This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What happens in the chapter “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried? How does “The Dentist” convey the pressure to be “manly” during war?
We’ll look at the basic elements of “The Dentist” (The Things They Carried) and look at the lengths men will go to in order to prove their masculinity, especially in times of war.
“The Dentist” in The Things They Carried
In “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried, O’Brien tells his own Curt Lemon story. He recalls an Army dentist who visited the company one day to check in on the men’s teeth. Lemon, for all his bravado, fearlessness, and exploits in combat, was, for some reason, deathly afraid of going to the dentist. When it came time for Lemon to have his teeth examined, he fainted.
For a man like Lemon in a place like Vietnam, this was a deeply embarrassing episode. He couldn’t face the other men after this “lapse” in his masculinity unless he made things right. So that evening, as told in “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried, he went into the dental tent complaining of a toothache and insisted that the dentist extract what was, in fact, a healthy tooth.
Although in great physical pain, Lemon was in bright spirits the next morning. He had performed his penance and avenged the dishonor he’d done to himself by fainting.
The Story of Curt Lemon
Related to the chapter “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried is a story about Curt Lemon from medic Rat Kiley.
Rat had served with Curt Lemon, who was known for volunteering for the most dangerous combat assignments, like late-night reconnaissance missions and patrols. Lemon was also celebrated for being a daredevil with what his fellow soldiers saw as a terrific sense of humor. According to Rat, Lemon once went out to a Vietnamese village, nude except for a mask and full body paint, to go “trick-or-treating,” bewildering the villagers in the process. This is similar to the bravado and shows of masculinity demonstrated in “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried.
Lemon was killed in action when he accidentally stepped on a landmine while he and Rat were goofing off by tossing smoke grenades back and forth. Again, the macho attempt to show no fear is reminiscent of “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried. The men even had to retrieve Lemon’s mangled remains out of a tree, during which Dave Jensen sang the song “Lemon Tree,” laughing in the face of death once again. Rat tells O’Brien that he wrote a letter to Lemon’s sister, telling her how much he loved her brother. When he didn’t hear back from the sister, Rat was dismayed, then angered. In the coarse and brutalized language which the men have adopted, he tells O’Brien that “the dumb cooze” never wrote back.
O’Brien notes that the coarseness of Rat’s language is what makes the story true, because it reflects the harshness of Vietnam. It is important that Rat says the vulgar “cooze,” and not “woman,” “girl,” or even “bitch.” He also observes that it is nearly impossible to arrive at literal truth in the fog of war. Memory is unreliable (especially after time) and every witness remembers things differently. Often, the wildest elements of the story are true and the most banal aspects are false. This is an element in “The Dentist” in The Things They Carried as well.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Things They Carried summary :
- What the Vietnam War was like for soldiers on the ground
- How Vietnam soldiers dealth with the psychological stress of death around them
- How fictional stories can be truer than the truth