The central character of Junot Diaz’s novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, does not seem like a traditional hero, and his foolish choices can cause the reader to gasp or shake their head over how ill-advised they are. However, Diaz has subtly endowed Oscar’s tale with some story elements shared with quests of heroes of myth and legend. This technique lends Oscar’s journey – from geeky isolation to enduring beatings and death for love – greater stature. Other characters also follow their journeys, taking risks for those they love along the way, but can be seen as heroes in their own right, not necessarily more or less heroic (or foolish) than Oscar himself.
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Young Wao’s outright unattractiveness and anti-social habits make him an unlikely protagonist of Diaz’s vivid portrayal of Dominicans living between the USA and the DR. However, in other ways this novel differs from the conventional. The most obvious unconventional feature is Diaz’s “code-switching”. The author constantly switches between English and Spanish, sometimes between one word and the next. (Casielles-Suárez 475) He also adopts several points of view and uses multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards. Perhaps, therefore, Diaz’s non-traditional hero is not so out of place.
However, Diaz’s contemporary narrative also reflects the most ancient forms of story-telling. Joseph Campbell has characterized the world’s great stories, the myths, legends, epics, and tales of adventure, as sharing common themes and elements across languages, cultures, traditions, and eras. He calls these themes the ‘Hero’s Journey’, a journey which includes certain instantly recognizable steps and characters. (Borrowing From Fiction To Turn Law Students Into Storytellers Camden Professor Employs Heroic Characters, From Harry Potter To Stephen Colbert, As Mock Clients)
In the case of Oscar Wao, like heroes of myth, he seemed different from others from early on in his life. Diaz describes him as a complete science fiction nerd, totally out of step with his contemporaries’ interests. (Diaz 22) While not stronger physically than other kids, like the young Theseus was, he is certainly more literate than most of his contemporaries. He also responds to a call to adventure, as do classic Heroes, much like the characters in the books and fantasy games he loves so much. In Oscar’s case, his adventure is his romance with Ybón, which he describes as “the start of his real-life”. (Diaz 279)
Additionally, like other heroes, he gets help from a supernatural guide that arises from “a world of magic and mystery”. This is the Golden Mongoose, which appears when Oscar is near death. (Diaz 190). He also experiences various types of personal transformation on the way to the end of his quest, including becoming nearly paralyzed with depression, trying to change his image, attempting suicide, being beaten so badly that he probably could not eat, and finally losing all the excess weight as a result of having his face and teeth bashed in. (Diaz 312)
These elements of traditional myth and legend connect Diaz’s dorky hero to long-ago figures in the earliest narratives, like Gilgamesh, Moses, Theseus, Odysseus, or even more recently, to Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker. These connections lend Diaz’s awkward and unimpressive main character a kinship with these long-ago larger than life heroes, no matter how foolish his choices may seem to others.
Other elements connect to the Hero’s journey. These include the presence of a curse pursuing the hero. In classical stories, a curse from an offended deity or a fatal flaw of character sometimes prevents the hero from ever being able to succeed. Diaz tells his readers that the Dominican people suffer from “Fukú americanus”. This is the doom that Diaz describes as hanging over Oscar’s people since Christopher Columbus arrived on this continent. (Diaz 1) Another element that connects to traditional myths is that he encounters various colorful characters that help or hinder him in achieving what he set out to do. For example, Diaz calls the girls who hang out at his house his “furies”, a reference to Greek mythological beings who pursued an unlucky hero till death. (Diaz 313)
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Still another subtle element that ties this very modern story to ancient tales of heroes is Oscar’s family’s connections. The narrator tells readers that “In those long-ago days…the Cabrales was numbered among the High of the Land” and were connected to the evil ruler Trujillo. (Diaz 211) This mirrors the noble birth of many traditional Heroes. Such features connect this complex and very contemporary tale to the oldest traditions of story-telling.
Meanwhile, Oscar Wao’s colleagues, rivals, persecutors, and supporters are simultaneously pursuing their heroic journeys. Their goals, or quests, reflect the specific challenges of their community. For example, both Abelard and La Inca’s heroic actions respond to the pattern of sexual exploitation and violence in the Dominican community both in the USA and in the DR, referenced constantly by Diaz. (Francis 61) Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, for example, attempts to protect his daughters from rape and worse by taking an “enormous risk” and doing what Diaz calls a “Brave Thing”.
Abelard ends up dead, supposedly for a joke, but more likely because he objects to Trujillo’s evil. His sacrifice tragically fails, and his daughters all end up blasted by this evil, even long after his death. (Diaz 217) This could seem foolish and hopeless, but it also shows tremendous, and heroic bravery.
La Inca, Oscar’s aunt/cousin, named after an ancient, noble ruler, rescues his mother, Belicia from oppressive and abusive foster parents who objected to Beli’s scholarly ambitions. La Inca must stand up against skepticism and criticism to rescue her young relative and try to rehabilitate her. (Diaz 257) This, too, takes bravery. She rescues her once again after Belicia is beaten by her lover’s goons. This act doubtless places La Inca, herself, at risk from “the Trujillato”. (Diaz 119). It also exposes her to the disapproval of those “who had previously bagged on the girl and called her whore”. (Diaz 144). La Inca takes care of Oscar as well despite le Capitan’s power to kill and maim. (Diaz 301) These are foolish risks, especially since neither Oscar nor Beli is her child, but her actions are nonetheless heroic.
These characters, like Oscar, brave torture and death, and thus could be described as foolish in their decision-making. However, these choices do resemble the decisions of many mythic heroes. After all, if Heroes avoided foolishness, they would never stick their necks out and never leave their rooms. However, they would also not be Heroes! Whether Oscar or his family members and friends make foolish or heroic decisions may not be as important as the fact that they do not run away from what they see as their responsibilities and their ultimate fates.
Oscar Wao is certainly not classically strong, fit, physically brave, handsome, or charming in conversation. However, in many ways, his life circumstances and the events in which he participates reflect the quests and deeds of the heroes of mythology, both ancient and modern. He finds meaning and purpose for his life in doing the dangerous thing because it gives him joy. (Wood) This means that even Oscar’s foolish choices can seem heroic to the reader, as do those of La Inca and Abelard.
Casielles-Suárez, Eugenia. “”Radical Code-switching in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies. 2011: 475. Web.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York City: Penguin Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
Francis, Donette A. “Uncovered stories: politicizing sexual histories in third wave Caribbean women’s writings.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 2004: 61. Web.
Miller, Jen A. “Borrowing From Fiction To Turn Law Students Into Storytellers: Camden Professor Employs Heroic Characters, From Harry Potter To Stephen Colbert, As Mock Clients.” States News Service (2011): n.p. Web.
Wood, Stephanie. “Finding meaning.” Success Magazine (2014): 50. Web.