.”
  • Great line: “Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true” (304).
  • On the judgment of Reverend Everly Thomas: it’s never made clear why he seems to be damned, or if, in the end, he receives a different answer. But I think there’s something in the fact that as he’s conversing with the “demonic” ghosts, the remains of the most sinful of sinners, he realizes that he is no better than they: “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.” After valiantly attempting to save Willie (an exhilarating scene!), the Reverend fails and then moves on, out of the graveyard — is his failure and consequent surrender enough to change his fate?
  • What Saunders does so beautifully is create an unadaptable world, one that we can feel emotion about but can’t necessarily picture; it is fingerprints of a place beyond our wildest imaginations. But the ghosts in the graveyard long to have the worlds in their imaginations vindicated; they are not willing to leave that world behind and fall into something totally new. The world of Lincoln in the Bardo is bizarre, impossible to fully see, yet totally sensory (“the truth is stranger than all my dreams”); cf. Revelation (the beast “rose up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” Rev 13:1). This lack of concreteness challenges us to accept death fully by emphasizing the end of everything; that into the afterlife we can take with us nothing that we hold tightly to. “Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now must lose them” (335).
  • Elson, one of the slave-ghosts who received a life riddled with injustice, is in the end unwilling to leave the world behind. Though he knows he is dead, he will not allow himself to be ushered into this new place where his life — and the injustices of it — are trifles of the past. He passionately defends his position: “If such things as goodness and brotherhood and redemption exist, and may be attained, these must sometimes require blood, vengeance, the squirming terror of the former perpetrator, the vanquishing of the heartless oppressor. I intend to stay. Here. Until I have had my revenge. Upon someone.” It’s heartwrenching and totally unjudgable. It’s reminiscent of certain scenes in 12 Years a Slave, when the only comfort to the oppressed is the divine punishment of their oppressors, when forgiveness is unspeakable. Leave the world? Leave behind the scars without seeing the punishers punished? It’s a sad moment, the sadness only compounded as the other ghosts around him — even the former slaves — are set free from the stakes that have kept them tied to the graveyard; and with a “lightning-crack” they are ushered away (314).
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