In the Lake of the Woods | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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In the Lake of the Woods | Symbols


The Lake

The lake serves as a mysterious element that reflects secrets. When looking through the surface of the lake water, it is difficult to get the same perspective as one does when looking through air. The light refracts and makes things in the water appear closer to the water's surface than they really are. A person trying to reach something below the water's surface has to do mental gymnastics to touch it the first time, much like what John goes through in an attempt to process his wartime experiences and the many losses he experiences. The reader also has to go beneath the surface of the text. Information is given in glimpses that are separated by time.

The vast unknown filled with "secret channels and portages and bays and tangled forests and islands without names," the lake itself, like John, is a great mystery. The lake is "a great curving mirror" similar to the mirrors in John's mind that have become his coping mechanism. The fog that rolls in off the lake every night, engulfing everything, is similar to the mental fog that John falls into as he sleeps, a fog that clouds his memories and his life and keeps the secrets of his life and also the lake. At one point, John describes the lake as "huge and empty" similar to the reality of his life. The emptiness parallels the emptiness inside of him where he buries his secrets and also alludes to the idea that the surface of the lake is hiding Kathy. The idea that Kathy is at the bottom of the lake is further alluded to near the end of the novel: "From the bottom of the lake, eyes wide open, Kathy Wade watches the fish fly...."


The mirrors in John Wade's mind stem from the mirror in front of which he practices his magic tricks as a young boy. As told in flashbacks, the mirror was a place "where miracles happened" and he begins to carry "the old stand-up mirror in his head." The mirror represents an escape for John, a place where he knows everything is pretend, but where he has the ability to transform the bad things into good things. As John grows older, the mirror becomes multiple mirrors, and the day of the massacre at Thuan Yen he "shut his eyes and retreated behind the mirrors in his head, pretending to be elsewhere...." He often falls back on the mirrors in his mind, and they come to represent his escape from reality and his true identity which has become an unknown through all the manipulations. The mirrors represent what he shows to people and what he hides from them.

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