The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Masculinity In The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
Throughout the novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, written by Junot Diaz, sex and masculinity is the vital element in being a Dominican male. Dominican males according to Yunior, the narrator of the novel, is someone who has power and pizzazz, dominates women, controls female sexuality through physical violence and verbal aggression and lastly protects their family. Oscar, a title character in the novel is struggling with his social status and being portrayed as having no game when it came to the ladies. He was described as being a “palomo” which is a dude that cannot get any girls for the life of him. On the other hand Yunior, is the definition of a Dominican man. He has every trait you could possibly think of and definitely does not have a hard time sleeping with every girl at one time. Yunior has the swagger and “G,” in comparison to Oscar, who lacks all ability to be considered a Dominican male with masculinity.
Oscar is what Dominican men would look at as being nerdy and lacking all traits of being one of them. Throughout the book he was emasculated for so many things he did differently or found interest in and because of that he was called many names, for example: a mariconcito which is a “little faggot,” Gordo asqueroso “fat slob,” and basically a loser for enjoying the fantasy anime world the way he did. His goal in life is finding a woman who will reciprocate the love he gives, but homeboy had no such luck with the ladies and when it comes down to it, never finds that love. “Fuku” which generally is a curse or doom of some kind, also called the “Fuku of the Admiral” because the admiral was both the midwife and one of the great European victims; despite “discovering” the new world the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing Devine. Oscar’s Fuku begins when he is in, what Diaz describes as his Golden age. He loved the ladies and was always trying to kiss all the girls, this guy was even so lucky to have two girlfriends at one time. The two girls only lasted one week, when Oscar is told he must slap Maritza, one of the girls, in order to “make the little puta respect him”, and to eliminate all that weird sci-fi crap he was interested in to avoid being known as a loser. When he doesn’t listen to the advice given to him he realizes that was the last he would have of any type of play, seven years old and he wouldn’t hold another hand or kiss another girl until he was well into his adult life. Yunior states, “It wasn’t just that he didn’t have a father to show him the masculine ropes, he simply lacked all aggressive and martial tendencies.” By making Oscar out to be this non masculine man, Diaz still wants to show that Oscar is capable of getting ahead and making a different life for himself, other than the Dominican way that he stayed struggling in because of the choices he made for himself.
Yunior in comparison is the total opposite, he is the manliest man. He is the epitome of a Dominican man with all the masculinity one needs in order to get everything one wants. Yunior has swagger, he is muscular and is so sexual. Everything that Oscar lacks. On all accounts Yunior tries to help Oscar with all of the traits he knows the poor guy is struggling with, whether it was working out with him and trying to get him somewhat into shape, or hitting on girls, even though the poor guy had absolutely no stability or depth to him. Since Yunior already feels bad for being able to get whatever he wanted when he wanted, he decided to take Oscar in and teach him everything he could. Though Yunior has all this game and masculinity, he still finds ways to mess up every good thing going for himself and loses the one thing that mattered the most, Lola, Oscar’s sister. Oscar and Yunior are obviously opposites when it comes to Dominican masculinity and for this reason they are used in comparison to one another.
Fast forward to a few years later, when Oscar returns back to the Dominican Republic, he comes across Ybon, an older prostitute who he falls completely in love with. This woman puts him through the works and because a female had never shown him the affection that Ybon was giving him, he faced love as well as death shortly after. Ybon has a man who controls her every move who goes by the name of “the captain,” and when the captain gets wind of Oscar trying to scoop on his lady, he sends his men after Oscar. Before the captain’s men kill Oscar, he gives a speech, proving that after all the years of not upholding the Dominican male standard that he indeed has stayed true to his manhood and ultimately loses his life for what he wanted and believed was the most sacred thing, love. The one thing that Oscar did do for Yunior, was show him the importance and obligations of manhood and what masculinity really was. When Yunior finds out about Oscar’s death, he finds a new understanding of what he needs to do so, he finally settles down, gets married and teaches creative writing.
The character of Yunior was created to contrast the differences in Oscar. Yunior is the main man, the machismo, and most important the ultimate Dominican male, who saves Oscar whenever he comes across a situation he cannot get out of. Oscar was created to show that just because you fall under a certain ethnicity or group does not mean you will attain the same traits that the others have. When Diaz shows Yunior vulnerable at the end of the story and explaining how, if he could of just been the man that Oscar was, maybe his life would have ended up differently. Maybe he would have had the woman he truly was in love with. The fact is the difference between these two men not only shows the readers that it’s okay to not have certain attributes, but also that someone will still learn something from you and will take it for the rest of their lives, whether you are alive to witness it or not.
In the novel these two characters learn from each other and also from their experiences that have brought them this far in life. Oscar witnesses first-hand how hard it is to be a Dominican man with all the masculinity that comes along with it and has to accept that he will never be that masculine Dominican male, and Yunior find’s that having all the power and ladies isn’t everything and finally is able to overcome the masculinity his culture believes is so important to possess. Diaz constantly shows his reader throughout the novel the contrast between these two characters, and explains that even though they are opposites, they somehow manage to be the same in many ways. The Dominican masculinity is something men of this ethnicity are born into, but in some cases, like Oscar, don’t necessarily gain or understand ever.
Views on the Relationship of the Individual and Society in Oryx and Crake, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Woman in the Dunes
The relationship between society and the individual is presented in powerfully differing ways in the novels Oryx and Crake, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The Woman in the Dunes. While Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake shows how the individual views society as a source of sadistic entertainment or wealth, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao shows a relationship in which society rejects the individual. In turn, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes shows a relationship in which society forces the individual into servitude.
Oryx and Crake presents a society in which individuals living in the time before “the flood” (this story’s apocalypse) have lost all sense of social ethics. The prevailing theme in this society seems to be sadism (in a non-sexual way); the major forms of entertainment for people involve the enjoyment of human suffering. The best examples of this are the two primary forms of entertainment that Crake and Jimmy enjoy in their youth: Internet games and Internet shows. Games such as “Barbarian Stomp,” “Blood and Roses,” and “Extinctathon” all pit society on one side and utter destruction on the other, with the side of utter destruction usually winning (77-81). Their enjoyment of such games shows the appeal that death and destruction have to individuals in this society.
The example of their Internet shows, however, is even more disturbing. Whereas the games Crake and Jimmy play are fantasy, the shows they watch are not. Shows such as “Felicia’s Frog Squash,” “hedsoff.com,” and “deathrowlive.com” all display acts of violence inflicted on real people for the entertainment of the viewer (82-83). And there is such a high demand for these shows that Crake suspects that some of the executions are staged; he says that “the viewers wanted to see the executions, yes, but after a while these could get monotonous” (83). Individuals in this society have reached such a high level of corruption that acts of real violence have to be manufactured in order to meet demand.
Aside from the enjoyment of violence, these individuals have also reached a new level of sexual depravity. Even a simple thing such as viewing the news has to have some level of sexual stimulation to keep people entertained; for this, there is the “Noodie News,” a news show in which all of the anchors are completely naked (81). The worst example of sexual depravity comes in the form of a website called “HottTots,” where tourists are filmed “doing things they’d be put in jail for back in their home countries” (89). The videos involve children as young as eight performing sexual acts for the entertainment of the viewer; one only has to be 18 to legally view these websites, though Jimmy and Crake are able to get around this speed bump to view the content at an even younger age.
Another major theme in Oryx and Crake is elitism. Just as the individual in Jimmy and Crake’s society has lost all appreciation for the value of human life, so too has the upper class lost all empathy for the lower class. Society is now divided into two classes: the elites, who live in the protective paradise of the compounds, and the plebands, who live in crowded, diseased, and dirty cities. The elites of this society view the lower class as a way to make money, no matter the cost to human life. The most disgusting example of this is the corporation “HelthWyzer.” This company develops cures for diseases, but at some point in history, they ran into a problem: they figured out that if they cured all of the diseases, they would no longer generate any profit. In order to remedy this problem, they began hiding new, man-made diseases in the vitamins they sold to the pleband population; once the virus exploded into the population, they released an antidote onto the market — but in limited quantities “so they’re guaranteed high profits” (211).
What is most terrifying about the sadistic and morally corrupt individuals of Oryx and Crake is that their unethical characteristics can be found in real-life society today. People are already enthralled by violence in entertainment and games, and there are plenty of real websites where one can go to see horrible violence, physical and sexual, inflicted on real human beings. And that is the ultimate claim of Oryx and Crake: that human beings do not value the lives of other human beings. The texts poses the questions: is the society shown in Oryx and Crake the inevitable endpoint for our own society? And is humanity sadistic by nature? The text believes so, and its answer to this problem is the ultimate example of the devaluation of human life: Crake’s decision that mankind is too imperfect and cruel to continue, and must be wiped out and replaced.
Another book rife with different human relationships is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The most interesting relationship in the book is that between Oscar Wao and society. One of many questions that this text asks us is, can an individual who is unable to form a positive relationship with society survive? The text shows us that a person who does not fit into society’s standards is not valued by society. Oscar is the quintessential nerd, growing up in a time when there was nothing cool about being a nerd; he loves to watch anime (Robotech and Akira); he loves to play role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons; he is overweight, unathletic, and unattractive. He is unable to understand and follow social rules. He speaks in a way that is unacceptable to society, using words found only in dictionaries or comic books. Worst of all, because of his social awkwardness, he is never able to interact with woman, a problem that constantly weighs on his soul. In addition to being ostracized by society as nerd and a gamer, Oscar is also an outcast because of his race. Because he is of a mixed ethnicity, “The white kids… treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color… shook their heads. You’re not Dominican” (49). Unfortunately for Oscar, he is unable to fit into the standards of society in any way.
It seems that the text is trying to show us that society itself is unethical in its harsh treatment of those who do not fit its mold. This rejection by society so upsets Oscar that he feels forced to take drastic measures to eliminate the pain. He becomes so depressed and downtrodden by his status as an outsider that he tries to take his own life. This becomes somewhat paradoxical in trying to find an answer to our original question; had Oscar succeeded in taking his own life, then society would have won, and the answer would be that rejection by society is an individual’s death sentence. Fortunately, at least in this story, the individual is not killed by his rejection and is able to live on.
Unfortunately, Oscar does end up losing his life by the end of the story. Instead of losing his life out of depression, however, Oscar is able to find his own strength and stand up for what he believes in. In the end, Oscar is able to transcend his rejection by society and accept himself for who he is. However, he does have a little bit of help in doing this by finally having a relationship with a woman. It seems, then, that an individual can survive without a positive relationship with society in general, but not if he or she is entirely alone; people must have some sort of positive human relationship to help them. Oscar’s final letter, which is delivered to Yunior after his death, ends with a reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But instead of quoting the famous words of Kurtz, Oscar proclaims, “The beauty! The beauty!” (355). By the end of the story, Oscar is able to get out of the wilderness of the society that has rejected him and find the beauty in the wild of his own individuality.
The primary human relationship in The Woman in the Dunes is presented through the story’s use of utilitarianism. The story of Niki Jumpei is the story of what happens to an individual when he is forced by society into a life he does not want. At the beginning of the story, Niki has unknowingly been trapped in a society that places no value on the individual. The village does what is best for most of its inhabitants at the cost of a small minority group, who are forced to live in holes and keep the village from being overrun by the ever-encroaching dunes of sand. Niki realizes this but does not agree with it; his mentality is that an individual’s ultimate responsibility is to himself, whereas the villagers see the plight of the individual as unimportant when compared to the plight of the group.
Niki continues to resist the whims of the villagers, but after they withhold water from him, he concedes to the labor he has been forced into. This is the beginning of his descent into acceptance of his new life. He begins to rationalize his new existence by thinking that “work seemed something fundamental for man, something which enabled him to endure the aimless flight of time” (158). This is the message that the text is trying to convey: man, when forced into an existence he does not originally want, will eventually accept that existence.
Though Niki begins to lose his rebellious spirit, he still seeks to return to his old life outside of the hole. This culminates in one ultimate jailbreak, though it is an unsuccessful one that ends with his capture and return to the hole. But even after this failure, he still desires some semblance of his old life and requests of his captors that he be able to leave the hole once in a while to see the world outside. They agree to allow certain concessions if Niki will have sex with the woman he is stuck with while they watch. This is another main point of the text: when there is one group that is subjugated by another as harshly as Niki and the woman are in this utilitarian system, the elite group’s own authority causes them to see the subjugated group as subhuman, and the subjugated group loses its humanity; therefore, this type of human relationship is an unethical one. This is exemplified by page 230 of the text, in which Niki attempts to rape the woman at the whims of those above just so he will be able to leave the hole once in awhile.
After this final failure of attempted escape, more time passes, but without any attempts by Niki to get out of the hole. He still thinks of escaping, but these desires have become a sort of intangible dream; he has lost the fervor for freedom that he once possessed. At the end of the book, Niki is briefly allowed to leave the hole, but he is so used to his life in the dunes that the air above stings his throat, and the ocean appears unappealing to him (238-239). Despite this glance of freedom, all he can think about is returning back to his life in the hole. This is the final message of the text: when groups of humans are valued so little by another, they will eventually become complaisant and compliant and accept their lot in life as slaves.
Each of these three stories presents a different view of the relationship between society and the individual. Unfortunately, all of these relationships seem to present a clash between the two. One is left wondering if this theme, so prevalent in contemporary literature, is a sign of the times: is society today as immoral, destructive, and cruel to the individual as these texts make it seem?
From Sula to Oscar Wao: Interpreting Sex in Literature
Love is said to be blind, and sex impervious to reason. However, a person’s outlook on sex is incredibly telling of that person’s fundamental outlooks upon life itself. To some, it is a sacred act to be committed in marriage only, and to others it is an act of fun, to be committed upon any lighthearted whim of desire. It holds a different meaning for all people. In Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” sex is described as an instrument of power for women, as a tool to be used to empower and lift the self out of repression, imposed by both others and the self. Similarly, in her novel Sula, Toni Morrison illustrates sex as a tool that can be used to free women from the societal burden and constraint of stereotypes and expectations. However, she also depicts this attitude as something that can wound and alienate. In his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz portrays sex as a symptom and symbol of deeply rooted cultural ills. All three writers establish sex as a function of society used to perpetuate stereotypes, a function largely dependent upon women but belonging to men, and they work to encourage women to claim it as their right as well.
In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde challenges the Western masculinist characterization of the erotic as an element of human debasement, as well as its use as a tool of oppression. She argues that this framing of the erotic has ghettoized women’s sensuality, a means by which people know and orient themselves to the world, thereby erasing a significant form of women’s liberating power. To confront this erasure, Lorde offers a view of the erotic as a system of understanding which give shape to knowledge of a time, a critical mode through which women may attain excellence. Lorde’s position on the erotic has established itself as a political, social, and academic tool of deconstruction, subversion, and imagination. Although the liberating power of the erotic lies in its point of origin (the self), Lorde suggests that women have been taught to question the self as a source, “to suspect what is deepest in [them]selves,” which “has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information,” (Lorde 53). Oppression is a cyclical process that systematically suppresses various forms of power, and Lorde’s essay is a response to this suppression, particularly in regards to her assertion that the relationship between oppression and power is often marked by corruption and distortion: “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change” (Lorde 53). An example of such distortion is the way the erotic itself has been misrepresented as pornography, a way of experiencing sensation, acquiring knowledge without feeling.
This distortion of the erotic’s power reinforces docility, obedience, and external definition, all of which contribute to the cycle of oppression through the process of dehumanization. Morality and equality are irrelevant in the face of a man’s libido, and it is this farce of societal understanding that Morrison emphasizes through her portrayal of sex in Sula. The titular character operates beneath the understanding of sex as “pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable,” (Morrison 44). However, this is an understanding of sex not widely shared by the women in the community in which Sula lives. The entire town is aware that this is an attitude Sula inherited from her mother, who in turn inherited it from her mother; “manlove” is the most valued heirloom belonging to the Peace family. However, this thinking is what causes the community of the Bottom to regard Sula as an instrument of evil, as doing the devil’s bidding; she is different, and immune to their judgments that come constantly and without understanding, and thus she is alienated from all others. The tragedy and travesty of this outlook on sex is that is far from being equally applied. The men of the Bottom are more than enthusiastic participants in the sex that Sula is made an outcast for, and yet they face no reprimands, no punishment. Just as boys will be boys, men will be men –– this is both the definition and the justification for their behavior. This outlook on sex prevents human connection in Sula; much of the community hinges upon it, and yet no one understands it, or even attempts to.
Díaz illustrates sex in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as being representative of deeply problematic gender stereotypes. Masculinity in the novel is measured by the timeless method of notches in the belt; the more women a man sleeps with the more he is considered a man. Men are the main villains in the novel, portrayed mainly through their treatment of women; over and over again, men treat women like objects, use them to satisfy themselves and toss them aside like trash when they are done. Women are inherently involved in sex, but not appreciated. Sex is not theirs to be enjoyed, only to be taken from them, with or without their consent. Communities in the novel love sex, take great pride in it, but it also prevents human connection. Sex in the novel very clearly draws a line, between gender equality among men and women, but also among the single side of men; throughout the novel, Oscar is mocked and ridiculed for being less of a man and less of a Dominican for his lack of sex. In his final letter, Oscar reveals that he has finally had sex, and of the experience he writes “So this is what everybody [is] always talking about! Diablo! If only [he had] known. The beauty! The beauty!” (Díaz 353). Díaz spends a majority of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao documenting the forces of evil in this world—despair, loneliness, colonialism, Trujillo—but he ends it all with this passage. He ends it all with a letter that affirms life and beauty and sex, but only with the woman involved being a loving, willing participant enjoying the sex.
Sex is often misunderstood and mis-characterized, both in spite of and because of its prevalence in society. It literally creates life, and it serves as a definition of life for some, but often for the wrong reasons. It is something often taken by men, with or without the permission of women, and in this it becomes a tool used to perpetuate inequality, to oppress women. Lorde, Morrison, and Díaz all take less than common stances on the topic of sex, and proclaim it as something that needs to be claimed and redefined by women, for their empowerment and betterment, and ultimately for the empowerment and betterment of society as a whole.
Joycean Parallels in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“And out of this disillusionment and turmoil sprang Beli’s first adult oath, one that would follow her to the states and beyond. I will not serve. Never again would she follow any lead other than her own. Not the rector’s, not the nuns’, not La Inca’s, not her poor dead parents’. Only me, she whispered. Me” (Diaz 103).
Caught halfway into a romantic encounter in a school broom closet, young Hypatía Belícia “Belí” Cabral is expelled. Due to the high standing of her partner, and partly due to her own low social class and ill-regarded skin tone, Belí is given sole blame for the incident, and leaves El Redentor in shame. Heartbroken and unsure of the future, Belí is at a metaphorical crossroads. Will she continue to do the will of her guardian, La Inca, and return to education? Or will she utilize the newfound agency afforded by her emerging womanhood and take control of her own life? In the passage above, the reader will see that she chooses the latter.
Belí makes what the narrator calls an oath, and the technique employed in his narration contributes to this idea. The alliteration of “Not the rector’s, not the nuns’, not La Inca, not her poor dead parents” supports the narrator’s denoting this passage as an oath; as a sacred vow. The repetition of “not” and later “me” in “Only me, she whispered. Me.” again evokes a chant-like, holy quality. However, the most significant and illuminating device in this passage comes in the form of an intertextual reference: The sentence, “I will not serve”. This quote matches verbatim a line uttered by a similarly disillusioned Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is through the lens of Joyce and this Stephen Daedalus that a reader can best understand this section—this oath—as one that highlights Belí’s growing dissatisfaction of her life with La Inca, highlights her emerging independence and foreshadows the violent tragedy that necessitates a departure from her homeland.
For author Junot Díaz, whose vast repertoire of textual references and allusions in Oscar Wao ranges from those to Homer and Ovid to King and Kirby, this Joycean parallel can only be read as intentional. At the end of his university days, Stephen Daedalus, bitter from a youth characterized by a lack of love, poverty and an oppressively religious culture makes this exact remark. During a conversation with a friend, Stephen makes his oath, stating plainly “I will not serve” (Joyce 239). He later elaborates on this assertion, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church” (Joyce 247). Stephen refuses the demands or his home of Ireland, his family of paupers, and of the Catholic Church. Belí’s determination embodies similar rejections. The young Dominican rejects the pressures of her family; of the overbearing La Inca and the respected legacy of her parents. She rejects the pressures of religion; of the rectors and nuns that managed her school and later saw her expelled. Finally, in her determination to serve only herself, Belí begins on a journey that will see her torn from her fatherland. Belí, like Stephen, aims to create a future with an outcome determined by only her own choices. Leaving school, she begins to seek out her own fortune as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, where her good looks and fiery personality earn her a valued place among the staff and customers. This prosperity, however, is not to last, and while Stephen makes his future pursuing the arts in France, Belí meets a different, unpleasant fate resultant from her own self-assured decisions.
“I will not serve” does not only signify a budding disillusionment with power and a strive for independence: It foreshadows a fall into despair. Belí’s oath is both her awakening and ruin. The line, “I will not serve” carries a religious significance that was touched upon by Joyce through a church official present in Stephen’s youth, Father Arnall. In a fiery sermon, Arnall attributes the refusal to serve God to the fall of man; that it was Adam’s vainglorious denial to obey God that led to humanity’s expulsion from Paradise. Arnall states, “Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was [Adam’s] ruin” (Joyce 117). Although readers do not see consequences for Stephen’s non serviam until he returns in Joyce’s Ulysses, Belí experiences a downfall similar to Arnall’s vision of Man in that its cause can be traced directly back to her “oath”. Through her ambition to serve only her own ends, Belí meets a character known as the Gangster, and through him Belí’s life makes a turn towards violence and further heartbreak. On an evening she was expected at dinner with La Inca, Belí meets this imposing figure and engages in a torrential affair with him soon after. This relationship leaves the young girl with child, and later, after refusing to terminate the pregnancy, beaten to near-death in a cane field.
Facing further violence, Belí is forced to leave the D.R., and spends the rest of her years raising children as a single mother in the poverty of the Patterson ghetto. Her bold assertion, “I will not serve”, while initially empowering, only serves in essence to make Belí a political refugee. In a hospital bed, succumbing to cancer and close to the end of her life, Belí seems to reflect on how her hardheaded independence led to her sad decline, remarking, “All I wanted was to dance. What I got instead was esto, she said, opening her arms to encompass the hospital, her children, her cancer, America” (Diaz 113). Belí’s empowerment and subsequent fall shares in the double meaning of Joyce’s non serviam as both the call to the individual awakening and the omen of individual ruin.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead books, 2007, New York. Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Viking, 1916, New York.
The Power of Good and Evil
The Cabrals, like many other Dominican families claim to be “victim[s] of a high-level fukú” (p. 154). They are constantly plagued by bad luck, so frequently, in fact that it does not seem to be just luck, making them helpless to their circumstances. The only explanation is a curse: fukú. By blaming bad luck on super natural energy, magic realism becomes a solution to where the curse may have come from and how the characters can rid themselves of it. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Juno Díaz, references to Fukú and Zafa, through Galactus and the Mongoose explain power and powerlessness in the Cabral family line.
Right from the beginning of the novel, the idea of power is a contemplated topic within the Epigraph from Fantastic Four. It reads, “Of what import are brief, nameless lives… to Galactus?” (first epigraph). Galactus is a god-like figure that uses his power mercilessly. When applying the epigraph to characters in the book, it can safely be assumed that Trujillo is Galactus, and Oscar is the “brief, nameless” life. By comparing Oscar’s seemingly unproductive life, to that of Trujillo, the man who is “famous for changing all the landmarks in the Dominican Republic to honor himself,” one can’t help but wonder about the worth of Oscar’s life, comparatively (p. 2). The epigraph to the second section of the book reads, “Men are not indispensable. But Trujillo is irreplaceable. For Trujillo is not a man. He is… a cosmic force… Those who try to compare him to his ordinary contemporaries are mistakes. He belongs to … the category of those born to a special destiny” (p. 204). This, too, forces the reader to not only consider Oscar, but all the members of the Cabral family line. They are not as powerful as Galactus. The claims that compare “[Trujillo’s] almost supernatural abilities” to that of a comic book character must also recognize that this is not possible without the component of Magical Realism (p. 3). The novel becomes infused with magical realism when magical qualities are applied to real characters to explain power dynamics.
Because Trujillo may have an unearthly amount of power, humans like those in the Cabral family line cannot claim the ability to combat his influences, forcing them to accept his super natural cursing capabilities – the fukú. The distressed Abelard is the first to understand the situation, exclaiming, “I’m the father of my household! I’m the one who says what goes!” His friend, Marcus, replies, what can you do? … Trujillo’s the president and you’re just the doctor. If he wants your daughter at the party you can do nothing but obey.” Abelard objects, “But this isn’t human!” (p. 229). In this interaction Marcus understands Trujillo’s evil power, and tries to impart his knowledge, but Abelard is enraged and refuses to listen. Abelard understanding the supernatural powers that Trujillo utilizes in his interactions with his civilians, and exclaims, “But this isn’t human.” Abelard fights the power structure. Because he does not apply his friend’s advice regarding the situation, Trujillo curses the family. When his lineage talk about the curse, two generations later, they “always begin in the same place: with Abelard and the Bad Thing he said about Trujillo” (p. 211) This shows that the familial fuku has a traceable beginning to a singular event in which the Galactus-Trujillo inflicts his supernatural power on the Cabral family and forces them to endure the curse. The Cabrals were previously part of “the Fortunate People,” previously unaffected by the reign of Trujillo (p. 213). As soon as the family line is affected, however, every bad event becomes a testimony of the fuku imposed upon them because of the interrupted power structure.
The fuku has a ripple affects. First, all the members of the immediate Cabral family are plagued with death. These sudden deaths are tragic and numerous. Then, even Beli, youngest daughter and the only one to live, “was sold to complete strangers in another part of Azura” (p.253). Because there are so many horrors, it becomes so unlikely to be pure chance; of course the fukú is to blame. Trujillo’s evil power overruns the family. She is affected by the curse, the curse then affects her children, particularly though Oscar through depression. The curse has a linear pattern.
Because of the helplessness that has been instilled in the culture, when something good does happen, it is nearly impossible to understand. After the Elvises beat up Beli, the whole town debates the situation: “Fukú vs. Zafa” they argue. Some saw her second interference with the evil dictator as a curse, but others saw her survival as a blessing. “To [La Inca’s] dying day she believed that Beli had met not a curse but God out in that canfield. I met something, Beli would say, guardedly” (p. 152). Accepting that good things do happen spontaneously would force them to accept that bad things happen spontaneously as well, discrediting their theory of the fukú. Rather than accepting this, explanations are conjured. Some seek solace in the idea of a counter-curse, while others believe in God. This interaction shows their common belief in something bigger. La Inca could not just believe that Beli was strong enough to make it out on her own, so she believes that the religious higher power intervened. Beli is hesitant to accept this manifestation of God, made clear by her language. Beli is cautious about explaining her interaction with magic because admitting that the Mongoose was a magical counter-curse, or a zafa, would also, consequently, admit that there was a fukú. This would reaffirm the helplessness of the human condition and the need for a higher-power, magical solution.
Despite Beli’s resistance in admitting it to others, for her, the Mongoose was the zafa that guided her out of the cane fields, providing the hope she needed. When stumbling out the of cane, “she saw the creature’s chabine eyes flashing through the stalks. Yo me llamo sueño de la madrugada. The cane didn’t want her to leave, of course; it slashed at her palms, jabbed into her flank and clawed her thighs” (p. 150). The cane is described as slashing and clawing, giving it animal-like characteristics. The Mongoose, on the other hand, calls itself, “the dream of dawn,” in Spanish. Dawn symbolizes a newness, and freedom to start over. Beli interrupts this as hope for a better tomorrow. She clings to “the faces of her promised future – her promised children – and from that obtained strength she needed to continue” (p. 151). The different descriptions inform the reader that the Mongoose is not an ordinary animal, because it has power. The Mongoose, as “an ally of Man,” utilizes it to bring hope to those in need, against Trujillo’s non-human power (p. 151). This is similar to La Inca’s understanding of God. The Mongoose is the manifestation of the zafa, bringing power to the “brief, nameless lives,” that Trujillo’s power has been suppressing.
When Oscar meets the Mongoose in his time of desperation, standing above the train tracks, he does not believe in the Mongoose because the Trujillo’s fukú has been too engrained in him. After seeing “the Golden Mongoose,” “instead of taking note of the vision and changing his ways [Oscar] just shook his swollen head” (p. 190). When questioned, he claims, “It was the curse that made me do it” (p. 194). He has no capacity for hope anymore. Contrary to Beli’s experience, the Mongoose arrived “before Beli lost hope” (p. 149). The second time Oscar meets the Mongoose, however, he has already met Ybón. The Mongoose brings him the ultimatum, “What will it be, muchacho?… More or less?” (p. 301). The magic is converted into hope, changing the helpless attitude of the fukú –inflicted to one of new life. He considers all his blessings, and he is able to pull himself out of the deathly curse. He gains hope and with it the will to survive. Hope is power.
The Mongoose’s momentary hope enables the character move toward a more permanent solution to rid themselves of their fukú. In his final days, Oscar writes a novel and the conclusion is about “everything [he] thinks [Lola] will need… (It’s the cure to what ails [them]…)” (p. 333). After the Mongoose’s ultimatum about “more or less,” Oscar gains motivation to live. He starts to follow his love. He returns to the Dominican full of vigor, no longer plagued by the fukú. By writing a novel, he is making his hope a permanent zafa for the fukú, hopefully destroying Trujillo’s devastating curse. “The only problem [is], the fucking thing never arrived!” (p. 334). This is the fukú preventing its own demise. As it had taken two generations to understand the power of hope that the Mongoose conveyed, it may take another two for the hope to be transferred into the power of applicable action – a working zafa – and for the Oscar’s niece to “put an end to [the fukú]” (p.331). These actions would restore the power to humans, which Trujillo’s super natural power evicted.
The battle between Trujillo’s curse and the Mongoose’s reprieve are the manifestation of the fukú and the zafa. The Cabral family line believes in them so full-heartedly because it relieves them of self-blame for their own misfortune. As most Dominican families believe in the fukú because most of them had family whom lived in the Trujillo reign. It is a cycle of oppression. Oscar is “Wondrous” because he found provides a disruption in the cycle. Through his nerdy fascination with comic books, he applied Galactus’s power to Trujillo and the magical qualities of the Mongoose, which balances the system of power. It is his cure for the fukú for the Cabral family line and for all Dominicans with heritage in the Trujillo regime.
Belicia as a Parent in The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
It is said that “Children suffer the sins of their parents.” In a more literal sense, many people believe that it is the parents fault for any flaw possessed by the child, not literal “sin”. People blame the child’s development whether bad or good on their parents, and immediately point a finger at the guardian of a child before blaming the child themselves. Is it really the parents fault if a child has a difficult upbringing, and does it really affect the child as a whole? This point can be further explored in Junot Diaz’ work The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz’ novel introduces us to an immigrated Dominican family living in Patterson, New Jersey. We are introduced to the De Leon family that consists of Oscar, the overweight nerd yearning to fit in, Lola, his rebellious sister and Belicia, their immigrant mother who grew up in the Dominican Republic. All three characters face a ton of issues through there tales, and both Oscar and his sister suffer from being singled out and different in comparison to their peers. The two outcasts face an immense amount of grief in the book, but why? We question whether or not their mother, Belcia’s, upbringing, trauma, and a possible fukú, or curse, has anything to do with it. Do these children really suffer the “sins” of their parent?
In order to examine this, we must first understand Belcia’s background and life pre-Oscar and Lola. Belicia was daughter to two hard working parents, Abelard Cabral, A doctor and Socorro, her nurse mother. Her family lived during the Trujillo dictation in the Dominican Republic which occurred February 1930 to May 1961. Nicknamed El Jefe, or “The boss”, Rafael Trujillo was one of the most brutal dictators seen in the Americans. Trujillo molded a time of personality cult and bloodshed. He took anything he wanted from anyone, and if there was any sign of regression, he made them pay for their disloyalty with blood. Trujillos rule resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 individuals. Trujillo was well known for his sexual appetite, and when he wanted a woman, he took her; there was no saying no to Trujillo. This is where we see the downfall of Belicias father Abelard. Trying to protect one of his daughters from Trujillo and having to sleep with him, he blatantly lies to him about having an attractive offspring. When Trujillo invites the family to an event including the daughter, and they do not show, Trujillo angrily takes Abelard away to punish him for his treason. He never returns home, and through further tragedy, Belicia loses both of her parents and sister and is orphaned. It is at this point of Abelard’s misfortune that the Cabral family’s luck diminished. They believed that through Trujillo’s terror, a “Fukú” was placed on their family. A fukú is a bad luck curse. “They say it first came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” (1,Diaz) The Dominicans believed the the fukú arrived to the Dominican Republic due to Trujillo. From this point on, Abelard’s blood line will suffer never-ending bad luck. “Most of the folks you speak to prefer the story with a super natural twist. They believe that not only did Trujillo want Abelard’s daughter, but when he couldn’t snatch her, out of spite he put a fukú on the family’s ass. Which is why all the terrible shit that happened happened.”(243, Diaz)
Knowing the parental background, we can now explore Belicia as an individual and as a parent. Belicia, still living in the Dominican Republic, was adopted by her aunt La Inca after massive abuse from her prior foster parents. It is during her time with La Inca that Belli faces the changes and pressure of growing up as a young girl in her country. Belicia faces bad luck growing up. In school she is shunned by her peers, unnoticed and friendless; her first trauma relevant to the fukú. Once hitting puberty, Belli gains enough confidence in her physical appearance to crawl out of her shell and approach the one boy she fantasized over, Jack Pujols. Jack ended up being son to a colonel for the dictator, involving Belli in a mess of her own. After they are caught having sex in school, she refuses to return back; Her second trauma relevant to the fukú. Finally, the harshest trauma Belicia faces which ends up having her cast out from the Dominican Republic is when she meets “The Gangster.” The Gangster becomes one of Bellis love interests in her later years, and after a yo-yo romance with him, she later finds out after getting pregnant with his baby that he is married to Trujillo’s sister. After word of the pregnancy gets out, the sister sends minions after Belli where they abduct her, beat her nearly to death in a cane field, and kill her unborn child. It is after this entire trauma that La Inca sends Belli to American for her own safety. Belli faced nothing but trauma her entire life, from her early childhood to her young adult life. She and her family believed that all of this was due to the fukú curse placed on her father. “There are still many, on and off the Island, who offer Beli’s near-fatal beating as irrefutable proof that the house of Cabral was indeed victim of a high-level fukú, the local version of House Atreus. Two Truji-líos in one lifetime—what in carajo [the fuck] else could it be? But other heads question that logic, arguing that Beli’s survival must be evidence to the contrary. Cursed people, after all, tend not to drag themselves out of cane fields with a frightening roster of injuries and then happen to be picked up by a van of sympathetic musicians in the middle of the night who ferry them home without delay to a “mother” with mad connections in the medical community. If these serendipities signify anything, say these heads, it is that our Beli was blessed.” (152, Diaz) The bad luck Belli faced was not only misfortunate, but it also almost led to her death early on in life. After her immigration, she birthed her two children Oscar and Lola. Her relationship with the two children is extremely emotionally sporadic and can come across almost too tough and unloving. Due to the traumas she faced caused by the fukú, she has a hard time building a normal relationship with her children, and an even harder time helping them overcome their own issues. Belli’s bad luck didn’t end in the Dominican Republic either; she is also living with cancer. The trauma she faced in her country essentially molded her personality, and due to this, it has made it impossible for her to have a normal relationship with her children.
Lola, Belicia’s eldest child is a spunky and rebellious character. She is a unique and passionate girl whom often clashes with her mother. Lola and Beli have a conflicting relationship. We see them often butt heads throughout the novel. “You dread conversations with your mother. Those one-sided dressing-downs. You figured that she has to call you in to give you another earful about your diet.” (52, Diaz) Lola’s relationship with her mother is toxic and extremely judgmental from Beli’s end. She does not have a warm, peaceful relationship one would imagine mother and child to have. Due to the constant argument and disapproval from Beli we see Lola rebel a lot. She takes on the persona of a “punk chick” in which she dresses in all black and shaves her head. Molding her physical appearance to appeal as someone “different”, it places her in the category of an outcast as well, resulting in her having a minimal amount of friends and abnormal relationships with men. Her mother becomes extremely disappointed in her, and lashes nothing but anger and disapproval towards Lola about her physical appearance and individual personality. In a sense, Lola does it because her mother hates it. Lola also runs away from home to Wildwood to live with a boyfriend. It seems as if Lola’s actions are done purposely to upset her mother. We see the situation between the two clearly when at the dinner table Belicia announces her cancer to her children. Instead of any sympathy, Lola literally blows off her mother’s announcement and just looks at her and says “Can you please pass the salt?” (63, Diaz) She than continues by saying “This time I hope you die from it.”(63, Diaz) Beli’s lack of affection and attention towards her daughter drove Lola to act out. In acting out she was seeking any sort of attention she could from her mother, even if it was negative. It makes you wonder if the way Beli acts towards Lola created the hatred in Lola. Is this Lola’s personality, or Belicia’s influence?
Next, we have Belicia’s son Oscar De Leon. Oscar is the text book definition of a “nerd”. He is constantly caught up in video games and fantasy worlds, dismissing himself from reality any chance he can get. Not only is Oscar a nerd, but he is severely overweight and almost completely lacking any and all social skills. “Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to” (23, Diaz) we see Oscar face so much trouble when it comes to fitting in. He has two friends initially, who are barely friends, and eventually not part of his life, and no sense in how to act with women. As we follow Oscar throughout the novel, we see the torture he faces from a young age to his adult life. He is made fun of, singled out, and overall, outcasted. We see him face the same issues through high school, and college. Overall, his displacement leads him into depression, and he tries to kill himself by jumping off of a bridge. Oscar survives, and after recovery, still continues from where we left off. He even has issues as an adult in his jobs. Even as a teacher, a higher-up, kids still found ways to make fun of him. “His heart wasn’t in it, and boys of all grades and dispositions shitted on him effusively. Students laughed when they spotted him in the halls. Pretended to hide their sandwiches.” (264, Diaz) Oscar yearns to fit in, to be normal, to be loved. He never had any of these things his entire life, and towards the end of the work we see Oscar finally feel these things when he meets Ybon; a prostitute he falls in love with while visiting the Dominican Republic. He wants a normal life so bad, he ignores all of the issues that came with Ybon: her profession, her Trujillo inspired ex-boyfriend, and all of the drama attached to her. The hunger for a normal life is so great in Oscar that it eventually leads to his downfall. Refusing the idea of loving another other than Ybon ruins him. Though he does finally have sex with Ybon, and feel what he’d wanted to feel his whole life, he accepts it as his end. Ybon’s ex ends up killing Oscar in a cane field, and Oscar welcomes death with open arms. He figured that once he felt what he’d always wanted to feel, it would be okay for his life to end. “He wrote he couldn’t believe he had 7 to wait for this so god damn long! So this is what everybody’s been talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known, the beauty! The beauty!” (335, Diaz) Oscar sacrificed himself for the chance to finally feel “normal”. Oscars lack of any attention at all, from his peers or mother caused him to internalize his issues. He bottled everything in and lived in his own world. Perhaps if he and his mother established a stronger relationship, Oscar may have developed easier than he had.
So do children really suffer the “sins” of their parents? In the case of the Cabral family, the answer is yes. Belicia’s traumas in the Dominican Republic absolutely affected the lives of her children in multiple ways. The fukú placed on the family carried down from Abelard, into Belcia, causing her a difficult upbringing, and into her children, creating issues for them as well. The fukú affected Oscar more than Lola, giving him initial bad luck from the start of his life, and leading him into facing similar circumstances as his mother, which eventually ended up killing him. In Lola’s case, the fact that her mother was so traumatized from the situations she faced in the Dominican Republic, essentially made her mother irrational, and unstable. If Belicia did not experience what she had, she would not have developed the unstable traits that caused her to act “crazy” with Lola. Her treatment of Lola is what creates the issues Lola has. Children model everything a parent does and incorporate what they see in their own lives. A parent’s reaction to trauma and stress affects their children. Oscar and Lola, whether affected by the fukú or not, face the issues they have in their lives because of Belicia, intentional or not.
Works Cited Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.
The Tragic Life of Oscar Wao: Understanding the Downfall of a Virtuous Protagonist
In the novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, the main protagonist, Oscar de Leon, is introduced to the reader as a despicable and a rather distasteful individual. He is characterized as an overweight nerd who is often avoided by the people, and particularly the woman, around him. However, Oscar’s tragic life provides evidence that he can be considered an Aristotelian tragic hero. Oscar de Leon, in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, is a tragic hero because he is naturally virtuous, possesses tragic flaws, and is faced with undeserved misfortune.
Oscar views himself as a hero and, by nature, is an individual of virtue despite some of his insensible behavior. Throughout the novel, Oscar often visualizes himself through these fictional heroic characters, showing that he desires being a hero. For instance, the moment before his death Oscar gives this speech: “He told them that it was only because of her love that he’d been able to do the thing that he had done, the thing they could no longer stop, told them if they killed him they would probably feel nothing and their children would probably feel nothing either, not until they were old and weak or about to be struck by a car and then they would sense him waiting for them on the other side and over there he wouldn’t be no fatboy or dork or kid no girl had ever loved; over there he’d be a hero, an avenger. Because anything you can dream (he put his hands up) you can be” (Diaz 321). In his speech, Oscar views himself as a hero who will avenge his own death in the afterlife. In addition to Oscar’s heroic inward view of himself, he also demonstrates heroic traits described by Aristotle. A tragic hero must be partly a good moral character: “Accordingly, Aristotle says that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly bad but a mixture of both…” (Abrams and Harpham 386). The first example of Oscar’s kindness is observed when he meets Ana Obregon. Oscar listens to Ana talk about her life and even tries to protect her from Manny, Ana’s abusive boyfriend. Another example of Oscar’s thoughtfulness is seen when Lola runs away. Oscar was clearly worried about Lola because he asks about her on the phone and begins crying. Finally, while Oscar is teaching at Don Bosco, he sympathizes and tries to look out for the students who were being bullied. These examples show that Oscar possessed good moral character and proves that his was naturally virtuous.
Oscar’s tragic flaw was his desperate search for love and his inability to accept responsibility. Aristotle’s tragic hero must have some flaw or error in judgment which is unknowingly the character’s reason for his or her demise (386). Not only did Oscar attempt suicide because of his blind pursuit of love, but that was what ultimately killed him in the end. However, Oscar was not aware that he was actually searching for the wrong thing all along. “But what really got him was not the bam-bam-bam of sex ̶ it was the little intimacies that he’d never in his whole life anticipated…” (Diaz 334). Oscar was really seeking the compassion his mother never gave him as a child; Yunior realizes this lack of affection in his narration: “A heart like mine, which never got any kind of affection growing up, is terrible above all things” (185). In addition, Oscar is disillusioned by the stigmatism of Dominican masculinity. Being born into a Dominican family, Oscar is burdened with the expectations of getting all the ladies. Perhaps if Oscar made these realizations earlier, he would have avoided his tragic death. Oscar’s second tragic flaw was his refusal to accept that he had control over his life: “Right before I headed out, he said; It was the curse that made me do it, you know” (Diaz 194). Throughout the novel, Oscar is constantly blaming his misfortunes on his family curse known as “fukú” but, if Oscar decided to take responsibility, his life might have turned out differently. For example, Lola was affected by the fukú during the early stages of her life. However, once Lola started to change her life in the Dominican Republic, she started to have more “zafa” or luck. Similarly, if Oscar had listened to Yunior and continued to better himself, Oscar might have been able to find love after all. Oscar’s misfortune might have been fukú or not; either way Oscar should have taken responsibility for his shortcomings. Clearly, Oscar possesses a tragic flaw of pursuing love and not taking responsibility.
Oscar’s undeserved misfortune is the fukú that has cursed his family for decades. Aristotle defines a tragedy as follows: “The end or purpose of tragedy, accordingly, is the catharsis of pity and fear and similar emotions … Fear is occasioned by the misfortunes of one like ourselves and pity by undeserved misfortune” (Reeves 186). From the title of the novel, readers are already aware that Oscar will have a brief life. This dramatic irony is what instills fear and anticipation in the reader. After the narrator explains the origins of the fukú that plagues Oscar’s family, the reader is forced to feel pity. Abelard Luis Cabral’s stubbornness in refusing to allow Trujillo to sleep with his daughter and his refusal to flee the island is what started the fukú. Eventually, this fukú will terrorize the lives of the de Leon’s, including the innocent Oscar. Oscar’s fukú comes in the form of the disdain that Oscar receives from women throughout the story. This rejection is unwarranted because the readers know that Oscar would be a loyal and kind boyfriend. Regardless, Oscar’s fukú prevents him from finding the affection that he was looking for. The destiny that Oscar is forced to live with is daunting to a reader and raises questions about the argument of fate versus free will. In the end, Oscar’s undeserved misfortune is the fukú that has tragically led to his death.
Oscar de Leon, in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, is a tragic hero because he is naturally virtuous, possesses tragic flaws, and is faced with undeserved misfortune. Perhaps, Oscar isn’t the “knight in shining armor” we may like him to be, and his death might not be considered the most honorable, but he does portray characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero. In fact, Oscar de Leon may just be a modern-day Oedipus.
Overcoming Trauma: Lola’s Life and Experiences
In the novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, the character Lola experiences a traumatic event that changes the way she perceives herself in a strict Dominican society. At a young age, Lola discovers a tumor in her mother’s breast, signifying that her mother, Beli, has breast cancer. This realization of death alters Lola’s perception of life by forcing her to become the person she has always wanted to be and live the life closest to her dreams. Thus, this experience starts her journey of self-discovery. The novel presents Lola as a figure who learns to protect herself from the painful experiences in life through her unyielding determination to change herself. From embracing the scary changes in her life and using these changes to create a better self, Diaz uses Lola as a character who motivates contemporary readers to take charge of their own life regardless of the negative experiences they have faced. Lola is a symbol of positive change. Through her mixed emotions of fear and hate towards her mother, the lingering feeling inside of her which forces her to change, and her inability to let go of her desire to become a better version of herself, Lola teaches middle class North Americans that it is possible to overcome one’s deepest scars to create the life you want.
Lola’s determination to change her life comes from her problematic relationship with her mother, Beli. Throughout her childhood, Lola was unable to express her true self due to her mother having specific views of the way a daughter should be in a Dominican home. This is explained when Lola says, “from the ages two to thirteen… I was the one cooking, cleaning, doing the wash… writing letters to the bank… I had the best grades in my class. I never caused trouble… I stayed home and made sure Oscar was fed and that everything ran right… I raised him and I raised me” (Diaz 56). From doing countless chores and taking care of her brother, Oscar, Lola did not have a normal childhood where she could play with her friends or learn more about herself since she was too busy trying to be a good daughter. Lola was forced to be her mother’s “perfect hija” (Diaz 56) meaning the perfect child, because in her mother’s eyes, “that’s what you’re supposed to be doing” (Diaz 56). As a result of all this pressure, Lola grew up to have mixed emotions towards Beli. Now, Lola both fears and hates her for all the physical and emotional pain she has put her through. However, Lola chooses to use this pain to motivate her into becoming a stronger person. This is shown when Lola says, “she dug hard, looking for my seams, wanting me to tear like always, but I didn’t weaken, I wasn’t going to” (Diaz 60). Beli constantly tries to tear Lola away from her dreams by forcing her to be the perfect Dominican daughter in which Lola is unable to do what she wants such as cut her hair short or dress like “a punk chick” (Diaz 54). Since Lola has felt enough pain from her past, she forces herself to not give in to her mother’s demands and strive to be the person she always wanted to be. For Lola, this process of change is not easy due to her innate fear of her mother. This fear is expressed when Lola explains how she feels when she first leaves home. “The next morning I was on the bus bound for the Shore… I was so scared. I couldn’t stop shaking. The whole ride down I was expecting the sky to split open and my mother to reach down and shake me” (Diaz 63). Even though Lola feels fear, she does not let this emotion hold her back from moving forward. The complicated feelings Lola has towards Beli motivates her to change her life situation.
The lingering feeling inside of Lola forces her to change the way she sees herself and the world she lives in. When Lola feels the knot in her mother’s chest, her perspective on life immediately changes. From this traumatic event, Lola realizes how death can happen to any person and at any time. This realization starts the uncontrollable feeling Lola has towards changing her life. This moment is described by Lola when she says, “a knot just beneath her skin, tight and secretive as a plot. And at that moment, for reasons you will never quite understand, you are overcome by the feeling, the premonition, that something in your life is about to change” (Diaz 53). This premonition that Lola experiences after discovering her mother’s cancer, tells her that change is coming. She does not understand exactly what the feeling is, all she knows is that “it cannot be doubted” (Diaz 53). Lola chooses to use this inevitable change and apply it to the way she views herself. One physical change brought about by this feeling is described when Lola says, “one day I was walking home with Karen Cepeda… and out of nowhere I said, Karen, I want you to cut my hair. As soon as I said it I knew. The feeling in my blood, the rattle, came over me again” (Diaz 58). With this lingering feeling inside Lola, she decides to change the way she looks by cutting her hair. Lola undergoes many physical and emotional changes throughout her life due to this dominating feeling. Even though some of these changes are negative like Lola being miserable while living with her first boyfriend, Aldo, ultimately, each change brings Lola closer to understanding the life that she wants. From these experiences, Lola learns more about herself and what she deserves which allows her to be the person she wants to be and live the life she desires.
Lola’s inability to let go of her desire to become a better person allows her to change into the person she has always wanted to be. In the beginning of her life, Lola was not her true self. This is shown when Lola says, “I looked at the girl in the mirror for a long time. All I knew was that I didn’t want to see her ever again” (Diaz 59). Whenever Lola looked at her reflection, she felt as if who she was did not match up with her ideal self since she was not in full control of herself. This lack of control was a result of her inability to escape her mother’s perception of how a perfect hija should look like and behave. However, since Lola is unable to get rid of her longing to be a better version of herself, she forces herself to go through many physical and emotional changes. These changes include moving to Santo Domingo, getting into a serious relationship with Max Sanchez, and letting her friend, Rosio, dress her up like a ““real Dominican girl”” (Diaz 71). These situations created from Lola’s dedication to finding her true self, allows her to discover the person she wants to be. It is in Santo Domingo where Lola realizes that she is finally happy. Furthermore, through these life changing experiences, Lola learns an important lesson. She explains this lesson when she says, “if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in” (Diaz 209). Ultimately, Lola realizes that in order to become a better person and finally feel free from the pain of her past, she must look inside herself to understand her own wants and needs. Due to these changes caused by her willingness to be a different person, Lola is able to see the world in a different and promising way.
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the character Lola symbolizes positive change through her journey of self-discovery. From Lola’s traumatic experience faced with her mother, she learns that living a life true to oneself is what’s most important. Through Lola’s difficult relationship with her mother, she learns how to be a stronger person. Similarly, due to the lingering feeling inside of Lola that would never go away, she is able to physically change the way she looks like and how she behaves. Furthermore, because of her inability to let go of her ideal self, Lola transforms into the version of herself that she has always desired. Overall, Lola is a figure who overcomes a rough experience in a positive way. She uses the pain from her past to help her see a brighter future for herself in which she has full control. Diaz uses Lola as a character who motivates middle class North American readers to change their lives for the better. Since Lola faces many emotional scars throughout her life, contemporary readers can understand and relate to her character because they too have faced a challenging experience. Lola’s role in the novel is important to middle class North American readers because she allows them to see first-hand, an example of someone going through an experience in which they can identify with since Lola herself is a middle class North American. This helps them overcome their own battles in life and changes the way they see themselves in the world. Diaz leaves readers with the impression that if Lola can do it, they can do it too.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Random House LLC, 2007.
Construction of Nice Guy Manhood Within “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “Close Range: Wyoming Stories”
Rasmussen Tinsley of Annie Proulx’s “People in Hell just want a Drink of Water” and Oscar de León of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao represent male characters who interact with a constructed form of manhood, which this paper identifies as the nice guy. This form of manhood showcases how cultures manipulate expectations of hegemonic masculinity so that men are always positioned as the dominant members of a society, especially over women. To begin to understand how both Oscar de León and Rasmussen Tinsley fit into this identity, it is important to first understand the ways in which the idea of manhood and the idea of the nice guy operate in relation to one another.
Hegemonic masculinity is the normative prescription of male identities within a specific context. However, to understand masculinity solely in this way has its pitfalls, as observed by Gail Bederman within “Remaking Manhood through Race and Civilization,” because it erases less dominant male identities which still hold power. As Bederman explains, “to define manhood as a coherent set of prescriptive ideals, traits, or sex roles obscures the complexities and contradictions of any historical moment” (7). Although there may be one set of dominant ideals that male identities are understood in relation to, to simplify a society’s interaction with a multitude of types of manhood erases the contradictory identities that are awarded authority without achieving the ideal.
This concept becomes especially important in relation to Oscar and Rasmussen when considering the dynamic nature of manhood. Since manhood is responsive to changes in culture, new forms of manhood are constantly created to position certain identities as powerful or not in a societal hierarchy. Manhood encourages individuals living among a set of hegemonized ideals to link different contemporary identities that do not meet these ideals with a level of authority to maintain a hierarchy that prioritizes men. These constantly recreated identities, as Bederman explains, allow “men [to] claim certain kinds of authority, based upon their particular type of bodies” (7). One of these created forms of manhood through which men can claim authority is the nice guy. The nice guy is a male identity which cannot fit into a hegemonized form of masculinity, so a concept of manhood has been created that emphasizes the male aspect of the identity. This emphasizing of the nice guy’s male-ness allows the male identity to consider, and be considered, as dominant over women, thus protecting the validity of the hierarchy of men over women. Both Rasmussen Tinsley and Oscar de León are examples of men who find themselves unable to live up to cultural ideals of hegemonic masculinity, who then embody forms of nice guy manhood, which allows them to still be considered entitled to the attention, time and space of women without exerting the expected masculine characteristics of a hegemonic masculinity.
Even though neither Rasmussen or Oscar embody hegemonized masculinity, their male identities execute nice guy manhood and thus infer their societal dominance over women. To fully understand the implication of nice guy manhood, it is important to acknowledge how the idea of being nice manifests for both Rasmussen and Oscar. To do so, one must understand how nice guy manhood manifests itself in a contemporary context.
It is vital to identify that the driving force at the base of nice guy manhood is not a question of the validity of hegemonic masculinity, or a criticism of men who may fit this mold better than the nice guy does, but a desire for a manhood that still allows the nice guy a sense of hierarchal dominance. As explained by Mia Consalvo within “The Monsters Next Door: Media Constructions of Boys and Masculinity”, different forms of masculinity and manhood do not work to oppose each other but instead “work in concert to ultimately retain the dominance of masculinity as a whole, defining and redefining what is masculine in order to retain its privilege” (30). The nice guy may view himself as the exact opposite of hegemonic masculinity, much as Oscar does, but ultimately both the ideal and the nice guy are dominant in a societal understanding because they are both male identities.
Within “’Oh No! I’m a Nerd!’ Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum,” Lori Kendall observes this disinclination of the nice guy to question the validity of hegemonic masculinity through the discussion of various men on an online forum, BlueSky. In one specific conversation, Kendall observed male participants discussing the belief that women are attracted to abusive male partners, and their belief that men who subscribe to expectations of aggressive and violent male partners are more successful sexually with women. Kendall observes that “although they designate more sexually successful men as (by definition) ‘jerks,’ their discussion implies that the real problem is not with ‘assholish’ men but rather with the women who like the abuse they get from such men” (267). Nice guy identities do not view other more dominant masculine identities as undeserving of authority over women, but instead place on women an expectation of their complacency in this dominance. It is within this frame of a nice guy manhood that both Rasmussen and Oscar benefit.
An example of nice guy manhood being prescribed onto a male character by other characters manifests in Rasmussen Tinsley. Because his disfigurement occurs early in the narrative, the reader is invited to partake in an understanding of Rasmussen’s male identity which emphasizes a sense of pity. This inclination is emphasized through the behavior of characters who police hegemonic masculinity characteristics, and it is made especially clear by the behavior of figures such as Jax Dunmire that Rasmussen does not fit into hegemonized ideals.
Not only did Rasmussen grow up displaying “a kind of awkward zaniness”, but his disfigurement and resulting mental illness places him squarely outside the ideal form of masculinity (105). The reader learns that as a child Rasmussen was enthralled with books and learning, a hobby that does not subscribe to the hegemonic ideals as established by the Dunmire family. The idea that Rasmussen is not representative of a hegemonized masculinity is enforced repeatedly within the narrative. Emphasizing this lack of conformity, Jax threatens to Rasmussen’s father that he is invested in making “sure he don’t breed no more half-wits”, thus identifying one of the main reasons why Rasmussen does not fit into the expectations of male identities as prescribed by the society both Jax and Rasmussen exist within (114). The language used by Jax Dunmire to describe Rasmussen’s troublesome behavior emphasizes the importance of neurotypicality to hegemonized masculinity within their context, and emphasizes that Rasmussen does not fit that ideal.
Rasmussen’s identity as an example of nice guy manhood becomes complicated when considering the specifics of his situation. Arguably, Rasmussen does not identify the idea of a nice guy manhood within himself, but other characters prescribe this manhood onto him and utilize it to excuse his behavior and protect his authority. It is important to note that by exposing himself to women, such as when “Ras had showed himself to a rancher’s wife”, he is exercising dominance over their space and autonomy (111). Even though it is possible that Rasmussen was not fully conscious of such implications, flashing women is an act through which he exerts a decidely masculine power over them, and the excusing of such actions by other characters is a refusal to deny Rasmussen such power. When Horm Tinsley, Rasmussen’s father, responds to Jax Dunmire’s thinly veiled threats that Rasmussen “was hurt but he’s a man like anybody else”, he is dismissing dangerous behavior because of his sense of pity towards his son for being unable to fit into expectations of a male identity (114). There is duality to this comment, in that Horm may both be advocating for the right of his son to not be castrated because he is deserving of basic respect as a man, or a possible attempt at explaining that his son has been exposing himself to women because he is a man, and that identity necessitates a display of power. Either way, Horm is projecting a form of manhood onto his son which, at least to Horm, begins to excuse or at the very least rationalize Rasmussen’s problematic behavior because despite not fitting into expectations, Rasmussen is still “a man like anybody else” (114). Horm even denies outright the danger in Rasmussen’s behavior, claiming “there’s no harm in him” (114). It is through such behavior that Rasmussen is prescribed a nice guy manhood, as characters allow him to exert his power as a man despite his inability to fit into hegemonized ideals. Such a decision is made with the intent of protecting his authority as man, which involved a feeling of dominance over the autonomy of women.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao offers Oscar de León as a prime example of a nice guy manhood. Dorky, overweight and painfully self-deprecating, Oscar is far from an example of hegemonic Dominican masculinity in that he is lacking sexual experience, a suave personality, conventionally fit body, or a cool countenance. But, despite referring to himself as things like “a Morlock”, agreeing with his sister that he would “die a virgin unless [he] start[ed] changing”, and acting as if he was “apologizing for his existence”, Oscar continued to feel entitled to the attention and time of women because of his male identity (30, 25, 172). This is a particularly obvious trend when considering the multiple times in the novel that Oscar is cited as having approached women, and through his relationship with his coworker Nataly.
Throughout the novel Oscar is routinely noted as being very quick to approach women. He seemed to lack much of any discretion in coming on to women, as Yunior tells us his own “favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma” (174). Oscar is repeatedly mentioned doing this, even after Junior advises him to “[s]top hollering at strange girls on the street” (174). Oscar seems to constantly be “walking up to strange girls with his I-love-you craziness” (176), and “throwing himself kamikaze-style at the girls” (180). This same kind of confidence presents itself again in Oscar’s relationship with his coworker Nataly towards the end of the narrative. Because of her “homeliness” (265), Oscar deemed her “not hot enough, in his mind, to date openly” (265). This is surprisingly bold, considering the levels of non-hot-ness exhibited by the Morlock species of The Time Machine that Oscar self-identifies with.
There’s no shortage of Oscar approaching women with apparent confidence in Oscar Wao, and in the same way there’s no shortage of examples where Oscar displays a distinct lack of general confidence. To explain this inconsistency, one must understand Oscar’s relationship with women as one wherein he perceives himself as holding power over them, and on some level feels entitled to that authority despite his self-identified shortcomings. Although Oscar does not represent the hegemonized masculinity of his context, he exhibits a form of nice guy manhood which allows him to approach women at will without questioning his worth to them. Although approaching women on a bus is not necessarily an action of dominance, the fact that Oscar feels empowered to do so despite his intense issues with self-confidence is telling.
Oscar differs from Rasmussen in that his behavior is not necessarily excused by other characters, but it is nonetheless apparent that he has internalized some sense of self-worth that’s deserving of women’s attention, or else he would not feel empowered to approach women freely or deem a woman beneath him based off looks. One can argue that this is because he is above all identified as a man, much in the same way that Horm Tinsley identifies Rasmussen as, and is thus viewed as being able to exert dominant power over women through a hierarchal view. Even though neither Rasmussen nor Osar embody their context’s hegemonic form of masculinity, their male identities execute nice guy manhood and thus hold social dominance over women.
Nice guy manhood becomes self-acknowledged as a less-aggressive form of manhood, and is thus typified as more beneficial to women. This is viewable in the actions of Oscar when he attempts to confront Ana’s boyfriend, Manny, an action which he does not question his legitimacy in doing but instead only the peril he puts himself in by doing so. Through this action, Oscar identifies his own form of manhood, and his love for Ana, as being the best choice for her, even though she has indicated no agreement at all with that idea. It is harder to identify this kind of behavior in Rasmussen, as his form of nice guy manhood operates more through other character’s projections. Rasmussen’s form of manhood is further complicated by the inability to know the intent which he operates with, as it is impossible to know his motivations and there is little value in guessing at them. Instead, Rasmussen is a solid example of the aspect of nice guy manhood which allows society to identify male identities as being dominant without the agreement of the identity themselves.
Being the nice guy allows for disenfranchised men to manipulate hegemonic masculinity so that they feel that their brand of manhood is entitled to the attention of women, while avoiding the discomfort of questioning male privilege. Ultimately, the function of nice guy manhood is to uphold societal dominance of men over women even when men are unable to live up to masculine ideals. Both Rasmussen and Oscar identify with this subset of men, and nice guy manhood allows them to still be considered dominant over women without exerting the expected masculine characteristics of a hegemonized masculinity.
Bederman, Gail. “Remaking Manhood through Race and “Civilization”.” Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. 1-44. Print.
Consalvo, Mia. “The Monsters Next Door: Media Constructions of Boys and Masculinity.” Feminist Media Studies 3.1 (2003): 27-45. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead , 2007. Print.
Kendall, Lori. ““Oh No! I’m A Nerd!” Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum.” Gender & Society 14.2 (2000): 256-74. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Proulx, Annie. Close range: Wyoming stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Fukú Story to End the Curse of the Dominican People
In his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz brings to light a piece of Dominican history that he sees as both relevant and problematic. Within the first few pages of the novel, the speaker identifies his story as a fukú story. Fukú americanus is a curse supposedly specific to the people of the Dominican Republic, which Díaz uses to shape the circumstances surrounding his novel. The novel works to identify the true nature of fukú and transform it into something concrete rather than an ambiguous curse. In doing this, Díaz also attempts to identify the zafa or solution to counteract this ancient curse. With his portrayal of Beli and an allusion to the work of W. B. Yeats, Díaz reveals the true nature of fukú and the zafa needed to overcome this seemingly unconquerable force that appears to destroy the characters in the novel.
Díaz deems the tragedy of his story to be the product of fukú, which he reveals as the misfortunes in the history of the Dominican Republic that have affected the Dominican people. The novel identifies fukú as “a curse or a doom of some kind” (Oscar Wao 1). The origin of this “curse” has roots in the European colonization of the Dominican Republic and Díaz traces it through Dominican history to the reign of Trujillo, whom he considers to be the ultimate source of fukú. With its historical roots, the fukú is simply the sum of the effects of history on the Dominican people. When asked about his mention of fukú in an interview, Díaz replied, “For me, though, the real issue in the book is not whether or not one can vanquish the fukú—but whether or not one can even see it…to be a true witness to who we are as a people and to what has happened to us” (“Junot Díaz”). Rather than seeing the curse for what is, people view it as an inescapable curse that has predestined their lives as seen in Yunior’s description of Oscar’s predicament: “He didn’t want this future but he couldn’t see how it could be avoided, couldn’t figure his way out of it” (Oscar Wao 268). The book also addresses this type of Dominican denial by describing it as “common throughout the Islands, five parts denial, five parts negative hallucination” (Oscar Wao 259). This denial is the true tragedy of fukú because without acknowledgement, there can be no resolution.
Beli embodies the effect Trujillo’s rule, Díaz’s agent of fukú, had on individual Dominicans. When describing Beli’s predicament or problem, Yunior claims, “If you want to cast her restlessness in a broader light; She was suffering the same suffocation that was asphyxiating a whole generation of young Dominicans” (Oscar Wao 80-81). Beli is described as always wanting something more, a common attitude among people trying to counter the effects of a suffocating dictatorship. This attitude caused trouble for Beli, which people attributed to fukú. After she is beaten and left for dead, it is said that her anger saved her: “…so did our Beli resolve out of her anger her own survival” (Oscar Wao 148). This was the moment she overcame the fukú or the effects of history. She refused to be a victim of fukú, a victim of her circumstances.
With an allusion to W. B. Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” Díaz cements Beli’s transformation, which comments on how to deal with fukú or tragedies of the past. When La Inca tells Beli that she must leave the country to escape further harm, Beli laughs, to which La Inca replies, “Don’t laugh, mi negrita, for your world is about to be changed. Utterly. Yes: a terrible beauty is etc., etc.” (Oscar Wao 160). This line alludes to Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916,” more specifically the repeated mantra in the poem: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” (Yeats 15-16). Yeats’ poem refers to the Irish nationalists, whom he portrays as martyrs for their country. They died protesting the wrongs against their country. Out of the horrific results of their rebellion, Yeats clams they were transformed into something beautiful. Similarly, Beli suffers the results of the tragedies of her country’s past (the fukú) and refuses to be defined or defeated by them. Because of such an experience, La Inca tells her a terrible beauty is emerging in her, a beauty that can only be fashioned from tragedy, a beauty that a whole nation can both admire and aspire to.
Paired with Beli’s transformation as an example of overcoming fukú, Yunior’s narrative serves as both a fukú story and a zafa or a counterspell that brings the true problem to light. As Beli boards the plane to leave, two things occur: she resolves to be a better person and La Inca tells her to not forget who she is. These two occurrences symbolize acknowledging the past and having a mind for a better future, which Díaz illustrates as the key elements of overcoming fukú or overcoming one’s circumstances. While the entire story is about the effects of fukú or the effects of historical Dominican tragedies, it shows the true fukú problem and how to overcome it. First, one must be able to see and acknowledge past tragedies, both historical and personal, and accept them and their effects. Second, one must not let such tragedies dictate his or her future. The future is something left to be decided, not something governed by an ancient curse. The outlining of this process is what makes Díaz’s novel a zafa. Fukú is not a mythical force. It is the sum of both historical and personal tragedies and manifests in the personal effects of those tragedies. This encapsulates Díaz’s message, which is that one’s history is to be remembered and accepted as one moves on to make a better life. In conveying this message, Díaz emits the ultimate zafa, a zafa to eliminate all fukú: a fukú story that illustrates how to overcome the Dominican curse.
Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Riverhead Books, 2007.
“Junot Díaz.” Interview by Edwidge Danticat. BOMB: The Author Interviews, Soho Press, 2017.
Yeats, W. B. “Easter, 1916.” 1916. The Twentieth Century and After, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., W. W. Norton, 2012, pp. 2093-95.