The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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

Summary
Analysis
The Golden Age. The narrator begins by describing Oscar de León. From Oscar’s childhood, it was clear that he would never live up to the stereotype of the Dominican man. The narrator presents his lack of girlfriends as the biggest evidence that Oscar is not as “Dominican” as he should be. There was only a brief period, when Oscar was seven, that he had any luck with women. The narrator compares him to a smaller version of Porfirio Rubirosa, a famous Dominican actor in the 1940s and 50s, for his charm and dance moves.
The narrator starts building the image of a typical Dominican, displaying many internalized stereotypes as he does so. He mentions Porfirio Rubirosa, who is virtually unknown in the US, to set up the unattainable ideal of the “Latin Lover.” This description is the beginning of the narrator’s preoccupation with sex in place of true intimacy, as well as Oscar’s discomfort with his Dominican identity.
Themes
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This “Golden Age” (when Oscar was seven) culminates in Oscar having two girlfriends at once. Maritza, a gorgeous Peruvian girl, and Olga, a poorer Puerto Rican girl from the neighborhood, agree to share Oscar. But Maritza soon becomes jealous and demands that Oscar choose between the two girls. He rejects poor, ugly Olga for beautiful Maritza only to be kicked to the curb once Maritza holds hands with another third grade boy. From then on, Oscar swears he will never have the “game” that Dominican men are supposed to own.
Oscar’s first experience with love is unhappy, setting the tone for every romantic relationship to follow in the novel. Maritza’s beauty and popularity in the face of Olga’s ugliness and isolation also introduces the theme of racism in the book. Olga is not just undesirable because she is ugly, but the very idea of her as “ugly” partly comes from the fact that she is Puerto Rican, and has darker skin than Maritza.
Themes
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Oscar feels guilty for hurting Olga, but mostly heartbroken that Maritza left him. He pinpoints this breakup as the moment his life began to get worse. As he grows older, Oscar gains weight and loses friends. His growing interests in genre fiction, like sci-fi and fantasy, further isolate him from his peers.
Though Oscar is young, he has already learned to dismiss the feelings of women, a trait Díaz sees as common in Dominican culture. His interests in genres, however, stick out as stereotypically “white” interests for a boy of color.
Themes
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The narrator also shares how the breakup ruined the lives of Maritza and Olga. Olga becomes a school pariah, on par with Oscar’s unpopularity. Maritza, meanwhile, goes on to find abusive boyfriends. Oscar watches this all sadly.
Olga and Maritza are two more examples of how every Latino/a in the universe of the novel has a fukú story. In their own ways, each girl is as cursed as Oscar was.
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The Moronic Inferno. Oscar starts high school at an all-boys Catholic school called Don Bosco Tech. Oscar becomes the neighborhood “pariguayo,” or someone who just watches the party. A footnote explains that this term came from American Marines who occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924. The Dominicans thought the marines were strange because they never joined in Dominican parties. Oscar’s only friends are Al and Miggs, two boys who are just as nerdy as he is. Al and Miggs tease Oscar about his looks, though Oscar’s great-aunt says he is the spitting image of his grandfather who died in jail.
“The Moronic Inferno” alludes to Dante’s Inferno. Though the narrator speaks in Latino slang, he shows that he is also highly familiar with these more “elite” types of literature. The explanation of pariguayo further educates us to the ties America has to Dominican history. Finally, Oscar’s resemblance to his grandfather foreshadows Chapter 5, which highlights Abelard Cabral’s sad demise, and sets up the idea that history is repeating itself.
Themes
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In high school, Oscar dives deeper into his love of genre. The narrator describes in great detail all the books and movies that Oscar devotes his time to, such as Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Universe, and Dungeons and Dragons. The narrator explains in a footnote how he too liked these genres, suggesting that the DR (Dominican Republic) is a place uniquely suited to sci-fi and fantasy. The narrator, however, was able to hide his affection for genre fiction in order to fit in. Oscar, on the other hand, can’t pass for “normal” no matter what he does. Despite his social anxiety, Oscar still wishes to have a girlfriend, and his family frequently comments on his lack of female companionship.
The narrator scoffs at Oscar’s devotion to genre, but clearly the narrator himself is also quite familiar with the characters and themes of these books and movies. We start to see the cracks in the façade the narrator has built, as all his descriptions of how hard Oscar tried to pass for normal could also apply to the narrator’s own struggles to achieve popularity despite his geeky inclinations. The narrator seems especially critical of Oscar’s lack of a girlfriend, perhaps as a way to distance himself from that same lonely fate.
Themes
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The narrator now introduces Oscar’s sister, Lola, as a fiercely independent and wickedly smart “dominicana.” She refuses to let anyone take advantage of her after she was sexually assaulted in the fourth grade and lived through her crazy years in high school. Lola advises Oscar to lose weight and make more of an effort to fit in at school. Oscar tries, but it has no effect. It is no help that Lola’s friends constantly hang out at the house, teasing Oscar with their beauty.
The narrator skims quickly over Lola’s life story here, though the narrative will return to her in more detail later. Lola has her own specific emotional baggage, but to the narrator these events are seen as the inevitable outcome for most Dominican girls, and thus not important enough to fully explain. Like Oscar, Lola’s first experience with sexuality (in the form of sexual assault) negatively affects her ability to choose healthy relationships in the future.
Themes
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Oscar is Brave. When even Al and Miggs get girlfriends during their senior year, Oscar is struck by uncontrollable jealousy. He cannot understand why they have more luck than he has, when Al and Miggs are just as socially inept and unattractive. When he asks them if their girlfriends could find him a friend as well, Al and Migg’s lukewarm response makes Oscar realize that they are embarrassed of him. He starts to see himself as a “Morlock” (a creature from the book The Time Machine) rather than a human. Oscar redoubles his attempts to change, dieting and acting the part of the macho Dominican, but he is not successful.
By having Oscar call himself a “Morlock,” Díaz comments on the way that representation in fictional novels can negatively impact real people’s self-conception. Oscar has only ever seen dark-skinned beings as villains in popular culture, and so he sees himself as an evil, subhuman creature rather than a human worthy of love and affection. The book argues that his internalized self-hatred is far worse than his so-called friends’ poor treatment. Furthermore, the answer is not just to put up a happy face, as Oscar tries this and fails to find happiness through a fake persona.
Themes
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That summer, Oscar and Lola go to Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR. La Inca, their great aunt, lets Oscar stay inside and try to become a “real writer.” La Inca tells Oscar about their family, sharing that his mother could have followed his grandfather’s path and become a doctor if not for the curse of a boy. Bolstered by La Inca’s support, Oscar writes two book drafts, but that newfound confidence is shattered when he comes back to the United States. The moment he steps off the plane, his uncle derides his tan for making him look “Haitian” (that is, black).
Returning to the DR for the summer is simply the reality for many Dominican families, but it also represents an important shift in Oscar’s life goals. In the DR, he still faces difficulties, but his skin color is not a hindrance to his life goals. Once he returns to the United States, however, he is reminded that certain jobs (like writing genre fiction) are reserved for certain people (white people).
Themes
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Oscar keeps up his writing once back in the states, but his mother and his friends Al and Miggs are not as accepting as La Inca was. He maintains his friendship with Al and Miggs, but starts telling them to leave him alone when they make fun of him. Oscar spends more time writing alone, refusing to let their teasing keep him from his dreams. He tells his sister Lola that this is the one moment in his high school career where he was proud of himself.
Once again, the novel presents racism as something that can be internalized by people of color, as Al, Miggs, and Oscar’s mother all deride Oscar’s writing because it is too “white.” Oscar starts to use writing as a way to cope with the injustices he sees in the world, as well as a way to create a safe space for himself.
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Oscar Comes Close. Oscar’s focus on writing is disrupted when he meets Ana Obregon in an SAT prep class. Ana is the picture of the perfect Caribbean girl, but also shares Oscar’s love for weird novels. Ana tells Oscar that she started to like literature at age 13, when her 24-year-old boyfriend Manny would read her passages of Henry Miller. Though Oscar is disturbed by the age gap between Ana and her ex, she says that her parents did not mind. She and Oscar continue to build a friendship, and he is heartened by their mutual love of sci-fi.
The book presents Ana and Manny as yet another unhealthy relationship, as Díaz continues to comment on the destructive standards he sees in Dominican relationships. Though Ana is indeed beautiful, she is also an important departure from the beautiful Dominican stereotype, as her intelligence and interest in literature give her more nuance than Oscar’s previous love interests.
Themes
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When Oscar tells Lola about Ana’s ex-boyfriend Manny, Lola tells him that this is evidence that Dominicans really do not love their children. She also advises that he should lose weight if he wants a chance with her, telling him to “bust out some crunches, Mister.” The narrator reveals that Lola wanted her pet name for Oscar, “Mister,” to be on Oscar’s tombstone, but that no one would allow it when the time came.
Lola’s comment supports Díaz’s argument that Dominican culture and families often help perpetuate harmful romantic ideals. Yet even though Lola sees the problems with these ideas, she still gives Oscar advice that keeps him in that same vicious cycle by focusing on physical appearance rather than emotional intelligence. Diaz’s reminder of Oscar’s inevitable death, coupled with this first glimpse of a girlfriend, suggests that his death will be related to love.
Themes
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Amor de Pendejo (Stupid Love). Ana and Oscar begin to spend a lot of time together, talking on the phone and hanging out after SAT class. Oscar falls for Ana as he gets to know her, an important change from his earlier infatuations based on looks alone. Ana appears at Oscar’s house, much to Lola and Oscar’s surprise, and asks Oscar to a movie. Oscar believes this is his first date, but Ana is upset after the movie and the two drive home in a silence only broken by Ana screaming at the exit to their hometown. Though Oscar has to shamefully tell Lola that he didn’t even touch Ana, he is still hopeful that he will no longer be miserable.
The narrator’s perspective on this relationship lets the reader know from the very beginning that it will end poorly, even though Oscar is treating Ana better than he has any other girl. The book often keeps important information under the surface, and we do not know for sure why Ana does not want Oscar to touch her on their “date,” but the previous allusions to sexual assault and abuse also naturally color the scene, and it seems likely that Ana has suffered the same in her relationship with Manny.
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Oscar in Love. Oscar continues to learn more about Ana, especially the physical abuse she suffered in her relationship with Manny. The narrator, however, does not focus on this new emotional intimacy and instead asks the reader to speculate whether Ana and Oscar became sexually involved. Ana keeps Oscar in the “Let’s-Be-Friends Vortex.” That April, both Oscar and Ana learn that they got into the colleges they wanted, Rutgers and Penn State. Ana also learns that Manny has returned from his deployment in the army.
The scene marks a significant distinction between intimacy and physical attraction. Oscar begins to feel both for Ana, a true sign that he is capable of real love. Yet the narrator continues to focus solely on the physical aspects of the relationship. When we find out later that the narrator is Yunior, these comments become another example of his immaturity and inability to form authentic relationships with women.
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With Manny back in Ana’s life, Ana starts to blow Oscar off. When they do hang out, Ana talks only of Manny, alternating between her desire for him and her complaints about how badly he treats her. Manny jealously controls how often Oscar and Ana can see each other, and Oscar tries to get Ana to break up with Manny. She refuses, but Oscar displays the “Dominican” tendency towards taking love too far and continues to see her.
Both Ana and Oscar hold on to a relationship that is harmful to themselves, a choice which Díaz presents as a distinctly Dominican approach to love. As we will see later with Oscar’s mother, this trait also runs in the family. Oscar repeats his mother’s mistakes by holding on to a romantic partner who does not love him back.
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Oscar’s lovesickness takes over his life, as he drives aimlessly through Paterson and loses all interest in his novels. When Miggs mocks his desire to write role-playing games, Oscar snaps and punches him in the face. One desperate night, he goes even further and steals his uncle’s gun to threaten Manny. Oscar waits outside Manny’s apartment, but luckily Manny does not come home. When Oscar tells Lola what lovesickness had forced him to do, Lola forces Oscar to swear on their ancestors that he will never pull a stunt like that again.
Writing again acts as a safety valve for Oscar; when he stops writing, he stops making rational choices. Yet while Oscar is certainly better than Manny because he is not physically abusing Ana, he is still trying to manipulate her and undermine her control over her own life by taking Manny out of her reach. His treatment of women still suffers from the Dominican (and American) culture surrounding gender roles in romantic relationships.
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Oscar meets Ana at the Japanese mall and compliments her figure, confusing Ana and putting her on guard. Oscar decides to finally tell Ana about his feelings for her. She doesn’t reciprocate, but she lets him down easy. His graduation from Don Bosco is a subdued affair. Oscar’s mother is exhausted from her battle against cancer, his uncle Rodolfo is high on heroin, and only Lola really celebrates. He finds out at graduation that only he and Olga, the third grade girlfriend that he dumped, did not go to prom. His family sends him off to Rutgers with the advice to find a new girlfriend in college.
While another novel on the immigrant experience in America might have highlighted the high school graduation as an important achievement of Oscar’s life, Díaz chooses to bury the day underneath Oscar’s romantic failures. This choice fits the book’s focus on love and self-acceptance rather than conventional economic success.
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After graduation, Oscar heads to Rutgers ready for a new start. Once there, though, he finds that he does not fit in with the white kids who like the genres he loves because they only see his black skin. His fellow students of color, on the other hand, tell him that these “white” interests mean he can’t really be Dominican, even though Oscar insists that he is. He reverts to his old, nerdy ways and resigns himself to four years of college that are as bad as his years in high school.
Oscar suffers from a crisis of identity because his physical appearance does not match the cultural image of the type of person he would like to be. His first experience living in a majority-white environment is jarring, but the reaction of his fellow students of color is more hurtful in a way, because the other Latino students also have narrow ideas about what people with dark skin should be allowed to do.
Themes
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