Study Guide

Oscar Wao in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Díaz

Oscar Wao

Mr. Nerdtastic

Ever imagine what would happen if Urkel and Betty Suarez had a baby together? And that baby was Dominican? If so, we think he'd be something like Oscar Wao.

You simply can't hide from the fact that Oscar is a total nerd. To quote our narrator, Yunior, he can be summed up in one word: loser. (Note: we at Shmoop wouldn't call anyone a loser but, alas, this is the term Yunior's fond of.) What evidence do we have that Oscar would qualify for an Oscar in nerdiness, if there were such a thing?

Well, he weighs 245 pounds; has no ear for music; can't dance; loves comic books, sci-fi movies and fantasy novels; sports the slightest trace of a mustache; and has a pair of close-set eyes. Oh, and the proverbial nail in the coffin: Oscar can write in Elvish. Come. On.

As Yunior says:

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to. (1.1.2.3)

See, Oscar's problem isn't just that he's nerdy; it's that he can't (or won't) hide his nerdiness. Plus, Oscar only gets nerdier the more he gets teased for it. Let us explain.

To escape his tormentors and find some peace, Oscar reads more sci-fi and fantasy novels. This makes Oscar even less cool, which makes the other kids tease him more, which makes Oscar read more sci-fi and fantasy novels.

And the never-ending cyle of loserness that Oscar seems to be stuck in has all sorts of consequences. Some are relatively mild, while others—not so much.

Can't Make a Man Out of Him

You know that boy everyone in class meanly calls a "sissy"? Well, that's Oscar in the Dominican Republic. He seems "girly" to other Dominican men. And in a culture that's obsessed with masculinity—or at least stereotyped as being obsessed with masculinity—this is a serious problem.

Pretty much all of Oscar's friends and family give him a hard time about his lack of a muscley-man body, lack of success with women, lack of interest in sports, and all of the other things that prototypically define masculinity. (The fact that most people think sci-fi and fantasy are "just kids' stuff" doesn't help.)

When you reach a certain age, you're supposed to put away the sci-fi novels. If you don't, you're still a child. And in a sexist culture, children and women get put in the same (inferior) group.

What Race or Ethnicity Is He Anyway?

Like a Mexican kid who hates tamales, Oscar also seems like he's not Dominican. (Okay, we were just joking about that first part; obviously, people can and should like whatever they want.) Dominican men are supposed to be very good with the ladies, and Oscar obviously isn't.

Plus, sci-fi and fantasy are interests commonly held by white American kids. What's a Dominican kid doing reading that stuff?

It becomes a running joke in the book that Oscar looks more like a Puerto Rican than a Dominican. Simply put, Oscar doesn't fit in anywhere. The white kids don't accept him as white because of his skin color. The Dominican kids don't understand Oscar's literary interests or lack of success in sports and with women.

So Oscar is an other—someone who doesn't really fit into any racial or cultural group. This is a big theme in Díaz's novel; while Díaz discusses different cultures and nations in great detail, he doesn't allow his main characters to quite fit into any of those social categories. No one in Wao is clearly one thing or another, but Oscar is the biggest outsider in the book.

Side note: We want to point out that Oscar does have special brainiac powers because of his nerdiness. He is an amazing writer, and he knows a ton.

You see, there are some distinct upsides to spending most of your time indoors, reading and writing. Don't forget that, Shmoopers.

The Great Romantic

Ever been at war with yourself? Well, Oscar's two central character traits really conspire against him in this novel. His nerdiness is always getting in the way of his love of women. Here's what our faithful narrator, Yunior, says on the subject:

It would have been one thing if like some of the nerdboys I'd grown up with he hadn't cared about girls, but alas he was still the passionate enamorao [romantic] who fell in love easily and deeply. He had secret loves all over town, the kind of curly-haired, big bodied girls who wouldn't have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming. His affection—that gravitational mass of love, fear, longing, desire, and lust that he directed at any and every girl in his vicinity without regard to looks, age, or availability—broke his heart each and every day. (1.1.2.4)

Oscar is straight-up girl-crazy. Maybe even more so than his mom, Beli, was boy-crazy in her younger years. As Yunior says, some nerdboys get by all right because they're not so into women. They're not such big-time romantics.

But Oscar is. And that means he's always setting himself up for rejection. In a way, Oscar was always "[breaking] his heart each and every day."

Who wouldn't start feeling down-and-out after experiencing so much heartbreak? Our boy Oscar swings between wild optimism and deep depression throughout the book. When he first meets a girl, Oscar believes that he has finally found The One. He convinces himself that this woman is the woman of his dreams.

Of course she'll love him back, right? How could she not?

Sadly, things almost never work out for Oscar. He gets his heart trampled on again and again. The worst of Oscar's chica-related depressive funks even sends him over the New Brunskwick bridge. Ouch.

An Unlikely Hero

Sometimes the people we tease the most are the people we like most of all, deep down. So even though Yunior harasses Oscar pretty relentlessly, we think that Oscar is the hero of Wao. (We can practically hear Oscar saying, Look, mom, I made it into the title of the book.)

Allow us to detail the evidence of Oscar's hero-dom for you. Point one: Díaz diagnoses some real problems with men in Dominican and American culture. Díaz's story skewers the sexist attitudes and the machismo of men in these cultures.

Simply put, men treat women really badly in Wao; they beat women, and use them for sex.

But Oscar escapes this trap. His nerdiness, perhaps, is what saves him. Instead of following in the footsteps of the other male characters, Oscar ends up in one of the few respectful relationships in the novel. In this way, he's kind of a cultural hero.

Point two: arguably, Oscar beats Trujillo's fukú. We know this is a contentious point because Oscar does get killed in the end. He does seem cursed in love, much like the other characters in the novel who suffer at the hands of the fukú. (We're thinking especially of Beli.)

But, he also falls in love. Finally. And not only that—he is loved in return. He has sex. He experiences all the beauty of a loving relationship. He is, in the end, happy.

It's hard to say, then, that Trujillo's curse beats Oscar. We tend to think that Oscar lived a happy life, despite being plagued by the fukú.

(Of course, all this depends on whether you buy Yunior's explanation of the events in the novel. The fukú could be behind everything, like Yunior says. Or, it could be a convenient explanation for bad choices, bad luck, and historical discrimination. You decide.)

On the whole, Oscar is a pretty complex, and very strong character. Maybe his outsiderness is a boon to him after all. His dogged dedication to his own interests and ideals allows him to rise above many of the negative elements of his cultures, and, at long last, find love.