In the Lake of the Woods

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Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation 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.
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Theme Icon

Reading the first few pages of In the Lake of the Woods, it becomes clear that the novel is written in an unconventional style. There are fairly normal-seeming chapters written in the third person. But there are also chapters that consist of nothing but pieces of evidence; furthermore, most of the evidence consists of quotations from other people, some real, some fictional. There are also chapters that illustrate how certain events might have transpired. Read side-by-side, these hypothetical chapters often contradict one another. Finally, there are occasional footnotes, in which the narrator speaks in the first person, revealing that he, like his main character John Wade, fought in Vietnam and visited My Lai. (In real life, the author Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam and went to My Lai a year after the massacre.)

In one sense, O’Brien writes this way because it’s the best—arguably the only realistic—way to convey the experience of an American soldier in Vietnam. In contrast to the way earlier American wars had been conducted, Americans were being told multiple, contradictory things about who the enemy was, where the enemy could be found, and how Vietnamese civilians should be treated. After atrocities like the My Lai Massacre, many American soldiers and commanders lied about their complicity in the war, while on the home front, American politicians misrepresented the success and conduct of American soldiers. By reading In the Lake of the Woods, then, the reader can be said to experience a low-stakes version of the moral conundrum of the American soldier in Vietnam. The reader must decide which elements of the story are truth and which are fiction, which parts are misdirection and which parts, if any, should be believed.

But O’Brien doesn’t only describe Vietnam in this fragmented, chaotic fashion—all of In the Lake of the Woods is written in this way. O’Brien isn’t just aiming for heightened realism; he also wants readers to rethink authorship and reading. At the end of the novel, for instance, the narrator—and Tim O’Brien, a similar but nonetheless separate entity from the narrator—leaves us to decide what happened to John Wade and Kathy Wade. Kathy might have left John, or she might have killed herself. John might have killed her, or they might have run off together.

In order to decide what happened to the characters, the reader is forced to make moral judgments about John and Kathy. By deciding that John killed Kathy, for instance, one falls into the moral judgment that John is guilty of murder in Vietnam, and that his murderous tendencies overwhelmed his life of respectability. More broadly, this might suggest that all humans have the capacity for evil, or that some of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam became evil as a result of their experiences there.

There’s no way to tell whether this opinion is right or wrong—and this is precisely the point. In other novels, the author acts as a kind of “military commander,” telling the reader exactly what happens and how to feel about it. By playing with the more normal techniques of authorship, O’Brien neglects or rejects the usual duties of the author. He wants the reader to be active, not passive, and to be forced to consider and interpret the full complexity of reality, to face the impossibility of ever knowing “the truth”, whether in wartime Vietnam or peacetime Minnesota.

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Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation 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 Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation.
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.


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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 22 Quotes

All you could do, he’d said, was open yourself up like a window and wait for fortune to blow in. And then they’d talked about stuck windows. Tony suggested that she unstick herself. So she’d shrugged and said she had tried it once but the unsticking hadn’t gone well.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Kathleen “Kathy” Terese Wade, Anthony “Tony” L. Carbo
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Kathy thinks about some advice Tony has given her recently. Tony knows that Kathy is locked in an unhappy marriage to John Wade. His advice is that Kathy free herself from her own unhappiness: in short, that she "unstick" herself.

It's important to recognize that Tony is referring to Kathy's marital infidelities here: he knows that Kathy has had an affair with another man at some point, and his advice is that Kathy should leave John for good. Of course, Tony is attracted to Kathy, and so his advice is also flirtation: he acts like he wants Kathy to be "free," but really he just wants to date her.

Tony's advice is also meant to counterpoint the difficulty that John and Kathy have with disentangling themselves from each other, and from their respective pasts. John has a long, traumatic past, and he can't just unstick himself, no matter how hard he tries. Similarly, Kathy feels that she has too much emotional baggage with John: as much as she sometimes wants to leave, she's too close to John to do so.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Why do we care about Lizzie Borden, or Judge Carter, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or the Little Big Horn? Because of all that cannot be known. And what if we did know? What if it were proved—absolutely and purely—that Lizzie Borden took an ax? That Oswald acted alone? That Judge Carter fell into Sicilian hands? Nothing more would beckon, nothing would tantalize.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Lizzie Borden, Lee Harvey Oswald
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the narrator applies the rules of magic to real life (and to the novel). The world is full of unsolved mysteries, the narrator begins: Kennedy's assassination, the Battle of Little Big Horn, etc. There have been many people who've tried to solve these real-life mysteries, devoting thousands and thousands of hours to doing so. And yet for all their efforts, the narrator concludes, most of us don't really want to know the answer to the mystery. As with a magic trick, a real-life mystery (even a tragic or traumatic one) is fascinating in part because we can't know what really happened. Everyone feels a hunger for the truth, but if that hunger were ever satisfied in the case of (for example) Kennedy's assassination, people would forfeit something equally powerful—the sense of tantalizing excitement.

O'Brien's observations have some obvious relevance to the events of the novel. When we began reading, we naturally assumed that we would learn the solution to the "mystery" of Kathy's disappearance. But as we approach the end of the book, it becomes clear that O'Brien isn't going to tell us what happened. Furthermore, it's possible that we don't truly want to know what happened: the possibilities are too intriguing to choose only one.

Chapter 31 Quotes

If all is supposition, if ending is air, then why not happiness? Are we so cynical, so sophisticated, as to write off even the chance of happy ending?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, the narrator offers some thoughts on the unknowability of Kathy's disappearance. After 300 pages of hypotheses about what happened to Kathy, the narrator throws up his hands and admits that he has no idea what the truth is. But the narrator goes on to make a more complicated point: if we can't know what "really" happened, he argues, we might as well accept the most optimistic interpretation of the facts, provided that it's reasonable.

The narrator's rhetorical question sheds some light on the novel itself, without offering a "solution" to the mystery of Kathy's disappearance. The narrator tells us that "all is supposition." The natural question, then, is what was the purpose of this entire book? Strangely, the narrator has led readers through pages of facts and entire chapters of evidence, just to illustrate (in the most unforgettable way!) that all this evidence is futile. He's taken us across a bridge to nowhere, and then blown up the bridge.

And yet the narrator's project isn't totally destructive, even if he's destroyed some of our faith in the facts of the narrative. Evidence and research can't illuminate the truth for us, but we can choose to believe the most optimistic (or pessimistic, etc.) interpretation of the facts. In short, facts can't save us—only hope and personal interpretation can do that.