The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Analysis

Junot Diaz


The story is set in two locales—New Jersey and the Dominican Republic. This dual setting captures how the characters always feel out of place. In the Dominican Republic, they witness the most radical extremes of poverty and brutality. One of the side stories of this novel is the political suppression and corruption of the successive dictatorships in the Dominican Republic. Another is the prejudice that these characters face in the United States.

Although the tropical atmosphere and beautiful landscape of the Dominican Republic is presented to the readers, it is offered only in short glimpses. It is as if the characters themselves barely see the beauty because of the hardships experienced by most Dominicans. Though life is somewhat easier in the States, the scenery is that of concrete, highways, and a cold darkness. Neither setting is very comfortable.

To embellish the sense of actually being in the Dominican Republic, or of being included in Dominican culture as it is found in New Jersey, Díaz intersperses Spanish phrases and slang throughout the story.

Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Miramax has bought the movie rights for Díaz’s novel. If you were the producer of this film, what actors would you choose to play the various characters? How would you describe the personalities of Díaz’s characters to the actors so they come across authentically and as true to the author’s intent?

2. Everyone tries to change Oscar’s attitude about himself, getting him to eat better, exercise more, and think better of himself. What would you have done differently if you were his mother, his sister, or one of his male friends?

3. Discuss the differences between Lola and Oscar. Why do you think they grew up to have such disparate personalities? Why was Lola’s self-image so much stronger than Oscar’s? Was Oscar’s weight to blame, or does it go deeper than that?

4. What do you think it was about Ybón that allowed her to see something special about Oscar? What did she see in him? Why did she need him? Why did she finally make love to him?

5. Discuss fate. What does fate mean to you? Do you think there are curses, such as the Fukú, that can haunt a person’s life or the lives of a whole family? Have you ever felt cursed? Have you known anyone who felt cursed?

6. Why do you think Beli was so hard on her children (Lola and Oscar)? Was she a bad mother? Was she just very strict? How did her constant harassment affect her children? Did it make them stronger, or did it weaken them?

7. Describe Lola and Oscar’s relationship. Was it based on love? Or did Lola resent having to take care of Oscar? How did Oscar feel about Lola? How did she affect him?

8. What is the main intent of the author with this story? Is it to expose the history of the Dominican Republic? Is it to show how the Dominican culture can affect its people even when they emigrate? Is it focused on the issue of obesity and the social restrictions it can place on an individual? Can it be summed up in general terms, such as the brutality one group can inflict on another? Or is there some deeper, more personal intent?

9. How would you sum up Yunior, who acts as narrator for parts of this book? Why is he unable to be faithful to Lola, whom he seems to love most of all? Does he have a personality defect, or do you think what he does is all right?

10. Compare La Inca with Beli. How do their mothering skills compare? Who do you think is more realistic? Who is more loving? Who is more successful?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Díaz offers footnotes about the Dominican Republic and many of its political figures. Research the names and incidents that he offers. Are these facts or fiction? Write a brief historical account of the island nation. Who were its leaders and founders? What is the political and economic atmosphere today? Present your findings to your class.

2. Research Dominican Republic immigrants to the United States. How many are listed by the U.S. Census Bureau for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Were there major waves of immigration for certain years? To what cities do these immigrants gravitate? What is their economic status? Their educational levels? Include as many interesting facts as you can gather, and then prepare a chart of the statistics and share it with your class.

3. The narrator mentions U.S. influence in the Dominican Republic. What roles has the United States played in that country over the years? Has the U.S. government been involved in the Dominican Republic’s economy? Its politics? Its military? Present your data to your class.

4. The author mentions a variety of different looks of people from the Dominican Republic. Some are dark-skinned; some are fair-skinned; and some, he says, look like they come from Haiti. Find pictures of Dominicans. Find out what their cultural backgrounds are. What are their ethnic histories? Include pictures that show typical clothing men and women would have worn throughout the history of the country. Bring the photos to class and explain your findings.

5. Create a map of the Dominican Republic. What kind of landscape is found there? How was the island formed? Pinpoint the places that are mentioned in this novel and describe the settings. Either draw pictures or produce some other visual media to give your class a sense of what the settings look like.

6. Research the New Jersey environment that is mentioned in this book. Where is Rutgers, and what does the city around it consist of? New Jersey is known for its manufacturing and industry. Is this what you imagined for these characters? What would a typical neighborhood look like? Present your findings to your class.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao combines a number of styles into a single, dazzling narrative. Footnotes are used to document important historical information about the Dominican Republic, and characters—particularly Oscar—speak with a mix of “high” and “low” cultural references.

Critics praise Díaz’s writing not just for its creativity but for its careful, colorful, and instinctive insights into Dominican culture. Díaz’s first book, Drown, was an instant success in part because of his tense and electric use of language. His vocabulary, both on paper and in conversation, has been described by New York Magazine’s Boris Kachka (August 27, 2007) as “ten-dollar words [that] mingle jazzily with the four-letter variety.” And though Díaz himself states that he stumbles like a “dumbass” when he tries to speak, his written words are categorically beautiful.

Lev Grossman, writing for Time (the same magazine that put Oscar Wao at the head of its top 10 list for 2007) called Díaz’s novel a “book so astounding” that he expected it to edge out many of the best contemporary writers (such as Philip Roth) for awards in 2007. Grossman also called this novel an immigrant saga that involves “an unwinnable three-front war, and the outcome isn’t a fantasy; it’s brutal reality.”

Related Titles / Adaptations

Although it is much older than Díaz’s novel, J. D. Salinger’s perennial classic, Catcher in the Rye (1951), is written in a similar tone. Holden Caulfield, the main character, cannot quite fit in, though he wants to desperately. In this novel of teenage angst and depression, readers gain an insider’s view of how one young man slips into a deepening frustration and isolation.

In his first book, Drown, Díaz recounts the trials of another young Dominican man growing up in the States. The character’s emotions and the experiences, though, are not limited by culture: they are made of the stuff that all young teens face. Díaz has said, in fact, that own teenage years felt as if he were drowning. These stories might help others to learn to swim.

Ernesto Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams (2000) is another tough story about growing up Latino in a big city in the United States. It is not a hopeful story, but many reviewers praise the book and highly recommended it, mostly for Quiñonez’s sense of humor as well as his capacity to legitimately capture the street scenes that surround his characters.

In 1991, Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was published to critical acclaim. This book contains fifteen stories of how immigrants from the Dominican Republic adjust to life in the United States. Alvarez also wrote In the Time of Butterflies (1995), the fictionalized story of the three real Mirabal sisters, young women who defied the Dominican dictator Trujillo and paid with their lives. This novel received the National Book Award in 1995.

For Further Reference

Deresiewicz, William. 2007. Fukú Americanus. Nation 285 (17): 36. Deresiewicz offers a favorable review of Díaz’s novel.

Scott, A. O. 2007. Dreaming in Spanish. New York Times Book Review, September 30, p. 9. Reviewer Scott offers his impressions of Díaz’s book.

Thompson, Bob. 2007. The outsider is in: An immigrant’s stories. Washington Post, September 20, p. C 1. Thompson reviews Díaz’s writing and shares a conversation he had with the author about his life and his characters.