Study Guide

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Summary

Introduction

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the 2007 novel by author Junot Díaz, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, along with multiple other awards. This modern-day tale of an unlikely hero takes readers on the dark journey of a contemporary immigrant.

The novel's main character, Oscar de Léon, is a "ghetto nerd" from a family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Plagued by the fukú curse brought upon the aboriginal people of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, Oscar portrays himself as a hero in search of his personal Grail—a "pure and unadulterated love." Obsessed with science fiction and fantasy, Oscar is alienated in his lower-class community. Throughout high school, and into his teaching career, he is the victim of the narrow perspectives of those without his imagination and vision.

Told from the point of view of Oscar’s sister Lola and his best friend Yunior, this tale of the search for redemption leads the reader through the darkest corners of a country under dictatorial control. Lola seeks her own redemption, away from her family and her heritage. She loves only her younger brother Oscar and seeks to protect him from the curse that tragically affects their family.

Yunior, his best friend and college roommate, does not quite understand Oscar, yet loves him just the same and sees that there is something within Oscar that begs to be understood. As the primary narrator of the novel, Yunior provides a loving portrait of a tortured soul within a tortured family. The redemption of Oscar’s “brief wondrous life” comes at a significant, but justified, price.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Summary

Junot Díaz tells a brutal, but irresistible, story in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Through the eyes of various narrators, readers enter the frightening world of a Dominican Republic family living in New Jersey. The characters’ lives are overflowing with injustices, unrequited love, lost opportunities, physical cruelties, and as one narrator points out, an ancient Dominican curse called fukú.

The background of the story takes place in the Dominican Republic under the fearsome dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, a man who, according to one narrator, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands for merely looking at him in the wrong way. Oscar, the character around whom this novel revolves, had a grandfather who was imprisoned for almost two decades because he refused to bring his oldest daughter to meet Trujillo. A few years after the doctor was sentenced, only one of his daughters remained alive. The rest of the family had been victims of the fukú, a curse of doom that would continue to track down the doctor’s descendants.

Beli, the surviving daughter who would become Oscar’s mother, grew into a dark-skinned, tall, and big-breasted young woman—an object of lust and jealousy in her small Dominican village. Her tia (aunt) La Inca tried her best to raise Beli properly, but Beli was strong-willed and eager for more than her aunt could provide. In her naivety and desire for excitement, Beli falls in love with one of Trujillo’s men, hoping that he (referred to only as Gangster) would cure her boredom. Gangster, unfortunately, is a married man. His wife, even more unfortunately, is Trujillo’s sister. One night, Beli is beaten, many of her bones are broken, and she is left in a cane field to die. She does not die, but she comes close. In order to protect her, her aunt sends her to New Jersey. There, Beli recovers and marries a man who sticks around only long enough to twice impregnate her. She has a...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Chapter Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The Dominican Republic is presented by the unidentified narrator as a focal point of the fukú, a curse of doom brought to the island by Christopher Columbus (known to the Dominicans merely as “the Admiral”). No Dominican family goes untouched by the fukú, each one knowing someone whose life has been altered, even ended, by this curse.

One such person is Oscar, the son of Dominican immigrants living in Paterson, New Jersey, during the time period of 1974 through 1987. Attractive as a young boy, Oscar managed to have two girlfriends in elementary school: Maritza, a lovely and popular girl, and Olga, less attractive but having a primal and tragic presence for Oscar. When Maritza forces Oscar to choose between herself and Olga, Oscar chooses the more attractive Maritza. However, a week later, Maritza is seen with another boy and effectively dumps Oscar. Devastated, Oscar sinks into self-pity and the self-destructive behavior of overeating. By high school, Oscar is well over two hundred pounds and is the object of much hazing and teasing. Adding to his marginalization is his obsessive interest in science fiction and fantasy, particularly in role-playing games. However, the most damning fact about Oscar is his virginity. In a catch-22, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend because he has never had a girlfriend. This lowers himself in the eyes of the Dominican community. Even his best friends are embarrassed by his failures in romance. His sister Lola is his only support.

In his SAT study class, Oscar meets Ana, an attractive girl who had a 24-year-old boyfriend when she was thirteen. Ana admits that this boyfriend, Manny, beat her regularly. Manny is now in prison but is soon to be released.

Ana unaccountably enjoys spending time with Oscar, who inevitably falls in love with her. When Manny is released and is reunited with Ana, Oscar is heartbroken. When Ana shows up with bruises and admits to being beaten by Manny, Oscar takes his uncle’s gun and waits for Manny to arrive at his apartment. When Manny never shows up, Oscar returns home, admitting to his sister Lola his intentions. She is horrified that he would risk his life for revenge.

Oscar is accepted into Rutgers University, where he hopes to make a new start. However, he once again...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Lola, Oscar’s older sister, is in frequent conflict with her mother. Constantly subject to physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, Lola has little love or respect for her. When her mother takes Lola's hand and places it on the lump in her breast, Lola is unmoved. She has always been embarrassed by her mother’s voluptuousness and does not feel any sorrow—not for the loss of the feature her mother is most proud of, nor even for the eventual loss of her mother's life. The possibility of love has been killed by the constant abuse. Hate is returned with hate.

Lola has always excelled at academics, but not in the social life attached to school. Teased and tormented, Lola dreams of escaping, both from school and from home. She is intrigued by the world cultures she hears about, intending someday to escape Paterson, New Jersey, to a life on her own. She hopes college will give her the escape she wants someday, but for now she is left with few options.

Lola mentions unemotionally her rape by a neighbor at the age of eight. When she tells her mother about it, her mother reacts with indifference. In her teen years, she cuts off all her hair, an act that enrages her mother, who wants to force her to wear a wig. Lola responds by burning the wig, at which her mother reaches out to slap her face. However, Lola slaps her hand aside, an act that puts the nail in the coffin of their relationship. When her mother shouts, “How do you treat your mother this way?” Lola responds, “How dare you treat your daughter this way?” By this she has proclaimed herself free of any responsibility for being a dutiful daughter in the face of the failure of her mother to be a dutiful parent.

Lola runs off to join Aldo, who works and lives on the boardwalk. She moves in with him and his father, but the atmosphere mirrors that of her own home. Aldo’s father hates his son as much as Lola hates her mother and treats Lola with the same contempt that her mother did. After enduring this for several months, Lola calls home and convinces Oscar to bring her all the money in the house. Oscar does so, but he also brings their mother, aunt, and uncle. Furious at Oscar’s betrayal, Lola runs off, knocking her mother to the ground. When she returns to make sure she is not seriously injured, Lola discovers that her mother had been faking her pain. Lola associates this with Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Beli, the mother of Oscar and Lola, was raised in the Dominican Republic by her foster-mother (La Inca), who expected great things of her. La Inca sent Beli to one of the better private schools in order to put her in an environment more fitting for the daughter of a famous surgeon. Beli, however, hated school, except for the boys there. She became somewhat boy-crazy despite the teacher informing her mother of the problem. As far as friends, the closest Beli came to having a female friend was Dorca, the daughter of their cleaning woman. Dorca worshipped the ground Beli walked on, and Beli allowed her to.

Things change when Beli at last matures physically. She attracts a lot of...

(The entire section is 1013 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Yunior, the first-person narrator, is a student at Rutgers University, along with Oscar. One night, as he is walking the streets alone, he is beaten severely. Practically incapable of caring for himself, Lola comes to his rescue. He falls for her, they have a short-term relationship, but she ends it out of guilt over her boyfriend. Yet Yunior’s feelings do not change.

Lola is going to Spain, as her “big chance” has come. Because of Oscar’s despondent state, she worries about leaving him alone. He is the only important thing in her life. She asks Yunior to take care of Oscar and to make sure he does not do anything drastic. Yunior is aware of Oscar, having seen him around campus,...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The introduction of Part II is told from the viewpoint of Lola. She unwillingly returns to the U.S. after Max, her lover, dies. It is revealed that he is the father of one of her classmates. Though she had demanded two thousand dollars from him in exchange for sex, she returns it to his family after his death.

Her mother picks up the abuse where she left off. Told in flashback, Lola expresses an understanding of Beli, now that she herself is a mother. When she gets on the plane, Lola breaks down and weeps uncontrollably all the way home.

In Chapter 5 (which reverts to the unidentified narrator with the footnotes), the focus is on Abelard Cabral, Lola and Oscar’s grandfather....

(The entire section is 1014 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis

Summary
After he graduates from Rutgers, Oscar returns home with little prospects and not too worried about it. He becomes a substitute teacher at his alma mater, Don Bosco High School, and continues to write short stories and novels with little success. He is soon offered a full-time position at Don Bosco teaching English and history. He has little love for teaching and little talent. Furthermore, just as when he was a student there, he is the butt of jokes and teasing. His weight continues to make him an outcast, as well as his obsession with science fiction and fantasy. He tries to spark an interest among the students by forming a Science Fiction Club, but no one attends.

He connects with...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Oscar comes to visit Yunior, who is living apart from Lola (they are now a couple). Yunior continues to have a problem with fidelity, which of course has upset Lola. Oscar asks Yunior for a loan so that he can pay the security deposit on an apartment. Since Oscar never asks anyone for money, Yunior thinks it is strange but willingly gives it to him. Oscar is planning on returning to his teaching job at Don Bosco. In the meantime, he has an unidentified date (which will turn out to be Ybón in the Dominican Republic). However, Yunior states that by Saturday Oscar will be gone, foreshadowing tragic events to come.

Oscar returns to the Dominican Republic and is greeted by Clivas, an...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Chapter 8 and Epilogues Summary and Analysis

Summary
Beli, Lola, and Yunior go down to the Dominican Republic to claim Oscar’s body. He is brought home to be buried. Beli’s cancer returns, and she will be dead within a year. Lola grieves for her mother, writing her a poem. Yunior reflects on the futility of his own efforts to bring some measure of comfort to the family.

Lawyers are engaged to bring about justice, but it is fruitless. There is no cooperation from the Dominican government. Ybón continues with the life she has chosen. La Inca sells her house and moves back to her childhood home. Lola vows never to return to the Dominican Republic.

Lola and Yunior break off their engagement because Lola continues to have...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)