In the Lake of the Woods

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The Lake Symbol Icon
The most obvious symbol in In the Lake of the Woods (so obvious it’s in the title) is the lake itself. Throughout the book, we’re told that Lake of the Woods is big and complex—so complex that it’s possible to search it for months and never find what one’s looking for. Later, we’re told that in Lake of the Woods, things are neither entirely present nor entirely absent. Focusing on the latter observation, we can speculate that the lake symbolizes the past: the traumatic secrets, big and small, that all the characters of the novel hide. John’s traumatic experiences in Vietnam haunt him for years afterwards. He sometimes thinks that they’ll never entirely go away because they almost felt like dreams to begin with. This is a well-documented reaction to trauma: the events are so shocking and unprecedented that the mind doesn’t know what to do with them, whether at the moment when they happen or in subsequent years. In this sense, the fact that the contents of the lake are neither entirely present nor absent is an apt metaphor for John’s — and the other characters’ — troubled relationship with the past. It’s also worth noting that the lake, with its vast dimensions and complex interior is quite a lot like the novel itself: a puzzle that can never be solved.

The Lake Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods

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

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The Lake Symbol Timeline in In the Lake of the Woods

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Lake appears in In the Lake of the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: How Unhappy They Were
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...there are no people or towns whatsoever. The cottage has a beautiful view of the lake, which points north to Canada. The two people have come to Lake of the Woods... (full context)
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
After six nights in Lake of the Wood s, Kathy tells her companion, a man, that things aren’t that bad—together, they can make... (full context)
Chapter 4: What He Remembered
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On the seventh day that John and Kathy spend at Lake of the Wood s, John remembers, nothing much happens. They laugh and chat over breakfast, but as Kathy... (full context)
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Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...with Kathy. He does recall, however, that around noon they went to swim in the lake. As they float in the water, John looks across the lake and imagines that he... (full context)
Chapter 9: Hypothesis
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
...she walked into the bedroom, where she smelled wet wool and saw John pouring boiling water on the bed. After this, she might have concluded that her husband was beyond all... (full context)
Chapter 11: What He Did Next
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
...after his electoral defeat to offer him a chance to stay in the cottage in Lake of the Wood s for two weeks. In the car, John repeats that Kathy has taken the boat.... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
...probably talking to Kathy right now. He tells John that he’s owned his land on Lake of the Wood s for nearly a quarter century, and has never lost a single person, except for... (full context)
Chapter 14: Hypothesis
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...nearby Magnuson’s Island, the boat hit a sandbar, injuring Kathy and throwing her into the water. Maybe this is how she died, the narrator concludes. (full context)
Chapter 15: What the Questions Were
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
After Kathy’s disappearance, the County Sheriff Art Lux flies in from Baudette, a town near Lake of the Wood s, and sets up a headquarters at Vinny Pearson’s Texaco station. At 9am on September... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...she is being careful to be civil with him. She says that she’ll be in Lake of the Wood s tomorrow. (full context)
Chapter 18: Hypothesis
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...Magnuson and then continued to American Point and Buckete Island. As she rode through the water, she would have felt relieved not to be thinking about politics. Perhaps she slid her... (full context)
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...this and rode in the boat, Kathy must have been glad to be on the water, far away from John. (full context)
Chapter 19: What Was Found
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...two days after John discovers Kathy missing, there are almost a hundred volunteers searching the lake for Kathy, along with aircraft, patrol boats, and an airplane with special infrared sensors. Yet... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...John thinks that Kathy walked the trail every day that she and John were by Lake of the Wood s. He wonders if she’s watching him right now. After twenty minutes of walking, he... (full context)
Chapter 22: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...her. As she plans her route, she thinks about building a huge casino on the lake, and remembers playing the slots in Las Vegas during a campaign visit she made with... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Back in Lake of the Wood s, Kathy feels cold, and wishes she were back on the island with her fire.... (full context)
Chapter 23: Where They Looked
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...am on September 22. Claude, Pat, and John are pushing Claude’s large Chris-Craft boat into Lake of the Wood s so that they can look for Kathy themselves. As John pushes, he feels a... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
The three continue searching for Kathy on small islands in Lake of the Wood s. The islands are very flat, and don’t show any signs of life. They boat... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
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... (full context)
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...that he could end up like Kathy—lost in a boat in the middle of a lake. Pat sarcastically praises John’s chivalry. (full context)
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
The next day, it snows in Lake of the Wood s, and John spends the morning shoveling snow in the driveway outside Claude’s house. He... (full context)
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
Love and Relationships 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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 24: Hypothesis
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...1983, when she had an affair with Harmon in Boston. Later, she killed herself in Lake of the Wood s. Kathy has been on the brink of suicide, the narrator suggests, for many years... (full context)
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Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
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As Kathy boats through Lake of the Wood s, preparing to kill herself, perhaps she thought more about returning from Boston and greeting... (full context)
Chapter 27: Hypothesis
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...stones. After this, John tips the boat on its side so that it fills with water, and then lets it sink to the bottom of the lake. (full context)
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...a while before he let the body go and returned to the surface of the lake. Later on, John would have woken up in bed and reflexively reached for Kathy. Then... (full context)
Chapter 29: The Nature of the Angles
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The narrator notes that Kathy Wade, lying at the bottom of the lake, watches fish swimming. In Lake of the Woods, he continues, there is a large body... (full context)
Chapter 30: Evidence
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon
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...Kee says, Kathy was a great actress. Lux says that he never found anything in Lake of the Wood s that incriminated John, and compares the process of investigating a crime to digging a... (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
...remembers one clue in Kathy’s disappearance: when Bethany asked Kathy when she’d come back from Lake of the Wood s, Kathy merely laughed—as if, Bethany thinks, she knew something. Sigmund Freud says that biographers... (full context)
Chapter 31: Hypothesis
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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon
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The novel ends with the image of John alone on Lake of the Wood s, heading north, “lost in the tangle.” The narrator asks if it’s possible that John... (full context)