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.
Love and Relationships Theme Icon

While In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery and a war novel, it’s also a love story. The characters are motivated by their love for other people, and, perhaps even more importantly, their desire to be loved in return. One of O’Brien’s most important points is that the way people express their love for one another often parallels the way they loved and were loved by their families. John Wade’s tense relationship with his father—his father is a charming, likable man, but also an alcoholic who verbally abuses his son and later hangs himself—has a major influence on the way John treats his friends and wife. The absence of unconditional love from his father makes John crave love from other people, and inspires him to perform magic tricks and take up politics as a career. He wants other people to love him so that he feels happier, but he often shows little respect for these other people. Indeed, he controls and manipulates them, as if they’re tools whose only use is to make him feel better about himself.

At the same time, John wants to love other people—he tells Kathy that he wants to go into politics to help people. It wouldn’t be right to say that John is lying when he says this to Kathy. In reality, John’s idea of love is both sincere and insincere. He’s torn between treating people as means to an end and respecting them for their own thoughts and feelings.

Kathy’s love for John is as complicated as John’s love for her. She recognizes that John “needs” love to a greater extent than other people, and for the most part, she is happy to supply it, even when it isn’t returned. Patricia, Kathy’s sister, often criticizes Kathy for putting up with John’s rudeness and manipulation—at one point, we discover that Kathy knows that John follows her wherever she goes, and doesn’t do anything about it. For much of her marriage to John, Kathy seems to think of love as an act of unconditional giving. She loves John, and seems to be satisfied with being a means to the end of his happiness.

The love between John and Kathy, or between John and the people of Minnesota whom he serves, is based on the denial of information. John hides his own personal history, both from Kathy and his constituents, but insists on knowing everything about other people, using manipulation and deception to gain this information. The most obvious problem with this kind of love is that it doesn’t last. Eventually, Kathy responds to John’s deception with deception of her own—she has an affair with a dentist named Harmon. Similarly, the voters of Minnesota eventually learn about John’s experiences in Vietnam, and end their “relationship” with John.

Toward the end of his book, O’Brien implies another model of what love could be. Instead of being an asymmetric relationship, with one lover keeping secrets yet demanding to know everything about his partner, love could consists of the reciprocal exchange of information, based on mutual respect. Thus, John and Kathy could exchange some but not all of their secrets with one another, providing sympathy and support as they do so. There’s no guarantee that John and Kathy reach this kind of love, or if it’s even possible. O’Brien leaves it up to the reader to decide if John and Kathy learn from their mistakes and develop a more equal relationship.

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Love and Relationships 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 Love and Relationships.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He didn’t talk much. Even his wife I don’t think she knew the first damn thing about him … well, about any of it. The man just kept everything buried.

Related Characters: Anthony “Tony” L. Carbo (speaker), John Herman Wade
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel alternates between chapters narrated from single characters' perspective and chapters like this one, which consist of pieces of "evidence" culled from interviews with the characters, other books, and real-life historical events. Here, Anthony Carbo, John Wade's campaign manager, describes John's personality: John was an extremely private man, to the point where even John's own wife didn't feel that she knew who he was. And because it's still early in the novel, we the readers don't know any more about John than Anthony does.

The quotation establishes the true "mystery" of In the Lake of the Woods. The novel appears to be about the search to solve the mystery of Kathleen Wade, who disappears suddenly during her time at Lake of the Woods; however the real mystery of the book is about John himself: what secrets, if any, he was hiding from his wife, and what, exactly, he kept "buried."


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Chapter 10 Quotes

They would live in perfect knowledge, all things visible, all things invisible, no wires or strings, just that large dark world where one plus one would always come to zero.

Related Characters: John Herman Wade (speaker), Kathleen “Kathy” Terese Wade
Related Symbols: One Plus One Equals Zero / The Two Snakes
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, John Wade, who has recently returned from the Vietnam War and married Kathy Wade, contemplates a happy future with his wife. John has been through a great deal—violence, war, an abusive parent, etc.—and he's spent most of his adult life trying to deal with his psychological scars, desperately try to erase them so that he can be "normal." In Kathy, John thinks he's finally found a way to be normal. Kathy is a kind, loving woman, who seems to love John for the person he aspires to be (honest, virtuous, etc.), rather than the person he may secretly be (deceptive, violent, manipulative). O'Brien chooses an interesting metaphor to convey John's aspiration of normality. The idea of one plus one equaling zero is strange—almost like a magic trick itself, though here John insists the opposite. While there are many symbolic interpretations of "one plus one equals zero" (see Symbols), John's thoughts here suggest that he thinks Kathy's normality can "shadow" or erase his own dark past. In other words, John thinks that in Kathy he's found someone so understanding and tolerant that she'll make him forget his traumatic experiences: her "one" will cancel out his own.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Humming to herself, Kathy adjusted the tiller and began planning a dinner menu, two big steaks and salad and cold beer, imagining how she’d describe everything that was happening out here. Get some sympathy for herself. Get his attention for a change.
The idea gave her comfort. She could almost picture a happy ending.

Related Characters: Kathleen “Kathy” Terese Wade (speaker)
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 18, we're presented with one hypothesis for how Kathy Wade disappeared: she drove off in a boat by herself after having an argument with John. In this particular section, O'Brien offers us a window into Kathy's thought process for this scenario. As Kathy drives the boat, she thinks about how worried John must be that she's not at home. Moreover, she relishes the reunion she'll have with John that night: they'll have a nice meal and try to make a fresh start.

More generally, the passage offers an explanation for how Kathy has managed to stay married to John—a man she regards as dangerous and mysterious, and who she doesn't really know—for so many years. Kathy is an eternal optimist: no matter how bad things get, she's willing to look forward to a future in which things will be better between her and her husband. And yet Kathy is also something of a masochist: she enjoys the constant struggle for a happy marriage perhaps more than she would enjoy the happy marriage itself. Here, she seems to be enjoying her own "plot" to manipulate John into apology.

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.