In the Lake of the Woods

In the Lake of the Woods

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In the Lake of the Woods Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is 6:30 am on September 22. Claude, Pat, and John are pushing Claude’s large Chris-Craft boat into Lake of the Woods so that they can look for Kathy themselves. As John pushes, he feels a sense of health and clarity that isn’t exactly optimism, but still makes him feel good.
Coming on the heels of a long chapter about Kathy and her optimism, John’s behavior in this chapter mirrors that of his wife. Perhaps John is beginning to heal, instead of continuing to attempt to forget.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Claude, Pat, and John board Claude’s boat and begin their search. Claude says that their journey will be based on pure luck and intuition—there’s no scientific way to trace Kathy’s trail. Pat points to a string of nearby islands and suggests that they begin by looking there. Claude steers the boat in this direction, and in ten minutes they’ve landed on the islands.
Claude, like Tony, is a realist, and doesn’t mitigate the truth when the truth is less than inspiring. It’s Pat, not John, who points to their starting place; she seems more energetic than John during the search, a fact which annoys her.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Claude, Pat, and John circle around the islands. There is mist, making it difficult to see anything, but they spend the next hour looking for any signs of life. They see nothing. John begins to wonder what they’ll eventually find of Kathy. He wonders how much of Kathy will have survived.
John seems hopeless in this scene—instead of imagining himself reuniting with Kathy, he thinks about the remains of her body. This is a surprising reaction, especially after the signs of optimism he showed only hours ago.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
As John looks for life on the islands, he remembers a song, “I know a girl, name is Jill,” that he and his company sang in Vietnam in middle of a monsoon. He remembers other things: playing around with Kathy in their old apartment, the old man with the hoe, PFC Weatherby, singing Sinatra with Kathy, etc. As he thinks, Claude calls his name and calls him Senator: John looks like he’s half-asleep. Claude says that John looks sick and offers to stop searching. Pat insists that they continue, and says that John isn’t even trying to find Kathy. Claude tells them both to be silent, but John tells Pat that, whatever she’s thinking, he’s sorry. Pat says “Wonderful” sarcastically.
For all the cynicism he shows, John is at least thinking about his time in Vietnam instead of repressing it. It would seem that Pat is unfair to criticize John for daydreaming: he’s thinking about events Pat can barely comprehend, after all. The distance between John and Pat—indeed, between John and nearly everyone in his life—is obvious when John apologizes to Pat. Instead of trying to understand what Pat is thinking, he just issues a blanket apology. In doing so he isn’t really communicating, he’s ducking blame.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
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The three continue searching for Kathy on small islands in Lake of the Woods. The islands are very flat, and don’t show any signs of life. They boat to Buckete Island, and then turn west, where they spend the next hour searching around American Point. As they search, John notices that Pat’s body is tight and athletic. As he looks, he tells himself never to drink again.
O’Brien keeps dancing around John’s relationship with Pat, without ever explaining what it is. The closest he comes to explaining their antipathy is here, when it’s revealed that John is obviously attracted to Pat. Whether this explains Pat’s dislike for him or not is left unexplained—we could even take John’s attraction to Pat as a form of love for Kathy (it’s been mentioned that Pat looks a lot like her sister).
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
John thinks that Pat is suspicious of him; he can tell by the way she stares at him while she pretends to look out into the distance. John thinks that everyone is suspicious of him: Vincent Pearson, Lux, and the whole state of Minnesota. That’s the risk of living life as a magic trick, he thinks. John has spent his political years try to make his past disappear—and his intentions, he thinks, were always virtuous. Now, his trick has failed, and everyone thinks of him as a cheat. This is the risk of being a magician—you have to live with your trickery.
We hear, again and again, that John’s intentions in deceiving others have always been virtuous. It’s impossible to know how to take this sentiment. At times, John acknowledges that he’s deceiving because he likes to deceive; at other times, he thinks that he’s acting out of love for others. It would be a mistake to take either one of these explanations as “true” and the other as “false”—there’s some truth in both of them. What’s clear is that John’s deceptions have an impact, regardless of their motivations.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
It is twilight, and Pat, John, and Claude tie up Claude’s boat near the Angle Inlet boatyard. They have been searching for Kathy all day, and found nothing. On the inlet, they see a group of men sitting around a campfire. This sight makes John think of Vietnam, and his company. Claude and Pat walk along the beach, with John walking behind. He feels a strange tension in his stomach, similar to the tension he always felt during a political campaign.
John is still thinking that everyone is suspicious of him; thus, he’s reluctant to talk to other people—they could be potential enemies. At the same time, he’s thinking about Vietnam more than he has in the last decade; somehow, the events of the week have triggered old memories of the war.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
As Pat, John, and Claude walk toward the fire, John sees that the men sitting there are Vincent and Lux. Lux and Vincent shake hands with Pat, and Lux hands John a beer. Vincent points out that John is looking “Fit as a fiddle,” after three days of not searching for Kathy. Lux encourages John and Vincent to make up, but John calls Vincent “albino,” which angers Vincent, who insists that he’s Swedish. He accuses John of being a mass-murderer, and John threatens to fight Vincent. Vincent pauses, then laughs and suggests giving John a “bellyful” of truth serum.
John’s exchange with Vincent is strange, and more than a little humorous. He’s no longer trying to be a politician—instead, he’s quite willing to fight back, which is what makes his barb about Vincent being “albino” so unexpected and amusing. One thing to take from this scene is that everyone has “issues”—Vincent clearly has a story to tell about his Swedish background, for instance—even if John has darker secrets than most.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Everyone gathers around the fire: John, Pat, Claude, Vincent, Lux, and at least six other people. Lux introduces everyone to these new men, but John barely pays attention. The conversation that occurs that night around the campfire is almost meaningless to John—something about weather and the water. Claude mentions that the men are “water pros,” and will dig Kathy up for John.
One can take John’s indifference to the conversation as indifference to Kathy’s disappearance, or anger and frustration (and tiredness) with his situation, including but not limited to Kathy’s disappearance. In any case, he’s begun to despair, and seems to believe that he’ll never see Kathy again.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
John notices Pat and Lux talking quietly to one another. He contemplates telling them “secrets” about himself: the teakettle and the boathouse. He wants to tell them about his father, his fascination with magic and mirrors, etc. John drifts deep into thought. Some time later, Claude taps John, and John notices that almost everyone is gone, including Vincent. He says to Claude, “convicted?” very pleasantly.
Even for John to consider explaining some of his secrets voluntarily is a major step forward for him. At the same time, it’s notable that he may be thinking of telling these secrets because he knows Lux and Pat suspect him of being involved in Kathy’s disappearance. It’s also important that, in the end, he doesn’t say anything to them.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
The next day, John, Pat, and Claude go out on the lake to look for Kathy, and they continue looking for the next two weeks. On October 8, the police begin scaling back their search resources, until there are only two boats looking for Kathy. Throughout this time, John continues to search for Kathy, and the routine of waking up to look with Pat and Claude keeps him going. John begins to realize that anything can be lost in Lake of the Woods—it’s a huge, still body of water. The lake reminds him of a box of mirrors.
There’s a sudden “jump” forward in the narrative in this section. We’ve been so focused on the day-to-day interactions between John and the detectives that it’s a little surprising to see O’Brien leaping forward by half a month. The section feels like a kind of “summation: of everything we’ve been reading so far. For instance, O’Brien makes explicit what he’s been suggesting all along: the lake is a symbol of deception and uncertainty (and not a bad symbol of the book itself!).
Themes
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
John asks Claude about obtaining a second boat, so that John can look for Kathy on his own while Claude and Pat continue their usual search. Claude immediately refuses to give John this boat, refusing to explain why. Later on, while John and Pat are eating dinner with Claude and Ruth, John brings it up again. Claude tells John that he could end up like Kathy—lost in a boat in the middle of a lake. Pat sarcastically praises John’s chivalry.
It’s unclear to us why John is asking for Claude’s boat; this means that it’s also unclear why Claude refuses to give it to him. Perhaps he doesn’t trust John; perhaps he’s worried that John is going to kill himself; perhaps he thinks John is going to flee since he’s guilty of murder. Pat seems to believe the third option.
Themes
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The next day, it snows in Lake of the Woods, and John spends the morning shoveling snow in the driveway outside Claude’s house. He thinks about magic, and contemplates a “last nifty illusion,” a piece of “casual transportation,” similar to snakes eating one another. As he thinks, he remembers his father, and thinks that he knows what his father went through. John’s father’s suicide was a magic trick, one that left his audience traumatized forever.
The links between magic and the events of the novel are becoming more explicit. Here, for instance, O’Brien tells us that John’s father’s death was a magic trick—something we’ve had in the back of our heads for a while. One new suggestion in this section, however, is that magic can terrify as well as entertain. The casual transportation John mentions could be his own suicide.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
At dusk, John removes his clothes and jumps into the lake, where, he thinks, Kathy is. He closes his eyes as he dives in, and is surprised to find that he can’t feel the cold. He pushes back to the surface, and then dives back to the bottom of the lake again. John thinks about his father. As a child, John imagined his father praising his magic tricks. John thinks that he wanted to be loved to the point where he performed tricks on his own life, disguising himself and practicing deception on others. As he thinks all this, he feels Kathy’s presence: her eyes, her flesh, her empty womb. When he feels Kathy’s presence, he pushes back to the surface of the lake and goes back ashore.
It seems as if John is committing suicide in this scene. We can take what he experiences in the water as a kind of epiphany, or even a symbolic “baptism” in which he’s born again. John’s love for Kathy seems to save him from depression—he’s accepted that he’s no different than his father, and thus a suicide case. Then, he thinks about Kathy, and apparently decides that he wants to live. The qualifiers, “apparently” and “seems” are necessary here, because O’Brien doesn’t give us perfect information about what John is thinking.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
At 8 pm, Art Lux calls the cottage. After speaking to Pat, he tells John that the search for Kathy is being discontinued due to paperwork and red tape. John says that Lux is giving up on Kathy, but Lux insists that there are other places the police have to look. Lux asks to speak to Claude; John passes Claude the phone and fixes himself a drink, noticing that Pat is quietly crying. John thinks that he’s like his father.
In this section, at least two important things happen. First, it becomes clear that Lux has broadened his search to a place that includes more direct suspicion of John—his mention of “other places” to look suggests that he’s going to search John’s own property, or the cottage where he’s staying. Second, John recognizes what we’ve recognized long ago—he’s become his father. To recognize this may mean that John can change—and perhaps become a better person.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
After speaking to Lux, Claude explains to John that the police want to look around John’s cottage, on the chance that Kathy is buried there. Claude points out that even if the police don’t find anything buried, the world will still think that John is a murderer, given the news about John’s behavior in Vietnam. As Claude explains all this, John, surprised, senses that Claude is a genuine friend to him.
In a chapter full of sudden changes, this may be the most sudden. Claude, always an ambiguous character, is revealed to be something of a friend to John—he’s helping John by telling him about what’s in store for him.
Themes
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Claude suggests that John hasn’t been crying for Kathy because there’s no use crying. Claude also suggests that John should leave Lake of the Woods, since the police will be arriving soon to dig up the cottage area. John asks Claude for a boat, gasoline, and a map, but Claude refuses, saying that he doesn’t need two people on his property getting lost in the lake. John insists that he’ll find a way to get a boat, anyway. Claude seems to accept this, and he tells John that he is genuinely sorry for his hardships. John notices that Claude looks very tired.
We’ve been given hints that Claude and John are two versions of the same person, but it isn’t until now that we see how deeply the two men understand one another. All along, Claude has understood John’s apparent indifference to his wife’s disappearance—he knows that people behave abnormally in abnormal situations. It’s not clear how much help he’ll give John in the end—even though he refuses to give him a boat, he seems to accept that John’s going to get one anyway.
Themes
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The next day, John, Claude, and Pat go out once again on the boat to look for Kathy. Pat refuses to look at John. Around 3 pm, Claude pulls into a harbor, and the three walk to the Texaco station. There, John goes to the Mini-Mart where he and Kathy argued, and buys food, a map, and alcohol, along with a compass. Myra notices him as he makes his purchases, but says nothing. John contemplates “baring his teeth” at Myra, but instead he’s very polite to her.
We’re coming “full circle”—for the second time in the novel, John is buying things in the Mini-Mart. Whether he’s changed at all since the last time he was there is left up to us to decide. In John’s mind, he’s restraining himself from showing his anger to Myra for making his argument with Kathy early in the novel seem more important than it was. He thinks he’s acting as well as could be expected towards her. Yet later it will be shown that Myra’s perspective of his behavior here is very different from his.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
That night, John sleeps in his cottage and dreams about an enormous computer, with circuits made of electric eels. When he wakes up, it’s a little before dawn. On the table, he’s unsurprised to see that Claude has left the key to his boat, along with an envelope—John takes both. He brings his supplies, including warm clothing, into Claude’s boat, and takes the boat out onto the water. He drives north; as he moves onward, he looks back at the small cottage where he’s been staying. He imagines a man and woman wrapped in blankets sitting outside the cottage, thinking of names for their children and exotic places to visit. As he gets farther away, the man and woman disappear into the fog of Lake of the Woods—the place where one plus one equals zero.
The subject of John’s dream seems to symbolize something, but it’s not apparent what it’s a symbol of. Perhaps the enormous computer is a symbol of inevitability—a testament to the fact that John has always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shipped off to Vietnam at a time when ordinary people were being forced to do barbaric things, and he had the misfortune to be born to a drunken, suicidal father. Claude seems to see John’s life in these terms, and it would appear that John sees his life this way, too. John sees the cottage as the place where Kathy and he became those snakes: loving and destroying each other until they both ceased to exist. But, as should be no surprise for this book by now, there are multiple ways to cease to exist: there’s death, and there’s willfully disappearing to become someone else.
Themes
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon