In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien: Theme Analysis

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Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is centered around the mysterious disappearance of Kathy Wade. Mysterious is the key word, as throughout the novel O’Brien plays with the fine line between ambiguity and reality. Kathy’s husband John Wade, the main character, is a Vietnam veteran and former politician whose participation in the infamous Mai Lai Massacre caused his fall from grace. Following a landslide defeat in the congressional elections, Kathy and John retreat to solitude in an isolated cabin in the Minnesota woods. Here, O’Brien highlights the stress that secrecy has had on their relationship. During their retreat, Kathy disappears in the middle of the night. Their boat is missing, but there are no other clues. O’Brien does not reveal the truth behind Kathy’s disappearance; instead, throughout the novel, in several chapters entitled “Hypothesis,” he proposes potential solutions. O’Brien suggests that Kathy drowned in the lake, or John murdered her, or that she got lost on a deserted island. In the final hypothesis, which is both the most unsuspected and the most supported by the end of the novel, Kathy plans her disappearance. Weeks later, John too goes missing, and he and Kathy are together once again in an isolated world. While he leaves does not offer a conclusive verdict, O’Brien does support each theory with both evidence from John’s past and police evidence from Kathy’s disappearance.

The basis of In the Lake of the Woods is the burden of secrecy and the effects of truth. Mysteries are plentiful, including John’s obsession with magic as a young boy, the hiding of the Mai Lai massacre, the deceit of politics, and the central mystery of Kathy’s disappearance. The connecting theme between all of these mysteries is that secrecy was a convenient way for John and Kathy to avoid facing the facts, but the burden of hiding the truth eventually proved to be too much. In the end, while the truth is ugly, it does manage to liberate John and Kathy. To highlight this theme, O’Brien constantly uses light imagery, namely the presence or absence of sunlight to differentiate between truth and mystery.

O’Brien highlights several aspects of John Wade’s childhood to trace the mysteries that surround John back to his roots. As a child, John took an obsessive interest in magic, making frequent trips to “Karra’s Studio of Magic” to buy tricks, or illusions, as he called them. John used magic to escape from the verbal abuse of his drunken father, Paul, who frequently teased John for his weight. “After school, and on most weekends, he spent his free time down in the basement, all alone, no teasing or distractions, just perfecting his magic. There was something peaceful about it, something firm and orderly.” (208) For John, magic was a way to avoid facing his problems with his father. To further avoid dealing with the alcoholism, John even tried to get rid of the liquor by replacing it with water. “Another little trick,” he said. (209) Both this trick and his magic tricks did nothing but increase the secrecy surrounding John’s turbulent childhood. When he was sober, Paul was a loving father, which is what John feverishly tried to imagine him as. O’Brien highlighted the difference between the sober Paul and the drunk Paul through the use of light imagery. John’s mother, Eleanor, said, “He’d just point those incredible blue eyes at you and you’d feel like you were under a big hot sun or something…Except then he’d go back to the booze and it was like the sun burned itself out.” (195) The presence of sunlight when Paul was sober and a loving father proves that that was the image that John chose to believe. On the other hand, Eleanor said the sun burned out when Paul drank. This was because John ignored this side of his father, instead opting to cover it up with magic and secrecy. In fact, John kept pictures of his father, his father’s empty vodka bottles and his father’s neckties alongside his magic...
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