O’Brien says that mourning Curt Lemon was difficult for him because he didn’t know him well, but in order to avoid getting sentimental, he tells a brief Curt Lemon story. In February, the men are at work in an area of operations along the South China Sea. One day, an Army dentist is flown in to check the men’s teeth. As the platoon sits, waiting to be checked one by one, Curt Lemon begins to tense up. Finally, he admits that in high school he had some bad experiences with dentists. He says that no one messes with his teeth, and that when he’s called, he’ll refuse to go in. However, a few moments later, when the dentist calls him, Lemon rises and goes into the tent. He faints before the dentist can even lay a finger on him.
Later that night he creeps back to the dental tent and insists that he has a killer toothache. Though the dentist can’t find any problem, Lemon demands his tooth be pulled. Finally, the dentist, shrugging, gives him a shot and yanks the perfectly good tooth out, to Lemon’s delight.
Curt Lemon’s character offers an unusual take on the idea of bravado within war. He has an obvious need to demonstrate his capacity to endure suffering and to act bravely in the face of adversity. He, like several of the men, has a clear notion of what bravery is, garnered from popular culture. He experiences discomfort for the sake of pride and for the assurance that he has acted like a man. In the morning, when he reveals that the dentist has pulled his tooth, he is proud, having defeated his prior nervous reaction—fainting—with an obvious display of manliness. But the threat that Lemon faces is not a real one; nothing is wrong with his teeth. The challenge that he confronts with bravado is entirely psychological. As a result, this episode demonstrates the absurdity of conventional bravado.
Read more about fear of shame as motivation.
Before his death, Curt Lemon is the work’s most comic character. Despite his seemingly ridiculous actions, we can identify with Lemon’s need to prove himself for the sake of proving himself. He is a young, frightened man whose notions of pain are, at this point, reserved to the dentist’s chair. The irony of the story is that shortly after he gets up the courage to have a tooth pulled in order to reassure himself of his bravery, he is killed while playing catch with a grenade. His death is ridiculous and points out the uselessness of bravery. The irony of Lemon’s character is that Lemon so abjectly fears something as generally harmless as a dentist’s visit and doesn’t give a second thought to the potential harm of playing with a grenade.
Read more about Curt Lemon.
The truth O’Brien attempts to illustrate in “The Dentist” is that physical suffering is sometimes easier to bear than mental anguish. For the soldiers in Vietnam, the unknown was often their greatest enemy. Lemon wants to get his pain out of the way—in part to save face in front of his fellow soldiers for fainting and in part to get used to the feeling of suffering. By actually experiencing and becoming familiar with pain, he eases his mind of the anxiety of not knowing what such pain might feel like. O’Brien portrays such seemingly small triumphs as necessary victories amid the chaos and senselessness of war.
Read more about the Vietnam war as an antagonist.