Surreal Seemingness in The Things They Carried: The Horrifying, Beautiful Death of Curt Lemon

By Lucy Landry

The beauty of the scene draws the reader in, making one ask “real, or not real?” once more, as they become more aware of the absurd essence of war.

In Tim O’Brien’s memoir The Things They Carried, it is difficult to discern what is real and what is not. What appears to happen in O’Brien’s Vietnam War timeline is not always what exactly happens, even if it feels so to O’Brien and his fellow soldiers. O’Brien seeks this idea out in his work as he writes, “In any true war story…. 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” (O’Brien 67-68). The traumatic events O’Brien describes are true to some extent, but the author claims that, in war stories, particularly true ones, what happened is hard to differentiate from what seemed to happen. O’Brien creates this war-clouded vision for his readers. He looks to mirror his own experience of not being able to tell if what he knows and holds from war is fact. A prominent example of this reflection of the bizarre, grotesque essence of war is in the event of Curt Lemon’s death, where O’Brien utilizes descriptive language, juxtaposition, and antiphrasis.

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien paints Curt Lemon to be an aggressively masculine man who always looked to show off to his fellow soldiers, even going to the point of having a healthy tooth pulled out to “renew” his image when the other soldiers began to see him as cowardly. However, Lemon is shown in an entirely different light during the telling of his death. O’Brien employs the use of descriptive, vivid words to transform a horrifying event into a beautiful scene. He writes, “I remember the smell of moss… up in the canopy there were tiny white blossoms… all around us where those ragged green mountains… I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight” (O’Brien 67). O’Brien sets the scene for his reader: the air carries the scent of moss and up in the treetops grow small, white blossoms, all surrounded by jagged, green mountains. Lemon enters, clothed in the sunlight, and is lifted up into the treetops to mingle with the tiny flowers. O’Brien’s descriptive language creates an illusion for the readers as he looks to mirror his same experience and feelings in war. What O’Brien illustrates is exactly what seemed to have happened in the moment. Although what is described might not be factually correct, and it wasn’t the sunlight that took Lemon up, it was what appeared to have occurred to O’Brien. To see the difference between it and the detonator killing Lemon would be especially difficult for him. The language in this scene causes the reader to experience the bizarre and ugly nature of war as they witness a common and beautiful death.

To be able to completely render the effect of the almost unreal nature of war onto his readers, O’Brien uses juxtaposition. He writes, “Up in the sunlight there were tiny white blossoms, but no sunlight at all, and I remember the shadows spreading out under the trees…the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (O’Brien 67). Here, O’Brien shifts his perspective. At the beginning, the scene is painted with no sunlight. As the narrative moves closer to Lemon’s death, sunlight suddenly appears and it drips off of Lemon. Lemon is completely wrapped in it and is thrown up into the trees from its force. To be carried from such a dismal scene of shadows and tiredness to a scene of play and glow is especially effective. It creates a contrast for the reader that allows the death to stand out. It’s almost as if Lemon’s death sparked an “awakening” in the dark jungle that caused light to enter. This creates the haze over the question of “real, or not real?” within the reader.

O’Brien completes the extraordinary task of forming a death into something beautiful when he retells the demise of his comrade, Lemon. With antiphrasis, O’Brien uses language opposite that of those common to death. Lemon’s death is written as, “His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid really… when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (O’Brien 67). O’Brien directly calls the soldier’s death “beautiful” – something not typically understood in a person’s passing. Lemon himself is shown as a beautiful figure as well, having tan skin, a slim waist, and a face that glows in the sun. Even what he was blown into is shown in a pretty light: the trees are covered in moss and vines and white flowers. The scene is made so carefully and so attractive that the reader almost wants it to be true. The way death is described as something pretty highlights the absolute horror of war. The beauty of the scene draws the reader in, making one ask “real, or not real?” once more, as they become more aware of the absurd essence of war.

Curt Lemon’s death is created in a bizarre and almost unearthly way. What is a brutal death is shaped into something beautiful and to be in awe at. This is how O’Brien experienced Lemon’s end, whether it be factual or not. Using descriptive language, juxtaposition, and antiphrasis, O’Brien allows the reader to experience and understand the surreal seemingness of war through Lemon’s “beautiful” death.

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