In the Lake of the Woods

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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.
Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom Theme Icon

In his descriptions of the war in Vietnam, O’Brien confronts the concept of evil. In the village of Thuan Yen, American soldiers—many of them young and seemingly innocent—murder unarmed men, women, and children, sometimes because their commanders tell them to do so, and sometimes because they want to do so themselves. At one point, speaking in a footnote, the narrator of In the Lake of the Woods claims that it was “the sunlight” that made the soldiers in Vietnam commit their atrocities. While this could suggest that the soldiers aren’t fully accountable for their actions, the universal and constant presence of sunlight everywhere suggests that all humans are capable of committing atrocities—in other words, that it’s within human nature to kill and obey orders to kill.

During the Peers Commission court-martial for soldiers involved in the massacre of civilians in Vietnam, American soldiers are vilified and called monsters. Later, when it comes out that John Wade was involved in the massacre at Thuan Yen, and killed two people— one a fellow American soldier, and the other an unarmed old Vietnamese man—the voters of Minnesota come to think of John Wade as an “evil” man. The assumption here is that John, in taking other human lives, was a free agent who chose to kill, and thus should suffer the consequences.

O’Brien can’t possibly deal with all the issues of evil, human nature, and freedom that arise from the Vietnam War in only 300 pages. Nevertheless, he devotes a significant portion of his book to trying to explain how John came to kill other people. On one hand, he provides copious evidence for the influences that “led” John to kill: his troubled relationship with his father and his conflicted feelings for Kathy, for instance. He also describes John’s behavior when he shot a fellow soldier as a “reflex.” On the other hand, he doesn’t absolve John of all guilt by placing the blame on other people—it was John, not Kathy, not his father—who felt the urge to kill and hurt other people.

While humanity may have the potential to commit atrocities, O’Brien suggests, human behavior can’t be classified according to easy dichotomies like “good” and “evil,” or “innocent” and “guilty.” It’s not right to say that John is solely responsible for his actions, and it’s not right to say that all the blame lies in other people. Similarly, it would be wrong to argue that all humans are evil because they’re capable of murdering innocent people, just as it would be wrong to say that humans are good and the soldiers in Vietnam are somehow sub-human. It is, however, possible to condemn John’s actions while also feeling sympathy for him—how much condemnation and how much sympathy one gives him is ultimately the reader’s choice, not O’Brien’s.

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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom 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 Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom.
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 8 Quotes

He moved to the far end of the living room, steadied himself, and boiled a small spider plant. It wasn’t rage; it was necessity.

Related Characters: John Herman Wade (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage draws an important distinction between rage and necessity. We see John Wade walking through his cabin in Lake of the Woods late at night. He boils water to make some tea for himself, but then pours the boiling water onto a plant instead. No lengthy explanation is offered for Wade's bizarre behavior. We're only told that Wade isn't killing the plant because he's angry; rather, he's acting out of necessity—he feels that he has no other choice than to kill the plant.

John's behavior in this scene (and throughout the novel) is indicative of his lasting psychological trauma, sustained during the Vietnam War (when he witnessed and participated in horrific acts of violence) and during his childhood (when his father abused him and then hanged himself). People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often say that they feel that they have no free will; they're just robots, going through the motions even when doing frightening things. The passage captures a similar sense of robotic helplessness—and yet it also shows John committing an act that, while small and petty, seems entirely cruel or even evil.

The passage also hints, very subtly, that even a medical diagnosis of John's problems is insufficient. At various points in the book, the plant that John kills is identified in various contradictory ways (sometimes it's a different species of plant altogether). Such ambiguities in the "hard facts" of the scene point to the unknowability of the novel's mystery and sense of truth, and also to John's state of mind—we can guess what he's been through, but we'll never really know.

Chapter 13 Quotes

John Wade would remember Thuan Yen the way chemical nightmares are remembered, impossible combinations, impossible events, and over time the impossibility itself would become the richest and deepest and most profound memory.
This could not have happened. Therefore it did not.

Related Characters: John Herman Wade (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

The American soldiers' experiences in Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s were some of the grimmest of any American war. Soldiers witnessed—and, horrifyingly, participated in—the murder of fellow troops, the burning of civilian villages, and the slaughter of women and children. Many soldiers—John Wade included—went through so much trauma in Vietnam that they developed a condition called PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Tragically, most of the soldiers who contracted this psychological disorder never got the medical help they desperately needed. John, for example, deals with his pain and guilt by repressing it; i.e., by pretending it never happened. As he says, "This could not have happened. Therefore it did not."

The natural questions, then, are what could not have happened, and why couldn't "it" have happened?" To the first question, O'Brien gives a number of answers, none of them totally convincing. It's suggested that John participated in the murder of Vietnamese civilians, and may have shot one of his own peers. The second question, however, is even more important. John refuses to believe that his trauma occurred because he refuses to believe that he's anything other than a "good man." Because he's so fixated on his own appearance of virtue, he tries to forget about his un-virtuous (and even evil) behavior as a soldier. Of course, John's effort to force himself to forget his past practically guarantees that he'll never forget it at all.

Chapter 16 Quotes

All I remember now is the flies.

Related Characters: Richard Thinbill (speaker)
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Richard Thinbill, a troubled Vietnam veteran, remembers his experiences in a Vietnamese village—the site of a brutal massacre orchestrated and carried out by American troops—by referring to flies. Thinbill's quotation says nothing, and everything. The word "flies" calls to mind eerie and disturbing things, like corpses or rotting meat. Without explicitly mentioning any of the unpleasant things we associate with flies, O'Brien conveys these qualities in Thinbill's mind. Indeed, the veiled allusions to death and destruction are more disturbing than any description of a dead body could ever be.

And yet flies don't just make us think of corpses and rotting meat. Flies are also completely ordinary animals, more common than dogs or cats. In short, flies are both strange and familiar; morbid and banal. By choosing flies as a symbol for Thinbill's recollections of Vietnam, O'Brien makes an important point about the way trauma works. The tiniest "trigger"—something as insignificant as a fly buzzing—could set Thinbill off on a long, painful flashback to his time in the war. Thinbill (and his hundreds of thousands of fellow veterans) lives in a nightmarish world in which he's constantly reliving the worst moments of his life.

Chapter 19 Quotes

The thing about facts, he decided, was that they came in sizes. You had to try them on for proper fit. A case in point: his own responsibility. Right now he couldn’t help feeling the burn of guilt.

Related Characters: John Herman Wade (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we see John Wade struggling with his most common emotion: guilt. John Wade's wife, Kathy, is nowhere to be found, and seems to have disappeared into the lake. Because of the way O'Brien structures the chapter, however, it's not at all clear if John knows where his wife is or not. Because of the (intentional) lack of clarity in perspective, we have no way of knowing what, precisely, John is feeling guilty about. John may be pondering his treatment of Kathy—he may have literally killed her and disposed of the body. On the other extreme, John's anxiety about Kathy's whereabouts may have triggered some of the guilt he feels with regard to his father and to the war in Vietnam. Because he's always felt unloved and disliked, John has always felt guilty that his peers and family members don't love him more. So, strange as it seems, John's guilt in the aftermath of Kathy's disappearance isn't necessarily an admission of guilt at all—it's the natural response for an unloved child. O'Brien emphasizes the uncertainty of John's situation by commenting on the problem with facts themselves. As John describes them, facts aren't "true" at all; they have to be adjusted, tried on for size, etc. By the same token, there's no way to determine the facts about Kathy's disappearance: instead, O'Brien offers many contradictory facts, none of which tell the full story.

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.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Thinbill sighed. “I guess that’s the right attitude. Laugh it off. Fuck the spirit world.”

Related Characters: Richard Thinbill (speaker), John Herman Wade
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Thinbill—one of the only soldiers mentioned in the novel who doesn't participate in the atrocities of My Lai and other Vietnamese villages—gives John Wade some advice on how to deal with trauma. John has witnessed innocent women and children being murdered, and has even shot a harmless elderly man. John can't stop thinking about the horrific sights he's seen: like many victims of PTSD, he remembers the faces of the dead in vivid, photographic detail. John's reaction to his terrifying memories is to laugh.

In the way Thinbill interprets John's laughter, John is trying to escape his own memories of Vietnam (which Thinbill refers to as the "spirit world," suggesting how Vietnam will "haunt" the American soldiers). But as O'Brien has already shown us, John can't just "laugh off" his trauma. For years, John tries to use performance, humor, and charm to forget his experiences in Vietnam, but he never succeeds in doing so. So Thinbill's interpretation of John's behavior may be incorrect. Thinbill believes John is "moving on," but in reality, John's laughter is just an extension of his trauma, not an escape from it. In short, John tries to laugh off his past, but fails.

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.