The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Book 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The book returns to “present day” as the narrator finally starts to speak about himself, describing a fukú experience of his own. During his junior year at Rutgers, the narrator was jumped by “New Brunswick townies” while walking home to his dorm late one night. He is saved by a stranger who drove by, but refuses the offer of a ride to the hospital because he doesn’t trust doctors. He goes back to his dorm room to recover, and only Lola, out of all his friends, comes to take care of him. Even though he has a girlfriend, Lola is the one who stays in the narrator’s room at night and helps bathe him.
In this chapter told from the narrator’s own perspective, there are footnotes and no section titles, as if the narrator cannot bring himself to make satirical asides on his own life. The narrator’s own episode of fukú reinforces his earlier claim that all Dominicans are cursed, and that to be Dominican is to experience violence. His beating parallels Beli’s in many ways, especially in that he is saved by a stranger in a car, but the narrator is self-aware enough to admit that his own cocky attitude probably helped cause the fight. The narrator seems to feel a lot of remorse for how he used to act, and scoffs at his old belief in his extreme popularity. It is clear that Lola’s big heart is the only thing that convinces her to help the narrator, and that he may have many acquaintances, but he does not have many true friends.
Themes
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The narrator confesses that he truly cares for Lola, even though college students aren’t supposed to care about anything. Though the narrator admits that Lola is not conventionally attractive because of her dark skin, her intelligence, independence and integrity are second to none. The narrator starts to talk about his attempts to get Lola to date him during their freshman year, and finally reveals his name: Yunior. Yunior and Lola do sleep together, but Lola has a boyfriend at the time and cuts off all romantic contact after three days. Yunior seems bitterly surprised that Lola still refuses to sleep with him when he is recovering from the mugging. She tells him “Yo soy prieta, Yuni, pero no soy bruta.” (I am a dark-skinned, low-class girl, Yuni, but I’m not a savage.)
This is the second time that the narrator (Yunior) has described Lola, but he now delves deeper into Lola’s character, possibly because he knows her better at this stage of her life. Still, he highlights the same features of intelligence and independence, though those traits are tinged with bitterness because they are the same traits that cause her to reject him. She clearly has standards above the “player” persona that Yunior puts on. Though Yunior has no problem with being the side man in an affair, Lola feels guilty enough to stop things. Yunior first reveals his name in a piece of dialogue from Lola, suggesting that he never wanted to tell us his name in the first place. Going by “Yunior,” a Spanish inflection of “Junior,” instead of his given name allows the narrator to continue hiding many of the details of his life.
Themes
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Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
Despite Yunior’s disappointment that Lola will not sleep with him, he still “steps up” to take care of Oscar when Oscar nearly kills himself through alcohol poisoning with 151 rum. Lola wants to study abroad in Spain, but is too worried about Oscar’s health to go. Yunior agrees to be Oscar’s roommate when no one else will associate with Oscar, so that Lola will feel free to leave, even though Oscar lives in Demarest, the “nerdiest” dorm on campus. Yunior applies to the writing program so that he can live in Demarest (which is the Humanities residence hall). Yunior later confesses that he selfishly roomed with Oscar to keep his on-campus housing, which he might have lost due to the low number he drew in the housing lottery.
Yunior plays up the self-sacrifice he made in rooming with Oscar, as if he is still trying to convince Lola of his altruism. For her part, Lola is still stuck in the same pattern of denying herself opportunities in order to care for her family. Yunior seems to find this admirable but insane, as he feels almost no connection to his own family. Yunior later admits that he roomed with Oscar out of desperation for an on-campus room, but there is also a deeper level on which Yunior actually seems to want to live in Demarest. He wastes no time in applying to the creative writing program, and all of his jokes about Demarest feel as if they are laid on too thick.
Themes
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Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
As Yunior gets to know Oscar, he finds it hard to believe that he and Lola are related, even though Lola hags out with her brother all the time. Yunior says he has never met a Dominican like Oscar. Furthmore, Yunior says he should have been wary of Oscar’s curse, but that he was too stupid and not “old-school Dominican” enough to run away. Yunior is incredulous at Oscar’s prominent display of genre affection, especially when Oscar puts a sign with the elvish for “Speak, friend, and enter.” on their room door.
Though he definitely considers Oscar a very strange Dominican, Yunior is one of the few people not to question whether Oscar is Dominican. Yunior seems to understand Oscar’s split-identity. Indeed, Yunior is at least familiar with nerd culture, able to read elvish and stomach Oscar’s movies. Yunior is more shocked by the fact that Oscar is not shy about how much he loves these genres. Yunior likes them too, but is not brave enough to say it, and so becomes extra critical of Oscar.
Themes
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Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
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The first month that the two boys room together, Yunior has little to do with Oscar, agreeing that he is a better roommate than he has previously had, simply because Oscar will turn down the volume on his Japanese movies or move his Dungeons and Dragons games to the hall when Yunior asks. Yunior makes an effort to reach out to Oscar and reads one of Oscar’s fantasy books. Yunior admits that the writing is good, but refuses to read more once after Oscar over-analyzes one of Yunior’s own pieces of detective fiction.
Oscar and Yunior always bond over writing, one of the few things that Yunior will admit they have in common. Yet while Oscar writes the type of book he loves (fantasy), Yunior writes what he thinks a Dominican man is supposed to write. When Oscar tries to take this detective story seriously, Yunior becomes defensive.
Themes
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While Yunior and Oscar room together, Yunior tries to give Oscar some advice on how to get girls. He tells Oscar not to act like himself, because that means he acts lame and nerdy, but Oscar replies “It is, lamentably, all I have.” Still, Oscar worries that no Dominican can die while still a virgin – meaning that he would live forever. Yunior, freshly single because his girlfriend Suriyan found out he was cheating, decides not to work on his own emotional issues and instead to focus on reforming Oscar into someone cool. Oscar is incredibly touched that Yunior cares enough to try to change him. Among many other changes in diet and behavior, Yunior forces Oscar to run.
Yunior has perfected the art of putting up a mask so that girls will like him, and cannot understand why Oscar refuses to do the same thing. Both a serial player and a serial liar, Yunior seems to blame the girl he is cheating with for blowing his cover, rather than admitting that he was at fault for cheating. From his distance as the narrator, Yunior later realizes that he should have taken more time to fix himself rather than insisting on “fixing” Oscar. Oscar shows his moral strength by refusing to cover up who he is.
Themes
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Love and Loss Theme Icon
Other students at Rutgers heckle Oscar while he runs, because the physical activity is hard for him. Demoralized by these reactions to his attempts to better himself, Oscar decides to quit. He tells Yunior, “I will run no more,” and “I’d rather not,” when Yunior continues to badger him about the exercise. Yunior is hurt that Oscar is refusing his help, and Yunior and Oscar get into a small fight that ends with Oscar shoving Yunior. Lola hears about this and calls from Spain to chew Yunior out. Though Oscar apologizes, Yunior freezes Oscar out completely.
Oscar truly can’t win, as the other students refuse to accept him even when he is trying to fit to their standards. Díaz comments on the impossibility of conforming to a society that refuses to recognize you as fully human. Oscar’s refusal to run paraphrases the famous line from Bartleby the Scrivener: “I’d prefer not to.” There Bartleby opts out of a capitalist system that insists his worth is only in his ability to work. This suggests that inaction is itself a form of resistance to a social system that holds certain people down despite their best efforts.
Themes
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Now that Yunior and Oscar are no longer even friendly, much less friends, Yunior’s “cool” friends start to tease Oscar around the clock. They needle him on his weight, his nerdy interests and most of all his lack of Dominican traits. Oscar gains the nickname “Oscar Wao” when his “Doctor Who” Halloween costume reminds Yunior of Oscar Wilde. Another student mishears “Wilde” as “Wao,” and the name sticks, until Oscar actually starts to answer to it. Oscar never gets angry about the teasing, but Lola stays furious at Yunior. Looking back, Yunior himself can’t decide whether he was still mad at Oscar or whether he felt guilty for betraying their previous attempt at friendship.
Yunior’s insecurity comes into sharp relief as he teases Oscar in order to gain back credibility with his other friends. It seems as though Yunior derides Oscar because he is afraid that the other students would say the same things about him. As a way to avoid feeling guilty, Yunior insists that it is Oscar’s fault for letting them tease him. Only later does he admit that he should have done more to actually be Oscar’s friend, instead of just pretending.
Themes
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Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
Yunior says that his contact with Oscar should have ended that year, except that Oscar decided to fall in love. This time, his crush is a girl named Jenni Muñoz, who dresses like a goth though she is Puerto Rican. Her friends call her “La Jablesse,” and every boy at Rutgers agrees that she is gorgeous but untouchable. When Yunior tries to ask her out, Jenni laughs at him, and Yunior never forgives her for the offense. Oscar follows her relentlessly, despite how callously she brushes him off, and eventually she starts to enjoy his company. Oscar and Jenni hang out all through February and March, even starting to go out to eat or to movies together. Yunior insists he doesn’t care, but he reads Oscar’s journal to get the details of every conversation Oscar and Jenni have.
Once again, falling in love becomes a moment that changes everything, reinforcing the idea that both love and fate are forces beyond human control. Jenni Muñoz, another beautiful goth Latina, scares the male students because she does not follow the rules of courtship in which males are the initiators. Her nickname, La Jablesse, references a demonic woman who kills her romantic partners. Oscar, though he at least treats Jenni as human, still enacts harmful gender roles because does not take her desires into account. Rather than respecting her right to say no, he persistently follows her until she finally gives in. While all this is happening, Yunior subtly lets it slip that his obsession with Oscar has already begun. Yunior reads Oscar’s journals, though pretends that he is simply looking for information about Jenni.
Themes
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Love and Loss Theme Icon
Oscar’s spirits rise following his friendship with Jenni, and he even starts running again as he feels more confident. Yunior admits that he should have been happy for Oscar, and that he had no room to be a “player-hater,” jealous of Oscar getting some female attention while Yunior himself has three girlfriends as well as random hook-ups at parties. But Yunior, blaming his lack of affection growing up, begrudges Oscar this victory. Yet Oscar’s euphoria is soon over when Jenni starts talking to another boy and Oscar spins into a deep depression. Yunior becomes worried enough that he calls Lola in Spain, and he promises to keep a close watch on Oscar.
Love becomes a transformative force, providing Oscar with the will power to better himself that he lacked when he thought he was undesirable. Yunior later seems to regret his hypocrisy in becoming a player-hater when he himself is a player, though he does not apologize for the damaging effect he had on women by being a player. Instead, he blames it on his childhood that stunted his emotional growth. This is another similarity between Oscar and Yunior, as Oscar too shows jealousy when he refuses to let Jenni so much as talk to another boy.
Themes
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Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
Two weeks later, Oscar walks into Jenni’s room while she and a new boy are hooking up. He freaks out and starts trashing her books, until Yunior overhears the noise and drags Oscar out of the room before he hurts someone. Oscar has to attend counseling for anger management, but his depression worsens. Yunior is not quite sure how to help, and begins to just look forward to the end of the year. On the last night of the term, Oscar gets very drunk and laments the turn his life has taken. Yunior sadly compares this to the first day, when Oscar was excitedly babbling to Yunior (calling Yunior by his full name until Yunior told him to stop). Yunior then decides to go out with a girl instead of staying to keep watch on Oscar.
It is clear that Oscar always considered Jenni as little more than a potential love interest rather than a real companion, as their friendship ends when she begins seeing another boy. Díaz comments on the dangers of prioritizing romantic attachments above other kinds of love, showing that Oscar is missing out on forming important human connections because he is hyper-focused on sexual relationships. Yunior too avoids cultivating a friendship with Oscar (and everyone else), keeping the world at arm’s length by refusing to let anyone use his real name. Though Yunior emphasized how sad it was that Oscar started answering to a nickname, he does not see the tragedy in his own self-imposed nickname.
Themes
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Love and Loss Theme Icon
With Yunior gone for their last night at Rutgers, Oscar drinks more and then walks to the New Brunswick train station. He sneaks into the station and onto the tracks, then walks to the edge of the railway bridge over the highway. The train starts to come towards Oscar, but Oscar closes his eyes. When he opens them, he sees a Golden Mongoose and throws himself over the side of the bridge. Yunior describes the suicide letters that Oscar had left behind, and only then reveals that Oscar survived the fall because he landed on the divider of the highway instead of in traffic. Oscar is, of course, badly injured, and Lola returns from Spain early in order to take care of him.
Once again, the mongoose saves a member of the de León family from death. This time, we do not know what caused zafa to appear, but the arrival of the mongoose shows that the curse does not have complete control over Oscar’s life, even though that is all Oscar sees right now. The dramatic tension in this scene is high, because Yunior has already revealed that Oscar will die young. While Oscar’s survival was miraculous, the fatalistic tone continues because Lola is once again held back from her dreams by family tragedy.
Themes
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Yunior hopes to make up with Lola at the hospital while they wait for Oscar to recover, but she remains cold and blames Yunior for not looking out for her brother. Lola and Beli take Oscar home to Paterson and Yunior goes home, reluctantly, to his family. Yunior calls a couple times, and Oscar tells him about the new books he is writing.
Yunior stays inappropriately focused on Lola, even when one of his “best friends” is in the hospital, another sign that he is not yet mature enough to have true relationships with other people. Later, Oscar starts writing again, a sure sign that the depressive episode has passed.
Themes
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Yunior visits Oscar just once that summer, really hoping to see Lola. She is supremely unhappy to be stuck in Paterson once more. Right before Yunior leaves, Oscar tells him that the curse made him attempt suicide. Yunior dismisses this as old-school superstition from their parents, but Oscar emphasizes that the curse is still real for them too. Yunior leaves alone, but says that he and Lola would have gotten back together that day if the world were a fantasy novel.
Oscar further distances himself from his suicide attempt by blaming it on the curse. While Yunior dismisses this because he does not believe in the supernatural, Oscar’s point speaks more to the fact that the issues and hardships of their parents have affected their lives as well. Significantly, Yunior does not deal with his disappointment over Lola by retreating into fantasy, as Beli and Oscar did. He recognizes that the world is not perfect, but faces up to it anyway.
Themes
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After the summer, Yunior returns to Rutgers expecting to never see Oscar or Lola again. However, Oscar shows up at Yunior’s door to talk about writing. Oscar is thinner than ever and trying to remain optimistic about their last year of college. Yunior entertains Oscar when he comes over, but never makes any effort for the friendship himself, claiming he is too busy with his studies, his job, and his girlfriend Suriyan now that she has forgiven him. Yunior even writes a story about the Dominican woman who baby-sat him and his siblings, but is disappointed when he doesn’t win any creative writing prizes for it.
Oscar and Yunior are continually bound by their desire to be writers, even though Yunior hides this hope the way he hides every intimate detail about himself. He clearly wants to engage with Oscar on the topic, but can’t bring himself to let go of the false image that his passion for writing will mark him as a nerd. He makes a significant breakthrough when he writes about his childhood, a topic he has conspicuously avoided, but loses hope when he does not receive the recognition for it that he thinks he deserves. For all of his supposed confidence, Yunior is still extremely dependent on the validations of others.
Themes
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Near Christmas, Yunior runs into Lola while riding the bus, and she tells him that she will be teaching English in Japan next year. Yunior wonders what a Dominican would do in Japan, which offends Lola. She goes back to reading her book, but Yunior thinks about Lola for the rest of the ride. He wonders why Lola is the girl who seems to know him best, and why he is so terrified of the man he would have to be if he actually put effort into dating Lola. He makes a last ditch effort to ask her out, and, to his surprise, she accepts.
Lola shows again and again that she will never lose heart in her dreams to leave Paterson and see more of the world. Yunior reminds her of the stereotype that Dominicans do not travel, and that a person with her dark skin would be out of place in a historically isolated country like Japan. Yet Yunior is still attracted to Lola’s drive and ambition, and even more ashamed to not be the person that Lola thinks he has the potential to become.
Themes
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Yunior indulges himself with a memory of Lola, wondering why her face sticks with him after all these years. He says that his intentions had been pure when he asked her out, even though he confesses that he will hurt her later. As he nears the end of his story, Yunior surprises everyone (including himself) and moves back in with Oscar. He says that, as Oscar remembers it, they made up when Yunior greeted Oscar with “Mellon,” the elvish word for “friend” from The Lord of the Rings.
In another example of foreshadowing, Yunior confesses that he will not be able to live up to Lola’s trust, and that the relationship will end poorly. This becomes even more disappointing when it seems as though Yunior has finally learned how to treat Oscar with selflessness and respect. Yunior undermines this act by refusing to take credit for calling Oscar “friend” by only recalling this scene from Oscar’s perspective.
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Yunior goes back to reading Oscar’s journal, finding out that he has started driving around aimlessly at night. He pretends he is a hero, looking for people to rescue, and even helps a young pregnant woman get back to her house. He drives to Wildwood, where Lola had run away with her high school boyfriend, and to the neighborhood where Yunior grew up. Oscar sometimes falls asleep at the wheel, but something always wakes him up – an alarm he credits to Lola.
Yunior never acknowledges that reading Oscar’s journal is a strange and even malicious thing to do. Though he claims to be interested in Oscar’s fukú story, it is clear that Yunior is interested in Oscar himself, and especially the ways that the two young men are incredibly similar. The entire last scene, ostensibly ripped from Oscar’s journal, could also be interpreted from Yunior’s perspective, as he might have driven around aimlessly that summer, dreaming of Lola.
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