Hostile Environments within In the Lake of the Woods

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Hostile Environments as a Reflection of Nature and Nurture


Image: Brian Kosoff
Image: Brian Kosoff

Within the first four pages of In the Lake of the Woods, there is a distinctive sense of “wilderness.” On the first page of the text, in the first chapter, “How Unhappy They Were,” I was struck by how many references to nature appeared. Yes, this novel takes place in a small, lake town, but we are introduced to a third person limited omniscient narrator, hinting that there is no one around to act as a witness, or as a first person narrator retelling the story of Kathy’s disappearance. The portrayal of isolation and wilderness is a literary device O’Brien chooses to use as a way to “suspend belief” and encourage the reader to immerse oneself into the environment of the novel. The significance of the hostile environment highlights how unhappy they were. Also, within the first four pages there are already four mentions of “fog.” The fog could suggest the sluggishness of memory, or the reappearance of memory where O’Brien uses the environment to perform an ecological reaction to demonstrate the uncertainty of plot. Instantaneously, the reader is immersed in a low-lying cloud, which is supposed to mar our intuition, and force us to rely upon the “Evidence” and “Hypothesis” chapters. The psychological effect of the plot disorientation O’Brien presents us with could also be another rhetorical device purposefully evoking empathy for the characters; or for John Wade, apathy.

In class we discussed the nature versus nurture debate about the formation of an individual; many of us seemed to have the same idea: that it was a combination of the two suggesting that nature predisposes individuals to certain behavior, but nurture also has a significant percentage of our dispositions. O’Brien, the author, and “O’Brien,” the narrator use the environment of the novel as a rhetorical device to critique this debate. On page 1 the narrator presents the lake and the wilderness as a mirror: “Everywhere, for many thousand square miles, the wilderness was one thing, like a great curving mirror, infinitely blue and beautiful, always the same.” This would suggest that either our actions are reflected in the environment, or the environment reflects it’s own reactions upon us. Yet, the environment is presented as a static reflection—and a reversal. If the “wilderness like a great curving mirror” remains the same, then whatever is reflected also becomes the opposite.

“O’Brien” presents the environment in hostile language, mentioning the “fog” as “digesting objects” and as elusive shape shifter (4). Shortly after this passage John Wade reflects upon his life, and he pictures a landslide plummeting down around him, as if it was against nature to let him reach the top. Perhaps, what O’Brien expresses early on in the novel is a reversal of the romantic notion of the environment as something wholesome and restoring—here In the Lake of the Woods, the environment, at certain points of psychological instability on Wade’s part, is just as broken as the person viewing the environment. The first introductory material we are presented with is “He was always a secretive boy. I guess you would say he was obsessed by secrets. It was his nature.” Eleanor K. Wade (Mother)” (8).
Wade’s secrets are expressed through nature. His wife is “lost,” though I am skeptical about any hypothesis that are not, “The guy offed her” (12). One of the hypothesis suggests that Wade secrets away Kathy in the Lake of the Woods. In our in class activity and from Oxford English Dictionary definition of magic, the first definition states: “1. a. The use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft.” Wade is manipulating the natural world into hiding his secret, and his continual burial of secrets—since we never find out definitively what happens to Kathy.

O’Brien uses “O’Brien” to write about a hostile environment in three ways: first, to absorb the reader into the story; second, as a way to present the nature versus nurture debate and it’s reversal discuss the inherent contradiction of the physical environment as a projection of Wade’s psychology; and thirdly as a way to show how Wade manipulates his environment in another show of magic.


Image: Randy Steele
Image: Randy Steele


2 Responses

  1. Chuck Rybak
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    This post’s strongest point is that Tim O’Brien is using “Tim O’Brien” as a rhetorical trope for debate and self-examination. As we’ve been discussing in class, this becomes very complicated, especially when answering the question of where that debate takes place. Does it take place within the book? Outside of it? To effectively answer that, you need to determine who is the voice of the different chapters. Is “Tim O’Brien” the organizer of In the Lake of the Woods as a whole, or does “Tim O’Brien” control the “Evidence” and “Hypothesis” chapters, while Tim O’Brien controls the rest? In short, what is the field for this rhetorical debate. That’s not a question I find to have a definite answer, but we should argue this in class. Also, do some word-wrap setting with images; things look nice that way.

  2. Delaney
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    Your third assertion about Wade’s magical manipulation of the environment is especially salient. It is apparent that John Wade is uncomfortable in most, if not all, settings. However, your point made me realize that he used magic (and his power as a soldier and politician) to manipulate those settings. Well done! -DKP

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