The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Study Guide

Junot Díaz

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Part 2, Chapter 5 : Poor Abelard 1944–1946 | Summary

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Summary

The Famous Doctor

The de León family always begins their story with Abelard and the bad thing he said about Trujillo. Abelard was Oscar and Lola's grandfather, a surgeon with a good reputation. He is well off and very intelligent, hosting all-night discussions with his intellectual friends. But the narrator warns "the Reign of Trujillo was not the best time to be a lover of Ideas" or to do anything out of the ordinary. Abelard is a dutiful and loyal citizen under Trujillo's rule, until he stops bringing his wife and daughters to Trujillo's events. This practice offends Trujillo, who considers it his right to claim any beautiful women as his own. Abelard tells his wife and mistress about his concerns, particularly for his daughter Jacqueline, who is exceptionally beautiful. He also tells his neighbor and friend, Marcus, and the three give him conflicting advice. One day at a presidential event, Trujillo finally asks Abelard about his missing wife and daughters, and in order to deflect the dictator's interest, Abelard tells him one would consider his daughters beautiful only if one liked women with mustaches.

And So?

Abelard nervously waits over the next few months for his reputation to be destroyed once his lie about his daughters is discovered.

Santo Domingo Confidential

The narrator compares life under Trujillo to an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the characters must always praise their sadistic overlord. Trujillo acts as though he owns everyone and everything and uses his Secret Police to get whatever he wants. Even though many people fear him, there are many who are also devoted to him. Abelard holds out hope that Trujillo will die in the next two decades, and the Dominican Republic will become a democracy. But until that day comes, he decides to keep his head down. Unfortunately, his luck runs out sooner.

The Bad Thing

One day Abelard receives an invitation to a presidential event that explicitly requests the presence of his wife and daughter. Abelard confides in Marcus, seeking advice, but Marcus merely reminds him that Trujillo has much more power than he ever will. Abelard even begins attending church, hoping for a message from God to guide him. Meanwhile, his wife, Socorro, begins to have terrible dreams in the days leading up to the party. His mistress tries to convince Abelard to flee with her to Cuba. Finally, on the day of the party, Abelard decides not to take his wife and daughter. He tells Trujillo they weren't able to attend.

Chiste Apocalyptus

Four weeks after the party, Abelard is arrested by the Secret Police for "slander and gross calumny against the Person of the President." Abelard had run into some friends in Santiago and, while having drinks with them, had made a joke about Trujillo using his car to hide dead bodies.

In My Humble Opinion

To the narrator this story sounds unlikely.

The Fall

Abelard spends the night with Lydia, who has a pregnancy false alarm. Not long afterward, the world changes when atomic bombs are dropped on Japan. The Secret Police are on the road to Abelard's house.

Abelard in Chains

Abelard begs the officers to let him leave his wife a note, but they refuse. They try to reassure him Trujillo is "not in the business of imprisoning the innocent." When he arrives at Fortaleza San Luis, a guard punches him the face, and Abelard begins to cry. The guards tell the other prisoners Abelard is a homosexual and a Communist, and he is subsequently harassed. It takes Socorro a week to find her husband, and he looks destroyed. She finds out shortly thereafter she is pregnant with their third daughter.

Abelard's family later believes that when he didn't take his daughter to Trujillo's event, Trujillo set a curse upon their family, causing them generations of bad luck. But a different version of the story is that Abelard got in trouble over a book he was writing about Trujillo that detailed "the supernatural roots of the regime." One reason the narrator believes this might be true is that Trujillo never pursued Abelard's daughter, which was unusual for him.

The Sentence

In 1946 Abelard is convicted on all charges and sentenced to 18 years. All of his houses and businesses are confiscated.

The Fallout

The family believes the first sign of their curse was that Abelard's third daughter, Belicia, was born very black, which in Dominican culture was considered an ill omen. Two months after giving birth, Socorro stops in front of a speeding truck and is killed. The daughters are split up among distant family and never see each other or their father again. Jackie is later found drowned in a pool, and a stray bullet in church kills Astrid. Abelard lives in prison until 1953, barely surviving the torture inflicted on him over the years.

The Third and Final Daughter

Nobody in Abelard's family wants to take his new infant daughter after the death of Socorro, whose relatives finally show up to claim her. She is passed from one distant relative to another and is eventually sold to another family.

The Burning

Meanwhile, Abelard's cousin La Inca has been grieving her own husband and hasn't paid much attention to the lives of his family. Stricken by guilt, she goes in search of Belicia, but the family who took her in tells La Inca she is dead. One day La Inca hears the story of a little girl who is burned badly by the family who adopted her for attending school, and the rumor is the little girl is La Inca's relative. She goes to find her and brings her back home.

Forget-Me-Naut

Belicia never speaks of the first nine years of her life, and La Inca knows only some of the details.

Sanctuary

In Baní with La Inca, Belicia finds sanctuary and the sense of a mother she never had. La Inca also pretends the first years of Belicia's life never happened, which Belicia appreciates. Instead La Inca tells Belicia about the family she never knew.

Analysis

The story of Abelard is narrated by Yunior and brings the overlap of the Cabral/de León family and Trujillo's regime full circle. Abelard, Belicia's father, lives his life avoiding Trujillo as second nature. He is careful of what he says, how he behaves, and who his friends are. When his daughter Jacqueline grows up to be beautiful, it is a curse rather than a blessing, for Trujillo has a taste for beautiful women and gets whoever he wants. Abelard's class and wealth stand in contrast to the struggles Belicia goes on to face, although the reader remains unaware of how Belicia is separated from her parents until the end of the chapter. Abelard epitomizes a kind of Dominican class and citizen who in order to enjoy wealth and comfort learn to go along with the Trujillo dictatorship even if they disagree. Eventually, however, this creates a culture of fear, with neighbors turning against neighbors in order to stay in the Trujillo regime's good graces. Abelard's status is still uneasy, however, since he is a professor and intellectual. Yunior notes "the Reign of Trujillo was not the best time to be a lover of Ideas," since ideas and knowledge can lead to power, which might undermine Trujillo. Díaz seems to question how complicit somebody like Abelard is in the horrors of Trujillo's regime, since not asking questions or taking a stand can be seen as approval. On the other hand dictatorships work on the notion that if all fear for their lives, they won't have time to worry or stand up for other people.

The ways Abelard interacts with the people he is closest to also reveals the far-reaching influence of Trujillo on ordinary citizens. His wife, Socorro, chooses to believe everything is fine, until it is far too late. Abelard's mistress, Lydia, tries to convince him to emigrate with her, since she believes it is the only way to avoid the eventual repercussions of disrespecting Trujillo. Marcus, Abelard's neighbor, also refuses to rock the boat and eventually is the one who sells out Abelard and his daughter in order to gain points with Trujillo. This cycle of aversion, feigned ignorance, and deception colors the relationships and interactions of everyone whom Abelard is closest to, and Díaz uses him as an allegory for how people tried to live their everyday lives under a dictatorship.

Yunior hints that what transpired with Trujillo and Abelard is what kicked the family curse into motion, for many Dominicans believed Trujillo was a supernatural force himself, capable of great powers. And like the family curse, Trujillo bides his time. Even after he is made aware of Jacqueline's beauty, and Abelard stops holding his breath, Trujillo strikes, demanding Jacqueline's presence at one of his political events. Yunior's analogies throughout his narration comparing Trujillo's regime to the evil ruler in the fantasy book The Lord of the Rings places Trujillo's power, and the novel, in a mythical context. Evil takes on a supernatural, larger-than-life quality that the citizens of the Dominican Republic are defenseless against. Yunior also draws comparisons to the science fiction TV show The Twilight Zone, in which a town is mind-controlled by a young boy who is a sociopath. Yunior compares this to the effect Trujillo has on his citizens, who feel helpless under his spell and commit crimes and atrocities they never would have done without his influence and fear tactics. Although some people formed a resistance movement against Trujillo, most were turned in to the Secret Police by neighbors and friends and severely punished or killed. To some degree this explains Abelard's choice to do nothing, since the risk of resistance puts both him and his family in harm's way.

When Socorro dreams of the Man Without a Face, the symbol is a reminder to the reader that something ominous is about to occur. Even though the reader encountered the Man Without a Face first in Belicia's story, this is actually the first instance of someone in the family seeing it, and therefore it is possibly the origin of the family's curse. When Abelard decides at the last minute not to take Jacqueline and Socorro to Trujillo's party, the reader senses the curse has sealed their fate. Abelard's subsequent arrest is just a formality, because Trujillo (not the law) has the ultimate power over every citizen and his or her punishment. The fact that it could have been a book Abelard wrote about Trujillo that caused the curse illuminates the role of writing in the novel, since Oscar is also a writer, as is Yunior. That writing attempts to portray some kind of truth is a punishment for Abelard, and the book is allegedly destroyed, as is much of Oscar's writing. This concept of "blank pages," or páginas en blanco, appears many times throughout the novel, such as with Beli's blank pages of her early childhood. All Yunior tells us of Beli's childhood is "that entire chapter of her life got slopped into those containers in which governments store nuclear waste, triple-sealed by industrial lasers and deposited in the dark, uncharted trenches of her soul." Díaz highlights here the role imagination plays in the exchange between reader and writer, with readers being forced to fill in the blank pages with their own imaginings. It also again highlights the thought that knowledge amounts to power, since many of the characters in the novel are haunted or cursed by what they don't know.

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