The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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Themes and Colors
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Free Will and Destiny Theme Icon
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon

While telling the story of Oscar de León, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao also references many of the books or movies that the characters have read. Díaz responds to these works and explores the influence that artistic works can have on the real world. These fictional connections then point to the ways that people use the frameworks of fantasy and art as tools to understand their own lives.

Genre fiction features prominently in the novel as an escape for characters who do not want to face some aspect of their real world. Oscar and Yunior use science fiction and fantasy novels to ease their insecurities, while Beli looks to romance novels for the love that she cannot find in the Dominican Republic. Yet, though Oscar Wao acknowledges that literature can provide comfort, it also asserts that it is necessary to maintain a sense of the real world. Oscar and Beli are bitterly disappointed when their fantasies do not come true, while Yunior is able to find contentment with his life only after letting go of the desire to reshape reality. The novel argues that art can supplement life, but that it cannot replace the responsibility of dealing with one’s true circumstances.

Navigating fantasy and reality is further complicated for the characters of Oscar Wao, however, because they often cannot find real role models that display their identities in the fiction that they love. Díaz argues that the fantasy worlds his characters have chosen for themselves are not fully satisfying because these worlds have no room for characters who look and act Dominican. Oscar and Beli only see people who look like them—that is, with darker skin—playing villains in the genres that they love, and Oscar points out that literature created by white authors often upholds racial hierarchies that benefit white people. With Oscar Wao, then, Díaz challenges these hierarchies, both by creating fully three-dimensional Dominican characters, and by using the tropes of historically white genres, like sci-fi and fantasy, in a Dominican story.

Díaz explores the ways that fantasy can make reality easier to handle by imbuing bleak struggles with moral significance and tying together hard experiences into a larger story where good triumphs over evil. However, he also points out how fantasy can make life more difficult for people of color when the stories they enjoy do not include characters like themselves, or lead them to unrealistic or harmful worldviews. Diaz’s solution is not to firmly reject the influence of fantasy on people’s real lives, but to advocate for more diversity in art and literature. With Oscar Wao, Díaz gives an example of the type of fiction he wants, writing a novel in which white people and people of color can all be villains or heroes.

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Art, Life, and Latinos in America ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Art, Life, and Latinos in America appears in each Chapter of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Art, Life, and Latinos in America Quotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Below you will find the important quotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao related to the theme of Art, Life, and Latinos in America.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Yunior asserts that Oscar loves genres so much because the outsider status of many of the protagonists appealed to Oscar’s feelings of isolation. X-men are not normal humans, and the comic book often focuses on how they must help the humans who hate them. Oscar is not a normal Dominican boy and does not enjoy what Yunior describes as “typical” Dominican pastimes, such as baseball or cars. Furthermore, he is not adept at the dating game that Dominican men are supposed to dominate. These “deficiencies” are noticeable on sight, from how Oscar moves and speaks—just like some X-men may have mutations that cannot be hidden. His true passions, writing, reading and other nerdy pursuits, are derided by his friends and family as if they are useless. Yet not just Oscar deals with these problems. Yunior too knows what it feels like not to fit in with the Dominican community. Yunior is simply better at hiding his differences.

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The trip turned out to be something of a turning point for him. Instead of discouraging his writing, chasing him out of the house like his mother used to, his abuela, Nena Inca, let him be. Allowed him to sit in the back of the house as long as he wanted, didn’t insist that he should be "out in the world."

Related Characters: Oscar de León (Oscar Wao) (speaker), La Inca (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

When Oscar visits the Dominican Republic the year before he graduates high school, he finally gets the chance to commit to his desire to be a writer. His mother and sister are not very supportive of this goal, because they have seen how people with dark skin (like Oscar) are not successful in certain jobs in the United States. La Inca, having lived her whole life in the Dominican Republic, does not have these preconceived prejudices. Furthermore, La Inca reminds Oscar of his family heritage, telling him about his grandfather Abelard who also spent long hours writing in his study when the family was rich. La Inca understands that Oscar wants to create his own fictional worlds rather than expend more energy trying to live in a world that has rejected him time and time again.

Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

You don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around—especially the ones that are never around. What it's like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave.

Related Characters: Lola de León (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

Lola tries to explain the experience of growing up as a second-generation Dominican-American girl. It is not clear who Lola is addressing when she says “You”—it might be Yunior, the narrator of the rest of the novel and Lola’s boyfriend later in life. Traditional Dominican family structure as Lola and Yunior experience it means that Yunior would have no idea the amount of work that a Dominican woman is expected to do. Lola also might be addressing any white American reader, who might have no idea of the struggles that Dominican families face trying to find economic success in America. Her mother (Beli) works two jobs in order to keep the family afloat in New Jersey. This means that much of the work keeping house, putting meals on the table, and raising Oscar falls to Lola. Lola loves her mother, but can’t help but feel underappreciated and overworked. Lola and her mother butt heads because Lola cannot erase her own personality to be nothing more than the obedient daughter that her mother wants.

Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

Pujols, it seems, had promised Belicia that they would be married as soon as they'd both finished high school, and Beli had believed him, hook, line, and sinker. Hard to square her credulity with the hardnosed no-nonsense femme-matador I'd come to know, but one must remember: she was young and in love. Talk about fantasist: the girl sincerely believed that Jack would be true.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral, Jack Pujols
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

When Beli is in high school, she and her high school boyfriend are caught having sex in a closet. This destroys both of their reputations, but Beli maintains that she and Jack are allowed to do whatever they like because they are already married in her mind. Beli, like her son Oscar, is adept at ignoring reality in favor of a more positive fantasy. Inspired by romance genre movies, Beli sees all her romantic relationships through the most positive light possible. Though Jack Pujols was clearly a liar and a player, used to skating through life due to his family’s elite status, Beli chooses to believe that they have found true love rather than teenage lust. Even worse, Beli continues to “be true” to Jack after he is sent to military school even though he was never true to her.

All of this is even more surprising after Beli’s earlier characterization as a harsh realist. When she is introduced as Lola and Oscar’s mother, Beli has no time for love stories because she has already gone through three brutal heartbreaks. She scoffs at Lola’s high school boyfriend, bitterly aware of how poorly such relationships go for women – especially Dominican women. Having been burned at one extreme, Beli in her later years swung to the other extreme and became a “no-nonsense femme matador” who has experienced too much loss to really believe in love.

Don’t laugh, mi negrita, for your world is about to be changed. Utterly. Yes: a terrible beauty is etc., etc. Take it from me. You laugh because you've been ransacked to the limit of your soul, because your lover betrayed you almost unto death, because your first son was neverborn. You laugh because you have no front teeth and you've sworn never to smile again.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beli is beaten by Trujillo’s thugs for having an affair with the Gangster, Beli realizes that she must move to the United States in order to be safe from further harm. While Beli had always longed for change, and to be away from the Dominican Republic, these circumstances were not the situation in which she had imagined she would arrive in America. Beli had been known for her beauty, a quality that has been tarnished by the huge physical toll that her body has taken. Yunior quotes the Irish poet Yeats here, calling Beli a “terrible beauty.” Yeats, a supporter of the failed Irish Easter Rebellion in 1916, when Irish nationalists tried to overthrow the control of the British government, wrote that “a terrible beauty is born”—capturing both the great beauty of these revolutionary sentiments and the terrible price of putting them into practice. Similarly, Beli celebrated her own physical attributes, but paid a terrible price because of that beauty.

Beli also had to realize that her world is “changed utterly” (borrowing more words from Yeat’s poem), as her greatest love led to her greatest loss. Beli was pregnant with the Gangster’s child, and then had to mourn the loss of both her lover and her miscarried son when the Gangster’s wife had her beaten. It is a mark of Beli’s immense strength that she is able to laugh, even sardonically, after such tragic events.

Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Wondering aloud, If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?”

Related Characters: Oscar de León (Oscar Wao) (speaker), Yunior (The Narrator)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Oscar tries to start many conversations about science fiction and fantasy with Yunior when he and Yunior room together in college. These conversations often edge into Oscar’s experience as a black Dominican American man, because Oscar uses fantasy stories as a framework to understand the real world. In the fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, orcs are an ugly, black-skinned species that bear a murderous grudge against the beautiful, virtuous elves. Oscar points out that dark-skinned humans find only species such as orcs that look like them in fantasy novels: dark characters who are always evil.

When putting this framework on the real world, Oscar questions why dark-skinned people have to see themselves as ugly and evil, essentially making themselves the antagonists in their own story. Whiteness in the real world is still upheld as a sign of purity, beauty, and goodness. It would make more sense to Oscar if dark-skinned people saw themselves as protagonists in their own lives, and thus saw dark skin as good and beautiful. Yunior tries not to engage with these talks, however, because he only sees the nerdy content of Oscar’s musings, rather than the attempts that Oscar is making to redress the racial injustices that Oscar sees in the world and in art.

Book 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like halftrolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

As Oscar recovers from a near-fatal beating, he turns to his favorite books for comfort, as he has many times in the past. Yunior ties the moment back to Oscar’s childhood, when a more innocent and naïve Oscar simply wanted companionship in his lonely life. At the time, The Lord of the Rings was the perfect solution, and Yunior says he is able to read it millions of times to find that same comfort.

However, once Oscar grows up and experiences prejudice and racism because of his dark skin, certain elements of the fantasy novel begin to take on a painful undertone. Yunior says that Oscar stops at the line comparing black men to half trolls, a phrase that is meant to describe the races of orcs and trills that are the villains of the books, but which strikes Oscar as another example of white men, like author JRR Tolkien, treating black men as less than human. Oscar is no longer able to use fantasy as an escape, because the racial hierarchies that punish him in the real world follow him even in his favorite novels.

Though Oscar has to put aside one of his favorite novels, this moment is also a catalyst for Oscar to finally start taking the initiative to improve his real life. Once Oscar is well enough, he returns to the DR and fights for the woman he loves, rather than disappearing into another fantasy world.

Book 3, Epilogue Quotes

Behold the girl: the beautiful muchachita: Lola's daughter. Dark and blindingly fast: in her great-grandmother La Inca’s words: una jurona. Could have been my daughter if I'd been smart, if I'd been ---. Makes her no less precious. She climbs trees, she rubs her butt against doorjambs, she practices malapalabras when she thinks nobody is listening. Speaks Spanish and English. Neither Captain Marvel nor Billy Batson, but the lightning.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), La Inca, Isis
Related Symbols: The Mongoose and the Man with No Face
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Yunior describes Lola’s daughter Isis in glowing terms, as if she were his own. Yunior will clearly always love Lola and has great tenderness for Isis, and even believes that he could have been Isis’ father if only he had possessed some quality that he either won’t or can’t share with us. Yunio leaves one more blank space in the novel, as he still does not fully understand the Dominican heritage that keeps him from committing to an authentic relationship with Lola. Isis, on the other hand, speaks Spanish and English, suggesting hope for an identity that fuses the Dominican and American backgrounds that Yunior cannot reconcile.

Yet Isis is more symbol than girl. La Inca calls her una jurona (Spanish for ferret), an animal very similar to the Mongoose that grants zafa (blessing) when characters are about to be overcome by the fukú curse. Isis is by no means perfect, engaging in the mischievous behaviors of a spunky little girl, but she also has the dark skin and quick speed that the Mongoose had in the cane field where it saved Oscar and Beli’s lives. Isis is not like Captain Marvel, a superhero who can save the world, or Billy Batson, Captain marvel’s ordinary human host, but she is the lightning, the thing that allows ordinary people to become extraordinary. Yunior believes that, through Isis, the de León family will finally be healed.

Book 3: The Final Letter Quotes

So this is what everybody's always talking about! Diablo! If only I'd known. The beauty! The beauty!

Related Characters: Oscar de León (Oscar Wao) (speaker)
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very end of the novel, Yunior includes excerpts of the very last letter that Oscar wrote home from the Dominican Republic before he was killed. In it, Oscar expounds on the wonder of the love he has finally found with Ybón, an intimacy which he had searched for his whole life. While Yunior focuses on his amazement that Oscar and Ybón actually had sex, meaning that Oscar did not die a virgin, Oscar himself revels in the other details that loving Ybón brings. According to Yunior, Dominican men and women are unusually preoccupied with love and sex. Oscar’s complete lack of a romantic life made him even more curious than most about the apparent excellence of this experience, and the frank nature of Dominican families meant that he heard plenty about love and sex before he saw it for himself.

When he finally gets to see love firsthand, Oscar proclaims “the beauty! The beauty!”. He suggests that love might have excused all of the pain he had to go through for Ybón if only he had known how wonderful the end result would be. This phrase, the very last words in the entire novel, echoes the last words of Kurtz’s report in Conrad’s novel the Heart of Darkness, where Kurtz, a European ivory trader in the wilds of Africa, exclaims “the horror! The horror!” judging everything from the natives of the continent of Africa to the Europeans who exploit them to be horrible. In contrast, Oscar’s last words give a hopeful turn to the pain of the novel. Though Oscar and his family had to undergo horrific pain, emotional and physical, it was worth it for them to receive even small amounts of beautiful love. While Kurtz embodies the worst impulses of mankind, spreading all the horror that humans are capable of, Oscar upholds the best virtues of mankind, looking at all of the beauty that mankind creates.