In the Lake of the Woods

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In the Lake of the Woods is narrated by an unnamed Vietnam veteran, whose reasons for researching John Wade’s life and compiling the research into a book are left largely unexplained. Most of the time, the narrator isn’t a conspicuous “presence” in the book: he narrates what happened, and that’s all. At other points, however, he suggests that he is distorting the facts, and reveals that he’s been to many of the same places in Vietnam that John visited as a soldier. The question of why the narrator is telling this story is at least as important as the question of what happens to Kathy. The fact that this question is arguably impossible to answer suggests that the mysteries in O’Brien’s novel can never be solved.

Narrator Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods

The In the Lake of the Woods quotes below are all either spoken by Narrator or refer to Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of In the Lake of the Woods published in 1995.
Chapter 20 Quotes

Double consummation: A way of fooling the audience by making it believe a trick is over before it really is.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), John Herman Wade
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "Evidence" chapter, O'Brien offers a theory for Kathy's disappearance. But because he presents this theory in an ambiguous form—as the definition of a magical term—it's not clear for another hundred pages that he's offering another theory at all. The principle of double consummation—the idea that a trick isn't over when the audience believes it to be over—becomes especially relevant to Kathy's disappearance when, a few weeks later, John Wade himself disappears. While it's impossible to prove anything with regard to the case, O'Brien suggests that John and Kathy may have planned to run off together. knowing that they'd raise too many red flags by disappearing together, they decided that Kathy should disappear first, and John should disappear shortly afterwards. John and Kathy's vanishing act is a double consummation because the real trick (John's disappearance) arrives only after the first trick (Kathy's) is complete.

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The unknown, the unknowable. The blank faces. The overwhelming otherness. This is not to justify what occurred on March 16, 1968, for in my view such justifications are both futile and outrageous. Rather, it’s to bear witness to the mystery of evil. Twenty-five years ago, as a terrified young PFC, I too could taste the sunlight. I could smell the sin. I could feel butchery sizzling like grease just under my eyeballs.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sunlight
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

In this footnote, one of the most surprising and unexpected moments in the novel, the narrator discusses his own thoughts, experiences, and opinions, speaking in the first person. Previously, the narrator of the novel has played the part of a calm, emotionless detective, sifting through the evidence—in short, the narrator hasn't really been a character at all. The fact that the narrator is suddenly giving his own interpretation of the events of the book tells us right away that he has strong feelings about and a personal history with the issues he's discussing—sin, violence, and butchery—and it's not hard to see why. As the narrator explains, he was present in Vietnam during the height of the war. (In real life, Tim O'Brien was also a soldier in Vietnam at this time.)

The narrator insists that he's speaking about his own experiences simply to "bear witness to the mystery of evil"—not trying to justify or condemn evil, but just to describe how it can occur in human nature. By this point in the novel, it's pretty clear that John Wade has participated in some pretty horrific things: he's murdered his fellow soldiers and shot old, harmless Vietnamese men. The narrator has no intention of forgiving John for his actions. But he also seems to be doing something more ethical than merely "witnessing" John's actions. By acknowledging that he (the narrator) felt "sin" during his own time in Vietnam, the narrator seems to be suggesting that John's actions, while horrific, aren't alien to human nature. In other words, human beings have the capacity to do evil. Most people never have to face the fact that they're capable of murder and torture, but John and the narrator, as soldiers, do.

Chapter 22 Quotes

All you could do, he’d said, was open yourself up like a window and wait for fortune to blow in. And then they’d talked about stuck windows. Tony suggested that she unstick herself. So she’d shrugged and said she had tried it once but the unsticking hadn’t gone well.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Kathleen “Kathy” Terese Wade, Anthony “Tony” L. Carbo
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Kathy thinks about some advice Tony has given her recently. Tony knows that Kathy is locked in an unhappy marriage to John Wade. His advice is that Kathy free herself from her own unhappiness: in short, that she "unstick" herself.

It's important to recognize that Tony is referring to Kathy's marital infidelities here: he knows that Kathy has had an affair with another man at some point, and his advice is that Kathy should leave John for good. Of course, Tony is attracted to Kathy, and so his advice is also flirtation: he acts like he wants Kathy to be "free," but really he just wants to date her.

Tony's advice is also meant to counterpoint the difficulty that John and Kathy have with disentangling themselves from each other, and from their respective pasts. John has a long, traumatic past, and he can't just unstick himself, no matter how hard he tries. Similarly, Kathy feels that she has too much emotional baggage with John: as much as she sometimes wants to leave, she's too close to John to do so.

Chapter 23 Quotes

Curiously, as he worked out the details, Wade found himself experiencing a dull new sympathy for his father. This was how it was. You go about your business. You carry the burdens, entomb yourself in silence, conceal demon-history from all others and most times from yourself. Nothing theatrical … and then one day you discover a length of clothesline. You amaze yourself.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), John Herman Wade , Paul Wade
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, John thinks about his father, Paul. Paul is a cruel, abusive drunk, who humiliates John for being overweight when John is just a small child. Decades later, John—in the midst of the search for Kathy, who's disappeared into the lake—decides that he and his father have ended up more or less the same.  For John to compare himself with Paul (someone who caused him plenty of misery over the years) is a plain sign of his self-hatred at this time.

The passage is important because it suggests that John is coming to terms with his own tactics of evasion and repression. We the readers have known that John tries to bury his feelings under a surface of virtue, magic, and charm. But here, John himself seems to become aware of this fact, too: by contemplating his father's problems with honesty and directness, John realizes that he himself is no better. The passage also suggests (obliquely and darkly) that John and Paul took different approaches to their deception. Paul couldn't handle the pressures of concealing himself from the people around him, so he hanged himself (the mention of a "clothesline" is intended to remind us of Paul's fate). John, however, found a way to relieve some of his own anxieties: magic, performance, and politics. In short, John and Paul suffer from the same fear of telling the truth, but whereas Paul cracks under the pressure, John finds a way to survive.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Why do we care about Lizzie Borden, or Judge Carter, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or the Little Big Horn? Because of all that cannot be known. And what if we did know? What if it were proved—absolutely and purely—that Lizzie Borden took an ax? That Oswald acted alone? That Judge Carter fell into Sicilian hands? Nothing more would beckon, nothing would tantalize.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Lizzie Borden, Lee Harvey Oswald
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the narrator applies the rules of magic to real life (and to the novel). The world is full of unsolved mysteries, the narrator begins: Kennedy's assassination, the Battle of Little Big Horn, etc. There have been many people who've tried to solve these real-life mysteries, devoting thousands and thousands of hours to doing so. And yet for all their efforts, the narrator concludes, most of us don't really want to know the answer to the mystery. As with a magic trick, a real-life mystery (even a tragic or traumatic one) is fascinating in part because we can't know what really happened. Everyone feels a hunger for the truth, but if that hunger were ever satisfied in the case of (for example) Kennedy's assassination, people would forfeit something equally powerful—the sense of tantalizing excitement.

O'Brien's observations have some obvious relevance to the events of the novel. When we began reading, we naturally assumed that we would learn the solution to the "mystery" of Kathy's disappearance. But as we approach the end of the book, it becomes clear that O'Brien isn't going to tell us what happened. Furthermore, it's possible that we don't truly want to know what happened: the possibilities are too intriguing to choose only one.

Chapter 29 Quotes

And here in a corner of John Wade’s imagination, where things neither live nor die, Kathy stares up at him from beneath the surface of the silvered lake. Her eyes are brilliant green, her expression alert. Se tries to speak, but can’t. She belongs to the angle. Not quite present, not quite gone, she swims in the blending twilight of in between.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), John Herman Wade , Kathleen “Kathy” Terese Wade
Related Symbols: The Lake
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the narrator offers another hypothesis for what happened to Kathy Wade. It's possible that Kathy Wade drowned (but whether because she was murdered or by accident we're not told), and in this case, Kathy is probably lying somewhere at the bottom of the lake.

O'Brien description of Kathy's bloated, decaying corpse is vivid and terrifying, and this is precisely his point. O'Brien isn't just describing Kathy's body; he's describing how John Wade might imagine Kathy's body, in all the gory, larger-than-life details. Ultimately, it's suggested, Kathy becomes a part of John's troubled, traumatic past—just like his time in Vietnam, or the abuse that he endured during his childhood. Just like these traumatic events, Kathy's body is "not quite present, not quite gone." In other words, John can't forget about Kathy altogether, but he also can't bring her back to life. Instead, Kathy is a memory for John, playing again and again in his troubled mind.

Chapter 30 Quotes

It’s odd how the mind erases horror. All the evidence suggests that John Wade was able to perform a masterly forgetting trick for nearly two decades, somehow coping, pushing it all away, and from my own experience, I can understand how he kept things buried.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), John Herman Wade
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the narrator personally intervenes in the novel once again. In a footnote, he offers a subtly different interpretation of John Wade's life than the one we've gotten so far in the book. For the narrator, it's potentially possible to forget one's traumatic past, or at least to appear to forget it. As evidence, the narrator offers John Wade's own life as a "normal" politician.

By this point in the book, however, the idea that John Wade was successful in pushing away his time in Vietnam should seem ludicrous. Clearly, John didn't really forget about Vietnam at all; eventually, his guilt and anxiety resurfaced. Even in the years immediately after Vietnam, when John was a happy, charismatic politician, it's been suggested that he continued to experience flashbacks to his time in war. John didn't "keep things buried" at all.

So why does the narrator seem optimistic that John was successful in his attempts to "erase horror?" Perhaps the narrator is trying to convince himself that it's possible to forget the past. The narrator chooses to believe that John succeeded in repressing Vietnam in order to reassure himself that he (the narrator) can do the same. And yet, as we see, trauma never really goes away until it is confronted in a direct and healthy manner.

Chapter 31 Quotes

If all is supposition, if ending is air, then why not happiness? Are we so cynical, so sophisticated, as to write off even the chance of happy ending?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, the narrator offers some thoughts on the unknowability of Kathy's disappearance. After 300 pages of hypotheses about what happened to Kathy, the narrator throws up his hands and admits that he has no idea what the truth is. But the narrator goes on to make a more complicated point: if we can't know what "really" happened, he argues, we might as well accept the most optimistic interpretation of the facts, provided that it's reasonable.

The narrator's rhetorical question sheds some light on the novel itself, without offering a "solution" to the mystery of Kathy's disappearance. The narrator tells us that "all is supposition." The natural question, then, is what was the purpose of this entire book? Strangely, the narrator has led readers through pages of facts and entire chapters of evidence, just to illustrate (in the most unforgettable way!) that all this evidence is futile. He's taken us across a bridge to nowhere, and then blown up the bridge.

And yet the narrator's project isn't totally destructive, even if he's destroyed some of our faith in the facts of the narrative. Evidence and research can't illuminate the truth for us, but we can choose to believe the most optimistic (or pessimistic, etc.) interpretation of the facts. In short, facts can't save us—only hope and personal interpretation can do that.

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Narrator Character Timeline in In the Lake of the Woods

The timeline below shows where the character Narrator appears in In the Lake of the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5: Hypothesis
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...simple, honest man, totally unlike her deceptive, secretive husband. This is only a possibility, the narrator acknowledges. (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...John about her secret lover. She may have staged her own disappearance—this is unlikely, the narrator admits, but not impossible. She could have woken up early, arranged for her lover to... (full context)
Chapter 6: Evidence
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The narrator quotes other books, such as The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon, and academic... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Nature of Marriage
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...thereafter. Kathy says it’s scary how much she loves him. John, or “Sorcerer,” as the narrator calls him, thinks to himself that he must guard his secrets, and never reveal the... (full context)
Chapter 9: Hypothesis
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...gone inside and seen the plants John killed. At this, she may have left—or, the narrator admits, maybe not. Maybe she walked into the bedroom, where she smelled wet wool and... (full context)
Chapter 10: The Nature of Love
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
The narrator returns to describing John’s experiences in Vietnam. One evening, Charlie Company approaches a small village.... (full context)
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Sorcerer, the narrator says, thought he would get away with murder. Shooting PFC Weatherby was an accident, just... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
In Vietnam, the narrator says, Sorcerer is in his element. Vietnam is a place with tunnels, trap doors, monsters,... (full context)
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
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...matter.” She says, “We’ll be fine.” As John and Kathy look at each other, the narrator says, anything could have happened. (full context)
Chapter 11: What He Did Next
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...newspapers what John is capable of. John imagines steam rising from Kathy’s eye sockets. The narrator says such a scene is “impossible, of course.” John turns and runs to his Buick. (full context)
Chapter 14: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The narrator suggests that Kathy might have drowned in a boating accident. She might have awoken early... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...injuring Kathy and throwing her into the water. Maybe this is how she died, the narrator concludes. (full context)
Chapter 17: The Nature of Politics
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...plenty of time before they need to have children. John made a phone call, the narrator says, and forms were signed. He stands in a clinic, looking at himself in the... (full context)
Chapter 18: Hypothesis
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
As Kathy drove back to John’s cottage, the narrator speculates, she might have felt curiously fearless. Perhaps she felt this way because she was... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
As Kathy walked ashore, the narrator suggests, she may have been thinking of the night long ago when she and John... (full context)
Chapter 20: Evidence
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Chapter 21: The Nature of the Spirit
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...and men with missing limbs. Sorcerer tells himself that it is all an illusion. The narrator writes that Sorcerer isn’t fooled. (full context)
Chapter 22: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...after Kathy went ashore with her boat, as described in Chapter 18. Around dawn, the narrator speculates, Kathy uses her Girl Scout training to build a small fire, using a pile... (full context)
Chapter 24: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
In this hypothesis about Kathy’s disappearance, the narrator suggests that Kathy had already left John in the summer of 1983, when she had... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...fun with John. Her affair with Harmon was proof that she was unhappy. Perhaps, the narrator concludes, Kathy stares out onto Lake of the Woods and whispers, “Why?” The answer to... (full context)
Chapter 25: Evidence
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
In a footnote corresponding to Eleanor’s final comment, the narrator asks, rhetorically, why anybody should care about murderers like Lizzie Borden or Lee Harvey Oswald.... (full context)
Chapter 27: Hypothesis
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The narrator suggests that John wraps Kathy in a sheet and carries her to the dock. He... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Perhaps, the narrator suggests, John sank along with Kathy for a while before he let the body go... (full context)
Chapter 28: How He Went Away
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 29: The Nature of the Angles
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
The narrator notes that Kathy Wade, lying at the bottom of the lake, watches fish swimming. In... (full context)
Chapter 30: Evidence
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...left the cottage. Ruth emphasizes that John and Kathy are gone, and says that the narrator should get back to his own life. A quote from Jay Robert Nash suggests that... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
In a footnote to Thinbill’s final comment, the narrator discusses the peculiarities of memory. Like John, the narrator has his own old man with... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Perhaps, the narrator continues, humans have the power to grow from trauma by forgetting. Strangely, the narrator says,... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hypothesis
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
The narrator offers one last hypothesis for what happened to John and Kathy. After a book of... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
In two consecutive footnotes, the narrator discusses the proper way to end his story. One could believe that John poured boiling... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Perhaps, the narrator suggests, John rejoined Kathy in Buckete Island or Massacre Island. They reunited, and sat around... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
In a footnote to the above passage, the narrator says that his heart tells him to end the novel here. But this would be... (full context)
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
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...of John alone on Lake of the Woods, heading north, “lost in the tangle.” The narrator asks if it’s possible that John was a man, not a monster, and if he... (full context)