The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

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Discussion Topic

Analysis of the tone and theme, including the American Dream, in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Summary:

The tone in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is often melancholic and reflective, with moments of dark humor. The theme revolves around the struggles of identity, family, and the impact of history, particularly the Trujillo dictatorship. The American Dream is depicted as elusive, highlighting the challenges immigrants face in pursuit of happiness and success in America.

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How is the tone or theme conveyed throughout "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"?

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz filters his themes of family, love, alienation, and violence through multiple narrators (mainly Yunior).  In an interview, Diaz said:
I felt like one of the biggest absences was hiding in plain sight, which is that we actually never meet directly the protagonist. The protagonist, Oscar, is always filtered through this other narrator, Yunior. Part of it was this desire to make Oscar simultaneously present but also entirely invisible. It was a strategy to talk a lot about how do you put a story together from fragments and how you put a story together from absences.
Because of the fuku (the curse of the de Leon family and Dominicans under Trujillo's cruel regime) and Oscar's martyrdom to end it, Yunior filters the family's history in non-chronological order, tracing the curse back to its native roots, from New Jersey back to the Dominican.  At the beginning of the novel, he is an older Yunior ("the Watcher"), one who footnotes, showing his scholarly teacher identity.  The younger Yunior in the middle of the novel is much less educated, more full of machismo. Here is how Yunior filters Oscar's story:
  1. 1974-1987 - "GhettoNerd at the End of the World" - Oscar Wao
  2. 1982-1985 - "Wildwood" - Lola
  3. 1955-1962 - "The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral" - Hypatia "Belicia" Cabral
  4. 1988-1992 - "Sentimental Education" - Oscar Wao and Yunior
  5. 1944-1946 - "Poor Abelard" - Abelard Luis Cabral
  6. 1992-1995 - "Land of the Lost" - Oscar Wao
  7. "The Final Voyage" - Oscar Wao
  8. "The End of the Story" - Oscar Wao and Yunior
Yunior is very much like Diaz himself, part "ghetto nerd," part "jock"/"meathead."  Even though he is an outsider to the family and does not like Oscar at first, he inevitably fulfills Oscar's destiny by becoming a teacher and author.
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How does Oscar achieve the theme of the American Dream in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

Oscar achieves the American Dream without ever really recognizing it. The American Dream as a concept is really centered around the freedom to pursue success uninhibited by social class distinctions or other barriers. It could be argued that Oscar, as the child of an immigrant, achieves the American Dream just by graduating college and getting a job as a teacher at the local high school. His mother's low financial class and language barrier does not hinder him in his life because of the ideals of freedom and opportunity. He achieved upward social mobility, and through his hard work at college, he was able to secure a stable life. Now, whether he is happy and content is a completely different question, but often the "pursuit of happiness" is thought of when considering the American Dream. However, the Google definition of the American Dream is "the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative." Regardless of whether one's personal definition of success includes happiness, Oscar's yearning for sex and incessant unfulfilled desires really have nothing to do with the quintessential American Dream in its essence.

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How does Oscar achieve the theme of the American Dream in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I'm not sure that Oscar achieves the American dream himself, but I do think that Oscar helps Yunior and Lola to achieve it.

The American dream is, at its height, a belief that one can go from rags to riches almost overnight.  More realistically, however, it is the simple hope that each generation will have it better than the one before.  Early in Oscar's life, he hopes for the former fantasy: he wanted love (or at least sex) and artistic fame (to be a Latino Tolkien).  When it doesn't happen, he gets fat--orca fat.  It is not until his last year did Oscar realize the latter: that by becoming a martyr for the fuku can he give Lola a chance at love and Yunior a chance at becoming an artist.

Throughout the novel, Oscar slowly moves from fantasy to reality, and his depiction of the American dream follows suit.  Finally, he realizes that, by going to the Dominican Republic and doggedly confronting his family history and pursuing love, can he end generations of suffering at the hands of the fuku.  As a result, Oscar's death helps Lola to marry, have a daughter, and escape the fate of Belli.  Thanks to Oscar, no longer is Lola the victim of sexism and male dominance.  Likewise, Oscar's death haunts Yunior to achieve his literary potential; he takes over where Oscar left off: by teaching and writing.  So says eNotes:

Yunior is haunted by dreams of Oscar until he decides to clean up his life. Yunior decides to teach college and get married, declaring himself "a new man" and that he "learned that from Oscar."

Ironically, the achievement of the American dream is the very publication of the novel itself, for Junot Diaz (very much a ghetto nerd like Oscar and a meathead like Yunior) was able to be saved from the streets by education (attending Rutgers) and language (writing Latino and fantasy-infused fiction).

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