Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mongoose in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

In Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he includes many footnotes to explain Dominican history, nerd culture, and anything else the author finds important. One of the footnotes that caught my attention the most was one explaining “the Mongoose” that keeps appearing as a savior character in the book.

A mongoose is a small, ferocious animal that lives in Southern Europe and Asia, and in Africa. This carnivore, which looks similar to a weasel, was also introduced to many of the Caribbean islands by settlers from across the ocean.

The Mongoose appears in many folktales, seemingly originating in India (as Díaz’s footnote says). The first Mongoose folktale can be found in the Panchatantra, which is a legendary Indian collection of short stories, estimated to be written around 200 BC. This link is a video representation of the story, told in the original Hindi. For an English version of the story, you can read the Mongoose story from the Panchatantra translated here.

The Mongoose story was so popular and well-known that European men heard and recorded the tale. Rudyard Kipling, perhaps best known for The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, wrote the story of the Mongoose in “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” a short story that appears in The Jungle Book (click here for the best part of the movie adaptation).

The most interesting connection between that I have made between the Mongoose story and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the moral at the end of the folk tale. It says that it is best to not make hasty decisions that you may regret later. The Mongoose appears to Beli and Oscar, and when it does, it seems to be directly responding to each character making a hasty decision that they will regret later. For Beli, it is after she proudly talks about having an affair with a powerful government man and disrespecting his wife. She made a rash decision to openly admit to such an affair. For Oscar, it is as he is standing on the bridge, waiting to jump to his death. The Mongoose appears and keeps him from dying, only injuring himself, and Oscar gets to continue living. Later, the Mongoose appears again in the canefield after Oscar is beaten the first time, a result of his blatant interest and love for Ybón, the girlfriend of a policeman. With each of these appearances, the people the Mongoose appears to have just made hasty decisions that they will soon regret.


  1. Lavonne, I loved this post, starting with the great eye-catching picture! It really enjoyed learning about the history of the mongoose and its purpose in story-telling. The video representation of the story was fun and I was glad you provided the English interpretation. :)

    Your connections between Beli, Oscar, and the mongoose make its symbolism much clearer. In the story you shared, I was struck that not only did the Mongoose not harm the child, but it protected it. Instead of merely existing, it made the effort to do good, which unfortunately was punished, not rewarded.

    Perhaps Junot Diaz's comment about the mongoose merely being part of his mother's cornfield story was actually drawn from larger folklore that his mother heard as a child.

  2. Lavonne, you have a flair for connecting research to literature. This is a thoughtful and intriguing post--great picture of the mongoose challenging a snake. It enhances my appreciation of the imagery in the novel and I love your speculation that perhaps the mongoose appeared to Junot's mother because she had heard mongoose stories that migrated across the world. A wonderful symbol of travel, transplantation, and hybridity.

  3. A great example of the intersection between folklore and literature. One of my favorite parts of Oscar Wao is that it made it entirely possible to make all these intertextual connections - but it never did so in a disruptive or obnoxious way. I liked the conversational tone of the footnotes, and they reminded me very much the nerd kids we all know who just have to mention some amazing things they just read about.

    Back to the mongoose, another thing I like about Diaz' references is that they are not limited to a single source. With the diverse references, we see the rich cultural heritage that has influenced the characters in the book - ranging from the Dominican history to Akira. Really cool stuff.

  4. I thought the use of the mongoose in the story was interesting. It was really interesting to learn that it was a family story, not something that is necessarily prevalent in a lot of Dominican literature. I wonder if there is another animal that appears in Dominican literature that has a symbolic meaning that would go along with the story? I really liked the story of how the mongoose lead his lost mother(?) out of the field, and that role ties in well with what you pointed out. It seems to show the characters another path that they should and could take.