In the Lake of the Woods

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In the Lake of the Woods Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter consists entirely of quotes and statistics related to John. The first is from Ruth Rasmussen, who claims that John and Kathy were like onions: no matter how much one peeled, one found more layers. Vinny Pearson claims that John was deliberately leaving out plenty of information, and wagers that there are bones buried somewhere near the cottage. A classmate of Kathy’s, Deborah Lindquist, says that Kathy knew that John followed her everywhere, since he was very clumsy. Deborah is amazed that Kathy put up with John’s deceptions.
Ruth seems more overtly sympathetic to John than the other characters, but her sympathy isn’t naïve. She recognizes that John and Kathy must be understood together, not separately—unlike other witnesses, such as Tony or Vincent, who prefer to think of John and Kathy one at a time. It’s also in this section that we learn that Kathy knew about John’s habit of stalking her. This is disturbing, because it seems to confirm that Kathy enjoyed John’s manipulations, even when she is their object.
Themes
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Sandra Karra praises John for having “slick hands” and keeping his mouth shut—two invaluable skills for a magician. Pat is quoted as saying, “Forget the dentist!” and accusing the questioner of being “obsessed.” In a footnote, the narrator urges the reader to look ahead to a later footnote.
Here, the narrator first emerges as a character. It’s important to distinguish the narrator from Tim O’Brien the author—they’re two different people, even if they seem to have a great deal in common. The first quality of the narrator we notice is also the most important—obsession.
Themes
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
There is a list of magical terms and their definitions: vanish, a magic trick in which something or someone disappears; transposition, a magic trick in which two objects switch places; casual transportation, a magic trick in which the magician himself disappears; double consummation, a magic trick in which the magician fools the audience by making it believe that the trick is over before it’s actually over. After this glossary, there is a quote from Anton Chekhov, about a man who had two lives, one public, one private.
The glossary of magician’s terms will continue to be important in the remainder of the novel, the principle of double consummation in particular. For the time being, they make us remember that the book itself is a magic trick—a woman has disappeared. Further, fiction in general is a kind of magic trick: the creation of a non-existent world that the reader both never believes in and totally believes and invests in The Chekhov quote is also significant—it reminds us what we already know about John, that he has many secrets, some of which he hides even from his closest friends.
Themes
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
In a court-martial, Paul Meadlo discusses rounding up Vietnamese villagers and claims that they were Vietcong. Richard Thinbill claims that he shot no people in Vietnam, only cows. Eleanor says that she “found” John’s father in the garage, and that she “knew” even before she went in. A biographer of Houdini, Doug Henning, narrates an episode from Houdini’s childhood, in which Houdini’s father took him to see a magician who chopped a man into pieces and then reassembled him. This incident, Henning argues, was an important one in Houdini’s career because it gave him a lifelong interest in death and resurrection.
We learn several important things here. First, the soldiers at My Lai deny their guilt almost without exception—if nothing else, John is no more guilty than any of them. Second, John’s father hanged himself. Finally, this suicide has a major influence on John, because it gave him an interest in transfiguration. While this may be disturbing, it suggests that John’s love for magic could be used to accomplish positive acts, as well as destructive ones—he can call people back to life as well as kill them.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
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Eleanor says that John became more secretive after his father hanged himself. Lawrence Ehlers, John’s gym coach, describes the heartbreaking experience of pulling John out of class on the day John’s father died. Eleanor insists that John’s father was never physically abusive. On the contrary, she says, he was bright and charismatic, even if he had a secret, sad side. In between these quotations about John, there are excerpts from biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, explaining how they went through embarrassing experiences as children that impelled them to succeed and to lie.
O’Brien reiterates the enormous influence that John’s relationship with his father had on his development as a magician and a politican—like many other great politicians, he used his humiliating experiences as a child as a springboard for pursuing popularity and likability, which naturally pushed him to pursue politics. Implied here, again, in the way John fits into this broader pattern of behavior, is just how responsible John is for his choices—this is a question that is never resolved.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Tony Carbo says that John repressed his terrible experiences in Vietnam, to the point where John himself barely remembered them, and no one else, including Kathy and Tony himself, thought they existed. John and Kathy were a happy couple, Tony reports, and their future looked bright. Then, during his Senate run, John’s secrets came out, as all secrets inevitably do during a national campaign. In the end, Tony concludes, John fooled himself.
Tony is more insightful about John than most of the other characters. He recognizes what O’Brien has already made clear: John was adept at fooling others, but he was equally adept at fooling himself, repressing his memories of Vietnam for years and years. John tricked others, but also himself. He was both a victimizer, and a victim.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Eleanor reports that John was yelling at his father’s funeral—she thinks that John never accepted his father’s death, since for years afterwards she heard him having conversations with his father in his bedroom. Richard E. Ellis, author of a book on child development, says that children whose parents die unexpectedly often carry issues of abandonment with them into adulthood. Robert Karen suggests that shame is often acquired at a very young age.
Ellis and Karen provide scientific basis for the idea O’Brien has been floating around for hundreds of pages already: John’s father’s death gave John a sense of guilt that encouraged him to pursue love from other people, whether as a politican or as a husband to Kathy.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Richard Thinbill, at a court-martial, explains that a soldier nicknamed Sorcerer shot an old man “by accident.” The questioners ask Thinbill to remember the soldier’s real name, and Thinbill says that he remembers. Thinbill also says that the ditches near My Lai stunk, and there were flies everywhere. At night, the flies glowed in the dark, and make the forest look like the “spirit world.”
Here, Thinbill’s quotations help to explain how information about John’s participation in My Lai got out, causing him to lose in a huge landslide. The flies now refer not just to the actual flies flitting about post-massacre but to the guild that never stops flitting about the soldiers. The quote about the spirit world suggests the constant haunting of Vietnam in the minds of the soldiers who fought there.
Themes
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
The chapter ends with the footnote that the narrator had previous urged the reader to pair with Pat’s quote about being obsessed with “the dentist.” The narrator, speaking in the first person for the first time, agrees with Thinbill that Vietnam was the spirit world: there were ghosts and graveyards everywhere. The narrator claims to have arrived in Vietnam a year after John got there. When he saw My Lai, he understood why the massacre occurred: “it was the sunlight.” There was a feeling of unknowable wickedness, he continues, in the environment. Other factors that contributed to the massacre include frustration and rage at the enemy in Vietnam, which was often difficult to find. The narrator insists that he isn’t trying to justify the My Lai massacre, but he also admits that he, like John, felt the sunlight, and felt the potential for butchery underneath his eyes.
This is the most substantial self-portrait the narrator has given us so far. We see that the narrator has his own thoughts and feelings—indeed, he was in Vietnam a year after John. In real life, Tim O’Brien was in Vietnam at the same time as the narrator, and was in the same company that committed the My Lai massacre, but arrived in Vietnam after the massacre took place. Still, it would be a mistake to equate O’Brien with the narrator of this novel—the narrator, like John Wade, is also fictional, also a product of the “magic” of fiction that makes imaginary people seem real. The narrator’s statements about the sunlight at My Lai can be taken any number of ways, but it’s very important to keep in mind that he’s not justifying the massacre at all. On the contrary, he’s suggesting that all humans—even those who didn’t fight in Vietnam—have the potential to do “butchery.” It’s arrogant and hypocritical, perhaps, to blame the soldiers in Vietnam for their actions and call them evil—they were acting on the basis of human nature, the narrator suggests.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon