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.
Free Will and Destiny Theme Icon

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao deals with the question of free will, especially as it plays with the Dominican perspective on destiny. In Dominican culture, as portrayed by the novel, humans have very little control over their own lives. Instead, the opposing forces of fukú (curse) and zafa (counter spell) dictate the events in a person’s life. Mankind can only hope to avoid angering fukú, thereby bringing more misfortune, and attempt to lay a zafa to protect themselves and their loved ones. The de León family, Oscar especially, experience the extremes of both of these forces, suffering many incidents of fukú but also experiencing the blessing of zafa over the course of their lives.

Díaz shows both the benefits and the drawbacks of this outlook on free will and destiny, letting the readers form their own opinion. On the one hand, characters who face difficulties, either in the DR or in the United States, are not held responsible for their hardships. On the other hand, the deterministic perspective promotes apathy and resignation in some characters, and a dangerous tendency to lash out in others. Díaz also portrays a range of attitudes concerning fukú, from La Inca—who firmly believes that Trujillo used fukú to harm the Dominican people—to Lola—who tries to live as though her own merits and hard work will be enough to find success. Yunior holds the most complex opinion on fukú, refusing to believe in the supernatural elements of this worldview, but trying to give respect to these forces just in case they are real. Díaz does not argue that the Dominican belief is either wrong or right, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether fukú and zafa are really to blame for all of the events that befall Oscar and his family, or the DR in general.

Though the novel does not argue either for or against belief in destiny, it does maintain that there are good and bad ways to respond to a lack of free will. The novel suggests that the worst choice is to try to become resigned or abusive, because this creates more pain for everyone. It argues that the best path is to accept pain if that is one’s destiny, but choose to hope for blessings even in the difficult times.

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Free Will and Destiny ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Free Will and Destiny 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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Free Will and Destiny 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 Free Will and Destiny.
Book 1, Preface Quotes

For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality… At first glance, he was just your prototypical Latin American caudillo, but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Trujillo
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Yunior (the narrator) is intimately familiar with Dominican history because of his Dominican heritage, but he understands that the Dominican Republic is not a priority in most American classrooms. In the very beginning of the novel, Yunior introduces the President Trujillo with a mixture of fear and disrespect. He brings in the science fiction and fantasy genres that he loves in order to laugh at Trujillo even as he also finds him terrifying. Trujillo is worse than any science fiction dictator, as Yunior tries to assert that he is not making up any of these atrocious events. With the comment about “mandatory two seconds of Dominican history,” Díaz also mocks the Eurocentric, colonialist nature of history in America even as it continues to perpetuate itself.

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It's perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these "superstitions." In fact, it's better than fine—it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mongoose and the Man with No Face
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Yunior starts the novel by explaining the concept of fukú, a curse that ruins the lives of most of the Dominican characters and eventually causes the death of many characters in the novel. Oscar de León, the Oscar Wao of the title, is especially vulnerable to this curse, bearing the brunt of fukú that has built up for two generations in his family. Fukú is an old Dominican concept, and most of the second-generation Dominican Americans no longer believe in it even though it has much importance on the island of the Dominican Republic. Yet Yunior insists that it doesn’t matter whether the children of Dominicans cursed by fukú believe in it or not, because fukú will still shape their lives. Oscar himself does not really believe in the curse until it specifically affects him. Yunior tries to warn everyone from the beginning of the story that fukú is not something to be taken lightly, even if he never wholeheartedly declares that it is literally real. In this way he offers one explanation for the events of the novel—characters’ lives aren’t a result of their free will, but rather the curse of fukú.

Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

All those people have families, you can tell by their faces, they have families that depend on them and that they depend on, and for some of them this is good, and for some of them this is bad. But it all amounts to the same shit because there isn’t one of them who is free. They can’t do what they want to do or be who they should be. I might have no one in the world, but at least I'm free. She had never heard anyone say those words. I’m free wasn’t a popular refrain in the Era of Trujillo.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), The Gangster (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

Beli and the Gangster manage to have one perfect week together before it comes out that the Gangster is actually the husband of Trujillo’s sister and Beli suffers horribly for her role in his affair. During that week, the Gangster and Beli speak frankly about their own lives as Dominican citizens during a time when Dominican heritage came with significant limitations. As discussed here (by both the Gangster and Yunior, mingling narration), freedom is a complicated concept in the novel. Free will is severely constrained by the forces of fukú (curse) and zafa (blessing) that determine the destiny of all of the characters in the book. With Trujillo’s possible connection to fukú, every Dominican citizen had even less freedom, as contradicting Trujillo in any way meant facing the worst fukú imaginable.

Yet freedom is even further constrained by the ties of family and community in the novel. Being Dominican and belonging to a Dominican family means conforming to certain social rules, as Beli, and later her daughter Lola, find out when each woman wishes to see more of the world or express an identity that is “unnatural” for a Dominican woman. Ybón, a prostitute that Oscar later falls in love with, has a motto: Travel light. Yunior interprets this to mean that Ybón tries not to get permanently attached to anyone so that she always retains her freedom. As the Gangster says, freedom comes at the cost of having “no one in the world,” a prospect that is often difficult for members of these tight-knit Dominican families.

Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

When Beli is born, her extremely dark complexion cause some of her family to say that she is the first sign of the fukú curse on the whole family. In the Dominican Republic, black skin signified low-class poverty because it was supposedly the mark of the hated Haitians from the other half of the island. Beli’s dark skin, despite her family’s elite social standing, was the first signal that her family was truly falling into disarray after her father Abelard’s arrest. Yunior laments the hypocrisy in this part of Dominican culture. Though a large majority of Dominicans have skin just as dark as Haitians, the values of colonialism and white supremacy are still so strong that Dominicans are forced to deny that natural part of their appearance. Beli’s dark skin follows her throughout her life, becoming her most prominent feature as well as a visual symbol of the curse’s power in her life.

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.