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Literature / Lincoln in the Bardo

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Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel written by George Saunders and released February 14, 2017. After a long career comprising exclusively short stories and novellas, it is his first full novel. Abraham Lincoln's son Willie dies and finds himself in the titular "bardo", an intermediate plane between death and the next life that is supposed to be temporary, but where people with unresolved issues and untold secrets linger, often for years.


This book contains the following tropes:

  • Adult Fear: President Lincoln is overwhelmed by the idea of having to live life without his son's love after having experienced it.
  • Artistic License – Religion: Deliberately invoked. Though the bardo is a Tibetan Buddhist concept, it is followed by a Christian judgment phase, and also features Egyptian elements. Saunders says he did this to avoid being "too literal".
  • Because Destiny Says So: How the demons who work to encase Willie in a granite carapace feel about their fates. They passively accept that they always had the capacity to do the horrible things they did in life and that their entire lives were set up to lead up to their horrible acts, and now just want to do their jobs without resistance.
  • Break the Cutie: The dismal nature of the bardo begins to affect Willie's sunny, gentlemanly disposition and make him lose hope.
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  • But Thou Must!: Double subversion. The Reverend Everly Thomas, faced with an unspeakably horrific fate that he has no idea what he did (or didn't do) to earn, runs away from it. However, he is warned that because he fled, his punishment will be even worse upon his return, and that all who reside in the bardo do so temporarily and must eventually face their ultimate judgment.
  • Crapsack World: The bardo.
  • Dead to Begin With: Everyone in the bardo, though no one except the Reverend realizes it. Some toy with the idea, but reject it, thinking their recovery imminent.
  • Failure Knight: Hans, Roger, and the Reverend want to help Willie leave the bardo because they know from past experience with their failure to help Ellie Traynor that children are particularly ill-suited to extended stays there.
  • Gag Penis: Hans Vollman possesses a rather large member.
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  • Greek Chorus: Hans, Roger, and the Reverend Everly Thomas, mainly, with occasional interjections from others.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: It's implied that Lieutenant Cecil Stone and Elson Farwell will continue to fight forever—Stone consumed by his hatred of black people, Farwell by his desire for vengeance on whites.
  • Historical Fiction: Insofar as it takes place during the Civil War and Abraham and Willie Lincoln were real people. Aside from that...
  • Involuntary Shapeshifter: Many people in the bardo will change shape or acquire new extremities when experiencing extreme or volatile emotions; Roger Bevins III, for example, grows multiple hands, eyes, ears, and noses when consumed by reverie.
  • "Leave Your Quest" Test: Essentially what the demons subject the inhabitants of the bardo to. Inhabitants of the bardo are occasionally bombarded by demons that try to tempt them into proceeding to the next plane without resolving the issues that cause them to linger in the current plane. And boy, do they put on the pressure.
  • My Greatest Failure: Within the bardo itself, Hans, Roger, and the Reverend have lasting guilt about not doing more to help Ellie Traynor acclimate and pass through.
    • The Reverend actually doesn't know what his is—only that it must have been really bad. He never figures it out, but eventually accepts that there is no point in delaying his inevitable fate.
  • 108: The number of chapters in the book.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: Played with. Hans and Roger think they can do this, but others argue their successes as anecdotal or coincidental. The people of the bardo can enter the bodies both of the living and each other, but their influence on them is minimal and they don't do them any harm, and the people of the bardo absorb the knowledge, emotions, and motives of the people they enter. This becomes the catalyst for a number of major epiphanies, particularly toward the end of the book.
  • Sir Swearsalot: Eddie and Betsy Baron.
  • Something for Everyone: Most of the demons that try to tempt people into leaving the bardo manifest to their tormentors as close relatives or lovers.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: The whole bardo is basically the Antechamber and the demons are the entrance to what is beyond.

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