Behind the Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier lincoln in the bardo.jpgthis year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)

Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:

  1. Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
  2. Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
  3. Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
  4. Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
  5. Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
  6. Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo

Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.

willie lincoln

Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)

A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.

Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.


Additional Reading:

Behind the Title: Why The Sound and the Fury?


As you have probably noticed, I have been slowly making my way through The Sound and the Fury on the blog. It has been a tedious and slow slog through the book, in the best of ways. It’s the very first Faulkner book I’ve read. I’ve only read his short stories in the past, which have been much more manageable.  I have been reading all of the tips and hints about how to read Faulkner that I can get my hands on, and I think I might be sharing some of those tips with you soon. Today I wanted to think a little more about the meaning behind the title of the book.

Do you usually have an “Aha!” moment when you are reading a book, when all of a sudden you’ve connected all the dots and understand how the title of the book was chosen? Sometimes the author uses the phrase in the book (see: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr) or introduces an elaborate metaphor that the entire book can rest on (see: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer). Unfortunately, Faulkner didn’t clue me in that easily. After some quick searching online, I learned that The Sound and the Fury was inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene v)

The more I’ve thought about it, the more fitting this passage is to set the scene for The Sound and the Fury.

  • The Sound and the Fury opens with Benjy telling us the story of the Compsons when he was younger. Benjy is mentally disabled, literally full of sound and fury because he is unable to communicate through speech.
  • This passage reminded me of Dilsey in the fourth section. Dilsey is convinced that she has seen the end of the Compson family, and repeats throughout the section that she’s seen the first and the last of the Compsons.

“I’ve seed de first en de last,” Dilsey said. “Never you mind me.”
“First en last whut?” Frony said.
“Never you mind,” Dilsey said. “I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin.”

  • Although I’ve never read Macbeth, I know that Macbeth is a tragedy about the rise and fall of Macbeth and his family. If you, unlike me, got the Shakespeare reference before starting the book, you would have known that Faulkner’s book is also a tragedy.
  • Finally, I’ve read some essays online that argue that Quentin’s mania in section 2 of the book mirror Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act V. I’ll have to read the play myself before I can see what I think, but I thought this might be an interesting tidbit to point out.

Have you read The Sound and the Fury? What did you think?