In the Lake of the Woods


Tim O’Brien

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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.

Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation

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…

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War, Memory, and Trauma

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…

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Evil, Human Nature, and Freedom

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…

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Appearance, the Unknowable, and Magic

When In the Lake of the Woods was first published, many readers were irritated that Tim O’Brien didn’t solve the mystery he’d laid out: he didn’t reveal what happened to Kathy Wade. While it’s true that there’s no way to determine to a certainty what happened, this shouldn’t be seen as a fault of the novel: In the Lake of the Woods is largely about mysteries without solutions. As O’Brien says several at several points…

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Love and Relationships

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…

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