Oscar Wao and the Borderlands
Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has many themes embedded within the narrative. One of the things all of the characters experiences is a feeling that they are on the fence in regards to society and culture. Oscar is the son of a Dominican immigrant who is being raised by his mother in New Jersey. He is not seen as Dominican because he doesn’t fit into the set of standards that Dominicans hold for their males. Oscar’s sister, Lola, is also an important piece to the narrative because she doesn’t fit into Dominican society’s roles for women because she is independent and she doesn’t have the respect for her mother she is supposed to have. Oscar and Lola live on the border of American and Dominican society because they don’t fit into the roles that are expected of them.
The novel takes a looks at the expectations Dominican families have of their male and female children. Gloria Anzaldua argues that the Hispanic culture makes “macho caricatures of its men” (Anzaldua 1021). Oscar is seen as the anti-Dominican because he doesn’t fall into the ideals of the culture. “Except for one period early in his life, dude never had much luck with the females (how very un-Dominican of him)” (Diaz 11). Early on, the ideal Dominican male is defined as someone who can get any female he wants. This is the exact opposite of how Oscar is.
As Oscar grows older, he moves farther away from him the expectations of his Dominican culture. Oscar “had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it. Couldn’t play sports for shit, or dominoes …and most damning of all: no looks” (Diaz 19-20). Instead of having the typical goals of dating and being one of the men by playing dominoes and drinking, Oscar immerses himself in science fiction and writing a novel. This alienates him from the other members of his culture. Oscar tries to find a balance between his Dominican side and his American side.
Even within outliers of the community, Oscar is an outsider. Oscar’s greatest goal in life is to get a girlfriend which will finally make him a “real” Dominican. His friends are both nerdy teens who also don’t have much luck with the ladies until senior year. His friend Al stumbled upon a girl who had a female friend who was also looking for someone to date. Rather than sending the friend over to desperate Oscar, he sent her to their other friend. Oscar realized that even his loser friends “were embarrassed by him” (Diaz 29). Diaz uses this to make Oscar even more of anti-Dominican because even his friends think he is a loser. Oscar feels he must do something to escape the judgment he faces due to his inability to not fit in anywhere.
In order to escape the judgment he feels from his family and other Dominicans, Oscar goes to college. He felt “the initial euphoria of finding himself alone at college, free of everything” (Diaz 49), but this doesn’t last. College was a way for Oscar to escape the culture that he felt was stifling him. Oscar planned re-invent himself in college and drop the nerdy loser persona that had he had in high school. He started to work out so he would be more attractive to women, but he lost focus and gave up on the middle of a run. Oscar realized that even if he changed his appearance, he would continue to be an outsider to his culture.
Unfortunately, Oscar’s reputation followed him and nothing changed while he was away. He roomed with a fellow Dominican who was just trying to get to Oscar’s sister, Lola. The roommate was a typical Dominican, expressing the “Latin hypermaleness” (Diaz 30) that Oscar lacks. Instead of the roommate bringing Oscar closer to the Dominican culture, Oscar brings moves his roommate farther away from the culture.
Oscar’s sister Lola is in the opposite position that Oscar is in. Lola wants to move away from her Dominican culture and her overbearing mother. As a means to move away, Lola shaves her hair, which she has been growing for years. Her hair represents the femininity which is expected of her. “If a woman rebels, she is a mujer mala” (Anzaldua 1018), a bad woman, which is how her mother feels. Rather than her mom asking why she shaved her head, or if there was something wrong with her, she “didn’t bother to talking to [her] unless it was to make death threats” (Diaz 61). Children are supposed to be subordinate to their parents and are supposed to treat them with respect.
Lola deliberately shaved her head to spite her mother because she felt she was being overbearing. When her mother told her to put a wig on so the family would not be shamed by Lola’s antics, Lola refuses and acts out even more. Rather than having the intended effect of her mother loosening her grip on her life, Lola’s decision makes her mother even more overbearing. In another effort to escape her mom’s expectations, Lola runs away with an older man.
Lola thought that her boyfriend loved her and would protect her and provide stability in her life. Her escape end up far differently than she expected. Rather than being the great escape from her Dominican mother, she was worse of because she had absolutely nothing of her own. While living with her boyfriend, she lost her virginity as another way to get back at her mother. In Hispanic cultures “if a woman remains a virgen until she marries, she is a good woman” (Anzaldua 1018). Lola theorizes that “as soon as I lost my virginity I lost my power” (Diaz 65). Lola had the power in her situation until she had sex with her boyfriend. By having sex with her boyfriend, Lola gave up any leverage she had over him. Immediately after the couple had sex, they had nothing to look forward to, leading to the demise of the relationship.
Even if Lola hadn’t run away from home, there wasn’t much culture based hope for her. The roles of woman in Hispanic culture are limited to “the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother” (Anzaldua 1018). Since she ran away from home to be with a man she wasn’t married to, her mother sees her as a prostitute. Instead of a monetary gain, Lola received freedom, even if it wasn’t permanent. Her only options to bring honor back to her family are to join the church or to become a mother. Since she doesn’t care what others think of her, she chooses a different route and goes to college.
Oscar and Lola are a few years apart in age, but they end up going to the same college at the same time. Oscar decided to join his sister because she was more of mother figure to him than his own mother. While there, the siblings are at opposite end of the social spectrums. Lola mellows out and becomes rather popular, while Oscar continues being an outsider and can’t find someone willing to be his roommate. Lola found somewhere to belong after she stopped trying to fit into the Dominican culture. After the two graduates, they go to the Dominican Republic as a way to reconnect with their roots.
While Lola often accompanies their mother, Oscar hardly ever goes to the Dominican Republic because it just emphasizes how he doesn’t fit in. He finally decides to go because he wants to try something different to see if his life will change for the better. After telling himself “you do not belong” (Diaz 276) the entire first week he was there, Oscar began to relax and enjoy himself. When he stopped worrying about fitting in, he finally began to fit in.
While on his vacation from himself, Oscar finally found a woman who wasn’t disgusted by him. None of his family members approved of the relationship, because they thought Oscar could do better, but he doesn’t pay attention to their concerns because he is finally happy. His family’s fears were founded when Oscar was beaten by the woman’s gangster boyfriend. He is not deterred by this, because he has finally fit in to the culture he has be trying to for his entire life. Oscar decides to pursue this relationship, despite the possibility of being beaten again, because “he’d finally decided to live” (Diaz 312). When Oscar finally decided to stop worrying about what others thought of him, he finally found his place in the world.
Unlike Oscar, Lola continued to run away from her family and her culture. She left the Dominican Republic early to return to her life, leaving Oscar unsupervised in a country he was not used to. Lola was a mother figure for Oscar, because they were in similar positions in their lives. Since Oscar had no one to protect him from this alien culture, he loses his life to his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. His family, while sad at his death, also marveled at the fact that he finally found himself. Lola also redeemed herself and became a wife and mother as a way to return to her culture.
Oscar and Lola were both outsiders in the Dominican culture at the beginning of the novel. Both experienced changes that eventually brought them the missing pieces that allowed them to become at peace with their culture. Although the novel ended with the death of one of the main characters, he finally found what he was looking for and he died proud of the fact that he finally decided to live his life the way he wanted to, not the way he should.
Anzaldua, Gloria. “Borderlands/La Frontera.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivken and Michael Ryan. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. 1017-1030.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.