Irony In The Things They Carried

What is ironic about what happens to Curt Lemon in the chapter titled "The Dentist" in The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The narrator of The Things They Carried, author Tim O'Brien, does not really feel much sorrow about Curt Lemon's death, so he tells a story about him instead. Curt Lemon was not afraid at all of battle, but he was deathly afraid of the dentist. O'Brien says this about Curt Lemon's death:

When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed." 

Curt Lemon and his platoon are stationed near a beach in the South China Sea, and an Army dentist is sent in to provide dental care for the soldiers. As the men sit and wait for their turn to see the dentist, Curt Lemon grows more and more agitated at the prospect. He claims that he does not allow anyone to touch his teeth and threatens not to go into the tent when his name is called.

When his name is called just a few moments later, however, he gets up and makes it to the tent. Unfortunately for him, he faints before the dentist even touches him. His fellow soldiers carry him out of the tent, and later Curt Lemon is angry and mortified by their teasing. 

That night he goes boldly to the dentist's tent, wakes him up, and insists that the dentist pull a perfectly good tooth just to demonstrate his bravery. 

One of the ironies in Curt Lemon's story is that he was afraid of something relatively harmless, like going to the dentist, but was unafraid of fighting in battle. He fears something that cannot harm him (his tooth) but feels no fear for the things that can actually do him harm. Another irony is that, not long after this false display of bravery with the dentist, Curt Lemon dies while playing catch with a grenade--something he should have been afraid of doing.

Curt Lemon obviously had a misplaced sense of bravery--and it cost him his tooth and then his life. 

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