The Dentist by Tim O’Brien
In The Dentist by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of ego, connection, appearance, fear, masculinity and embarrassment. Taken from his The Things They Carried collection the story is narrated in the first person by O’Brien himself and after reading the story the reader realises that O’Brien may be exploring the theme of ego. Curt Lemon appears to like bragging about himself. He likes for others to see him in a positive if not masculine light. This may be significant as O’Brien doesn’t have any connection with Lemon at all. It is as though he sees through Lemon’s façade and doesn’t like what he sees. He knows that Lemon is all talk and is trying to bolster his own ego. To make himself out to be better than he is. Though there is nothing wrong with attempting to be masculine it is something that seriously irritates O’Brien. There is a sense that he wishes Lemon would just act normally or to take the war a little more serious.
It is also possible that Lemon, who is afraid of the dentist, gets his tooth pulled out in order to show his masculinity to others. As readers we are aware that there is nothing wrong with the tooth that Lemon has extracted. He simply wanted to appear bigger than he was in front of O’Brien and his fellow soldiers. This highlights to the reader just how far Lemon will go in order to look better to others. A perfectly good tooth is extracted so that Lemon’s ego is soothed. At all stages of the story the reader feels as though appearance (to others) is important to Lemon. Maybe more important than his loyalty to his fellow soldiers. At least that is how O’Brien sees things. At no stage does O’Brien get sentimental about Lemon. He is as mentally and emotionally detached from him as is possible.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The dentist can be seen in two lights. As somebody who can correct ones teeth or he can be seen, as Lemon sees him, as someone who can boost his ego and make him look good in front of others. It also doesn’t help that Lemon faints when he first sees the dentist. This is what drives him to a place back on his egomaniacal pedestal. He doesn’t like how he appears in front of others who may ridicule Lemon at a later date. The Rocket Pocket may also be symbolic of an easier life. O’Brien finds his time there to be near like a holiday. Gone is any fear he may have of being attacked by the Vietnamese. The only downside for O’Brien is that he is accompanied by Lemon. A man that he refuses to get sentimental about. This may be difficult for O’Brien because he most likely would defend Lemon if he came under fire from the Vietnamese. Even though he dislikes Lemon immensely.
The end of the story is important as the reader gets to see the effects of embarrassment on Lemon. Rather than accept the position he finds himself in. He tries to change circumstances so that he may be seen in a positive light. While others might laugh off the embarrassment of fainting. Lemon is unable to do this and is as such affected by the fact he has fainted. The proof being (as mentioned) that Lemon is prepared to lose a perfectly good tooth in order to have a higher standing among his fellow soldiers. Again appearance is important to Lemon. He does not wish to be viewed upon as being weak. Not that any soldier would, should they find themselves at war. Though each reader’s definition of being weak may differ. There is also a sense that O’Brien not only dislikes Lemon but he doesn’t trust him either. Everything we see about Lemon in the story is ego driven. It is vital for him to be atop of the pedestal when it comes to the other soldiers. It may also be a case that O’Brien is highlighting the realism of war. Not everybody is going to get along and sentiment can be dangerous.