Why are there so many ghosts in our stories? Why aren’t they resting in peace?
In this year’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders spins an unusual ghost love story—historical fiction that exhumes these questions with pathos and humor.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. The records of his grief are profound. Saunders orients his novel around the day and night of Willie’s interment in a D.C. cemetery and Lincoln’s after-hours visit to hold his son’s dead body—which may or may not have actually happened.
The cemetery contains a wide cast of ghosts. They linger, sometimes for decades, because they don’t believe they are dead. Their denial keeps them in this in-between state (the bardo of the title is a Buddhist term for the state between death and reincarnation) where the ghosts wait for life to finish. Hans Vollman assures himself that he’s merely sick; soon he will recover and consummate his marriage. Roger Bevins III regrets injuring his wrists so violently, but he’s sure someone will find him and revive him soon. These ghosts hope for better things, but the open secret of their death haunts them.
For me, this haunting raised the specter of Ephesians 2:1: “You were dead in your trespasses.” God diagnoses our state as dead, but before we know him, we’re in denial. Yet sometimes our hearts whisper the secret, and it haunts us.
In the novel, the ghosts wait and wait. Their false lives are punctuated only by arrivals and departures. Some who have lingered finally give in to the truth and explode, gone forever. New ghosts join the throng. But one night Lincoln comes, after hours, and shocks them all.
He comes, heart rent and heavy, and holds his boy. The ghosts have never seen anything like it, and their witness of the act becomes a turning point in the story. As one ghost puts it, “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community.” It’s not that people don’t come to the cemetery—they come, but they are disconnected from the dead. If they do touch a corpse, it is roughly—to mock or steal a body. But mostly, they never seek to touch. The ghosts respond:
“But this—this was different.” — Roger Bevins III
“The holding, the lingering, the kind words whispered directly into the ear? My God! My God!” — The Reverend Everly Thomas
“Healthy.” — Hans Vollman
“As if one were still worthy of affection and respect? It was cheering. It gave us hope.” — The Reverend Everly Thomas
“We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.” — Roger Bevins III
Lincoln’s broken father-love doesn’t shrink away from embracing death, even a body in the midst of decay. This broken father-love, the touch of it—even witnessing its touch on another—stirs up the ghosts’ deepest hopes.
I recognized this broken father-love immediately. It’s akin to the love that saved me:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Eph. 2:4–5)
Rescue for Ghosts—and for Us
At its core, this novel holds out a vision of salvation for the ghosts when Willie himself receives broken-father love. It tells him the truth that sets him free from the bardo: that he is dead, but he is still loved. This truth works its way through the cemetery, and Saunders spins a brilliantly human picture of its consequences. In the end, though, he leaves no space for the love to actually vivify. It merely gives the peace needed to let go—surely a blessing in the context of the book.
The gospel story heals the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny—that we deny.
But God’s compassion is so much greater. He is the Father of broken love, the Christ who weeps over death, the Spirit who comes to make alive—to bring new birth. His purposes for us are drenched in affection, soaked in tenderness. This truth sets us free, not to embrace our death but to embrace him, and live.
This novel gave me renewed hope. The gospel story heals the wounds our contemporaries can barely articulate, the wounds they deny—that we deny. We were truly dead, but not beyond the reach of our Father. He did the unthinkable, reaching into death, pulling it right into his chest and defeating it. Raising us in love.
Tell it to yourself, again. Tell it to a friend.