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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Guest writer, Naphtali Rivkin:

Zorro_(novel)_cover brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao-by-junot-diaz

Junot Diaz, in The Brief and Wondrous life of Oscar Wao, and Isabella Allende, in her rendition of Zorro, both interweave a bildungsroman with questions of ethnic identity.  Both novelists seem to indicate that coming to terms with one’s ethnic identity, however complicated, is a necessary part of growing up.  The novelists’ claims seem to hold water even beyond the realm of literature, where real studies of “young adolescents of color” and children of immigrants in Spain have demonstrated that developing a sense of ethnicity is vital to healthy human growth, especially to children living in a culture where their ethnicity is not the normative ethnicity.  But while both novelists claim coming-of-age and ethnic identity is inextricably connected, they might disagree with each other about the best method for coming to terms with complicated ethnic identities.  Diaz’s Oscar Wao transcends his internal and external ethnic conflicts by actively embracing his ethnicity, while Allende’s titular Zorro escapes his identity conflicts altogether by crafting a non-ethnic masked persona.  Diego grows up to become Zorro the Superhero, whose origin story serves to rid him of his humanity and ethnicities, while Oscar evolves into the far more complex, relatable, and admirable super hero, whose brief and wondrous life transforms him into an adult.

Allende and Diaz both seem to reflect scientific realities of ethnicity’s role in a young man’s coming-of-age through their psychologically real narratives.  In so doing, they both would agree that, in their bildungsroman novels, “ethnicity is…a factor in identity formation, which it is not in the (older) European bildungsroman” (Iversen 197).  James Hardin, in his compendium Reflection and Action, attempts to define the 17th century German term bildungsroman, but it seems the only consensus his contributors come to is that “Bildung [in its oldest, original connotation] is a verbal noun meaning ‘formation,’ transferring the formation of external features to the features of the personality as a whole” (Hardin xi).  By defining a bildungsroman as a coming-of-age story where a character is formed through the influence of his surroundings, it can be said that the current scientific studies about ethnicity and identity formation resonate with a 300-year-old literary genre in the works of Allende and Diaz.

Studies have shown that ethnicity matters, particularly to children who grow up in a society where their ethnicity is not the normative one.  Diaz’s Oscar struggles to understand the hyper-masculine expectations associated with his Dominican heritage in the context of his upbringing as an overweight New Jersey “nerd.”  Diego, the boy who becomes Allende’s Zorro, faces the perhaps more complicated task of reconciling his mixed Native-American and Spanish colonial birth while studying in traditional Spain under the occupation of Napoleonic France and traveling with gypsies and creole pirates.  Diego and Oscar’s struggles with ethnic identity reflect the psychologically real process that boys in alien societies must confront in order to come of age.

In her study on “Teaching Young Adolescents of Color,” Geneva Gay defines what we mean by ethnic identity in the context of coming of age.  It is

the dimension of a person’s social identity and self-concept that derives from knowledge, values, attitudes, the sense of belonging, and the emotional significance associated with membership in a particular ethnic group. Whether and how it is achieved affect many other dimensions of students’ personal, social, and academic attitudes and behaviors. A clarified ethnic identity is central to the psycho-social well-being and educational success of youth of color (Gay 151)

Diaz’s Oscar Wao, a “youth of color” growing up outside of his element, struggles to find that sense of belonging with his ethnic group that Gay claims is vital to psycho-social well-being.  While it is sadly routine for people of one race to treat the other poorly, it is downright tragic when Oscar must convince even his own people that “I am Dominican, I am” (Diaz 180).  Oscar struggles with depression to the point of attempting suicide largely because he feels like he does not share the knowledge, values, or attitudes of either his own ethnicity of the normative white ethnicity in New Jersey. Dominicans question Oscar’s virility and ethnicity simultaneously because Oscar does not seem to know how to get women to sleep with him, seems to value fantasy and the pursuit of writing more than a Dominican “should,” and speaks with a literary vocabulary, reflecting an attitude that the Dominicans around him find wholly contrived and off-putting.  Growing up in an alien society of New Jersey, where White is the normative ethnicity, Oscar cannot even rely on the comfort of his own ethnic family (or literal family) to shepherd him through his coming-of-age.

Allende’s Diego similarly faces complex ethnic boundaries to his coming-of-age, but his ethnic issues differ from Oscar’s.  Diego can soundly rely on the support of an almost unrealistic variety of ethnic representatives.  His Native-American heritage grants him powerful tools, friends, and pseudo-mystical powers; his colonial Californian father gives him money and a proud lineage; his Spanish hosts educate him; their French conquerors incite his indignity; the gypsies shelter and develop his physical prowess, while the creole pirates sharpen Diego’s indispensible savvy and worldliness.  Diego, unlike Oscar, is spoiled for choice in the ethnicity department, which begs the question, who is Diego?

Diego’s case reflects the current, real problem of immigrants “coming of age in Spain,” which The British Journal of Sociology attempts to address.

On its part, self-esteem has been consistently associated with positive academic outcomes and is influenced, in turn, by the quality of relations with parents and by past experiences of acceptance or rejection in the host society.  Our analysis reveals an initially anomalous result: the majority of children of immigrants in Spain neither identify with the country nor intend to live there as adults. (From Article chapter “Conclusion”)

It seems that since Diego checks all of the journal’s boxes for a positive self-perception considering his legendary “good luck” and a knack for fitting in wherever he goes, it’s no wonder Diego does not ultimately associate with any particular country or ethnicity in the same way that the successful children of Spanish immigrants do not identify with the country where they came-of-age.

But while both stories include elements typical of a bildungsroman, I think that the end result of Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fits the bildungsroman mold better than Allende’s Zorro.  In fact, while both Diaz’s and Allende’s novels can be read as a coming-of-age story guided by the scientific realities of ethnicity in identity formation, Allende’s novel can be read as a superhero origin story, which differs from a bildungsroman in its end result.  A superhero origin story, according to Peter Coogan, creates a superhero, who is something other-than-human, and therefore, by definition, without ethnicity.

Diego, in Allende’s novel, may have many ethnicities, but with each of those ethnicities come special powers or privileges that transform Diego into Zorro, who is a superhero.  Zorro meets Coogan’s three criteria for superhero status: namely, a mission, powers, and identity (Coogan 39).  Zorro’s “pro-social mission” is “to seek justice, nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, protect widows and orphans, give shelter to the stranger, and never spill innocent blood” (Allende 154).  Just in case the reader may begin to consider Oscar as a superhero as well, I will point out here that Oscar’s mission, in contrast, is, at worst, to get laid, and at best, to find love.  Zorro also meets Coogan’s “powers” criterion for superheroes.  He’s an unmatched fencer, intelligent, lucky, possesses unique tools like his grandmother’s sleep potion; he can pick locks, jump like an acrobat and can see very well.  Even if we left aside his potentially magical link to Bernardo and the Fox (since Oscar too has supernatural experiences with a small mammal), Zorro has abilities which make others perceive him as superhuman, like when the pirates aboard his ship took him for a ghost or when Moncada’s men thought Zorro was in two places at once.

Finally, and most importantly, Zorro meets Coogan’s criterion for a superhero identity.  By becoming a symbol through his costume and iconic “Z” sign, Zorro transcends human characteristics and therefore escapes the human need for an ethnic identity.  The ultimate proof to this is that literally anyone who puts on Zorro’s costume can be Zorro, regardless of his or her ethnic identity— a small Spanish girl, an adult Native-American man, or Diego.  Conversely, there is no way to become Oscar without going through Oscar’s unique combination of ethnic self-identification and coming-of-age.

By growing up into the superhero Zorro, Diego sheds his ethnic identities whenever he is in Zorro costume.

Diego realized that, without planning it, he was playing the part of two different persons, determined by the circumstances and the clothing he was wearing…He supposed that his true character lay somewhere in between, but he didn’t know who he was: neither of the two nor the sum of both…He would assume that he was two persons and turn that to his advantage (Allende 232)

By definition, the bildungsroman cannot end in a conflict of identities.  It implies the forming of a holistic person, who “comes to a better understanding of self” (Hardin xiii) as a result of his coming-of-age.  Instead of understanding himself better through confronting his multiple ethnic allegiances, Diego finds comfort (indeed, he finds charisma, confidence, and virility) in donning the mask of Zorro and escaping the question of ethnicity altogether.

Though Diego’s coming-of-age reflects the psychologically real process of wrestling with ethnicity, the result of his coming-of-age is not typical of a bildungsroman but is instead typical of a superhero origin story.  Conversely, Oscar’s story can and should be read as a prototypical bildungsroman with an ending that would satisfy the genre’s criteria.

Oscar’s formation (bildung) as an adult mirrors his pursuit of the Dominican ethnic identity that his family lost generations ago.  Abelard, Oscar’s grandfather, began his break with Dominican ethnicity when he realized his daughters might fall victim to Trujillo’s rape.  Instead of taking action—sending his daughters to Cuba, for instance—he hesitated indefinitely; “instead of making his move, Abelard fretted and temporized and despaired” (Diaz 231).  Dominicans, as Diaz would have his readers understand them, are decisive and aggressive, almost to a fault.  Take Lola, for instance, who runs away to Wildwood on the whim that she simply cannot stay in her mother’s house any longer.  Abelard, in contrast to Lola and Diaz’s typical Dominicans, cannot even die decisively; while all the other people in his life die quick deaths, Abelard is cursed by his indecision to meekly shuffle through prison—purgatory—half-lobotomized, in his pajamas, ad infinitum.

Perhaps Oscar is Abelard’s second chance—his spiritual reincarnation—as the next male Dominican born to Abelard’s family.  As a member of the Dominican ethnic family, Oscar is expected to sleep with any woman he wants, like Yunior, without compunction or effort.  This described Dominican promiscuity is the manifestation of a Dominican’s ability to take action.  “Did you fuck her?” asks Lola.  “I do not move so precipitously,” sighs Oscar, who still carries his grandfather Abelard’s indecisive genes.  Oscar tries, periodically, to take his life into his own hands, like when he agrees to go running with Yunior.  But it seems Diaz shows the readers this episode just to highlight how much of Oscar’s bad shape (mentally and physically) is his own doing.  “He quit,” Diaz unequivocally tells the readers through Yunior, the narrator.  “I will run again no more, he [Oscar] intoned from under his pillow” (Diaz 178), showing and telling Yunior that he prefers inaction to action, literally and metaphorically.

When it comes to love and sex, Oscar is similarly indecisive.  When Oscar falls in love with Ybon in the Dominican Republic (on a trip he took because he had nothing else to do during the summer), he finds himself pathologically incapable of acting.  “Did they the ever fuck? Of course not…He watched her for the signs…that would tell him she loved him” (Diaz 290) instead of confessing his love himself.  He does not kiss her for the first time; she kisses him in her Pathfinder.  And when Ybon’s kiss gets Oscar beat up by her jealous boyfriend, Oscar “thought about escaping, thought about jumping, out of the car and running down the street…but he couldn’t do it” (Diaz 297).  It is fitting, then, that Oscar gets beaten to near-death like his predecessor Abelard—cursed by his indecision to live in pain.

By going back to the Dominican Republic at great peril to himself specifically to confess his love to Ybon, Oscar comes of age through the fulfillment of his ethnic identity.  It is important to note, however, that love and sex is simply the context in which Oscar finds his identity.  Objectively, perhaps the fact that Oscar somehow accedes to his ethnic misogynistic expectations is not all good.  But love and sex are simply the tools of the Dominican ethnicity, and Oscar uses them to come into himself.  It is vital, for Diaz, that Oscar grow up, and grow up Dominican—and being Dominican means taking action, for better or worse.  Oscar ultimately does take action, for worse. He actively loves Ybon at pain of death.  Most importantly, though, he finds that Dominican compulsion with his last breath.  “Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself” (Diaz 322); the old Oscar would not have been able to pull his own trigger for love.  He finally does what Abelard couldn’t do—acted, even if it kills him.

Oscar’s bildungsroman teaches us that you don’t get to just excuse yourself from your history, ethnicity, and human experience.  Growing up and becoming an adult in real life means coping with all the ethnic baggage you were given; only superheroes like Zorro can don a mask and escape.   Zorro, as a superhero, escapes all ethnic considerations and qualifications, but in so doing, he gives up his uniqueness as a human being, becoming a symbol instead that can belong to anyone.  As a human, you have to deal with both the good and the bad of your ethnicity in order to develop a unique identity.  Perhaps the greatest super hero is not the guy who leaves earth in a single bound, but the braver person who accepts who he is, where he’s from, and does something about it.

(Naphtali Rivkin is a senior English and Russian Area Studies double major at Washington and Lee University. He recently published a piece called “Why Everything you need to know about politics you can learn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar” in the the Ukrainian Philosophical Foundation’s journal, Future Human Image. Currently, he is writing an English honors thesis on early 20th century Socialist American writers. He wrote “ADULTMAN: An Origin Story” in Professor Gavaler’s course 21st Century North American Fiction.)

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