Summary: Part 1, Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, which covers the period 1988–1992, the narrator at last reveals his identity. His name is Yunior, and he explains how he became involved with the de León family. He met Lola in college at Rutgers. One night during their sophomore year, Yunior got mugged, and Lola was the only friend to show up and help tend his wounds. Not long after that incident, Yunior and Lola had a brief affair, but Lola ended it because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.

Oscar also attended Rutgers, and at the end of his freshman year, he nearly drank himself to death when a girl rejected him. Afterward, nobody wanted to room with him. In a bid to impress Lola and to ensure that he’d have university housing, Yunior offered to become Oscar’s roommate.

Oscar’s nerdiness surprised Yunior. He notes, for example, that Oscar had put a sign on the door that said, in the Elvish language of Sindarin, “Speak friend, and enter.” Whereas Oscar spent most of his time in the apartment, Yunior initially kept himself scarce. But gradually they became friends. Like Oscar, Yunior wrote fiction, and they occasionally exchanged work. Yunior also tried to help Oscar find the confidence to approach women.

Near the beginning of the new school year, Yunior’s love life imploded after he cheated on his girlfriend. He took his mind off his relationship troubles by helping Oscar try to change his life. He encouraged Oscar to adopt new dietary habits, avoid self-criticism, and exercise. Oscar quickly grew fed up with Yunior’s harsh program and quit, which caused a rift between them. Yunior and his buddies started bullying Oscar. One day, Yunior said that Oscar looked like “that fat homo Oscar Wilde.” His friend Melvin misheard him and asked, “Who is ‘Oscar Wao?’” The nickname immediately stuck.

A fellow student named Jenni Muñoz helped bring an end to their feud. Jenni was a hardcore goth who lived on the second floor of their dormitory. Yunior tried flirting with her once, but she blew him off. During the period after their falling out, Yunior noticed that Oscar had eyes for Jenni. One day, Oscar approached her, and, to Yunior’s surprise, she agreed to go out with him. They started spending time together. Oscar resumed his exercise routines and took more care with his appearance. Oscar’s transformation sparked jealousy in Yunior, who asked, “How can you be in love? You just met the bitch.” Oscar replied darkly, “Don’t call her a bitch.”

One day, Oscar’s mood took a sudden turn for the worse. Yunior suspected that Jenni had rejected him, but Oscar refused to talk about it. Two weeks later, at the end of the school year, Oscar walked in on Jenni having sex with another guy. Furious, Oscar attacked Jenni and called her a whore.

Soon after this event, Yunior announced his plan to move out. On their last night as roommates, Yunior and Oscar got drunk. Yunior left the apartment hoping to have sex with a woman he’d recently met. Oscar drank more, then made his way to an overpass at the New Brunswick train station. He’d been standing on the bridge for a long time when he had a vision of a mongoose with golden eyes. The creature sat next to him in serene silence then disappeared. Oscar threw himself from the bridge. However, instead of landing on the road, he crashed into a planted median, which saved his life but broke both his legs.

Oscar recovered from his injuries back home in Paterson. He returned to his writing and set the ambitious goal of becoming the “Dominican Tolkien.” When Yunior went to visit him, Oscar confessed that the curse had made him attempt suicide. Yunior dismissed the curse as nonsense left over from a previous generation, but Oscar retorted, “It’s ours too.”

The following school year, Yunior started working more seriously on his creative writing. Lola, who’d spent the previous year abroad in Spain, was back on campus, and Yunior’s old crush resurfaced. He asked Lola out, and she reluctantly agreed. The following spring, Yunior showed up at Oscar’s dorm, said, “Mellon,” and moved back in.

Chapter 4 concludes with Yunior describing Oscar’s journal entries from the previous fall. At night, Oscar sometimes took his mother’s car out and drove aimlessly. Some nights, he fell asleep at the wheel thinking about the characters in his stories. In his journal, he wrote, “Nothing more exhilarating than saving yourself by the simple act of waking.”

Analysis: Part 1, Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, the primary narrator finally reveals his identity as well as the nature of his relationship to the de León family. Throughout the novel’s early chapters, the reader has remained unsure about how the main narrator, named Yunior, fit into the story or if he had any direct involvement at all. As such, it remained unclear why he took a special interest in recounting the de León family story. This chapter makes it clear that Yunior became involved with the de Leóns via his crush on Lola and, secondarily, through his budding friendship with Oscar. With this new information, the reader realizes that Yunior’s motivation to narrate this story stems in part from his relationships with the two de León children. His motivation also stems from the fact that, like the de Leóns, he belongs to the Dominican diaspora of New Jersey. He spent some of his youth in the Dominican Republic, and he still has family there. Thus, much like the de León children, he has personal experience with the complexities of being a Dominican immigrant—American in many ways and yet also deeply informed by his Dominican heritage.

Both Oscar and Yunior feel deeply influenced by traditional Dominican standards of male sexuality, but unlike Oscar, Yunior’s sense of masculinity consistently leads him to disrespect women. In Oscar’s case, he showed women respect even when they rejected him, as he did with Ana Obregón. Despite feeling upset that she chose Manny over him, Oscar continued to center Ana’s well-being. He even plotted revenge when he learned that Manny had abused Ana. Oscar may have desired to live up to Dominican standards of male sexuality, but this desire did not result in cruel treatment of women. By contrast, Yunior privileges his own sexual needs and desires over those of the women he sleeps with. He frequently cheats on his girlfriends, and he even seems to get an extra thrill out of this particular form of cruelty. The two different manifestations of masculinity come into conflict in the case of Jenni Muñoz. Yunior, who felt annoyed by Jenni’s rejection, felt justified in calling her a “bitch.” Oscar stood up to Yunior and condemned his hateful language. Even so, Oscar later proved himself capable of misogyny when he found Jenni with another man and called her a “whore,” demonstrating that he, too, carried a strain of toxic masculinity.

Oscar felt inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien more than any other master of science fiction and fantasy. Oscar, who one day longed to become “the Dominican Tolkien,” read Tolkien’s landmark trilogy The Lord of the Rings many times throughout his youth. Oscar clearly had a deep respect for the epic sweep of Tolkien’s fantasy universe, but Yunior indicates a particular aspect of The Lord of the Rings that captured Oscar’s heart. In its broadest strokes, the trilogy involves the coming together of a fellowship of humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits to vanquish a singular source of evil. Thus, in addition to being a tale of good versus evil, The Lord of the Rings also emphasizes themes of friendship and loyalty. As an outcast who yearned for companionship, Oscar took special pleasure in these themes. Yunior indicates as much when he notes the Elvish-language sign on Oscar’s door that reproduced a riddle from Tolkien’s books: “Speak friend, and enter.” Yunior initially scoffed at the sign, but later, when he turned up at Oscar’s door to mend their relationship and move back in, Yunior showed that he was indeed Oscar’s friend by speaking the riddle’s answer: “Mellon,” Elvish for “friend.”

Oscar’s vision of the golden-eyed mongoose prior to his suicide attempt clearly recalls the vision his mother, Beli, had after two men nearly beat her to death in the Dominican cane field. Like Oscar, Beli experienced a vision of a golden-eyed mongoose, but despite the similarity of their visions, a key difference separated them. Whereas Beli’s mongoose spoke to her, Oscar’s mongoose looked on silently. According to Yunior’s retelling, Beli’s mongoose commanded her to stand up and find help, all the while promising she would survive to have two children. The mongoose saved Beli’s life. In Oscar’s case, by contrast, the mongoose stood by quietly, saying nothing. Though stunned by this vision, Oscar did not read it as a sign of salvation. Instead, he went ahead and jumped from the bridge. Despite establishing a link between Beli and her son across time, the symbolic meaning of their shared mongoose vision thus remains somewhat ambiguous. In Beli’s case, it promised redemption, suggesting a symbolic connection to the constructive force of zafa. But in Oscar’s case, it presaged a literal fall, suggesting a symbolic connection to the destructive force of fukú.