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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao | Themes


Junot Díaz's use of themes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao illuminates the cycles of family history and relationships, as well as the conflicts of culture.


Violence recurs throughout the novel, inflicted on both an individual and massive scale, by family members and by the government. Yunior insinuates at times that as a Dominican, witnessing or experiencing violence is to be expected in the culture. On a familial level, the relationship between Lola and Belicia is volatile and at times violent, and while this causes bitterness and anger in Lola, she also accepts at as the only way in which Belicia knows how to discipline her. Belicia experienced a great deal of violence at a young age from an abusive foster family. She later endures catastrophic violence at the hands of her kidnappers in the cane field.

The first instance of violence in the family's story occurs with Abelard's torture and imprisonment at the hands of Trujillo's government, and it is this story that begins the intersection of personal and political violence. Trujillo's regime rules with intimidation and violence, and it becomes so commonplace and widely accepted that it becomes part of daily life. The family's history and legacy of violence trickles all the way down to Oscar, who's own violent beating and death in the cane field mirrors Belicia's earlier experience. Through this theme, Díaz demonstrates how violence is at once both insidious and tragic on a political and personal scale. Its use has the ability to shape a culture as well as individual behavior, and its influence can be nearly impossible to escape.

Unrequited Love

Throughout the novel characters struggle with finding happiness through a romantic relationship. Love usually leads to heartbreak, violence, and loneliness. The family even traces the source of their curse back to Trujillo's spite at Abelard for withholding his daughter Jacqueline from him, an unrequited desire that sets the wheels of the family's fate into motion. Belicia is the first one in the family to experience the kind of stubborn, delusional love that Oscar inherits. This type of love places them both in harm's way to tragic effect. Belicia's unrequited love for Jack Pujols gets her expelled from high school and shamed in her community, and her love for the Gangster gets her beaten and threatened such that she must leave the Dominican Republic.

Oscar's entire life seems to be defined by his doomed sense of never being able to find a love that will be returned. This belief in himself causes him to continually pursue women who aren't interested in anything more than friendship and also leads him to take drastic, obsessive measures to express his feelings. These reactions ultimately lead to his tragic death, when he returns to Santo Domingo to pursue Ybón despite the threat to his life. Lola and Yunior are another example of ultimately unrequited love, although they try to make it work off and on throughout the novel. Yunior ultimately realizes he can never be the man Lola needs him to be, and his sense of masculinity prevents him from expressing the feelings he wants to. Through these echoes of unrequited love, Díaz highlights the ways in which love can be its own curse, and also wonders how much control individuals have over their own feelings and decisions regarding love.

Mother-Daughter Relationships

The cycle of mother-daughter relationships echoes down the generations of the de León family. Beginning with La Inca's rescue of Belicia from her foster family, mothers and daughters are contrasted with each other. Although Belicia is grateful to La Inca for saving her and providing her with a warm, supportive home, Belicia can't help but feel restless and trapped in her environment. She yearns to escape and begins to actively rebel against La Inca after her expulsion from high school. She can't seem to see that La Inca wants only the best for her.

Belicia and Lola also have an antagonistic relationship, and Lola depicts Belicia as "my Old World Dominican mother ... which meant it was her duty to keep me crushed under her heel." Their relationship highlights the tensions inherent in their cultural upbringings, since Lola has been more exposed to American influences and family culture. Belicia is strict and abusive and withholds affection for Lola, but Lola eventually comes to understand it is the only way Belicia knows how to express her love. Lola seems to have inherited Belicia's sense of restlessness and rebellion, which puts them into conflict because of their similarities. It's clear, however, that they deeply love each other, and once Lola hears about Belicia's childhood from La Inca she begins to understand Belicia's motivations better.

Cultural Identity

Many of the characters in the novel grapple with a sense of alienation over not belonging to one particular culture, but rather having to navigate multiple identities. Oscar is an example of someone who isn't accepted by either culture he belongs to—Dominican or American. He never adopts the stereotypical Dominican masculinity demonstrated by all the boys and men he grows up with, and as a consequence they make fun of him. His obsession with science fiction, fantasy, and comics also labels him an outsider among his American peers. Even when Oscar visits Santo Domingo, he is ill at ease with the poverty and violent culture he sees around him.

Lola also struggles to escape the traditional Dominican role she plays as a daughter in her mother's strict household, causing her to rebel and seek escape through travel and moving. Her restlessness is seen as unusual, and she too finds it difficult to fit into either world she supposedly belongs to.

Belicia takes with her to the United States many of the Dominican traditions and cultural influences she learned, yet she also struggles to find a true sense of home as a hardworking single mother who works multiple jobs.

Lastly, Yunior demonstrates the uneasiness and loneliness young men like him face growing up between two cultures—his adoption of the typical Dominican masculinity ultimately causes him heartbreak, yet he can never fully inhabit his tendencies that make him more like Oscar for fear of rejection. Throughout the novel Díaz demonstrates how having to navigate conflicting cultures contributes to a sense of alienation, and also how they can influence each other. Oscar and Yunior's obsession with American science fiction and fantasy is an overlay that complements and enhances the Dominican culture of superstition and the supernatural.

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Questions for Themes

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