The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

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What is the conflict in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

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A look at the theme of power in Oscar Wao

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Power, particularly as it relates to one's gender, is an essential element to Oscar Wao . Trujillo is, of course, the man with the most power: his dictatorship is bloody and cruel. Yet there are other men in this novel who also wield power: Yunior, who has the power to...

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speak (he is the one telling us Oscar's story, as Oscar no longer can), and the other male characters who display violent and misogynistic tendencies: Jack Pujols, who uses Beli for sex and then abandons her; the Gangster, who not only is Trujillo's brother-in-law but also is a pathological liar to Beli; and the Capitan, an abuser of women and of his power (which he flexes to have people killed), are just a few that come to mind.

While some of the female characters are strong, they are still subject to a Dominican culture that worships "machismo" and reveres the submissive woman. Though Beli is fierce and resilient, she also falls victim to male predators, and Lola consistently finds herself in relationships with abusive men. Diaz is asking us to question how cultural norms inform gendered interactions. The rampant misogyny and its relationship to people who hold power makes women wonder if they must become like Beli (cruel and hardened) in order to endure the oppression of the established patriarchy.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was written by Junot Díaz and published in 2007. The novel tells the story of American Dominican Oscar Wao (real name Oscar de Leon).

One of the major conflicts of the story is cultural identity. Many of the characters struggle with their dual or multiple cultural identities. This conflict is instrumental in their feelings of isolation. For example, Oscar struggles with being both American and Dominican. His lack of masculinity alienates him from the Dominican community, whilst his nerdiness alienates him from his American peers.

The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy.

Whilst Lola wants to free herself from the traditional Dominican role she is expected to play, Beli works a number of jobs and is unsure of her role in society. Unlike Oscar, Yunior adopts the Dominican masculinity (due to fear of rejection) but this only causes him unhappiness and loneliness.

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I would also add that a major conflict is fate vs. free will--in this case, at it relates to the "fuku," the supposed curse on the family and Dominicans in general. Oscar's quest to be loved and to be redeemed comes into conflict with several forces--American society, his past, Dominican gangsters--that challenge his ability to live the life he aspires to.

One other subcurrent is the narrator, who must come to grips with Oscar's actions and his relationship to Lola and the rest of  Oscar and Lola's family.

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There are two conflicts primarily present in this story.  The first one is man vs. society.  From Oscar's family history in the Dominican Republic, readers learn that discriminatory behavior towards the family is the cause of many of their problems.  Beli's sisters were killed by a totalitarian leader.  Beli herself was ostracized for her appearance and then beaten by the same totalitarian leader.  In New Jersey, the family suffers from a lack of acceptance due to their cultural background, leaving Oscar to feel alienated and  unloved.  Society has put undue pressure on the characters.

However, at the true heart of the story, is a man vs. self conflict.  Diaz focuses less on this issue of society in her narration, and more on the reactionary behavior of the characters.  These characters make bad decisions based on their needs and suffer as a result.  Beli and Oscar both want acceptance so badly that they get invovled in dangerous and forbidden relationships.  If they reacted more positively to their needs, each character would have experienced a less brutal life line. 

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