The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Study Guide

Junot Díaz

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Context


The Trujillo Dictatorship

From 1930 to 1961 Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina ruled the Dominican Republic, twice as president but also as a military official. He rose to power through a military coup that overthrew the previous president. Trujillo went on to control every aspect of the government, from the military to the appointing of many of his friends and family to political positions of power. His power was so great that he was able to censor many forms of expression and dissent among his citizens. He was notorious for killing and torturing his rivals and those who voiced their disagreement with his policies. It is estimated that his regime was responsible for more than 50,000 deaths.

However, under Trujillo's rule, the country as a whole became more prosperous, and many monuments were erected in his honor. The United States had occupied the Dominican Republic before Trujillo's takeover, from 1916 to 1924, and the relationship between the two countries grew increasingly uneasy over the span of his rule. During the 1950s, opposition to Trujillo's brutal tactics began to grow, and the United States began to restrict trade and access to the Dominican Republic. Trujillo was ultimately assassinated in 1961, but the repercussions of his rule echoed throughout Dominican culture and politics for decades. After his death many people from the Dominican Republic began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers, since travel restrictions and visa rules were eased. This led to the Dominican Diaspora, in which many families and individuals tried to assimilate into a new culture and start new lives for themselves. Trujillo's influence directly affects many of the characters' lives in the novel on both political and personal levels, and Díaz aims to underscore the ways in which history intersects with individual lives with often-unforeseen repercussions.

Dominican Culture and Diaspora

Through the narration of different characters, Díaz captures the nuances and struggles of navigating Dominican culture and identity in the United States. Díaz emphasizes the importance of masculinity to Dominican men, a quality that comes into conflict at times with the passive nature of Oscar, the main character. The traditional Dominican family roles are also portrayed in the relationships between family members in the novel, particularly the ways mothers and daughters are expected to treat each other. The violence of political life under the dictator Trujillo's regime also bleeds into individual lives in Dominican culture, where violence as a means of dealing with people is expected and anticipated between friends, lovers, and family members.

Integral to Dominican culture during the era depicted in the novel is the Dominican Diaspora, which refers to the large-scale immigration of a nation to a different country or countries. In the case of the Dominican Diaspora the effect of Trujillo's dictatorship and regime caused citizens to leave the Dominican Republic if they feared for their lives or their futures. Díaz explores this theme of being an outsider through nearly all of his characters as they struggle to understand their identities. Díaz also depicts classism and racism in Dominican culture through characters who judge people's places in society by the color of their skin or their status in society. He also explores tension between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic, since Haiti is its neighboring country. This tension mirrors the theme of displacement and identity, since many of the Haitians depicted in the novel are outsiders who are trying to make lives for themselves in the Dominican Republic. Díaz's close examination of the effects of Dominican culture and diaspora on the novel's characters highlights the close role both play on shaping the ways in which people see themselves and others.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The genre of science fiction plays a large role throughout the novel, from the main character's obsession with it to the supernatural elements woven into the story of the novel itself. The novel even opens with an epigraph from the Fantastic Four comic series, alongside a poem by the Dominican poet Derek Walcott. The juxtaposition of these two epigraphs sets the foreground that both of these influences—the fantasy genre and Dominican culture—share in equal measure in the novel. The family in the novel also believes their bad luck is the result of a fukú—the Dominican term for a curse—placed on them by the dictator Trujillo, who is depicted as a villain with supernatural abilities. The narrator of the novel, Yunior, often drops in references to famous science fiction novels and movies, likening certain people and situations to characters from The Lord of the Rings or The Twilight Zone. Díaz's references also highlight the influence of American culture on his Dominican-American characters, showing the way these cross-cultural influences help shape their identities and the ways in which they view the world.

By weaving in these references and elements, Díaz also places the novel at times within the genre of fantasy, likening characters to superheroes and villains and embedding fantastical elements, such as curses and visions. Díaz uses science fiction and fantasy references as allegories in order to illuminate the ways in which historical facts can be viewed through the lens of fantastical genres, emphasizing qualities such as good and evil. In science fiction and fantasy, heroes and villains take on supernatural or otherworldly qualities, aspects the narrator often ascribes to certain characters or influences in the novel itself. The main character, Oscar, finds escape from the cruelties of his life in reading science fiction and fantasy, and in writing it himself. In many ways, his love of science fiction and fantasy is the way Oscar defines himself. He describes himself at one point with: "You want to know what being an X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest." In this light, Díaz highlights the way in which literature can function as escape as well as a way in which one can identify with characters in order to understand oneself better.

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