Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar
Wao tells the story of Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto
nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R.
Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants,
thanks to the fukúthe ancient curse that has haunted Oscar's family for
generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and ill-starred
romance. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent
victimuntil the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.
With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the uproarious
lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious mother
Belicia, and in the family's epic journey from Santo Domingo to New York City's
Washington Heights to New Jersey's Bergenline and back again. Rendered with
uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents
an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless
human capacity to persevereand to risk it allin the name of love.
A true literary triumph, this novel confirms Junot Díaz as one of the best
and most exciting writers of our time.
Throughout the novel, Spanish words and phrases appear unaccompanied by
their English translations. What is the effect of this seamless blending of
Spanish and English? How would the novel have been different if Díaz had
stopped to provide English translations at every turn? Why does Díaz not
italicize the Spanish words (the way foreign words are usually italicized in
The book centers on the story of Oscar and his familyand yet the
majority of the book is narrated by Yunior, who is not part of the family,
and only plays a relatively minor role in the events of the story. Yunior
even calls himself "The Watcher," underscoring his outsider status in the
story. What is the effect of having a relative outsider tell the story of
Oscar and his family, rather than having someone in the family tell it? And
why do you think Díaz waits for so long at the beginning of the book to
reveal who the narrator is?
Díaz, in the voice of the narrator, often employs footnotes to explain
the history or context of a certain passage or sentence in the main text.
Why do you think he chose to convey historical facts and anecdotes in
footnote form? How would the novel have read differently if the content of
the footnotes had been integrated into the main text? What if the footnotes
(and the information in them) had been eliminated altogether?
In many ways, Yunior and Oscar are polar opposites. While Yunior can get
as many women as he wants, he seems to have little capacity for fidelity or
true love. Oscar, by contrast, holds love above all elseand yet cannot find
a girlfriend no matter how hard he tries. Is it fair to say that Yunior is
Oscar's foilunderscoring everything Oscar is notand vice versa? Or are
they actually more alike than they seem on the surface?
The narrator says "Dominicans are Caribbean and therefore have an
extraordinary tolerance for extreme phenomena. How else could we have
survived what we survived?" (p. 149). What does he mean by that? Could
Oscar's obsession with science fiction and the "speculative genres" be seen
as a kind of extension of his ancestors' belief in "extreme phenomena"? Was
that his method of coping?
Yunior characterizes himself as a super macho, womanizing jock-typeand
yet in narrating the book, his writing is riddled with reference to nerdy
topics like the Fantastic Four and Lord of the Rings. In other
words, there seems to be a schism between Yunior the character and Yunior
the writer. Why do you think that is? What could Díaz be trying to say by
making Yunior's character so seemingly contradictory?
For Oscar, his obsession with fantasy and science fiction becomes
isolating, separating him from his peers so much so that he almost cannot
communicate with themas if he speaks a different language (and at one point
he actually speaks in Elvish). How are other characters in the bookfor
instance, Belicia growing up in the Dominican Republic, or Abelard under the
dictatorship of Trujillo, similarly isolated? And how are their forms of
We know from the start that Oscar is destined to die in the course of
the bookthe title suggests as much, and there are references to his death
throughout the book ("Mister. Later [Lola would] want to put that on his
gravestone but no one would let her, not even me." (p. 36)). Why do you
think Díaz chose to reveal this from the start? How does Díaz manage to
create suspense and hold the reader's attention even though we already know
the final outcome for Oscar? Did it actually make the book more suspenseful,
knowing that Oscar was going to die?
In one of the footnotes the narrator posits that writers and dictators
are not simply natural antagonists, as Salman Rushdie has said, but are
actually in competition with one another because they are essentially in the
same business (p. 97). What does he mean by that? How can a writer be a kind
of dictator? Is the telling of a story somehow inherently tyrannical? Do you
think Díaz actually believes that he is in some way comparable to Trujillo?
If so, does Díaz try to avoid or subvert that in any way?
The author, the primary narrator, and the protagonist of the book are
all male, but some of the strongest characters and voices in the book (La
Inca, Belicia, Lola) are female. Who do you think makes the strongest,
boldest decisions in the book? Given the machismo and swagger of the
narrative voice, how does the author express the strength of the female
characters? Do you think there is an intentional comment in the contrast
between that masculine voice and the strong female characters?
There are a few chapters in the book in which Lola takes over the
narration and tells her story in her own words. Why do you think it is
important to the novel to let Lola have a chance to speak for herself? Do
you think Díaz is as successful in creating a female narrative voice as he
is the male one?
How much of her own story do you think Belicia shared with her children?
How much do you think Belicia knew about her father Abelard's story?
The image of a mongoose with golden eyes and the a man without a face
appear at critical moments and to various characters throughout the book.
What do these images represent? Why do you think Díaz chose these images in
particular? When they do appear, do you think you are supposed to take them
literally? For instance, did you believe that a mongoose appeared to Belicia
and spoke to her? Did she believe it?
While Oscar's story is central to the novel, the book is not told in his
voice, and there are many chapters in which Oscar does not figure at all,
and others in which he only plays a fairly minor role. Who do you consider
the true protagonist of the novel? Oscar? Yunior? Belicia? The entire de
Leon and Cabral family? The fukú?
Oscar is very far from the traditional model of a "hero." Other
characters in the book are more traditionally heroic, making bold decisions
on behalf of others to protect themfor instance, La Inca rescuing young
Belicia, or Abelard trying to protect his daughters. In the end, do you
think Oscar is heroic or foolish? And are those other charactersLa Inca,
Abelardmore or less heroic than Oscar?
During the course of the book, many of the characters try to teach Oscar
many thingsespecially Yunior, who tries to teach him how to lose weight,
how to attract women, how to behave in social situations. Do any characters
not try to teach Oscar anything, and just accept him as who he is? How much
does Oscar actually learn from anyone? And in the end, what does Oscar teach
Yunior, and the other characters if anything?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Riverhead Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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