Choose your Empathy Shoes

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Choose your empathy shoes:

Photo Credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology
Photo Credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology


Chapter 5: Hypothesis 1: Kathy ran away with a secret lover in an attempt at a passive, non-confrontational escape.

Chapter 9: Hypothesis 2: Kathy panicked when she saw John boiling the houseplants and ran away. “Maybe she lost her way. Maybe she’s still out there.”

Chapter 14: Hypothesis 3: “The Purest Speculation” is that Kathy was in a boating accident and drowns.

Chapters 18 and 22: Hypothesis 4 and 5: Kathy is lost on the Lake of the Woods, lost in the wilderness, and lost on an unknown body of water again.

Chapter 24: Hypothesis 6: Kathy committed suicide by drug overdose (Valium and Restoril).

Chapter 27: Hypothesis 7: John boiled Kathy and sunk her body in the lake.

Chapter 31: Hypothesis 8: They ran away together.

Tim O’Brien is consistently reinforcing the book as a metaphor for self-reflection through the use of the “Evidence” and “Hypothesis” chapters as rhetorical devices. At the end of our last class (Tuesday, March 5) we were given the task of deciding which hypothesis we were leaning towards, and what that says about us. This book is supposed to exercise our empathy especially in the “Hypothesis” chapters because it begs the question of who to blame? What I came to see was the pattern that formed throughout the “Hypothesis” chapters.: options one through six emphasize Kathy’s guilt or blame for her own disappearance; option seven finally accuses John of murdering Kathy, and the final chapter and “Hypothesis” is that they ran away together.

Each of the first six hypotheses are from “Tim O’Brien’s” third-person limited-omniscient perspective expressing Kathy’s point of view, though these are not her thoughts to begin with—purely speculation. If you align yourself with one of these first six hypotheses chances are you are either hopeful of John’s innocence because these represent multiple motives for Kathy’s disappearance, or O’Brien’s rhetoric has swayed you in this direction because he wants to redirect your attention away from what John’s “history” suggests—that he is capable of manipulation and murder. The only times we are given insight into Kathy’s “world” are in the “Hypotheses” chapters, highlighting her disappearance as a fiction, but also as another aspect of John’s history. O’Brien uses John as an unreliable narrator for a reason—exercising his control as an author over language as a vehicle to evoke a response from the reader: empathy.

The seventh hypothesis is “Tim O’Brien’s” third-person limited-omniscient perspective via John, retelling what John had already narrated in “Chapter 8: How the Night Passed.” The seventh hypothesis uses exact language that is used in chapter 8, begging another question: are the chapters that are narrated by John a text themselves that “Tim O’Brien” is drawing from? Throughout the novel the “Evidence” chapters draw from sources that have varying hypotheses themselves: but the only one that is communicated which is explored through the “Hypotheses” chapters is this one: “The guy offed her. —Vincent R. (Vinny) Pearson” (12). Right after this “piece of evidence” John’s mother attempts to contradict this: “That’s preposterous. They loved each other. John wouldn’t hurt a fly. —Eleanor K. Wade” (12). This we know to be false because of John’s implications in the My Lai massacre, though this is an exact moment of Tim O’Brien and “Tim O’Brien’s” manipulation of texts. Even though these two sources speak to one another, they are taken out of context exhibiting another exercise in empathy: that events taken out of context cannot be recreated.

The final chapter addresses the reader directly, in a sweeping few sentences: “If all is supposition, if ending is air, then why not happiness? Are we so cynical, so sophisticated as to write off even the chance of happy endings? On the porch that night, in the fog, John Wade had promised his wife Verona” (299). Even in this instance of “happy endings” “O’Brien” ironically chooses to allude to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. “O’Brien” further questions: “Does happiness strain credibility? Is there something in the human spirit that distrusts its own appetites, its own yearning for healing and contentment? Can we not believe that two adults, in love, might resolve to make their own miracle?” (299). “O’Brien” continues to question human sentimentality and proposes that perhaps it does not matter who to blame because the context and contingent events will allow empathy regardless of the hypothesis.


“Can we believe that he was not a monster but a man? That he was innocent of everything except his life?
Could the truth be so simple? So terrible?”–Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods


One Response

  1. Chuck Rybak
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    What I appreciate the most here is your trying to peel back the layers of the novel’s frame(s). Just reading this post makes me want to have another class simply dedicated to listing on the board, “What We Know to be True.” John altered the war records, so he knew what he did was wrong and he was afraid of getting caught. John boiled the plants in the house and cleaned up the place after Kathy went missing. Something is telling “Tim O’Brien” that John spent time in the lake, diving underwater at night. Who does that? Still, given all of that, I see an investigator who wants to understand and maybe even forgive John. If this book has frames, then maybe blame does as well. What happens when we pull back from John (or any soldier in Vietnam), then who are we looking at?

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