The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | The Dentist | Summary



The narrator remembers Curt Lemon as someone who was "always puffing himself up," acting tough. Curt played risky pranks and later recounted his antics, exaggerating them. During a quiet spell, army "higher-ups" send a dentist, a captain, to the platoon. The dentist's set-up is "primitive," and, as Curt waits to see him, he grows increasingly anxious. He explains that he had "bad experiences" with a dentist during high school and declares that "nobody messes with these teeth." Yet he goes into the tent when it's his turn. Then he faints. Curt looks "sheepish" when he awakens. He pulls away from the other soldiers, who can hear him "bawling himself out." He agonizes over his involuntary action "as if he he'd been caught committing some terrible crime."

That night Curt wakes the dentist to say that he has a toothache like "a nail in his jaw." The dentist finds that all Curt's teeth are fine, but Curt insists he pull the tooth, and the dentist finally extracts one to placate him. Curt is "all smiles" the next day.


"The Dentist" is not just a story about Curt Lemon having to prove his courage to himself and the platoon. It also subtly records the tension that sometimes existed among soldiers in units, shown here by how the other soldiers, represented by the narrator, react to Curt's exaggerated stories. For the narrator, a story's ability to communicate feeling is more important than factual accuracy, but, when Curt "replay[s] his exploits," he adds "flourishes" to pretend to be what he's not. He is not trying to convey greater feeling of any kind by changing the facts. Curt is likely lying to maintain his reputation, perhaps to himself, and certainly to the platoon.

Curt's insistence on having a tooth pulled to show his bravery is absurd. The previous chapter has revealed that Curt dies from a misstep while playing a game, not in combat. Both are instances of situational irony, in which there is a discrepancy between what readers expect and what actually happens in a text.

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