In the Lake of the Woods

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In the Lake of the Woods Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
We are in Vietnam, during the My Lai Massacre. The killing takes four hours, and it is both systematic and thorough. In the sunlight, soldiers shoot, rape, sodomize, and stab Vietnamese villagers. PFC Richard Thinbill, a young, good-looking man, asks Sorcerer if he can hear “the sound.” Sorcerer nods that he can, except that it’s actually thousands of sounds. Thinbill says that the army told them there would be civilians—he says that the people their army company killed must be Communists, then. He asks Sorcerer how many people he killed; Sorcerer says he killed two. Thinbill says that he didn’t kill anyone.
In this chapter, we get a much better sense of what happened to John during his time in Vietnam. To begin with, we’re introduced to Richard Thinbill, who’s been quoted throughout the “evidence” chapters of the book, but never properly discussed until now. It’s significant that O’Brien refers to John as “Sorcerer” in this section—clearly, John is trying to adapt to the horrors of Vietnam and My Lai by embracing his new identity. His decision to tell Thinbill about his murders will eventually cause his electoral defeat.
Themes
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
The narrative cuts to John’s Senate campaign. On September 9, John loses in a landslide. John delivers a brief concession speech, thinking privately that his career is over. John and Kathy return to their hotel and sit, naked, listening to traffic. Later on, Tony stops by and talks with John and Kathy. He tells Kathy that he loves her dearly; Kathy has “never looked happier” than when she hears this.
The juxtaposition of the scenes from Vietnam with Thinbill and the scene in which John concedes defeat make it very clear that it was Thinbill’s testimony that resulted in the landslide. It’s also implied that Kathy is happy that John lost, since she no longer has to go though the motions of pretending to enjoy campaigning.
Themes
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Tony tells John that he’ll be working for Ed Durkee, the man who defeated John, from now on. John calls Tony a “bastard,” and Tony replies that he asked John a hundred times if he had anything to hide. He adds, “a village is a terrible thing to waste.” Tony and John drink a final toast while Kathy goes to the bathroom. Tony guesses that she’s angry at Tony’s “betrayal.” He also tells John that he’s long had a crush on Kathy, and even went to a gym in an effort to lose weight for her.
Here, we see the “betrayal” that Tony alluded to in the earlier chapter of the novel. Tony is a cynic, it would seem, who sells his services to the highest bidder. Kathy’s apparent anger suggests that she’d felt that Tony was an honest, trustworthy man. It continues to be strange that Tony is frank with John about his attraction to Kathy—though here, it makes more sense, since Tony is about to leave John forever, and can thus say whatever he wants.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
The narrative returns to Vietnam. Charlie Company moves toward the sea in the east. Thinbill mentions the spirit world to Sorcerer, and observes, “Fuckers just don’t die.” The soldiers are mostly silent, although Calley is talkative, saying that “gooks are gooks.” When Calley claims that the operation in My Lai was a success, Sorcerer says that there were babies and women there. Calley brushes a fly off his sleeve and then denies that there were any babies. Other soldiers nod in agreement with him. Calley advises Sorcerer not to cast any stones, since he’s guilty too.
Calley’s behavior in this section contrasts markedly with that of the soldiers. Where Thinbill feels trauma from My Lai, and won’t stop talking about flies, Calley casually removes a fly from his body, symbolizing his complete lack of guilt about killing women and children. It’s interesting to note that Sorcerer shows more signs than the other men of showing remorse for his actions, even if his remorse is possibly self-interested (he doesn’t want to end his political career before it begins).
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
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Thinbill says, half to the other soldiers and half to himself, that they must have killed easily three hundred villagers that day. Someone tells him that they’ll all bathe in the river and wipe the blood and “stink” off their bodies, but Thinbill insists that they’ll never be able to wash their experiences away. Sorcerer advises Thinbill to forget. As they talk, they hear flies buzzing all around them.
Thinbill makes explicit what everyone else is thinking—they’ll never be able to forget the things they’ve seen and done at My Lai. The persistence of the flies throughout this scene represents this fact—trauma doesn’t go away.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
The next day, Charlie Company travels toward a river, and Sorcerer can’t stop thinking about the old man with a hoe whom he shot. He tries to make himself forget this sight, but he cannot. The men make camp in an area where there are many landmines. They sit and laugh with each other, and suddenly, a landmine explodes and blows off Paul Meadlo’s left foot. There is a silence after this explosion, then voices, and then the buzz of the flies.
John’s attempts to forget what he saw confirms what Thinbill has just said—none of them will ever forget what they’ve done. The company’s reaction to Paul’s accident is very telling—it’s as if they’ve endured so much trauma already that they’re desensitized to any other experiences.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
John remembers how his father called him Jiggling John. John knew at the time that his father was drunk, but he still felt ashamed of himself. Shortly after his father starts to mock him, he orders a diet he’s seen advertised in a magazine. When the bill comes, John’s father tells John, “that’s a whole lot of bacon fat.”
O’Brien creates a parallel between John’s failure to forget his traumatic experiences in the war with his failure to mitigate his father’s bullying—all attempts to do so only make the problem worse.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
By the eighth grade, John has begun to grow, and his father calls him Javelin John instead of making fun of his weight. Throughout middle school and high school, John makes himself feel better by looking in the mirror. He has almost no friends, but he puts on magic shows at school and birthday parties. His audiences applaud, and while they don’t exactly give him affection, they give him something very close to affection, he believes. Sometimes, he would replace his father’s bottles of vodka with water; later, when John was smirking, John’s father would tell him that he looked ridiculous. By spying on his father and playing tricks on him, John thinks, he’s developing a bond of love with his father.
In the long term, it would seem, John finds a way to hide his guilt and humiliation. He turns to exercise, magic, and politics as ways to make other people love him. While nothing can entirely make up for the absence of love between himself and his father, John’s attempts offer him short-term happiness. His earliest attempts at deception are well meaning—he’s trying to cure his father’s alcoholism, for instance. We see the same proximity between trickery and love in John’s relationship with Kathy.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
On March 17, 1968, after Meadlo is taken to the hospital, Charlie Company returns to Thuan Yen. There, they see tremendous pain and suffering: women who have been raped and stabbed, mass graves, and men with missing limbs. Sorcerer tells himself that it is all an illusion. The narrator writes that Sorcerer isn’t fooled.
Immediately after Thuan Yen, John’s attempts to fool himself into happiness aren’t any more successful than his earliest attempts to fight his fatness. Whether his later attempts will have more success remains to be seen.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
The sight of flies and dead bodies makes many of the soldiers physically sick. Calley, who isn’t sick at all, asks his soldiers, intimidatingly, if they’ve heard any rumors that what happened in the village was criminal or murderous. Thinbill, intimidated, says that he hasn’t heard any rumors of this. When Calley asks Sorcerer if he’s heard anything about murder, Sorcerer says he’s “deaf” and “blind.” Afterwards, Calley tells the men to find Vietcong weaponry in the village. The soldiers look, but they find nothing, as they knew they wouldn’t. Privately, Sorcerer makes himself forget what he’s seen and done. He thinks about Kathy and tells himself that he’s a decent person.
Calley’s approach to the massacre seems almost identical to John’s—he’s trying to make others, and perhaps himself, forget that the incident ever happened at all. Yet the very anger with which he conducts himself seems to prove that Calley will never entirely succeed in forgetting about Thuan Yen. It’s in this section that categories like “decent,” as well as “good” and “evil” come into question—O’Brien wonders if anyone can really be described as a decent person.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Later in the night, Thinbill approaches Sorcerer and asks him if he thinks the two of them should say something about the massacre they’ve witnessed. Sorcerer is unsure how to respond—he thinks about the people he’s killed, including the old man with the hoe, and PFC Weatherby. As he feels himself having to make a choice, he begins to giggle uncontrollably, frightening Thinbill.
John’s reaction may seem unusual, but in actuality people respond to trauma and extreme stress with unusual emotions all the time. “Normal” emotions are the mind’s responses to “normal” situations; thus, John giggles when he’s confronted with a terrifying dilemma of revealing one’s shame or hiding it.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
As John giggles, he thinks about the other soldiers firing quickly and skillfully at Vietnamese women and children. He pictures a woman’s head exploding, and thinks that the villagers are gradually merging into one huge, bloody mass. Calley laughs and makes wisecracks about the mess, and other soldiers cry, urinate, and resume firing on their victims. As he laughs, John rolls into the mud. Thinbill tells him to take it easy. John begins to calm down, but as he calms himself he pictures Weatherby and remembers shooting him.
John’s behavior in this scene illustrates an important point—entertainment is the mind’s way of dealing with tragedy and trauma. This could apply to any number of entertainments: John’s giggling laughter, his magic shows, or even Tim O’Brien’s book itself. Entertainment and storytelling are forms of therapy, through which the suffering people can alleviate their pain.
Themes
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
As John stops laughing, he hears other sounds in the area—some people are crying, and there are echoes of gunshots. Thinbill tells John he has the right attitude—“fuck the spirit world.”
Freud said that laughter is the mind’s attempt to fight repression. And Thinbill—the closest thing to a “good” character we have in the novel—praises John when he laughs. John prefers to repress his trauma, but here, if only once, he “lets it out.” That said, it’s not clear if Thinbill is actually interpreting John’s laughter correctly. Is John laughing at the “spirit world”—at the guilt—or is he paralyzed by the situation.
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon