In the Lake of the Woods

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Magic Symbol Icon
John performs magic tricks throughout his life: when he’s a child, when he’s in the army, and even when he’s a politician. The symbolism of John’s fondness is frequently and explicitly stated: magic symbolizes John’s desire to be loved by others, to hide his own weakness and sadness, and to “fool” other people into believing that he’s happier and more charismatic than he really is. At several points, O’Brien notes that magic is entertaining for the audience because the audience doesn’t really want to know how a trick is done: it both believes that the magic is “real” and senses that it’s fake. In this sense, magic, and magic’s effect on an audience, represents the way we’re meant to read In the Lake of the Woods: we’re curious about what “really” happened to Kathy, but any solution to this mystery would be far less entertaining than the mystery itself.

Magic Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods

The In the Lake of the Woods quotes below all refer to the symbol of Magic. 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 6 Quotes

You know, I think politics and magic were almost the same thing for him. Transformations—that’s part of it—trying to change things. When you think about it, magicians and politicians are basically control freaks.

Related Characters: Anthony “Tony” L. Carbo (speaker), John Herman Wade
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

In another "Evidence" chapter, Tony Carbo offers an interesting comparison between politicians and magicians. While there are lots of good parallels between these two professions (they're both about pleasing an audience, for example), Tony points to a desire for control, which he says is common in both politicians and magicians.

But what does Tony mean when he says "control?" In part, John Wade enjoys politics and magic because it gives him a sense of ownership. From an early age he collects toys and props for magic shows, and later on, when he becomes a career politician, he gets a sense of delicious pleasure from the bills he proposes. We can think of John's enjoyment of props and bills as "hard power"—he enjoys the feeling of possessing something, and being able to manipulate it completely.

Similarly, John also enjoys his sense of control in regards to people. In order to control people, John doesn't exactly try to manipulate them like objects—instead, he wants to wring love and affection from them. Whether as a politician or a magician, he performs in order to receive love, applause, and admiration. We can think of these aspects of John's personality as his penchant for "soft power," a different and perhaps more sympathetic kind of control.

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Chapter 7 Quotes

He talked about leading a good life, doing good things telling the full truth. Politics was manipulation. Like a magic show: invisible wires and secret trapdoors.

Related Characters: John Herman Wade (speaker)
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

The quotation describes John, a rising star in the American political scene, in the middle of a big speech. Although John is talking about the most wholesome, innocent values (honesty, goodness, progress), the passage makes it clear that he's not at all committed to these values. On the contrary, John knows deep down that he is a kind of masked deceiver, wowing an audience by disguising his own nature. Although at this point we're not sure what, exactly, John needs to hide so desperately, the implication would appear to be that John is intentionally lying to other people in order to delude them into thinking he's a better man than he is. (The image of a "secret trapdoor suggests something—it's unclear what—buried in John's past.)

One of the major ambiguities of the novel is whether or not John's behavior merits any sympathy. While John is intentionally lying to others, passing himself off as someone he's not, he's also lying to himself in order to survive. As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that John has been deeply traumatized by his experiences in the Vietnam War. Keeping in mind all the violence and carnage John has witnessed, we can even begin to sympathize with John's manipulations: by becoming a politician and making glib speeches about honesty and virtue, he's desperately trying to forget his troubled past.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Audiences want to believe what they see a magician do, and yet at the same time they know better and do not believe. Therein lies the fascination of magic to modern people. It is a paradox, a riddle, a half-fulfillment of an ancient desire, a puzzle, a torment, a cheat and a truth.

Related Characters: Robert Parrish (speaker)
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, O'Brien sketches out a basic theme of the work. The idea of "believing and yet not believing" is crucial to the plot of the novel. Here are a few of the senses in which this theme applies to the book:

1) Kathy wants to believe that John is a good, honest man, and yet she also knows very well that he's lying to her. Strangely, the combination of honesty and duplicity makes John more attractive to Kathy than pure honesty or duplicity ever could. Like an audience watching a magic show, Kathy is enthralled because she believes and doubts simultaneously.

2) John believes and yet doesn't believe in himself. He spends his entire adult life trying to delude himself into thinking that he's a "normal" human being. And yet he never entirely succeeds in this lie: he can't prevent himself from thinking back to his traumatic childhood or his experiences in Vietnam—experiences that prove that he's not "good" in any normal sense of the word. John partly seems to enjoy lying to himself: he wants to believe in his own virtue, even when this is clearly impossible.

3) The book itself is a perfect example of believing and not believing. We are the audience for a magic show: as we read, O'Brien makes a man (John) and his wife (Kathy) disappear. We're presented with many possibilities for what happened to this couple, but none of these possibilities is totally convincing. Like an awestruck audience, we want to find the answer to the mystery, but we also don't want to know—we want to remain awestruck and entertained.

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.

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.

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Magic Symbol Timeline in In the Lake of the Woods

The timeline below shows where the symbol Magic appears in In the Lake of the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6: Evidence
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
...“We called him Sorcerer.” The next pieces of evidence are related to John’s love for magic and magic tricks: a photograph of John as a child, holding a wand, a quote... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...easy” to say that the war made him who he is. Tony Carbo imagines that magic and politics were one and the same for John. Other sources, taken from the memoirs... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Nature of Marriage
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
As a child, John loved to perform magic tricks: silk scarves, a disappearing penny, etc. While these are only tricks, not real magic,... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...shot while John is with him. As Weber dies, he asks John to do his magic. (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
John’s magic eventually works its way into the military plans of his division, Charlie Company. The soldiers... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...on her. Meanwhile, men in Charlie Company die, and there’s a general feeling that his magic has worn off. The soldiers aren’t warm to him anymore. (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...praise John for finding the sniper so quickly. The soldiers perform their own act of magic: they raise the sniper high into the air with a rope, so that the Vietnamese... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...own suspicion. Still, he decides, he is the Sorcerer, and he has a gift for magic. (full context)
Chapter 10: The Nature of Love
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...to her. Afterwards, they return to the party, where John makes a speech and does magic tricks. (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...a child of nine or ten, John would lie in bed, surrounded by catalogs of magic tricks, making note of all the prices. The next day, he would travel alone by... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
As a child, John practices magic tricks in front of the mirror. He thinks that he can use magic to read... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...little husky, but his father insisted that this wasn’t true, and criticized John for doing magic like a “pansy,” instead of playing sports. (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
At the age of eleven, John and his father drive to Karra’s Studio of Magic to buy John’s Christmas present. John notes that the store hasn’t changed since he was... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
At the magic shop, John chooses a magic trick called the “Guillotine of Death,” which is heavy and... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...Sorcerer is in his element. Vietnam is a place with tunnels, trap doors, monsters, and magic. There is no way of telling where the Vietcong are, or what the villagers are... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
When John’s father died, John was a teenager. The day he was buried, John performed magic in front of the mirror. He tells his father that he wasn’t fat, but normal. (full context)
Chapter 12: Evidence
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...of more pieces of evidence. The first is a quote from Robert Parrish’s book, The Magician’s Notebook. Parrish writes that magic tricks are possible because the magician hides the true causes... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...off a miracle. The author Bernard C. Meyer notes that spectators want to believe in magic; they give in to the great force and power of the magician. (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...help, but one must offer the veteran help anyway. Parrish argues that the fun of magic is that people want to believe in magic, but also know that magic is impossible.... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...to please others and be loved in return. Sandra Karra, the red-haired woman from the magic shop, notes that John continues to visit her store even when he got older but... (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
...argues that soldiers aren’t relieved of moral responsibility simply because they were following orders. A magician’s handbook defines misdirection—a technique the magician uses to distract the audience from the real source... (full context)
Chapter 16: Evidence
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
...war: 12 photographs of his father, a deck of cards, an empty bottle of vodka, magic books, and medals, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. (full context)
Chapter 17: The Nature of Politics
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...position that nonetheless helps him forget about the war. For their five-year anniversary, John does magic for Katy and makes five roses appear. Kathy observes that he seems more content and... (full context)
Chapter 20: Evidence
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...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.”... (full context)
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,... (full context)
Chapter 21: The Nature of the Spirit
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 22: Hypothesis
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
...part of gambling. He also points out that John isn’t interested in luck; he’s a magician, meaning that he’s only interested in the certainty of rigging the decks. As Tony speaks,... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...bar. Tony points out that John’s career is a lot like his performances as a magician. He performs magic, and part of the charm of the trick is that everyone knows... (full context)
Chapter 23: Where They Looked
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 25: Evidence
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
...a copy of The Peers Commission Report. Tony Carbo says that John ran out of magic—when the story about his behavior in Vietnam broke, Minnesota wasn’t forgiving at all. Patricia recalls... (full context)
Chapter 30: Evidence
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...John and Kathy are happy together somewhere. Thinbill acknowledges that John pulled off one final magic trick by disappearing. Still, Thinbill says, John still dreams about flies. (full context)
Chapter 31: Hypothesis
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
...admits knowing where Kathy is. Perhaps this is the biggest mystery of all—how John, a magician, could have woken up and discovered that his wife was gone without a trace. John... (full context)