New Criticism

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Eric Barboza

In “Monstro” by Junot Diaz, the author explores the complexities of identity, masculinity, and family relationships through the perspective of a Dominican-American boy growing up in New Jersey. The author uses a variety of literary techniques to explore themes of identity, power, and the body. Using New Criticism as a theoretical lens, this essay will analyze the narrative techniques Diaz uses to convey the ambiguity and fluidity of identity in the story. Through the use of language, symbolism, and imagery, Diaz creates a powerful and nuanced portrayal of the challenges faced by young immigrants as they navigate their dual identities.

The story is told from the perspective of Yunior, a young boy struggling to reconcile his Dominican heritage with his American upbringing. Diaz uses a nonlinear narrative structure that shifts back and forth between different time periods in Yunior’s life. The reader is not experiencing Yunior’s life in chronological order at all. This is to reflect the fragmented nature of his own identity. This writing style also serves to foreground the central themes of the story, which include the struggle for self-discovery and the tension between cultural traditions and assimilating into a new culture or country. One of the key themes in “Monstro” is the relationship between power and the body. Michael O’Sullivan argues that the body is a site of resistance against dominant power structures in the story. He points out that the characters use their own bodies to navigate the fluidity of identity formation and to assert their own beliefs in the face of oppressive figures. For example, Yunior’s father uses his body to assert his dominance over his family, while the mother and Beli use their bodies to resist this dominance and to create their own spaces within the family (O’Sullivan). Combined with the most significant literary device used in this story, being language, Diaz uses a blend of English and Spanish, known as Spanglish, to reflect the cultural differences of Yunior’s experience. This language also highlights the power dynamics at play in the story, particularly between Yunior and his father. Yunior’s use of Spanish and Spanglish is a means of resistance against the father’s strict and almost patriarchal values (Chakraborty).

Another important literary device used in the story is symbolism. The symbol of monster or “monstro” appears throughout the story, representing Yunior’s struggle with his masculinity and identity. The monster is a physical manifestation of Yunior’s fear and uncertainty about his own masculinity and his struggle to conform to his father’s expectations. The most prominent symbol in the story is the monster that appears in Yunior’s dreams. This monster represents the fear and uncertainty that young Dominican-American men, and even young immigrant men face as they navigate their dual identities. This symbolism is particularly powerful in the scene where Yunior and his brother discover a monster in the basement of their home, which serves as a metaphor for Yunior’s own journey of self-discovery. The monster is both terrifying and alluring, suggesting that the process of identity formation is also both frightening and irresistible. In addition to the monster, Diaz uses imagery to convey the fluidity of the characters’ identities and to describe the surroundings of Yunior.

Diaz uses vivid and sensory imagery to create a strong sense of place and atmosphere. The descriptions of the Dominican Republic and the New Jersey neighborhood where Yunior grew up are rich in detail and evoke a strong sense of nostalgia and longing. The imagery also reflects Yunior’s sense of displacement and the tension between his Dominican and American identities. For example, when Yunior describes the “carpeted staircase” leading to his bedroom, he is subtly highlighting the cultural differences between his home in New Jersey and the more humble living conditions of his relatives in the Dominican Republic. Diaz also uses imagery to describe other character’s fluidity with their identity. For example, when Yunior describes his friend Rafa, he notes that “he was as black as could be but he had a Chinese grandfather, which meant that he had straight hair and those angled Chinese eyes” (Diaz 16). This image of Rafa highlights the ways in which identity is constantly shifting and evolving, hence the fluidity. Diaz uses vivid language as well to paint a picture of Yunior’s experiences, from the “glittering skies” to the “rotting beach houses.” This attention to detail creates a sense of realism and immerses the reader into Yunior’s world, emphasizing the weight of the themes and issues being explored. Additionally, the imagery of the monster, with its “bloated belly” and soulless eyes,” creates a sense of dread and unease, reflecting the emotional turmoil that Yunior is experiencing (Chakraborty). Aside from symbolism and imagery, there are other literary techniques being used.

In addition to symbolism and imagery, Diaz uses character development along with the theme of diasporic trauma and how it affects the characters’ sense of identity to also help convey the fluidity of identity in the story. Joshua Serrano argues that Diaz uses the theme of diaspora to highlight the ways in which identity is constantly in flux and that the characters in the story are unable to fully assimilate into either American or Dominican culture. Serrano suggests that the characters are caught in a state of perpetual liminality, in which they are neither fully Dominican nor fully American. This creates a sense of anxiety and dislocation that pervades the story and contributes to the characters’ struggles with identity (Serrano). Yunior, is a complex character who struggles to reconcile his Dominican heritage with his American upbringing. Throughout the story, Yunior’s identity is constantly in flux, as he tries to navigate the expectations of his family, his peers, and essentially his culture. When Yunior visits the Dominican Republic with his family, he is extremely aware of his American accent and feels like an outsider. He feels like he has become too “Americanized” to fit in with his peers in the Dominican Republic. However, when he returns to the United States, he is still equally aware of his Dominican background and still feels like he doesn’t belong. This constant sense of displacement highlights the ways in which identity is a fluid and evolving process. Another noteworthy thing to consider is how the story is told.

The narrative structure of “Monstro” is important. The story is told from Yunior’s perspective, giving the reader insight into his inner thoughts and emotions. Diaz employs a nonlinear structure, with the story jumping back and forth in time, mirroring the chaotic and disjointed nature of a fluid identity. The narrative structure also emphasizes the cyclical nature of trauma, as Yunior is haunted by the memory of the monster long after his encounter with it. The use of tone is also an important literary element. Diaz uses a melancholic and reflective tone throughout the story, underscoring the weight of Yunior’s experiences. The somber tone is sometimes dissipated with moments of humor highlighting the resilience and humor that fluid communities often possess in the face of adversity.

“Monstro” is a powerful exploration of identity, masculinity, and family relationships. Through the use of language, symbolism, imagery, and tone, Diaz creates a complex and layered portrayal of the challenges faced by young immigrants as they navigate their dual identities. The story is a poignant reminder of the importance of self-discovery and the power of resistance against oppression. Diaz challenges the reader to question their assumptions and biases about the protagonist’s identity and the events that occur in the story. The nonlinear structure of the narrative, with its jump between past and present, further emphasizes the idea that the past is never fully resolved and continues to shape the present. The use of Spanglish throughout the story also underscores the idea that identity is fluid and multifaceted, and can’t be neatly categorized or defined. By highlighting the struggles faced by Yunior and other immigrant youth, Diaz has created a story that resonates with readers of all backgrounds and cultures. Ultimately, “Monstro” offers a complex exploration of identity, trauma, and resilience, and invites readers to reconsider their own assumptions and biases about these issues.

Works Cited

Chakraborty, Chandrima. “Disrupting the Dominant Discourse: Junot Diaz’s ‘Monstro’ as a Critique of Masculinity, Race, and Power.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 42.1 (2017): 61-77

Díaz, Junot. “Monstro.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 28 May 2012,

O’Sullivan, Michael. “Exquisite Corpse: The Body as Resistance in Junot Diaz’s ‘Monstro’. “Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 49-62

Serrano, Joshua. “Specters of Diaspora: Trauma and Identity in Junot Diaz’s ‘Monstro’. “MELUS, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 81-102





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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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