“Lincoln in Bardo” begins with the description of a grand state dinner given at the White House by President Lincoln. This is a magnificent celebration that takes place surrounded by death and suffering. It takes place in February 1862 – the time of the first mass causalities of the American civil war. It takes place in the White House while upstairs, the president’s son Willie Lincoln is entering a crisis in his case of typhoid fever from which he will die. This is the theme of this novel. Why is the world indifferent to the suffering of the people within it? If there is a god and that god can show personal mercy, how can such suffering be explained? How can a consistent moral structure be created that allow for this? Why and how can Lincoln by emotionally crippled with grief for the death of his son and yet dispassionately direct a battle that has resulted in the deaths of several thousand young men
This is the question that afflicts Lincoln and the ghosts in this novel? Can a purpose be found in the world? One ghost, the Reverend Everly Thomas, believes that he is damned to hell for all eternity. He knows not why. He scans his life but cannot find a sin that would explain his damnation. He recalls scripture in which Jesus explains that there are things that humans cannot understand while in life but will have explained to them in the afterlife. Lincoln pondering the cruelty of the war and his son’s early and painful death concludes that there is no personal god with concern for the individual but an impersonal imperative that must be worked out indifferently to cruelty.
The answer proposed by the novel is that the answer to the universe’s indifference to us must come from within us and between us. Compassion is created by us collectively. It is the efforts of the ghosts to save the child, Willie, from being trapped forever in the graveyard that gives them purpose and release. Compassion comes from within them and from their cooperation.