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.
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as a biography about the fictional Oscar de León, is a novel about history. But instead of giving a straight biography, the novel goes on to challenge preconceived assumptions about what history is and what it can do.

One of the primary projects of the novel is teasing apart story and history. The “official history” of the Dominican Republic reverberates through the lives of the characters, both directly with characters that lived through atrocities of Trujillo’s reign, and indirectly with future generations that must deal with the fallout from those events. However, the novel argues that personal stories are more important, prioritizing personal stories in the pages and relegating official history to footnotes, as well as asserting that official history is more interesting when it includes the personal stories of real people. Regardless of their relative importance, both story and history are subject to the whims of the authors who write them. Yunior’s opinions of different characters and historical figures bleed into the text, and he freely admits that his own biases affect how he relates certain sections of history. Furthermore, even the starting and ending points of history become arbitrary, as Yunior jumps around from decade to decade to serve the story he wants to tell. The reader must question the accuracy of all of Yunior’s information, especially when he contradicts the “official” record. The novel thus suggests that all history is really personal story, dependent on the humans who choose to write it down.

Yet despite the impossibility of writing a full and accurate history, Díaz still supports the writing of history and stories – arguing that they are necessary for people to come to terms with their pasts and move forward as more fulfilled individuals. Oscar and Lola repeat the mistakes of their family’s past in part because they do not know them, and both Oscar and Yunior write as a way to heal the wounds they have experienced in the past. Yunior writes the entire biography of Oscar as a way to finally understand the cultural heritage he originally rejected. By writing stories and histories, the characters can begin to give order to the events of their lives, and pass on some of that knowledge to future generations.

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Story, History, and Writing ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Story, History, and Writing 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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Story, History, and Writing 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 Story, History, and Writing.
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.

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And that's when it hit with the force of a hurricane. The feeling. I stood straight up, the way my mother always wanted me to stand up. My abuela was sitting there, forlorn, trying to cobble together the right words and I could not move or breathe. I felt like I always did at the last seconds of a race, when I was sure that I was going to explode. She was about to say something and I was waiting for whatever she was going to tell me. I was waiting to begin.

Related Characters: Lola de León (speaker), La Inca
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Lola has always had a “witchy” feeling of premonition that warns her when bad things are about to happen to her family. Here, Lola’s family heritage is particularly present, as La Inca starts to tell her about her mother’s childhood and the past that her mother never mentions. The de León and Cabral families have a difficult family history, especially as Lola’s mother never knew her real parents. Lola previously tried to run away from her family in New Jersey, a skill that she later puts into her school’s track team once she is sent to live in the Dominican Republic. Now that she is finally finding out some of the secrets of her family’s past, however, that desire to run has seemingly reached the end of the race. Lola can stop running and start building her identity on the foundations of her family. Her witchy feeling does continue to warn that not everything Lola will find out about her family is good, but knowing her history is better than not knowing.

Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her
so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked
who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Yunior sets up much of Beli’s character in her first description (which takes the form of a kind of poem). Beli is both incredibly dark-skinned and incredibly beautiful, flipping the stereotype of black skin being undesirable that is seen elsewhere in the novel. Yunior invokes a female deity (the Creatrix) that created Beli with a purpose, but one that she might not be able to fulfill because the Creatrix blinked and accidentally made her too dark. The sense of destiny strongly affects Beli, as she is always striving for some undetermined goal.

Beli’s “yet-to-be-born daughter” Lola, who has already received her chapter on running away, is simply carrying on her mother’s tradition. Both Beli and Lola share a constant restlessness, something that Yunior says they would have shared no matter where they had been born. He associates this restlessness with New Jersey. According to Yunior, people who live in Jersey naturally want to prove themselves and reach somewhere better—probably because of their proximity to the “better” and more famous New York. Notably, the family history repeats with Beli and Lola because Beli never shares the lessons that she learned with her daughter.

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 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

The only answer I can give you is the least satisfying: you'll have to decide for yourself. What's certain is that nothing’s certain. We are trawling in silences here.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Abelard Cabral
Related Symbols: Páginas en blanco (Blank pages)
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

When Yunior tries to find out why Abelard was arrested by Trujillo, several rumors crop up to explain why Abelard drew Trujillo’s anger. Many people believed that he “slandered” Trujillo by making a joke about Trujillo hiding bodies in the back of his car. Others believed that Abelard refused to let Trujillo have his daughter. Still others think that he wrote a book that exposed Trujillo’s cursed rise to power. Yunior himself seems to lean more towards the book explanation, but he clearly places the responsibility on the reader to choose which explanation makes the most sense. Due to Trujillo’s “Páginas en blanco (blank pages),” no official reason was ever recorded for Abelard’s arrest. As official truth in the DR depended on Trujillo’s feelings that day, there is no way to tell what actually happened unless one is a first-hand witness, and even then memory and trauma can affect one’s version of past events.

Yunior compares this lack of knowledge to “trawling in silences,” a metaphor that suggests fishing in a deep ocean with no way of seeing what is caught in the net. Many Dominicans stay silent, refusing to speak of what they saw in the Trujillo years out of discomfort or fear that they too will be incriminated. In trying to put together a history of the DR during this time period, Yunior must simply cast his net and see what stories come up.

In fact, I believe that, barring a couple of key moments, Beli never thought about that life again. Embraced the amnesia that was so common throughout the Islands, five parts denial, five parts negative hallucination. Embraced the power of the Untilles. And from it forged herself anew.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Related Symbols: Páginas en blanco (Blank pages)
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beli is saved from the monstrous foster family and begins to live with La Inca, Yunior says that Beli never thought about that previous life again. This type of “amnesia,” willfully forgetting painful experiences, was typical in the Dominican Republic during and after the Era of Trujillo. Trujillo himself had a policy of “blank pages,” refusing to have any record of his actions during his rise to power and greatly limiting the documentation of his administration. Dominican citizens took to using this policy in their own lives, choosing not to recognize harmful history as a way to try to move past Trujillo’s atrocities and giving in to “hallucination” to rewrite those events.

Beli herself does not know that Trujillo uprooted her from her family, but she still uses the Dominican coping mechanism. Yunior calls this the power of the “Untilles,” a play on unmaking the Antilles, the name of the Dominican Republic’s archipelago. Beli’s refusal to acknowledge her own past later negatively affects both her and her children, however, because they continue to feel the effects of the past without fully understanding why these tragedies keep happening.

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, 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.

If she's her family's daughter—as I suspect she is—one day she will stop being afraid and she will come looking for answers. Not now, but soon. One day when I'm least expecting, there will be a knock at my door.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Isis
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:

Near the end of the novel, when Yunior has explained how he has compiled so much of the de León family history, he finally reveals his reason for writing this book. Isis is not just Lola’s daughter, she is her “family’s daughter” and therefore subject to the curse that has followed all the members of her family for generations. Though Isis is not his daughter, Yunior still loves Lola enough that he wants her daughter to live a long, happy, curse-free life. According to Yunior, the only way to break the fukú curse placed on the Cabral/de León family is to face up to how the curse was brought on Abelard and all the events that his family, Beli, Lola, and Oscar suffered through because of the curse.

This book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is then a physical collection of zafa that Yunior hopes to give to Isis when she comes looking for answers about who she is and where she comes from. It is the first step in filling in Trujillo’s “páginas en blanco” (blank pages) that have hidden the fate of the Cabral/de León children. Yet the book also becomes a zafa for Yunior himself, as he finally starts to come to terms with his own emotional issues and complicated Dominican heritage.

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.