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.
War, Memory, and Trauma Theme Icon

All of the major characters in In the Lake of the Woods struggle to deal with traumatic events from their pasts. John Wade, the protagonist, endured verbal abuse from his father and then lost his father to suicide. Most disturbingly, he later witnessed and participated in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. At My Lai, American soldiers were ordered to murder Vietnamese women and children with the explanation that they were “dangerous.” While some soldiers refused to carry out the order, many killed innocent civilians without question. We learn that John killed two unarmed people in Vietnam: an old man carrying a hoe, and a fellow soldier.

John’s reaction to his experiences in the Vietnam War fits the classic definition of trauma given by Sigmund Freud (who’s quoted several times in the novel): an event so disturbing and stressful that the mind doesn’t know how to incorporate it into the memory, and thus relives it endlessly. As Freud’s definition would suggest, John experiences his memories of Vietnam—and also of his father—as if they’re happening to him in the present. At many points in the novel, John talks with his father as if he’s still alive, and has visions of My Lai that border on hallucination.

John tries to cope with trauma by repressing it—trying to make himself forget that it ever happened to him in the first place. While this strategy seems successful—John spends years as a loving husband and a successful politician—it actually causes John to experience sudden “bursts” of trauma. He yells out in his sleep, and after evidence of his actions in Vietnam comes out, his relationship with Kathy Wade, his wife, seems to deteriorate almost immediately. In no small part, John’s memories are traumatic because they seem to remind him who he really is: in other words, beneath his façade of charisma and kindness, he’s still “Jiggling John,” the child his father used to mock.

O’Brien (who served in Vietnam, has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, and has many friends who have experienced it, too) has no illusions: it’s incredibly difficult to deal with trauma. Nevertheless, he uses his novel to suggest a healthier way of coping with disturbing memories than the one John adopts. The form of In the Lake of the Woods itself implies that it is better to deal with the past by addressing it and treating it as a reality than it is to pretend that it never happened. O’Brien accumulates information about his subjects, John and Kathy Wade. He compares their actions with the actions of other, similar people—other soldiers who fought in Vietnam, for instance. At the same time, he delves into the characters’ deep thoughts and feelings—thoughts they would be reluctant to share with anyone else.

There is nothing inherently successful about O’Brien’s project; trauma is a terrible thing, and in many cases it’s impossible to make it any better. O’Brien also acknowledges that there is a limit to how much he, in the guise of the narrator, can know about John and Kathy. He ends the novel unsure whether John killed Kathy, Kathy killed herself, or the both of them ran off together. The entire novel, then, can be seen as a frustrating, inadequate attempt to perform the kind of therapy that John must perform on himself. Nevertheless, O’Brien acknowledges that the human mind has the ability to heal itself and overcome trauma over time. The only way to allow for this healing is to confront memory and trauma oneself by talking about it explicitly—hopefully John will do so.

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War, Memory, and Trauma 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 War, Memory, and Trauma.
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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Chapter 30 Quotes

It’s odd how the mind erases horror. All the evidence suggests that John Wade was able to perform a masterly forgetting trick for nearly two decades, somehow coping, pushing it all away, and from my own experience, I can understand how he kept things buried.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), John Herman Wade
Related Symbols: Magic
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, the narrator personally intervenes in the novel once again. In a footnote, he offers a subtly different interpretation of John Wade's life than the one we've gotten so far in the book. For the narrator, it's potentially possible to forget one's traumatic past, or at least to appear to forget it. As evidence, the narrator offers John Wade's own life as a "normal" politician.

By this point in the book, however, the idea that John Wade was successful in pushing away his time in Vietnam should seem ludicrous. Clearly, John didn't really forget about Vietnam at all; eventually, his guilt and anxiety resurfaced. Even in the years immediately after Vietnam, when John was a happy, charismatic politician, it's been suggested that he continued to experience flashbacks to his time in war. John didn't "keep things buried" at all.

So why does the narrator seem optimistic that John was successful in his attempts to "erase horror?" Perhaps the narrator is trying to convince himself that it's possible to forget the past. The narrator chooses to believe that John succeeded in repressing Vietnam in order to reassure himself that he (the narrator) can do the same. And yet, as we see, trauma never really goes away until it is confronted in a direct and healthy manner.