In the Lake of the Woods | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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In the Lake of the Woods | Themes


The Human Propensity for Manipulation

After the loss of his father, John is consumed by anger and wants to kill everybody, including his father: "He wanted to take a hammer and crawl into the casket and kill his father for dying." His father's suicide by hanging is an event that John is powerless to prevent. It starts a pattern of behavior in which he seeks to control all aspects of his life. He discovers that through his imagination he is able to manipulate his reality and "pretend that his father was not truly dead." These events not only reveal John's obsession with control, but also his desire to manipulate situations and the people around him through that control.

After his father's death, John falls deeper in love with his magic, an activity in which he is in complete control. When he meets Kathy, he immediately is scared of losing her: "The trick then was to make her love him and never stop." Even in Vietnam his ability to do tricks endears him to his fellow soldiers, and he becomes nicknamed "Sorcerer." This title and prestige indicate an acceptance that inflates his ego and the power that he believes he holds. Despite Kathy's response to John's bragging about being the Sorcerer—"Be careful with the tricks. One of these days you'll make me disappear,"—her hesitancy when listening to his political aspirations, and her questioning of his motivations are genuine, Kathy sticks by John who constantly seeks admiration and validation from others. He uses magic to obtain love and approval, a skill that ultimately seeps into the rest of his life as he tries to use his powers of manipulation in all situations—from spying on Kathy to erasing himself from military records involving the events at Thuan Yen. John continually presents himself as a persona that is happy and easygoing while masking the reality of his past and trauma and even attempting to erase it. Though Kathy often suggests that he use his political power for something good, John listens to the advice of his campaign manager, Anthony J. (Tony) Carbo, as John plays the game of politics. Ultimately, he is consumed by acquiring more and more recognition and validation, and he manipulates his life, his wife, and his career to achieve them.

John's willingness to manipulate his own identity is evident in the different ways he is referred to in the text and the various personas he presents to people. In the flashbacks to his childhood and with Kathy, he is simply John the loving husband. In his flashbacks regarding his time in Vietnam and everyone who knew him in Vietnam, he is Sorcerer. Finally, after Kathy's disappearance, he is predominantly referred to as Wade, Senator Wade, or Mr. Wade, all of which reflect the public persona that he portrays to everyone else.

The Impact of War and Trauma

The impacts of the events at Thuan Yen and the overall trauma of the Vietnam War are woven throughout the novel. John's flashbacks are the most prevalent example of the trauma he experiences. The matter-of-fact retellings are shockingly juxtaposed with the horrors of what the soldiers experience. In describing the details of a man named Reinhart's death by a sniper, John comments, "He was eating a Mars bar." John reflects on his shooting of Private First Class (PFC) Weatherby by likening the jerking motion he makes after being shot to a hitchhiker, "A poor bum who couldn't catch a ride." The stark reality of the gruesome events coupled with the nonchalant descriptions tend to downplay the horror, yet at the same time illustrate the fact that the soldiers have to resort to mental compartmentalization in an attempt to stay sane and focus on their orders.

Upon returning from the war, John is aware that he is "sick," and he knows that what he feels isn't right. At one point he tries to "unload the horror in his stomach" by talking about his experiences with Kathy, but she does not want to acknowledge what happened to him, nor does she encourage him to unburden himself. Kathy is scared of John, particularly when he yells in his sleep, a fact that she shares with both her sister and her coworkers at Minnesota State University.

The references to the inescapable flies that are ever-present, buzzing with memories, coupled with John's propensity to sink into dream-like states illustrate his difficulty in escaping his past. Despite his attempts to bury his experiences and erase his presence in Vietnam, it seems his past will continue to haunt him.

The Secrets and Sacrifices of Marriage

The Hypothesis chapters, coupled with insights into John and Kathy Wade's personal thoughts, contain reflections and experiences that prompt the question of whether one person ever truly knows another. It is evident that John loves Kathy deeply, but he does have his secrets as he never fully opens up to her about his deepest feelings beyond their love or his past. At one point he attempts to unburden himself and share his past with her, but she has no interest in discussing what happened in Vietnam. And, yet, in his most honest moments near the end of the novel, as he conducts his "one-man talk show," he avows his abiding love for her and asks "...let us strive to be honest—would you not tell a fib or two?" This prompts the reader to consider whether or not John's secrets are similar to those that other people keep.

Kathy is an enigma herself, at times disappearing to elude John and keeping her own secrets such as her affair with the dentist, Harmon and her hatred of politics or being in the social spotlight. Kathy puts her own happiness on hold, setting aside her dreams of having a family. Her abortion and her desire for John to accomplish meaningful things as a politician supersede her own dreams and wishes. There are signs that she is fed up with her life and her sacrifices ultimately become too much for her, yet there are other signals that despite everything she continues to love John deeply and wants to keep living their life.

Although they have a deep love for each other, their unwillingness to completely share themselves and their feelings results in a marriage that lacks substance beyond the love that they share. Neither of them is ever completely honest, satisfied, or fulfilled.

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