In the Lake of the Woods

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Sunlight Symbol Icon
At several points in In the Lake of the Woods, soldiers—Richard Thinbill and the narrator himself—suggest that it was the sunlight in Vietnam that made American soldiers commit murder and other atrocities. It’s difficult to understand what they mean by this. On one hand, to say that anything “made” soldiers kill is to absolve the soldiers of some of their guilt. On the other hand, to blame murder on something as ubiquitous as sunlight amounts to saying that everyone is capable of murder. In this sense, sunlight symbolizes nature—both the nature of the world and human nature. It may be the case that it’s human nature to kill and hurt people. In this interpretation, the soldiers in Vietnam are no more or less virtuous than the Americans who stay home. The very ambiguity of sunlight as O’Brien describes it corresponds to the ambiguity in the way we’re meant to view John Wade and his actions as a soldier in Vietnam.

Sunlight Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods

The In the Lake of the Woods quotes below all refer to the symbol of Sunlight. 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

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.

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Sunlight Symbol Timeline in In the Lake of the Woods

The timeline below shows where the symbol Sunlight appears in In the Lake of the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 20: Evidence
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...there. When he saw My Lai, he understood why the massacre occurred: “it was the sunlight.” There was a feeling of unknowable wickedness, he continues, in the environment. Other factors that... (full context)
Chapter 21: The Nature of the Spirit
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Chapter 22: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...navigate her way back to the cottage. She looks at the map and at the sun, and tries to determine which direction is which. The exercise calms her. As she plans... (full context)