Unfulfilled Ambition in the Lake of the Woods

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Ambition is recognizable. It easily stirs jealousy, it appeals, and it inspires people. Just as easy, people can be thrown off the rails in their attempts at success, becoming lost in their ambition. In the Lake of the Woods(1968), by Tim O’ Brien, is a novel with many things left open for interpretation. Ambition is the main commentary given by the novel, seen through John and Kathy Wade who are lovers who go through significant struggles in their relationship, together and separately. They subconsciously allowed their longings to cloud their judgment of what is reality and what is fantasy, exhibiting the repercussions of clashing ambitions.

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A slippery slope of unfulfilled ambition can be seen through Kathy. She not only worked in the admissions department at the University of Minnesota but was also a politician’s wife. Her character development was dependant on John. Throughout the novel there are many setbacks in Kathy and John Wade's relationship. Something that stood out like a thorn throughout the entirety of the book is Kathy’s disliking to the life of a politician's wife. This is because politics consumed her marriage. Despite the discomfort Kathy felt towards her lifestyle, constantly being broadcasted because of John’s campaign for US senator, Kathy stayed devoted to helping the love of her life to pursue his dreams until the end. After John's loss, Kathy realizes that it was her moment to seize; the first time we see Kathy’s ambition come out. At the beginning she talks about how she wants to do fantastic yet wildly impossible things like opening up a firm for John in Minneapolis and running away to Verona. She was delighted to finally be able to break out of the shell that was her husband’s political career. Near the end of the book, Kathy's sister addresses John directly, and tells him how Kathy was happy the election was over even though they lost. Generally speaking, Kathy represented a lot of willpower, subduing her ambition due to her love through prioritizing and dedicating herself to John's life dreams and put her own dreams for children and privacy “on pause.” Even after John lost the campaign for becoming a US senator and became extremely unpleasant to be around, Kathy stuck by him. She also recognized the fact John was manipulative and clearly mentally disturbed yet, Kathy stuck by him. Her devotion to John is rooted in her ambition for a better life she had envisioned for their future and how she was blinded by her love from the reality of things. They would talk about having a bus full of babies and how happy they would be. She held onto everything they had discussed and never acknowledged the reality of her situation, wrapped up in her ambitions. Her husband was in no condition to help her raise children at that point. John was being selfish and was not considering her feelings. If she hadn't been ignorant to her deluded ambitions, she would have realized that John and her future had changed drastically earlier.

The repercussions of John’s ambitions are characterized by his fundamental problems. Overall, from the beginning of his relationship with Kathy to people in general, John never found trust or had faith in anyone or anything. It had a lot to do with his emotionally abusive, alcoholic father who killed himself. During the Vietnam war John has vivid flashbacks of his childhood and of his father. “Jiggly John”, Paul Wade’s cruel nickname for his son, resonated in John and ultimately distorted the way he perceives himself. John’s ambitions as a politician are fundamentally rooted with his desire to prove himself, a way of coping and feeling in control. Instead of actually dealing with his feelings of neglect and mistreatment he received from an important role model in his life, he chooses to push down his emotions and pursue his ambitions without concern, toxically damaging his relationships. John’s unresolved issues are also a cause for why he stayed another year in Vietnam. He had violent thoughts ever since his father passed away and stayed in the war another year because it felt right to him. He felt more in his element than ever. When John came back from Vietnam he would have these vivid flashbacks because he had developed severe post traumatic stress disorder. Instead of getting help he carried on with his life ambitions. Marrying the love of his life and running as a US senator were all pieces on his chessboard, moving to further his ambition. John never faced the reality of his issues. When he told Tony Carbo he had no secret bombs that could potentially destroy his campaign, that was him denying his reality again. In doing so, he was harming himself and without realizing it he was harming his wife and the future they both had envisioned. John hid from the world by aimlessly pursuing his artificial ambitions as a vice, worsening his relationships as a whole.

In conclusion, Kathy lied to herself and let the devotion she had for John suppress her ambitions and adopted his pursuits for her own. She also let her excitement for their potential future that she thought would finally bring her happiness shield her from the reality that John was in no position to give her what she wanted. John lied to himself by ignoring his psychological issues and buried his thoughts. He tried to pursue his dreams, thinking it would somehow patch the hole that was his past, not considering the implications of his actions. Even though both Kathy and John are responsible for their ending, they shouldn’t be seen in a negative light. This novel brings attention to how ambitious people can have ideas for what their lives ought to be. The way people cling to their myopic ideas cloud their judgment from what is actually good for them. Kathy and John Wade loved each other, yet, their beautiful yet unrealistic visions for the future truly serve as a cautionary tale on the allures of ambition.

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