Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (1994)

Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) is a postmodern pacifist novel that provides a critique of the US government and military by exploring the effects of a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder on a Vietnam veteran, John Wade. 

By making the Vietnam veteran someone who participated in the infamous My Lai massacre, O’Brien can explore the reasons why men in particular circumstances are capable of committing evil deeds.  In addition, by making this Vietnam veteran an ambitious politician, O’Brien can critically examine the nature of American politics to show that it falls well short of its ideals.  The tragedy of John Wade’s rise and fall serves as an indictment of the United States and its capacity to present itself as having the moral right to be the world’s leader. 

In addition, as a postmodern writer, O’Brien critically examines the notion of truth and the value of facts.  He also examines the subjective nature of interpretation, and the illusiveness of certainty, especially regarding whether one individual can ever truly comprehend or know another.  He also looks at the paradoxical tendency of audiences to be fascinated by mysteries, while at the same time striving to resolve them, thereby ending their enjoyment. 

Consistent with these themes is O’Brien’s embrace of a postmodern approach to genres and storytelling conventions.  O’Brien combines fictional and nonfictional elements, such as the way he employs the scholarly convention of footnotes (which are usually used in works of nonfiction) in a work of fiction.   On occasions, O’Brien uses footnotes to editorialise, to speak directly to his audience as the author (Tim O’Brien) in order to invite his readers to appreciate a particular point he wishes to get across.  O’Brien also combines fictional and nonfictional elements in ways that invite the audience to become more active in their own reading experience, piecing together much of the story themselves, and ultimately deciding on their own ending rather than surrendering to the authority of the novelist and being directed to think along one path rather than another. 

O’Brien’s novel has much to say about human psychology.  In addition to the novel’s detailed depiction of a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, it also presents many Freudian psychological concepts, such as the role played by various ego defence mechanisms (like denial or displaced aggression) and the deterministic influence of past traumas on future character formation and behaviour. The novel also deals with the unconscious, which was a preoccupation of Freud, with O’Brien using the lake (the geographical setting of the novel) as a metaphor for the unconscious mind that is vast, complex and mostly unknowable. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: In the Lake of the Woods meaning, In the Lake of the Woods themes, In the Lake of the Woods analysis, In the Lake of the Woods notes