The purpose of this thesis is to analyze Junot Diaz 2007 bestselling novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and evaluate the theme of identity in the novel, as characters search for love and acceptance. There are various cultural identities in the novel and the awareness of these identities generates difficulty for the characters who attempt to understand themselves as individuals. On a wider scale, the characters also attempt to understand their social, cultural, and historical place in their surroundings and in the larger American context. The theme of identity is pervasive through the novel, and the characters specifically display the desire to be accepted and loved as individuals. Diaz uses the force of cultural identity issues, which arises from transnational identity, to show the struggle for love acceptance in the familial and life-romantic context, evaluate the way people struggle with, and assert their identity. Politically, this novel offers a sensitive and thorough exploration of the roots and consequences of the “Dominican Diaspora”, and the social topography of this phenomenon is in many ways reflected psychologically in Oscar’s status as a perpetual outsider. In the novel, it is evident that self-identity is a constant interplay and process of construction and decomposition, and the people deal with their own hybridity whether they acknowledge it or not. In the Brief Life of Oscar War, the immigrants, such as Oscar and his family, face the issue of transcultural dilemma like most immigrants in America. There is a conflict of two cultures and the ensuing and often painful search for self- and cultural identity: the struggles to accommodate the two selves into one integral identity.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao starts with two epigraphs, one from the West Indian poet Derek Walcott, and another from Marvel Comics’ Fantastic 4, which is an indication of the author’s struggles to blend popular culture with more highbrow fare in his unrestrained story of the hero-Oscar- difficult journey into adulthood. Oscar is an overweight Dominican-American living in Paterson, New Jersey, who has ambitions as a fantasy writer, as well as a love life which never seems to begin. Diaz describes his life in high school “ as equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the pelting and outrages of a mob of deranged half wits, an experience from which he supposed to should have emerged a better person, but that’s not really what happened” (Diaz 19).
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The reader learns about Oscar’s mother, Beli, and her experiences in the madhouse that the Dominican Republic was under the protracted dictatorship of the half-demented Rafael Trujillo. All these painful experiences made Beli join the Dominican diaspora and immigrate to the United States. Eventually, Oscar’s life looks as if it might be but the culmination of generations of bad luck to have afflicted the Caribbean in general and his own family in particular.
The author uses rich and energetic prose, which jumps from vulgarity to sophistication, from formal English to Spanish slang in the space of just a few short sentences. His literary brilliance relates to the complex bicultural characters in his novel and the way the character cross borders and social circles. One such person in the novel is the character of Jenni Munoz, a girl Oscar befriends in college who is actually a Puerto Rican “goth’ chick because she loves the English goth/punk band Joy Division. According to Diaz, Jenni Munoz was “this Boricua chick from east BrickCity who lived up in the Spanish section. First hardcore goth I’d ever met-in 1990 us niggers were having trouble wrapping our heads around Goths, period-but a Puerto Rican goth, that was as strange to use as a black Nazi. Jenni was her real name.” (Diaz 182). Jenni was attempting to cross her social circle in this case. The author uses music in this case to express complex transnational identities.
The author also uses the intensity of cultural identity issues, which arises from transnational identity to shed light on the struggle for love acceptance. Throughout the novel, there are numerous cases of failed bids for acceptance and love, and it is in the last chapter that the author presents the reader with a first example of true and successful love. Transnational and trans-social identities are evident through the eyes of Oscar and his family.
As a child, Lola vies for her mother’s love and praise, but she does not receive it. Beli, Oscar’s mother vies for romantic love, with Jack Pujols, the Gangster and Lola, and Oscar’s father. Being obese and a geek, Oscar suffers from the most excessive form of rejection, such as not fitting in the society. According to Diaz, “He wore his nerdiness like a Jedo wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal is he’d wanted to” (21). His virginity is also evidence of the denial he has experienced at various levels as he fails as a lover. His identity crisis causes him to experience total rejection, and this is depicted in a comical manner of his inability to find a woman to love. The author constantly reminds the reader about Oscar’s virginity throughout the novel to show the rejection that he has suffered in so many levels.
Most of the other characters in the novel do not find love and acceptance, either. For instance in the last chapter Yunior still dreams of Lola, even though he is happily married. Oscar’s mother, Beli and La Inca die alone. All their lives are associated with a certain sense of loss, as they are all victims of love failure. The characters are to some extent defined by their hybridity; however, the forces that shape their identities are very different. Although Oscar’s life was short, he managed to be accepted and loved, unlike many other characters and in a way assisted him to discover his self. The only true love and acceptance that the author presents is in the last chapter when Oscar goes back to the Dominican Republic to pursue YBon. When Oscar loses his virginity in the last chapter, it is symbolic of another person accepting him entirely. And although the consequence of this act is death-he finds the thing, he has been looking for in the entire novel-love and acceptance.
Identity in ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar War’
In the novel, Oscar only finds happiness when he accepts himself for who he is. The acceptance was not possible, until he finally understood his complete cultural makeup and history. Oscar has the choice to follow the example of his peers and previous generations, but he recognizes that by doing so he would compromise his personality. To understand himself totally as a person, Oscar comes to terms with his cultural and historical context in which he arose. Oscar was born and raised to Dominican parents, and his character exemplifies the intersection of different cultures and nations, as well as the cultural hybridity, which comes about from the union.
Oscar’s life is full of cultural inaptness and contradiction from the time of his birth and throughout his lifetime. He attempts to bring together the US culture, where he was born, and the Dominican culture, which he is part of because of his immediate family. In fact, he even dreams of being a writer like Dominican Stephen King. Diaz describes Oscar’s dreams as follows ,“In his dreams he was either saving girls from aliens or he was returning to the neighborhood rich and famous-It’s him! The Dominican Stephen King!” (27). Oscar’s Dominican past weighs on him in the entire novel, and in order to understand himself, he is interested in Dominican tragic history. He comes to terms with his identity through coming to terms with his Dominican history, and it is then that he attains a sense of self-realization and fulfillment.
Throughout the novel, the setting constantly changes between the Dominican Republic and United Stated, which symbolizes Oscar’s conflicting feelings about his split identity. During his stay in both countries, his general existence remains almost unaltered. Even though he is part of both the US and Dominican culture, he does not identify with any of the mainstream societies in each of the two nations. It is through travelling between the two nations that he learns to embrace his Dominican cultural identity, and in this manner he manages to acquire a meaningful reconciliation between the two places.
Oscar’s family and friends inculcate in him the outlook of the man he is supposed to turn out to be. For his whole life, he has been aware of the fact that her has failed to be a Dominican man. According to Diaz, “Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about-he wasn’t no home-run hitter of a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock” (1). Even in high school, he continued to fail when it came to meeting expectations. After being rejected by a girlfriend he was in love with, Oscar puts on weight, becomes indifferent to his appearance, and immerses himself in videogames, role-playing, anime, and science fiction. In a SAT preparation course, however, he meets a young woman who wants to be his friend, but the romance becomes only another source of sexual frustration, as he watches the young woman return to her much older boyfriend.
Oscar fails to meet the cultural expectations of a Dominican, which is also reflected by American culture. Diaz sums up his unsuccessful attempts as follows, “Sophomore year Oscar found himself weighing in at a whopping 245 (260 when he was depressed, which was often)… Had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, could not have pulled a girl if his life depended on it…could not play sports for shit, or dominoes, was beyond uncoordinated, and threw a ball like a girl…had no knack for music or business or dance, no hustle, no rap, no G…and most damning of all: no looks” (19-20). His inability to meet the cultural expectations of both nations constantly haunts him and makes him be an outcast in both cultures.
Oscar constantly travels between the two nations as he endeavors to earn some acceptance from both cultures. However, this does not change the way his peers treat him. For instance, during his important trip to the Dominican Republic before his senior, he attempts to brush up on what remained of his Dominicanness. He gives up this acceptance after he comes to the realization that the two cultures do not bind him, and it is then that he starts developing a sense of self-awareness. This is evident when he travels to the Dominican Republic in the summer before his senior year and decides to take a different approach. According to Diaz, “He arrived in Bani with a stack of notebooks and a plan to fill them all up…he decided to try his hand at being a real writer. This situation was helped by La Inca's attitude, which was “Instead of discouraging his writing, chasing him out of the house like his mother used to do, his abuela, Nena Inca, let him be.” (31). This is when Oscar discovers that his existence does not rest on culture alone and starts to have a clearer view of his cross culture and he no longer feels the same desire to be accepted by his age mates. From then on, he nurtures his own unique identity as he focuses on his own unique existence: an existence in which he sees the two cultures as not mutually exclusive, but as equal contributors to the composition of his identity.
Beli discovers her self-identity after she is compelled by the severity of the situation in which she lives in after two failed love attempts. At just thirteen years of age, Beli meets Jack Pujols, one of the three men whom she falls in love with To her, he represents all she wishes to become and all the things that she wishes for in a suitor, such as upper class, rich and light-skinned. On the other hand, Pujols views Beli as the personification of everything that he is not because she is not educated, she is of a lower class and she lacks social significance and standing. To Beli, he is the main object of her naïve love, whereas to him she does not exist. She dreams of a life with him, but he only sees in her just a female to use. Pujols throws her aside once she has outlived her usefulness, and the relationship between them eventually becomes a one-month long mistaken adolescent fantasy.
This marks Beli’s first step to discovering who she was. The experience made it clear to her that she did not have any real value in the eyes of the people who were socially above her. She just served a way through which control and power could be validated and exerted; an experience, which mirrored the Dominicans’ role in Trujillo regime.
However hurtful the experience was, it failed to crush her dreams of meeting a man who would change her social class. Her misguided hope leads to her second romance, which has even more disastrous consequences for her. Beli’s second relationship is with a man known as The Gangster, and once again, she assumes that she will end up happy. The Gangster is a well-known employee of Trujillo regime, and more importantly, married to Trujillo’s sister. According to Diaz, “How much Beli knew about the Gangster we will never know….she claims that he only told her he was a business...” (119). Even learning the true details about the Gangster fails to keep her away from him. He uses her just like Pujols, and she ends up getting pregnant. When the Gangster’s wife learns of Beli’s pregnancy, she confronts Beli and tries to have her kidnapped so that she can have an abortion. Luckily, she manages to escape, until Trujillo’s police track her down and she receives a severe beating. According to Diaz, “They beat her like she was a slave…Like she was a dog…Let me pass over the actual violence and report instead on the damage inflicted: her clavicle, chicken-boned; her right humerus, a triple fracture (she would never again have much strength in that arm); five ribs, broken; left kidney, bruised; liver, bruised; right lung, collapsed; front teeth, blown out… it was only sheer accident that these motherfuckers didn’t eggshell her cranium…Was there time for a rape or two? I suspect there was, but we shall never know because it’s not something she talked about.” (247). This beating was intended to end the life of Beli and the unborn baby. Luckily, she survives the attack, but the baby dies. Such events eventually compel Beli to acknowledge the harshness of the situation in which she lives, and she becomes self-aware. However, she becomes frustrated and confused, and this is evident in her treatment of other people in America.
When two men attempt to take her life again, Beli leaves Santo Domingo and meets her husband, Oscar and Lola’s father. The relationship does not last, as even Lola and Oscar do not remember much about him. Left with two children and a host of troubles, Beli has more questions than answers about her predicament. Her stay in the US does not help her situation, but only increases her frustration and confusion. She leaves the Dominican Republic for the United States, a place where she never feels quite at home. For her, the Dominican Republic is just a symbol of a lost and idealized home, as she lives on the margins of two cultures. This causes her to wipe out the first years of her life from her personal history, and hence her family history.
Beli uses repression as a means of dealing with her troubles. She goes through a hard time recovering from her past, for the effects of the Trujillo regime could not so easily be forgotten. Therefore, the memories remain a continuous and inescapable presence in her life, a legacy that she passes on to Oscar. Luckily, unlike her mother, Oscar manages to escape a life that is confined by the past. Traumatic and tragic events cause the characters to become self-aware and forge their self-identity. The characters refuse to directly face the events and instead choose to repress and ignore them.
The novel offers a sensitive and thorough exploration of the roots and consequences of the “Dominican Diaspora”. The social topography of this phenomenon is in many ways reflected psychologically in Oscar’s and his family status as a perpetual outsider in America. They struggle to accommodate their two selves into one integral identity. They selectively reach back to the early incidents in the Dominican Republic in an effort to reflectively make sense of earlier events. The events led to formation of their self-identity and self-esteem, as well as created an unbroken biographical account, which is very important for maintaining their self-identity.
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