In the Lake of the Woods

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In the Lake of the Woods Chapter 28 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is 7 am and John is riding in Claude’s boat, the day after Claude told him about Lux’s plan to search the cottage grounds. He is about three miles away from the cottage, headed north. By mid-morning, he’s crossed into Canadian waters. He has about 250 miles left to go before he runs out of gasoline. By noon, he has reached a series of small channels that are difficult to navigate.
It’s clear that John has taken Claude’s advice—it’s unclear, though, how much of this advice he’s taking. Whether John will get away from the police’s investigation or kill himself is uncertain. Even after hundreds of pages we don’t know him well enough to say what he’ll do. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he’ll do either.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
As he rides north, John remembers talking to Kathy about his actions at Thuan Yen. He told her “everything he could tell,” though the narrator doesn’t recount exactly what this means. In his boat, John thinks that he doesn’t consider himself an evil man at all, and that he couldn’t explain everything that had happened in Vietnam. He has always wanted to be good, almost as if he has a disease that forced him to desire goodness. He cries out, “Kath!” but there is no answer.
Even in this moment, a crucial one in the book, we don’t hear exactly what John tells Kathy about his involvement in Thuan Yen. He could have told her the “whole truth” or he could have twisted the truth to make himself seem like a victim of Calley’s orders. Perhaps the fact that we don’t hear about Vietnam at all in this section indicates that John continues to repress certain aspects of his behavior from himself—he simply cannot address his own actions.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
In the evening, John drives the boat to land and makes a small fire, where he eats a sandwich and reads the note Claude left him in the envelope. Claude writes that he doesn’t blame John for anything he’s done—he sees John as being sucked down into a funnel. Claude offers his theory of what happened—Kathy went out in her boat and got lost. He notes that there is a radio in John’s boat, set to “the right frequency.” He advises John to head to Canada, suggesting that it’s easy to “evaporate” and start over again. John drinks vodka, and thinks that Claude is mostly right about Kathy. Kathy probably had an accident. Nevertheless, he thinks, he is responsible for making Kathy’s life miserable with deception and manipulation in place of real love. In short, he is guilty of being Sorcerer.
Claude’s letter continues the sympathy he showed John the day before. The fact that John thinks that Kathy had an accident may or may not prove his innocence—we know that John is excellent at lying to himself. That he admits that he’s guilty of alienating his wife could be a noble act, a sign of some personal growth, or it could just be another example of tremendous self-delusion.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
John goes to asleep. Late at night he wakes up—it’s raining. He says, “Well, Kath?” but again there is no reply. At dawn, he returns to his boat and drives north. He passes by a chain of islands that are covered in snow, and look like a Christmas card. He drinks vodka and yells Kath’s name. In the cold air, John sometimes feels as if he’s back in Thuan Yen.
John continues to call Kath’s name—we can interpret this to mean that he’s desperately searching for her, or that he’s talking to himself and imagining her, just as he did with his father as a child. Thus, calling could symbolize John’s optimism that she’s alive, or his delusions about her very certain death (and by extension his own possible murder of her).
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
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At the end of the day, John turns on the radio in the boat and speaks into it. Claude’s voice answers. Claude says that Lux and Vincent are monitoring the radio, and possibly listening right now. He adds that police are searching the cottage grounds; John replies that they won’t find anything, and assures Claude that he didn’t kill or hurt his wife. Claude laughs and says that he’ll keep it between John and himself. He reiterates that Canada isn’t a bad place to go, but John doesn’t respond. He turns the radio off.
It’s important that Claude tells John that Vincent and Lux are listening to their conversation, or may eventually listen to it, because it invalidates any confession or insistence of innocence that John might give. We almost sense that O’Brien is playing with us—going out of his way to make John’s innocence ambiguous. One could even say that the novel makes the crime unrealistically ambiguous—usually, there’s at least some evidence or proof at hand.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
For the rest of the day and into the night, John eats, drinks, and feels miserable in the cold. He thinks that misery is the point, but can’t explain to himself what this means. Perhaps the point is for John to feel the same pain and sadness that Kathy felt.
John signed up for a second tour in Vietnam to try to atone for his actions; here he seems to try to atone for causing Kathy pain by feeling it himself. Though it remains unclear if the misery he is trying to feel is akin to what Kathy felt when he murdered her or a more emotional pain she felt because of his behavior. Is he growing, or is he delusional?
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
John thinks about his memories. He can’t stop thinking about Thuan Yen. Similarly, his memories of his father’s death keep replaying in his mind. He thinks that the villagers in Vietnam are never fully dead, since they keep dying over and over again. Late in the night, John drinks vodka, turns on the radio, and voices all of these thoughts. He also says that choice is a myth. People don’t choose what they do, they just submit to the laws of the universe—thus, people “fall in love,” submitting to the laws of gravity.
John has a sense that traumatic experiences never leave you, that they simply continue over and over. This both keeps alive the dead, in a sense, but only in a way that makes them haunt you. His idea about the lack of choice mirrors to an extent the novel’s contention that it isn’t possible to simply say that people acted in a way that can be separated from their influences. At the same time, it is a philosophy that allows John to see himself as innocent, or even as the victim, which is convenient. It’s not clear that the novel agrees with his philosophy here.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
John continues to drunkenly speak into his radio. He conducts a “talk show” with himself, noting that Kathy was “what I had,” but adding that she used to chase him around the house with a squirt gun. He says that he fell in love with Kathy, and that she was the girl of his dreams. He asks, rhetorically, if others wouldn’t “tell a fib or two” in a similar situation.
John continues to attempt to free himself from guilt, implying that everyone has secrets that they try to hide. John’s “talk show” shows that he continues to talk to himself, just as he did in the mirror when he was a child.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
At 6:30 am, John throws his radio in the water and continues on through the water.
John has used the radio like a mirror—a way of talking to himself and absolving himself of guilt. Perhaps by throwing the radio in the water he shows that he’s willing to move on with his life and confront his choices.
Themes
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon