In the Lake of the Woods

“In the Lake of the Woods” by Tim O’Brien’s

In Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods, a sensational story of a war veteran John Wade is presented. This book is full of suspense and intermitted storylines such that the reader wonders what the writer was aiming to express. Any novel, drama, motion picture, or poem is specially written to present several themes that coalesce around a central theme that is exalted by every action that is taking place. Right from the characters, plot, setting, and point of view every aspect of a literary work converges towards the actualization of the dreams of the writer of presenting a premeditated theme. In the Lake of the Woods, the theme of denial brought by the American dream seems to take center stage. This paper will use plot, character analysis, and point of view to explore how O’ Brien presents the main, pointed above theme of his literary creation.

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The American Dream has been presented for as long as the desire to have a modern lifestyle where success is the order of the day. Everybody is obsessed with success in the United States such that even beggars have a dream of rising from their dilapidated poor conditions to superfluous riches. It is the only place where people plan on the number of kids to have and build perfect relationships and courtship founded on love, where political careers are molded by democracy, where peace exists, and corruption is a thing of the past. O’ Brien presents several minor themes that conglomerate to build this central theme. Denial can be defined as the inability to accept realities because of their painful nature or reluctance to accept the outcomes. In this connection, the writer advances the indicated condition that comes after failure to achieve the American dream. Right from the point of view, character and the plot, everything is surrounded by bitter truths that are not accepted by the main character and those around this character.

The story opens with John Wade’s life on campus and his ambition with his love Kathy. They seem to have a bright future, which they plan together. However, everything starts disintegrating and these two cannot come to terms with what happens. John spies on Kathy on campus, this shows much grief and suspicion which he cannot accept because he believed his American dream of having a faithful, beautiful girlfriend seemed to be disintegrating.

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O’Brien presents this story in bits, which do not add up to bring a conclusive story at the end of the narration. The inability to follow a chronological order of the events happening from John’s life in the campus to war in Vietnam, to the senatorial election and eventual disappearance of Kathy is a strategy to diffuse the truth. The effects of the American dream are so intense that even the narrator fails to accept the outcomes of the once-promising character John Wade. He does not want to see this dream shattered; thus, he presents this story while in denial. The narrator chooses to use a third person and omniscient point of view at most times, this is a strategy to present suspense and speculation to hide the truth. This secrecy is fueled by denial after failure to accept the collapse of the American dream. He uses an omniscient narrator to present ideologies supporting John Wade, while he uses the third person in areas where he wants to use speculation, and this all is intentional.

John Wade participates in My Lai massacre; he comes back home as a veteran and alters all his papers not to reflect this fact (O’Brien 30). He uses this trick to try to actualize his long-held American dream of making it in politics. The man is later discovered; hence, he losses the senatorial elections. John Wade loses the senatorial seat.

To hide away from reality, they retreat to Woods in Minnesota which seems to offer them consolation because of secrecy and isolation it has. Instead, Kathy gets lost in the process. It is amazing that after the woman’s search team cannot find her; a month later John Wade takes a boat and offers to look for her alone. He disappears and never returns. The condition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is attributed to the conditions in war; however, could this be the writer’s ideology to deny what happened to John Wade after the war? This can only be speculated since O’Brien himself does not seem to understand the story completely, or he is reluctant to offer the truth because he is in denial. The litterateur gives the option of reading other books to understand what happened to Kathy and John Wade. O’Brien asserts, “. . . in any case, Kathy Wade is forever missing . . . if you require solutions . . . look beyond these pages . . . read a different book . . .” (30).

Although the author presents several hypotheses suggesting either John killed Kathy because of his PSTD, or she got lost on the island, it appears in the last hypothesis that indeed Kathy might have planned her disappearance. The action of John of following her a month later and being seen together in a mysterious world shows their desire to hide away from the truth, which is the failure of their pursuit of the American dream. Kathy and her husband planned her disappearance and then John followed her. Since, in the story, O’Brien admits these to be real places and characters being fictional; then the mysterious world is a word far from America an indication of staying away from the shame of failure to actualize their dream of a perfect marriage, political career, and family.

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The way the chapters are named and ordered seems to present the aspect of the American dream, which went foul. For example, The Evidence, The Nature of Loss, What We Remembered, How Unhappy They Were, Hypothesis, and The Nature of Marriage are all chapters in the center of achieving the American dream. All these ones, except the Hypothesis, seem to show a close connection to the event surrounding actualization of the American dream. On the other hand, the Hypothesis tries to diffuse the reality that has downed after the loss, collapse of the marriage, memories, and happiness. Indeed this is an igneous approach that O’Brien uses to present the theme of denial and the American dream.

It is amazing how the pursuit of the American dream can turn people into denial. Even the death of his father, John seems not to accept, because he needs a fatherly figure to guide his way into success. He invents stories about how he saved his father and that the one is not dead at all. This is an approach by John Wade, which is geared at diffusing the effects of his father’s loss and he subsequently uses it to live in denial of everything he does not achieve. He even contemplates hammering his father to kill him because of dying, “. . . he wanted to take a hammer and crawl into the casket and kill his father for dying . . .” (O’Brien 40). Immediately after the loss in the senatorial primaries, his love life with Kathy hits a rock, however. They both pretended everything is alright. Although this is secrecy aimed at protecting their ego, it is, at the same time, secrecy and denial that their dream of being a powerful loving couple has collapsed.


In Vietnam, Wade presents how pressure was mounting on soldiers such that they could cross the line to being evil. John shows how every person has the potential of being evil if pushed beyond limits. Some people on the Charlie Company crossed this thin line, but he and his company did not. He uses this as a defense of what happened in My Lai. It is widely known that an army goes to war as one unit. The activities of one company are directly linked to the success or failure of the whole army. Consequently, the massacre was the responsibility of the troops on the whole, not the Charlie Company. The main character does not want to accept this; thus, he lives in denial and wants to venture into politics to diffuse this guilt and inferiority. This low self-esteem, unfulfilled, insatiable desire for love, sense of shame for what happened in My Lai massacre and the departure of Kathy leaves the veteran an empty man. It is through the interconnectedness of all the events that we realize that John Wade had a huge ambition in making it in family, education, country service, and politics. All which came crumbling down; thereby, shattering all his dreams for actualizing his American dream. So, he lives in denial throughout his life. He knows Kathy was having an affair with a dentist, but he pretends because he is afraid of what this revelation would do to his dream.

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In conclusion, this paper was seeking to understand how Tim O’Brien has used plot, character analysis, setting, and point of view to present the theme of denial and the American dream in his novel, In the Lake Of The Woods. The main theme of O’ Brien’s literary work is presented through several minor themes. John plans different aspects of his own American dream implement: such as having a faithful beautiful girlfriend, reliable and founded on love family, brilliant political career, etc. Nevertheless, all the most sincere hopes of the personage undergo a completely crushing defeat: the hero’s wife and the disappointed character himself simply disappear. This method is used by the work’s creator to leave the reader free to decide the fate of the protagonists. The wood in Minnesota where John and Kathy’s retreat is a secret place devoid of people, which is expected to offer them reprieve from the derailed American dream.


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