The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

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What are some themes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

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Junot Diaz’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar De León, who, like Diaz, is a Dominican growing up in New Jersey.

One theme explored in this work is the nature of masculine identity. Oscar is nerdy and overweight, not the ideal of male Dominican machismo. The character Yunior is the opposite in both appearance and values—physically strong, at times violent, sexually aggressive, and unemotional. The friends have a sort of yin-yang dynamic. Oscar sees Yunior as a guide to traditional masculinity while Yunior admires Oscar’s wit and ability to cultivate emotionally intimate relationships. This exploration of themes of gender and identity are also evident in the novel’s villain, the Dominican dictator Trujillo, who exemplifies the negative aspects of hypermasculinity.

Another important theme of the novel is the supernatural. Oscar has a preoccupation with the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and allusions to fantasy are woven throughout the novel. A prominent aspect of the supernatural in the novel is the fuku curse that haunts Oscar’s family, bringing violence and misery. The zafa works as a counterspell, the power to undo the curse. This treatment of the supernatural gives the novel an element of magical realism, blending fantasy and reality.

The novel also explores the theme of foreignness. Oscar and his family are in some ways outsiders as Dominicans living in New Jersey. However, when they return to the Dominican Republic, they still feel like visiting outsiders rather than true natives. Additionally, Oscar’s obsession with fantasy and sci-fi makes him somewhat of an outsider in his Dominican community. Diaz thus turns his attention to the many ways we distinguish the “other” and questions what it really means to belong.

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