On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

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What are examples of the beauty-terror paradox in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous?

Quick answer:

Examples of the beauty-terror paradox in Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, relate to Little Dog’s espousal of English to fit in and hide the beauty of his natural identity and the type of terror that it invites.

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An example of the beauty-terror paradox arrives via Little Dog’s relationship to the English language. Early on in the narrative, Little Dog says,

I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.

This quote indicates the terror of Little Dog’s identity, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. If Little Dog doesn’t espouse English, he doesn’t conform and is then even more vulnerable to the conditions of a persecuted identity. In other words, the English language can be seen as a means for him to reduce the terror that tends to come with belonging to a historically marginalized group.

Alas, the terror of not being seen forces Little Dog to conceal his beauty. For Little Dog, beauty involves casting off the identity that brings him a semblance of visibility and belonging. Think about the scene in which Little Dog gets out of the shower. Instead of immediately dressing, he looks at himself in the mirror on the door. “It was an accident,” says Little Dog, “my beauty revealed to me.”

It's possible to argue that what’s beautiful is the very thing that terrifies Little Dog: it’s his body as it is in its natural form.

Pairing these two quotes together, one should have a decent example of the paradox between beauty and terror. What’s beautiful is simultaneously terrifying due to how that beauty separates Little Dog from dominant Western norms.

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