On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Themes

The main themes of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous are the multiple dimensions of gender and sexuality; race, perception, and beauty; and the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of language.

  • The Multiple Dimensions of Gender and Sexuality: Little Dog explores his own queer identity as well as the effects of heteronormativity and his relationships with women.
  • Race, Perception, and Beauty: Little Dog grapples with his Vietnamese American identity and comes to appreciate the beauty he sees in both himself and his mother.
  • The Simultaneous Necessity and Inadequacy of Language: The narrator chooses to write a letter to his illiterate mother, acknowledging language's capacity to foster both intimacy and distance.


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Last Updated on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

The Multiple Dimensions of Gender and Sexuality

The novel’s narrator, Little Dog, presents a coming-of-age story that includes his initial sexual experiences and his acceptance that he is queer. Indeed, the physical acts and the inner realizations occur almost at the same time. Little Dog’s nuanced exploration of his personal journey leads the reader to the theme of gender and sexuality as complex and multidimensional. Learning to accept that men’s identity includes many different kinds of masculinity is an important process for Little Dog—one that requires him to detach his own ideas of masculinity from the heteronormativity of American society, which he ultimately maligns as hegemonic and dangerously oppressive.

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The narrator’s harsh criticism of narrow cultural and social norms is not confined to their effects on his own life. He explores the ways that these expectations have affected Trevor, the young white man with whom he has his first sexual relations. Little Dog links the damage that Trevor sustains, in large part through fear of accepting his queer identity, to his pattern of seeking refuge in drugs.

Important relationships with women also play key roles in the novel: Little Dog addresses the significance of his mother and grandmother in contributing to different aspects of his identity. This includes attention to the commodification of sex, as when he explores his grandmother’s occupation as a sex worker during and after the Vietnam War.

Race, Perception, and Beauty

The grandson of a Vietnamese woman and an American man, Little Dog spends his early years in Vietnam before moving with his family to Connecticut. Little Dog’s cross-cultural experiences allow him to realize the ways that a person’s perceptions of their racial identity intersect with their appreciation of their own beauty. While these perceptions change depending on where one lives, they are deeply embedded in one’s ability to accept oneself as a total person rather than regarding the isolated parts.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous may be analyzed as an immigrant novel; the multiple hardships of Little Dog’s family’s life after moving from Vietnam to Hartford form a significant component of the work. The novel may also be appreciated as a study of how race functions in conjunction with nationality in the United States, as Little Dog learns that, to many white Americans, he is an interchangeable part of a larger and collective “Asian” identity. While Little Dog examines his placement in terms of how others view him, his greater concern is understanding the inner dimensions of identity and experience—what he terms the “calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones."

Part of what race means in America, Little Dog shows, is that this interior sensation cannot effectively be separated from one’s outer appearance. This refers in part to how one sees—not only what one sees—in the mirror every day. Personal appearance becomes objectified until a person can see their own reflection as a valuable...

(The entire section contains 968 words.)

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