The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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.
Love and Madness
Love is inherently linked with madness. All of history has proved love to be not only blind but deaf, and yet it stubbornly persists as one of the most defining characteristics of the human condition. It certainly perseveres throughout Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, defying reason, rhyme, and any and all pretenses at sanity. Love in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is akin to a disease, a disease that none of the characters fully recover from. In his role as narrator Yunior endeavours to firmly impress upon readers that the troubles that befall the characters, particularly Oscar, in the novel all relate back to the historical curse of fukú, the supernatural power believed to haunt the De Leòn family. However, the real curse of the De Leòn family is not the supernatural fukú, invoked by people when they cannot explain why really terrible, and really wonderful, things happen in the world; it is love, or the perversion of it that Oscar and the De Leòns understand it to be. Díaz refutes the notion of the supernatural by illustrating Oscar as a character consumed by love, he quite literally goes mad at the prospect of it, and in his repeated doing of so he perpetuates his family’s individualized fukú.
Throughout The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar De Leòn is revealed to be irrevocably in love with false understandings of what love truly is and means. Oscar is addicted to imagining himself as being in love with whatever girl acknowledges him, whether it be Ana, Jenni, or the miscellany of girls he passes on the street. “His affection—that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in his vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability—broke his heart each and every day” (Díaz 23). Oscar does not fall in love, he falls into lust, physical lust, but also lust for companionship, for something, anything, that will make him feel like less of an outsider, an other.
These are not in themselves desires that Oscar should be blamed for or have held against him, or have destroy him; however, they become such by means of the enormity with which he reacts to not fulfilling them. During his Ana stage, (Ana who is not so much his first love as his first rejection, as that is the pattern of most of his (brief) life), Oscar actually waits outside her boyfriend’s apartment with a gun, prepared to shoot him. Yes, Manny is an abuser and a pervert, for dating a 13 year old when he is 24, and he may deserve some kind of comeuppance, but nevertheless, Oscar looks at his obsession with Ana and what she can do for him, make him feel both physically and emotionally, as the equivalent of love, and that is wrong.
Oscar has a knack for latching on to girls he adores, in his own way, but who treat him, at best, like a friend to be pitied, and when the final rejection comes Oscar snaps. Jenni is an extreme example, as it is her rejection that drives Oscar to attempt suicide. Her nickname of ‘La Jablesse’ suggests something devilish about her while adding a sense of diabolical intent to her relationship with Oscar, and this is reflective how all of the other women in the novel lure Oscar to self-destruction, the same destruction Yunior confuses with fukú.Oscar believes Ybón to be the one true love of his life, as the beginning of his real life, but in actuality his relationship proves that he once again fails to accurately appraise the meaning of love. Of his relationship with Ybón Oscar says “Love was a rare thing, easily confused with a million other things, and if anybody knew this to be true it was him” (321). This is true, and Oscar may know it well, but that does not mean he actually knows what love is. Oscar loves selfishly, greedily, and blindly. Oscar looks at his willingness to die for his love of Ybón as the ultimate unparalleled proof of devotion, of promise, and in itself this could certainly be such. However, Oscar does not just die for his version of the sanctity and power of love; he knowingly and repeatedly endangers the life of Ybón. She asks him again and again to leave her alone for both of their sakes and yet he refuses to even consider listening to her, in the so-called justifiable name of true love. This love, this adoration, earns Ybón a .44 magnum in her vagina while the capitán asks her who she really loves.
In addition to his self-centered, juvenile understanding of love, Oscar cannot give any guarantees to Ybón. Love is supposed to be a guarantee, something that can be counted on no matter what, where, when, or why, but nothing in Oscar’s turbulent attempts at romance suggest an attention span. Perhaps if any of his targets, as this is what the women he loves are to him, had demonstrated reciprocation Oscar would be able to provide evidence of prolonged romantic interests, but for someone who loves as easily and blindly as Oscar this is unlikely. Oscar can offer no guarantees, and had he not imperiled Ybón and gotten himself killed in his selfish, deliberate perversion of love, Oscar would probably have lived to see that in time his love for Ybón too would have passed, onto some girl he made fleeting eye contact with on any given street.
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Lola says that “If [one were to] ask [her she does not] think there are any such things as curses. [She] thinks there is only life. That’s enough” (205). This is certainly the case for Oscar, who does not die at the hands of fukú. Oscar dies at his own hands, at what is essentially his own behest, because he is not capable of understanding love. His love is sick, desperate and needy, unknowing, and dangerous to all parties involved. Yunior confuses the misfortune and death of Oscar as being caused by the supernatural, but in reality Oscar causes his own destruction. He does not truly love any of the girls he goes mad over, he does not know how, and his desperation is the true curse.
Gender in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
In many cultures, including Dominican culture, rigid and binary gender roles have shaped and reinforced the development of a mostly patriarchal society. Indeed, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents the traditional gender expectations of males and females in the Dominican Republic. Yet the novel also offers a pointed commentary on the ways in which the main characters, the members of the De León family, subvert these roles.
A major element of Diaz’s novel is the Fukú americanus, also known simply as “fukú” or the “curse or doom of some kind” that plagues the title character Oscar and his family, as well as their entire culture (Diaz 1). Although the fukú remains a mystery to the characters within the novel, its effects on the De León family indicate that the “curse” can be considered the patriarchal oppression that is ingrained in both the political system of the nation, as well as its historical and cultural atmosphere. By undermining the gender norms of their male-dominated society, Oscar and his family members act as the “zafa” or “counterspell” to the fukú curse that is the central influence on the family’s story (Diaz 7). Throughout the novel, Diaz uses historical information alongside the narrative, as well as the inclusion of some important minor characters, to demonstrate the deep-rooted patriarchal structure evident in Dominican culture.
In the preface, the narrator introduces the concept of the fukú as “the Curse and the Doom of the New World” and the “fukú of the Admiral,” which establishes the idea that “the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world” (Diaz 1). Diaz attributes this curse, in part, to the colonization of the Dominican Republic, thus introducing the concept of patriarchy and its institution in the nation. Colonialism and patriarchy are linked by the idea that “women and land are both means of reproduction,” meaning that without the ability to dominate the land and the women, men find it impossible to support the “existence of a people” (McAlpine 1). The colonization stage of the Dominican Republic acts as a kind of patriarchy, where the central goal is both “conquest and control,” just as patriarchal systems in society dominate and therefore oppress women (Loomba 1101).
In Oscar Wao, Diaz links together his fictional narrative with historical and factual details of the Dominican experience under dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose reign is a continuation of the same type of domination and control that originated with the Dominican Republic’s colonization. Many of the footnotes chronicle the history of the Trujillo regime; Oscar’s own grandfather Abelard is tortured after refusing to allow El Jefe to have his “delicious” daughter (Diaz 218). Trujillo is described by the narrator as being “five thousand times worse” than the “average Dominican,” due to his objectification of women, especially as communicated to the men he has hired to “scour the provinces for his next piece of ass” (Diaz 217). As a result of Abelard’s refusal to give up his daughter, he is tortured and imprisoned, a process that the narrator calls, “outstanding karmic debt, or something else. (Fukú?)” (Diaz 248). The nation’s and more specifically the De León family’s oppression and misfortune under the masculine-led society headed by Trujillo support the idea that the fukú is a manifestation of the culture’s patriarchal ideology. Trujillo’s position as a cruel, ruthless dictator, as well as his exploits with women, helps him serve as an archetype for many of the other Dominican men in the novel, and also introduces the standards of masculinity for males in Dominican society. Both Beli, Oscar’s mother, and Oscar himself encounter Dominican men who take advantage of women and exert a power and control, similar to Trujillo’s, that directly aligns with the traditional male gender role.
Based on the nation’s history of colonization and dictatorship, the Dominican ideal of “machismo” or hyper-masculinity coincides with the “contention that sex, gender, and heterosexuality are historical products” (Caamaño 1, Butler 905). Even the novel’s narrator Yunior describes himself as “a guy who could bench 340 pounds” and who has multiple women in his life at once (Diaz 170). Similarly, Beli’s first love, Jack Pujols, is described as having “physical swagger” but has no respect for her and uses her only for her body (Diaz 89). Her next love, The Gangster, has a ”pimpdaddy style” and allows a pregnant Beli to be beaten by his wife (Diaz 121). The men in the novel are physically attractive and powerful, but are also cowardly, disrespectful, and abusive towards the women around them. Oscar encounters this traditional gender norm in the boyfriends of the women he falls for, specifically Ana and Ybón. Both Ana and Ybón are physically abused and mistreated by their boyfriends, but still choose to stay with them. This choice only further exposes and affirms the success that comes with adhering to the existing gender roles laid out for Dominican men.
Throughout adolescence, Oscar is constantly reminded of the gender expectations he is expected to fulfill, but his lack of conformity to traditional ideals of masculinity establishes him as a kind of “zafa” to the fukú curse. Even from a young age, Oscar knows that he is not what a Dominican male is supposed to be, as he has “none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it…couldn’t play sports for shit” and is “beyond uncoordinated” (Diaz 19). The other males in his life, who do live up to these ideals, his uncle and Yunior, reinforce the importance of “gender essentialism” and the danger of ‘performing one’s gender wrong,” through their efforts to get Oscar to change his ways by losing weight and giving up his passion for science-fiction (Butler 909). Another way in which Oscar subverts his male expectation is through his interactions with women. Rather than being dominant or abusive, he instead spends time talking and gaining “some knowledge of self and of women,” rather than seeking out the purely sexual gratification that typical Dominican men are after (Diaz 41). By going against the gender norms of society, Oscar feels the disastrous effects of the fukú curse strongly throughout most of the novel, especially in his failed attempts at relationships. However, in his relationship with Ybón, he is finally able to enjoy the “little intimacies” of requited love, thus becoming a zafa by remaining true to the honest, respectful love he values most (Diaz 334).
Similarly, Lola De León, Oscar’s sister, also subverts her expected feminine gender role in several ways throughout the narrative. Early on, the reader learns that Lola is very athletic and powerful, and she begins to dress in all black and even “shave[s] her head down to the bone, Sinéad-style” and convinces everybody that she’s “turned into a lesbiana” (Diaz 37). By straying dramatically from the type of physical femininity that Dominican culture and specifically her mother value, Lola reinforces the idea that “sexuality and gender…do not align with simple polarities” (Rivkin and Ryan 887). Lola also avoids falling into one of the two binary female character types in literature: “the extreme images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’” (Gilbert and Gubar 812). She is independent and goes out on her own, rather than becoming a subservient “angel,” but also overcomes the “monster” image through her genuine care for her brother Oscar. She is headstrong and stubborn in her relationship with Yunior, which she “put an end to,” rather than letting herself be completely controlled by a man (Diaz 169). Despite challenging the feminine ideal of her culture, Lola does struggle with the curse of the fukú in her few destructive relationships. However by the novel’s end, she, like Oscar, is able to become part of the zafa and find happiness and love with a family of her own.
In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, author Junot Diaz provides a commentary on the social atmosphere of the Dominican culture in relation to a set of pre-established gender roles. Title character Oscar Wao and his sister Lola each break with the rigid preset masculine and feminine ideals, respectively, that have defined and shaped their culture for generations. In addition to the pressure of adhering to gender norms, the De Leóns, and many other Dominican families, feel the negative impact of a curse, the Fukú americanus, which originated with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World and continued with the repressive and tyrannical rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Because Lola and Oscar deviate from what is traditionally expected of young female and male Dominicans, they have effectively brought the wrath of the fukú down upon them with special intensity. However, the redeeming elements at the end of the novel, particularly Oscar’s final intimate experience with Ybón and Lola’s fulfilling relationship with her husband, demonstrate that by challenging the expectations of their genders, both Oscar and Lola become the ultimate counter-spell, the zafa.
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