The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Study Guide

Junot Díaz

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Prologue | Summary



Junot Díaz introduces the novel with two epigraphs. The first is from a 1966 volume of the comic book Fantastic Four, and asks, "Of what import are brief, nameless lives ... to Galactacus?" Galactacus is a former mortal human in the comic series who becomes a god. The second epigraph is a poem by the Dominican author Derek Walcott and introduces the reader to some of the complications, concerns, and themes of Dominican life. The narrator then begins the novel by describing a "curse" known as fukú americanus: the Curse and Doom of the New World. It is believed that Europeans arriving on Hispaniola unleashed the curse, which has been suffered ever since, with Santo Domingo as its port of entry. The fukú isn't ancient history, and the narrator offers a brief history lesson on the infamous Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 years, controlling nearly every aspect of politics, culture, society, and economics. It was believed that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a powerful fukú for generations to come. The narrator points out that even JFK, who ordered Trujillo's assassination, was assassinated himself, and that tragedy continued to befall his family for another generation. "Fukú doesn't always strike like lightning," the narrator warns. It works patiently and by degrees, sometimes slow and sometimes fast.

The narrator also has his own fukú story—not the scariest, but "the one that's got its fingers around my throat." He also introduces the character of Oscar, who was more a fan of science fiction and fantasy than stories about curses. The narrator also offers up a counterspell to a fukú: the word zafa, and believes the very book he is writing might be a zafa, or counterspell, of sorts.


Díaz's use of the two epigraphs helps frame the novel's themes, concerns, and motifs. His quotation from the Fantastic Four comic highlights the pervasive influence of the comic book, science fiction, and fantasy worlds on both Oscar and the narrator. The quotation is also an echo of the novel's title, using the word brief to connect the two. The quotation also sets up a mirror to the relationship between citizens of the Dominican Republic and their dictator, Trujillo, who is at times seen as having godlike, supernatural powers. His brutal and violent regime at time treats the lives of citizens as though they may as well be nameless, brief, and unimportant.

The second epigraph Díaz uses brings into sharp focus the unique struggles that Dominicans faced, told through the voice of famed Dominican poet Derek Walcott. The poem is rife with imagery of death and decay, using words such as rotting, corruption, and poison, and begging for mercy "on all sleeping things." The speaker of the poem implores that seeing life this way is the only way he knows how, and that loving these islands is a kind of "load" to bear. It depicts the divide that exists between the slums and the big houses and big cars, a divide that later shocks Oscar when he visits Santo Domingo. The speaker concludes with the line, "either I'm a nobody, or I'm a nation," highlighting the difficulty of feeling torn between cultural identities, a difficulty many of the characters in the novel struggle with.

The narrator of the novel then provides the setting for the underlying backdrop of the story of Oscar and his family: the fukú, or curse. Díaz's choice to also begin the novel with an emphasis on the possibility of the family's curse introduces a supernatural element that mirrors Oscar's obsession with the fantasy and science-fiction genres. Even though the novel is grounded in historical facts, such as the rein of Trujillo, the embedding of the family curse into the novel demonstrates the emphasis that Dominican culture places on belief in the supernatural. The narrator notes that "we are all of us its children," meaning that the curse extends beyond individuals and families, enveloping the Dominican Republic as a place as well. The narrator's mention of Trujillo's link to the curse is also significant. He says, "No one knows whether Trujillo was the Curse's servant or its master, its agent or its principal, but it was clear he and it had an understanding, that them two was tight." By linking Trujillo to the curse, Díaz shows how Dominican citizens feared Trujillo and in a way excused his powerful hold—it had to have a supernatural origin. The narrator also references science fiction in drawing comparisons to Trujillo, and these comparisons begin the blending of Dominican and American cultures that is prevalent in the novel.

The curse also reveals the extent to which Dominican superstition centers around free will—if individuals are suffering from a curse, there isn't much they can do about it, so they may as well accept it and live life as best they can. This introduces the question of personal responsibility, something that Oscar deals with over and over throughout the novel—how responsible he is or isn't for his own unhappiness.

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