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.
Love and Loss Theme Icon

While the novel follows many threads in Oscar’s life, it is primarily concerned with love in all its varied forms. Like many coming-of-age novels, Oscar’s search for maturity takes the form of a search for romantic love, but the themes of love also go further than that in the novel.

Oscar’s definition of love and his methods of finding it are shaped by the cultural expectations surrounding love and sex in the Dominican environment of the novel. According to Yunior, Dominicans detrimentally confuse sexual love and true intimacy. Due to this, some characters look for love their entire lives without finding it. Yunior expects love to be easy and to fix his insecurities, ignoring the real work and care that a healthy, intimate relationship requires on behalf of both himself and his partner. Even worse, many Dominican men use romantic love as a way to exercise power or show status, as in Trujillo’s “culocracy,” the tendency towards domestic abuse, and Yunior’s casual use of women. As a response to these harmful sexual norms, Oscar’s relationship with a prostitute – the lowest of the low on the Dominican social spectrum – is shown to be the truest expression of love in the novel.

Yet while these romantic relationships drive the plot, other types of love, such as friendship or family, form the foundation of the novel. Both Oscar and Lola offer Yunior a crucial alternative to romantic love, and the friendship between Oscar and Yunior proves to be the most important bond of the novel. Likewise, Oscar and Beli call upon the strength of their love for their family when the loss of romantic love leaves them near death. The more passionate displays of romantic love may receive more attention, but the quiet power of family and friendship helps the characters face hardship and tragedy.

The novel shows that loving someone also means inviting the possibility of losing them, but it also declares that the beauty of love is well worth the pain of loss. These two universal human experiences unite mankind despite any cultural differences, and offer hope to the characters despite the many harsh scenes of the novel. In a fitting end to the novel, Oscar’s last letters to the States proclaim “The beauty! The beauty!” of love rather than focusing on all the pain and loss Oscar has seen throughout his life.

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Love and Loss ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Love and Loss 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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Love and Loss 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 Love and Loss.
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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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.

…you could argue that the Gangster adored our girl and that adoration was one of the greatest gifts anybody had ever given her. It felt unbelievably good to Beli, shook her to her core. (For the first time I actually felt like I owned my skin, like it was me and I was it.)

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral (speaker), The Gangster
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Beli’s second great love is the Gangster, a man who commits awful acts for Trujillo, but treats Beli like a princess. The Gangster adores Beli, telling her from their first meeting that Beautiful is her name and worshipping her body when they are intimate. Beli has received plenty of attention for her body, but the Gangster’s complete acceptance of every part of her appearance, including her extremely dark skin and the scar on her back, is a new and welcome experience. Beli’s parenthetical addition to Yunior’s narration makes it clear that she had never felt truly comfortable in her skin before the Gangster, but that his love helped her “own” her skin and thus own her identity as a black woman. Yet though the transformative power of love carries a lot of weight in the book, Beli’s self-acceptance does not last, because it is so dependent on the validation of another person. After the Gangster leaves Beli, she loses confidence in herself and does not celebrate her black skin when her children inherit it.

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

These days I have to ask myself; What made me angrier? That Oscar, the fat loser, quit, or that Oscar, the fat loser, defied me? And I wonder: What hurt him more? That I was never really his friend, or that I pretended to be?

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

When Yunior and Oscar roomed together in college, Yunior tried to turn Oscar into the perfect Dominican man by giving him pointers on getting in shape and picking up girls. Oscar decides that he does not want to implement Yunior’s changes, and simply tells Yunior that he would prefer not to. Though this is not a violent confrontation, Yunior takes Oscar’s “betrayal” very poorly and treats Oscar with contempt from that point on.

Much of the novel’s narration involves Yunior’s attempts to make sense of his own past, and to fix the mistakes that he made as a younger man. Due to his own discomfort with his Dominican identity in college, Yunior felt the need to put the “fat loser” Oscar down in order to assert his own fitness and popularity. From his vantage point years later, Yunior tries to clarify whether he actually wanted to help Oscar, or if he just wanted to succeed at his project and got upset when Oscar destroyed that plan. Yunior then realizes Oscar’s feelings on the matter must have been just as complicated. Yunior had no obligation to be Oscar’s friend, but pretending to be Oscar’s friend gave Oscar a hope that might have been even more hurtful when it was taken away. Yunior and Oscar’s friendship is very important to each boy, but Yunior cannot admit it because he was so insecure in his own identity during the time of their relationship.

A heart like mine, which never got any kind of affection growing up, is terrible above all things.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

When Oscar finally gets attention from a girl, Yunior feels intense jealousy rather than helping his “friend” celebrate this development. Looking back, Yunior blames this on his affectionless childhood. Díaz uses Yunior to point out the difficulties that many Dominican American families face, as the Dominican culture in America (as described by Yunior) creates a toxic environment for young children of color. Yunior never fully explains his relationship with his mother, but hints that his mother was overworked and harsh like Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli. Yunior also subtly implies that he was nerdy and friendless as a child, due to his interest in stereotypically “white” genres like Oscar.

This early lack of any kind of affection from family and friends causes Yunior to constantly search for affection from the romantic relationships in his life. He then becomes jealous of any other man that receives the attention he feels should belong to him. Furthermore, this finally manifests in Yunior’s inability to stay faithful to any woman, as he wants as much affection as possible. Yunior’s “terrible” heart is his fatal flaw, undermining possible affection from family and friends because he was once so starved for this love that he now does not recognize healthy relationships.

Book 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

Oscar remembers having a dream where a mongoose was chatting with him. Except the mongoose was the Mongoose. What will it be, muchacho? it demanded. More or less? And for a moment he almost said less. So tired, and so much pain – Less! Less! Less! – but then in the back of his head he remembered his family... More, he croaked. --- --- --- said the Mongoose, and then the wind swept him back into darkness.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Related Symbols: The Mongoose and the Man with No Face
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

After Oscar is beaten by two police officers for being friends with the girlfriend of the police captain, he sees the Mongoose in the field and manages to survive his injuries long enough to be found and given medical attention, saving his life. Yunior relates the conversation that Oscar had with the Mongoose, the main agent of zafa (blessing) in the characters’ lives. The mongoose allows Oscar to choose whether he wants to return to life and take “more” or give up and take “less,” a rare moment of agency despite the novel’s normally deterministic stance on destiny. Oscar at first wants less pain, and almost chooses less of everything in life, but he then realizes that he wants more of his family’s love, and that love is worth any amount of pain. He chooses to take more of both the good and the bad.

The Mongoose honors Oscar’s choice, speaking three words that presumably let Oscar stay alive and unconscious in the “darkness.” Yet Yunior either can’t or won’t reveal what those three words are, another “blank page” moment in a novel full of silences and gaps of communication. However, this censorship actually opens up more opportunities for the reader to creatively decide what the Mongoose said, tailoring a meaningful moment to each reader rather than leaving the reader without necessary information. The Mongoose uses this opportunity to show readers how to use silence as a force for good rather than evil.

Book 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

On one of our last nights as novios (boyfriend and girlfriend) she said, Ten million Trujillos is all we are.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Lola de León (speaker), Trujillo (speaker)
Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

After Oscar’s death, Lola and Yunior’s relationship quickly sours. Yunior, like Trujillo, is completely unable to stay faithful to one woman, instead sleeping with as many beautiful women as he can possibly manage. However, Lola is so focused on tending to her mother’s health when the cancer returns, that Lola doesn’t break up with Yunior until a year later when her mother has also died. Most people blame the Dominican fukú curse for these tragedies, but Lola does not believe in those superstitions. She chooses to see the pain and hardship prevalent in Dominican and Dominican American lives as the outcome of an entire generation of Dominican people shaped by years of a horrible dictatorship. After living through the Trujillo years, Dominican people now recreate his actions to sabotage themselves and the people around them. To be Trujillo, in Lola’s eyes, is to act with selfish disregard for others, even actively harming them if it suits your purposes – something that Yunior is very guilty of, but that Lola sees in herself, her family, and her Dominican friends as well.

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.