In the Lake of the Woods

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Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In the Lake of the Woods, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Theme Icon

When In the Lake of the Woods was first published, many readers were irritated that Tim O’Brien didn’t solve the mystery he’d laid out: he didn’t reveal what happened to Kathy Wade. While it’s true that there’s no way to determine to a certainty what happened, this shouldn’t be seen as a fault of the novel: In the Lake of the Woods is largely about mysteries without solutions. As O’Brien says several at several points, life itself is a mystery without a solution—put another way, there’s always more mystery than certainty in a person’s life. On one hand, O’Brien presents John Wade, Kathy, and the other characters as puzzles. It takes us half the novel, for instance, to learn that John’s father killed himself when John was a teenager. And even when we learn this, we sense that there’s an even bigger secret in the form of John’s relationship with his father—a relationship which O’Brien can try to convey in all of its complexity, but ultimately can’t. On the other hand, O’Brien’s novel is about appearances, and, more often than not, the appearance of total goodness: charm, charisma, politeness, kindness, etc.:

The most troubled characters in In the Lake of the Woods are the ones who seem the most “normal” to other people. John’s father, a depressed alcoholic, is a beloved figure in his neighborhood, and John himself takes up magic, and later politics, to make himself seem likable. It’s almost as if the appearance of wholesomeness and likability are evidence of some deep-down, unknowable sadness or neurosis.

This tension between what is seen and what lies beneath is the essence of magic. As O’Brien argues throughout his book, the “charm” of magic is that the audience knows things aren’t what they seem (the magician isn’t actually making the rabbit disappear), and yet wants to believe that things are what they seem. The tension between appearance and truth is more interesting and satisfying than truth by itself could ever be—it wouldn’t be any fun to know the secret behind every magic trick, after all. The psychology of magic helps explain why Kathy stays with John even after she senses that something isn’t quite right with him—she enjoys the mystery of his personality. In much the same way, this is why O’Brien doesn’t provide a solution to the mystery of Kathy’s disappearance. The solution by itself couldn’t possibly be as entertaining as all the possible explanations for how she disappeared, taken together.

Enjoying the mystery more than the solution can be dangerous—for instance, by accepting the “mystery” of John’s personality, Kathy accepts and in some ways encourages his trauma and neurosis. And yet O’Brien the author can’t entirely disavow this way of dealing with mystery, since he treats the mystery of Kathy’s disappearance in much the same way. Ultimately, appearance and the unknowable reach a stalemate. It’s impossible to know everything about everyone. In the absence of perfect information, humans make up scenarios and possibilities to explain what they don’t understand. The result is a feeling of “magic”—failing to understand a phenomenon and enjoying the sense of uncertainty. Rather than judge this feeling as being entirely “good” or “bad,” O’Brien suggests that it’s a part of human nature.

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Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods

Below you will find the important quotes in In the Lake of the Woods related to the theme of Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic.
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 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.