The phrase “one plus one equals zero” shows up at several points in the novel, as does the symbol of two snakes eating each other. In a sense, these are two different versions of the same problem. As John sees it, the two snakes eating each other symbolize the unity of love—his love for Kathy specifically. At the same time, the image is gruesome, and foreshadows the anger and pain and mutual destruction that John and Kathy will cause each other. John sees his entire life as a version of the two snakes—he thinks that every action must be accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, when he kills innocent people in Vietnam, he tries to “balance out” his murders by forging documents and enduring great pain and danger. One (John’s actions in Vietnam) plus one (John’s pain and lying) is meant to equal zero (total innocence). Yet, for much of the novel, it seems that one plus one never equals zero. John tries to forget his guilt, but he can’t, and eventually, everyone in Minnesota knows that he participated in the massacre at Thuan Yen. Similarly, John’s relationship with Kathy isn’t the beautifully symmetric marriage he seems to want—John, the stronger and more persuasive partner, takes control of Kathy’s life and forces her to have an abortion, even though she wants children. And yet we’re also given some indications that one plus one can equal zero. The narrator acknowledges that it’s possible that John and Kathy actually left Lake of the Woods together and learned to treat each other with love and mutual respect. There’s no proof that this happened, but it’s certainly possible. In the end, the image of the two snakes, which can be interpreted positively or negatively, stands for the events of the entire book. One can interpret the novel in an optimistic or a pessimistic light, depending on whether or not one believes that it’s possible to move past sin and guilt.
One Plus One Equals Zero / The Two Snakes Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods
The In the Lake of the Woods quotes below all refer to the symbol of One Plus One Equals Zero / The Two Snakes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one: Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Books edition of In the Lake of the Woods published in 1995.).
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.
One Plus One Equals Zero / The Two Snakes Symbol Timeline in In the Lake of the Woods
The timeline below shows where the symbol One Plus One Equals Zero / The Two Snakes appears in In the Lake of the Woods. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 10: The Nature of Love
...As he stares at her, Sorcerer pictures Weatherby, and his father’s coffin. He imagines two snakes eating each other, and dreams of the possibility that they eat all of each other,... (full context)
Chapter 23: Where They Looked
...about magic, and contemplates a “last nifty illusion,” a piece of “casual transportation,” similar to snakes eating one another. As he thinks, he remembers his father, and thinks that he knows... (full context)
Chapter 30: Evidence
...Vincent that something doesn’t add up about Kathy disappearance. He says that John is wrong: one plus one never equals zero. Ruth Rasmussen says that Claude was angry when the police dug up... (full context)