A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Prayer for Owen MeanyIntroduction
For Further Reading
John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, published by Ballantine in 1989, is a long, sprawling novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists. John Wheelwright, a former American who is now a Canadian citizen living in Toronto, tells the story. John recalls growing up in a small town in New Hampshire with a very unusual best friend, a tiny boy with a high voice named Owen Meany. Despite his strange appearance and voice, Owen is a boy with a strong personality, intellectual gifts, and an air of authority that enables him to take charge of a situation. Owen also possesses a strong religious faith and an uncanny knowledge of future events in his life—including the exact time and circumstances of his own tragic but heroic death. It is through Owen Meany that John becomes a religious believer.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is Irving's seventh novel. Compellingly readable, it contains a large cast of idiosyncratic small-town characters and has many hilarious scenes and episodes. It also contains serious political and religious themes, exploring issues such as faith and doubt, predestination, the Vietnam War, and the wider issue of American foreign policy from the 1960s to the 1980s. The book is also a mine of information about American social history, from the advent of television in the 1950s to the rock videos of the 1980s.
John Winslow Irving was born on March 2, 1942, in Exeter, New Hampshire, the son of Colin F. N. (a teacher) and Frances (Winslow) Irving. In 1961, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he excelled at wrestling, and decided to become a writer. From 1961 to 1962, Irving was at the University of Pittsburgh because of its wrestling program, and from 1963 to 1964 he attended the Institute of European Studies, University of Vienna.
In 1965, Irving graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the University of New Hampshire, and in 1967, he received a masters in fine arts from the University of Iowa. The following year, he became assistant professor of English at Windham College and published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. More novels soon followed: The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974).
During the 1970s, Irving taught at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Brandeis University and was a writer in residence at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. In 1978, he published a family saga, The World According to Garp, which was his first big commercial success. The book sold 120,000 hardback copies and received critical acclaim. It won the American Book Award in 1980 as the best paperback novel of 1979 and was made into a movie in 1982.
Irving continued his success with another family saga, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), in which he explored, with his characteristic dark humor, issues such as incest, terrorism, and suicide. The book sold 150,000 copies and was made into a movie in 1984. The Cider House Rules, set in an orphanage and dealing with abortion, followed in 1985. Irving wrote an Oscar Award-winning screenplay based on the novel, and a movie was made in 1999 starring Michael Caine. A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) was the third Irving novel to find its way to the movie screen, being freely adapted to produce Simon Birch in 1998.
During the 1990s, Irving continued his literary output. The novel Son of the Circus (1994), about an orthopedist who conducts genetic research on circus dwarfs in India, was followed by Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996), a collection of memoirs, short stories, and essays. A concise autobiography, The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir (1997), was followed by Irving's eighth novel, A Widow for One Year, in 1998. Irving's most recent novel is The Fourth Hand (2001), which includes his cus-tomary mix of bizarre characters and situations, centering on a man who has a hand transplant.
Irving married Shyla Leary in 1964. They had two children and were divorced in 1981. In 1987, Irving married Janet Turnbull, who is also his literary agent; they have one son.
Chapter 1: The Foul Ball
A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with the narrator, John Wheelwright, commenting that he believes in God because of his boyhood friend Owen Meany. John flashes back nearly forty years and recalls Owen. Not only was Owen tiny, but his vocal cords did not develop properly, giving him a high, strange-sounding, nasal voice. Then John explains his family background. He is from Gravesend, New Hampshire, and he can trace his family back to the Mayflower. However, John does not know who his father is, his birth being the result of an encounter between his mother, Tabitha, and a man she met on the Boston & Maine Railroad. John's mother is killed when he is eleven. Owen hits a foul ball, which strikes John's mother on the head, while he's playing Little League baseball.
Chapter 2: The Armadillo
The narrative jumps back and forth to different events and times in John's childhood. John recalls when his mother met her future husband, Dan Needham, a drama teacher. Dan gives John a stuffed armadillo. John recalls staying at Sawyer Depot during summer vacations with his boisterous older cousins Noah, Simon, and Hester. Owen meets the cousins at Thanksgiving at John's home. They are startled by his strange appearance, but they accede to his wishes about what games to play. After the fatal accident, as a way of apologizing to John, Owen gives him his precious collection of baseball cards. Dan and John realize that Owen also wants the cards back, so they return them. In exchange, John gives Owen his armadillo. Owen returns it but with the front claws removed. The chapter returns to the present, with an extract from John's diary entry for January 30, 1987. John now lives in Toronto, and he is angry about the policies of President Ronald Reagan. The moving back and forth between past and present happens in almost all the chapters.
Chapter 3: The Angel
John describes two important motifs in the novel, the dressmaker's dummy that his mother always kept in her bedroom and the red dress that she bought in one of her trips to Boston for singing lessons. Then he describes a night when Owen has a fever and goes to John's mother's bedroom, where he thinks he sees an angel. After Tabitha's death, Owen believes this was the angel of death, and because he had interrupted it, the angel reassigned its task to him. John then returns to describing the four-year courtship between Dan and his mother and their wedding in 1952. Then he describes the funeral service at some length. That evening, John discovers Owen at the cemetery reading from The Book of Common Prayer. He notices that Owen seems to take charge of things—for example, Owen insists on taking the dressmaker's dummy and putting it in his own room.
Chapter 4: The Little Lord Jesus
Owen talks the Reverend Dudley Wiggins into allowing him to play the infant Jesus in the upcoming Christmas pageant. Owen seems to take over the whole production, assigning many of the parts, rearranging the order of music, and generally annoying the rector's wife, Barb, who is in charge of the production. Tiny Owen takes charge in any situation, even presiding over the funeral of a neighbor's dog. He also lands another non-speaking part in the Gravesend Players' production of A Christmas Carol, playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. At rehearsals, Owen impresses the cast with his stage presence.
Chapter 5: The Ghost of the Future
As the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Owen is a sensation; his eerie authority seems to frighten everyone. At the pageant, everything goes wrong, but Owen emerges as a mighty figure: he prompts the forgetful Announcing Angel, commands the stage, demands to be worshiped, and finally brings the show to an end as he banishes his parents from the congregation and instructs Joseph (played by John) to get him out of the church. The pageant ends in farce, but Owen has established himself as a formidable Christ child. The same thing happens on the last night of A Christmas Carol. Owen's performance is electrifying and also disturbing because he sees his own name and the date of his death on the gravestone, rather than that of Scrooge.
- The movie Simon Birch (1998) was very loosely based on A Prayer for Owen Meany, although the story was altered and Irving refused to allow the name Owen Meany to be used.
Chapter 6: The Voice
In the fall of 1958, Owen, who is academically gifted, and John, who is not, attend Gravesend Academy, a private school. Before that, their education came largely through movies and television. Owen soon makes a name for himself, writing witty, opinionated editorials in the school paper that earn him the nickname, the Voice. He is admired by students and listened to by the faculty, and even gets to interview applicants for faculty positions. Owen helps John with his academic work, and they also practice basketball together: John lifts Owen up in order for him to make a slam-dunk shot. Then a new headmaster, Randy White, is appointed at the school; he and Owen dislike each other. In 1961, Owen is inspired by the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
Chapter 7: The Dream
At Owen's prompting, John steps up the search for his father. They visit the store in Boston where his mother bought the red dress. They also discover that she sang at a supper club as The Red Lady, and they visit her voice teacher, Graham Mc-Swiney. Owen's outspokenness makes him enemies at the academy. After insulting Mrs. Mitzy Lish, the glamorous mother of one of the students (after she insulted him), he is put on probation and sent to see Dr. Dolder, a psychiatrist. Owen plays a prank, getting some basketball players to move Dolder's car to the stage of the Great Hall where the school's morning meeting is held. No one can prove that Owen was involved. But then it is discovered that he has forged draft cards and sold them to students so they can purchase alcohol. Owen is expelled from the academy, although he has the last laugh when the headmaster loses his job as a result of the incident. Finally, Owen has a dream that tells him how he is going to die.
Chapter 8: The Finger
John has little success with women, unlike Owen, who takes up with John's cousin Hester. Owen and John become freshmen at the University of New Hampshire. Owen has won a scholarship from the army. They discuss current events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of Kennedy, and the build-up in Vietnam. They still practice the basketball shot, accomplishing it in under three seconds. Owen believes he must go to Vietnam and become a hero by saving many Vietnamese children. After graduation, Owen gets assigned to an army desk job in Arizona, while John enters graduate school. Owen severs John's index finger so that John will not be drafted into the army.
Chapter 9: The Shot
The narrative skips back and forth between the present and the late-1960s. John describes how his cousin Hester became a famous rock star. He also describes an incident in which Owen helped him after Owen's death. John also recalls the time when Mr. Meany, Owen's father, told him that he and his wife never had sexual intercourse and therefore Owen was born of a virgin. However, the Catholic Church did not believe him, and neither does John. Meanwhile, Owen engraves his own tombstone, even including the date of his death, and John discovers that his father is the Reverend Merrill. He also finds out that Merrill has lost his religious faith and arranges a bogus miracle involving the dressmaker's dummy to restore it; the ruse works. John then describes Owen's funeral. Only at the end of the book does he describe Owen's death. He is killed at an airport in Arizona, saving some Vietnamese refugee children from a grenade tossed by Dick Jarvits, an angry fifteen-year-old boy.
Mary Beth Baird
Mary Beth Baird is the girl who plays Mary in the Christmas pageant. She is very fond of Owen and tends to overplay her part. John meets her again at Owen's funeral.
Ginger Brinker-Smith is the wife of one of the faculty members at Gravesend Academy. The recent mother of twins, she is a voluptuous strawberry-blonde and the object of the sexual fantasies of the boys at the academy.
Mr. Chickering is the fat, good-hearted Little League coach who tells Owen to bat for John in their final game. This results in the hit that kills John's mother. Mr. Chickering feels he is partly responsible and weeps at the funeral.
Harold Crosby is the fat, self-conscious boy who plays the angel in the Christmas pageant. He is so overawed by the occasion that he forgets his lines.
Dr. Dolder is the Swiss psychiatrist at Gravesend Academy to whom Owen is sent for psychiatric evaluation. Owen finds him lacking in insight.
Alfred Eastman is John's friendly, manly uncle. When John is a boy, Alfred owns a lumber business in rural Sawyer Depot.
Hester Eastman is John's cousin. Not as attractive as her brothers, she has thick dark hair, broad shoulders, and big hands. But she is also in-telligent and athletic, with an earthy kind of sex appeal. As a girl, she resents the fact that her brothers seem to get preferential treatment from their parents, and she becomes an emotionally and sexually aggressive young woman. Hester and Owen develop a close romantic relationship, punctuated by Hester's violent outbursts. Hester becomes an antiwar protester in the 1960s, and she is deeply affected by Owen's death. She cannot bring herself to attend his funeral. Always interested in music, by the 1980s Hester becomes a famous rock star performing under the name of Hester the Molester, the nickname her brother Simon gave her when they were children. Her lyrics reflect the pain she suffered as a result of Owen's death.
Martha Eastman is John's aunt, Tabitha Wheelwright's sister. Martha is less attractive than her sister and does not have Tabitha's talent for singing. John thinks she may have been jealous of Tabitha, even though Martha had a college education and Tabitha did not. Martha marries Alfred Eastman and they have three children.
Noah Eastman is John's eldest cousin. Like the others, he is boisterous and active, enjoying outdoor pursuits, like water-skiing, as well as indoor games. He takes particular pleasure in beating up his younger brother, Simon, who does not seem to mind much. He attends Gravesend Academy and later goes to college on the West Coast.
Simon Eastman, like his brother, is blond and handsome and a bit of a daredevil. Always the victim of his older brother, he takes it all in stride. He and Noah later attend Gravesend Academy and go to colleges on the West Coast.
Ethel is the slow-witted maid who replaces Lydia at 80 Front Street after Lydia has her leg amputated.
Mr. Fish is the Wheelwrights' neighbor when John is growing up. He owns a dog called Sag-amore, who is killed by a diaper truck. Mr. Fish develops an enthusiasm for amateur dramatics and plays roles in the productions of the Gravesend Players, including Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
Germaine is the maid who is hired to look after Lydia at 80 Front Street. She is young, shy, nervous, and clumsy.
Dick Jarvits is the rude, aggressive, pot-smoking fifteen-year-old boy from a disreputable family in Phoenix, Arizona, who throws the grenade that kills Owen Meany. He is obsessed with violence and cannot wait until he is old enough to go to Vietnam and kill the enemy. Dick is killed by Major Rawls immediately after he throws the grenade.
Katherine Keeling is the headmistress of Bishop Strachen School in Toronto and a close friend of John's, who also teaches at the school.
Larry Lish is a rich student at Gravesend Academy. John calls him a "charming sociopath," and students and faculty dislike him. He tells the police that Owen has been forging ID cards, and this leads to Owen's expulsion.
Mitzy Lish is the mother of Larry Lish. She is a beautiful, vain divorcée who spends her days in luxurious leisure in New York. When Owen meets her, she confirms what her son had told him, that President Kennedy has had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. Mrs. Lish also insults Owen, and he insults her in return. She then reports him to Randy White, the headmaster.
Lydia is Harriet Wheelwright's cook and housekeeper. She loses a leg to cancer and is confined to a wheelchair but still lives in the family home at 80 Front Street. Lydia is about the same age as Harriet Wheelwright, and she develops the habit of imitating her in word and deed. As the years go by, she increasingly resembles her former employer. She dies at home on the last night of the performance of A Christmas Carol.
Graham McSwiney is Tabitha's former voice teacher in Boston. When John and Owen visit him, he tells them about John's mother's singing career as The Red Lady.
Mr. Meany is Owen Meany's father. He is a man of few words, but he has a pleasant disposition. He owns a granite business. When Owen is eleven, Mr. Meany tells him that he and his wife never had sexual intercourse, so he believes Owen is the product of a virgin birth.
Mrs. Meany is Owen Meany's mother. She rarely speaks to anyone, spending her days sitting by the window or staring at the fire. She is so melancholy and withdrawn that she appears to be mentally disturbed.
Owen Meany is John Wheelwright's closest friend from boyhood. Owen is tiny, never growing taller than five feet, and he speaks in a high, nasal voice that never changes. His family is descended from Boston Irish, and Owen's father owns a granite quarry in Gravesend. When he is a teenager, Owen learns to work with granite like an expert. Owen is highly intelligent and has a charismatic presence that is hard to ignore. Even as a child, he seems able to take charge in any situation, and he ends up as the star of both the Christmas pageant and the play A Christmas Carol. Owen also has an unshakable belief in God. He is certain that everything happens for a purpose. He believes he is God's instrument, and he also has foreknowledge of his own death.
Unlike his friend John, Owen excels at Gravesend Academy, where he is known as the Voice because of the forceful and influential opinions he expresses as editor of the school paper. He wins scholarships to Harvard and Yale, but complications result when he is expelled from the academy for forging ID cards and selling them to students. He eventually accepts a scholarship from the U.S. Army and ends up going to the University of New Hampshire with his friend John. Owen is disillusioned about the American government after he learns that his hero John F. Kennedy is not the moral paragon Owen believed him to be. Owen can see many of the dangers inherent in the Vietnam War from an early stage, but he still fervently wants to go there because he believes that his destiny is to die in the act of saving many Vietnamese children as was foretold to him in a dream. The dream does come true, although the Vietnamese children Owen saves are refugees who happen to arrive at the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, while Owen is performing his duties as an army lieutenant, waiting to escort the body of a dead U.S. soldier. By his selfless act of saving the children, who are the intended victims of a grenade thrown by Dick Jarvits, Owen dies a hero's death. His death has lasting effects on John and on Hester Eastman, with whom Owen had a long and sometimes stormy relationships.
Reverend Louis Merrill
Reverend Louis Merrill is pastor at the Congregational church in Gravesend. He is an eloquent preacher, despite his stutter, and his religious faith is founded on the necessity of doubt. John finds this appealing. It later transpires that Merrill is John's father and that he has completely lost his religious faith. When John fools him by dressing up the dressmaker's dummy so that it looks like Tabitha, Merrill thinks that Tabitha has returned to forgive him. With this fake miracle, Merrill recovers his faith and preaches at Owen's funeral with renewed confidence.
Dan Needham is a drama teacher at Gravesend Academy who marries Tabitha Wheelwright after a four-year courtship. After Tabitha is killed, Dan legally adopts John and raises him as if he were his own son. The two of them form an affectionate and loving relationship, which still continues at the time of John's life in Toronto in the 1980s. As a teacher, Dan is outstanding. He is dedicated to the task of providing a well-rounded education for the boys in his charge. He has an understanding of the problems of young people and a willingness to help, and he also has sympathy for the elderly. Dan revitalizes the Gravesend Players, getting half of the faculty and many of the townspeople involved in the productions.
Major Rawls is a nineteen-year veteran of the U.S. Army and has served in Korea and Vietnam. He accompanies Owen Meany to Phoenix on his assignment of bringing the dead U.S. soldier home to his family. After the attack that kills Owen, Rawls kills the culprit, Dick Jarvits, with a machete blow.
Mrs. Walker is the stern Sunday school teacher at the Episcopal church in Gravesend. John has little affection for her, in part because she always unfairly blamed Owen when the other children lifted him up into the air. Mrs. Walker also acts in productions put on by the Gravesend Players.
Harriet Wheelwright is John's aristocratic grandmother. She is descended from John Adams, and she married into a wealthy family in Gravesend. The local people regard her with a kind of awe, almost as a figure of royalty. Harriet presides in authoritarian but loving fashion over the family home at 80 Front Street. Her passion is for reading, but later she installs a television set in the home and watches it constantly.
John Wheelwright, the narrator of the novel, is the son of Tabitha Wheelwright. Tabitha is killed by a baseball struck by Owen Meany when John is eleven. John's father is the Reverend Louis Merrill, although John does not discover this until he is in his twenties. John is raised in the aristocratic home of his grandmother, Harriet Wheelwright. His best friend, from a very early age, is Owen Meany. John deeply admires Owen, and as a middle-aged man, he declares that it is because of Owen that he believes in God. As they grow up, John always plays a supporting role to Owen; Owen is the leader, whereas John is a follower without much initiative of his own. This is typified when John plays the silent Joseph in the Christmas pageant while Owen steals the limelight as the infant Jesus. When they both attend Gravesend Academy, John is a poor student until Owen shows him how to write about literature. And, unlike Owen, John has no success with girls. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, John goes to graduate school, and he allows Owen to amputate his index finger so that he can avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. After Owen's death, John decides to leave America for Canada. He becomes a Canadian citizen and teaches literature at a high school for girls. He never marries and remains without sexual experience. Deeply affected by the political upheavals in America in the 1960s, as well as by what happened to Owen, John retains an almost obsessive interest in American political affairs. He frequently denounces at length the policies of President Ronald Reagan.
Tabitha Wheelwright is John's mother. Known as Tabby, she is beautiful and has a talent for singing. She doesn't have to work since her mother provides for her, and she shows no interest in getting a higher education. She makes her own clothes, copying them from clothes she brings home from expensive stores in Boston, which she then returns to the stores. She gets pregnant with John after a brief affair with a man she met on the train to Boston, where she went for singing lessons. She sang in a club under the name The Red Lady, because of the red dress she wore. Tabitha marries Dan Needham, but after only a year of marriage, she is killed when a foul ball struck by Owen Meany hits her on the head.
Randy White is appointed headmaster of Gravesend Academy while John and Owen are students there. White prides himself on being an effective decisionmaker, and he makes many changes and reforms. He and Owen take a dislike to each other, and White eventually arranges for Owen to be expelled from the academy; however, his rash actions cost him his job.
Barb Wiggin, the wife of the Reverend Dudley Wiggin, is a former flight attendant. John dislikes her, describing her as a "brash, backslapping redhead." Barb aggressively assists her husband in directing the Christmas pageant and reacts in a negative way when her authority is challenged by Owen's many suggestions about how the event should be staged.
Reverend Dudley Wiggin
The Reverend Dudley Wiggin is the rector of the Episcopalian church in Gravesend. He is a former airline pilot, whom John describes as a "pulpit thumper." Unlike the Reverend Merrill, Wiggin has no doubts about his faith, and he preaches with great zeal. John says that Wiggin's sermons "were about as entertaining and convincing as a pilot's voice on the intercom, explaining technical difficulties while the plane plummets toward the earth and the stewardesses are screaming." The Reverend Wiggin also directs the Christmas pageant in which Owen plays the infant Jesus.
Faith and Doubt
The theme of religious faith versus doubt is prominent throughout the novel. Owen Meany has an absolute faith in God and seems to have pos-sessed it from a very early age. When he is eleven, for example, he tells John that God knows who John's father is and will eventually identify him. Owen never doubts that there is a purpose to everything, and his faith in his own destiny as decreed by God never wavers.
In contrast, John, as a child, has no particular religious beliefs or faith. He learns to believe in God mostly through his knowledge of Owen's seemingly miraculous life and death—particularly the fact that Owen possessed foreknowledge of the exact date and circumstances of his own death. However, John is never without his doubts. After Owen's death and his own move to Canada, John joins the Anglican Church, but it takes him years to accept the church's doctrines. Although he calls himself a believer, he admits that he wavers constantly: "Doubt one minute, faith the next—sometimes inspired, sometimes in despair." His faith is "a church rummage faith—the kind that needs patching up every weekend." It does not have the shining intensity and certainty of Owen Meany's faith.
A key figure in the theme of religious faith is the Reverend Merrill. Although he is a clergyman, he approaches faith only through doubt. For him, doubt is the essence of faith. He argues that it is natural to doubt, because the world presents so little evidence of the existence of God. Therefore, in the absence of proof, faith is necessary. John finds this an attractive position, but Owen does not. He comments that if the reverend is so full of doubt, he is, as a clergyman, in the wrong business.
The irony is that the Reverend Merrill's position becomes untenable, even for him. Just before John discovers that Merrill is his father, he realizes that Merrill no longer has any faith at all in the religious truths he preaches. Doubt has eaten him up and left nothing else. In another irony, Merrill's faith is restored by what he believes is a miracle—the very thing that he has spent his whole life saying is unnecessary. And in a crowning irony, the miracle that Merrill witnesses is completely bogus. It is in reality a trick played on him by John, who clothes the dressmaker's dummy so that it resembles his mother and fools the Reverend into believing that it is a vision of the dead Tabitha. This one fake miracle is all it takes to restore Merrill's faith, and even his stutter disappears as he preaches with new confidence.
The conclusion seems to be that, for most people, some kind of supernatural event, something that cannot be rationally explained, is necessary for religious faith to flourish. Even Owen Meany may not be an exception in this respect. After Owen's death, John learns that he believed his father's story that his parents never had sexual intercourse and that he was the result of a miraculous birth. This belief in a very personal miracle—his own existence—may have helped to buttress the religious faith that sustained Owen throughout his life.
Topics for Further Study
- Can religious faith exist alongside doubt, or are the two mutually exclusive? Explain your viewpoint.
- Why is John so anti-American? Is his contempt for America justified? Does he make any valid criticisms of Americans or American government policies?
- Can miracles happen? How would you define a miracle, and how might it be verified?
- Is there a purposeful pattern to everything in life, as Owen Meany believes, or are the events of life merely random? If there is a pattern and God orchestrates it, how does one know this? Is it a matter of faith, or can it be rationally demonstrated?
- Was the war in Vietnam an unjust war—a very costly mistake—or was it a justified war against communist aggression? Has your reading of the novel, including the references to the peace movement and the draft evaders as well as Owen's experience in the U.S. Army, altered your view of the war? Explain your answer.
- John expresses a wish that Americans might see themselves the way people from other countries see them. How do other countries perceive America today? Does John's status as an American who became a Canadian citizen make him better able to understand American politics? Explain your answer.
Fate and Destiny
The theme of fate and destiny is connected to the theme of religious faith. The core of it lies in the belief that events in human life are all part of a pattern orchestrated by God. Everything that happens has a purpose; every event, every circumstance, contributes to the unfolding of a divine plan. People act, whether knowingly or not, as instruments of God. A consequence of this belief is that there are no coincidences, as Owen Meany says more than once. For example, John recalls how Owen used to refer to "THAT FATED BASE-BALL" in connection with the accident that killed John's mother. When John insists that it was merely an accident, Owen corrects him by saying that nothing is an accident.
Owen believes that there is a reason for everything, including such strange things as his peculiar, high-pitched voice. (He is later proved right—it is because his voice resembles a child's that the Vietnamese children are so ready to trust him and follow his instructions.)
This belief that everything exists for a purpose, as part of a preordained pattern, raises the question of free will. If everything is predetermined, can humans exercise any free choices? Can fate be altered, or is it unalterably fixed? John asks himself this question in connection with the performance of A Christmas Carol when Owen sees the gravestone marked with his own name and date of death. John quotes the question that Scrooge asks in Dickens's story: "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?"
From the evidence of the novel, the answer appears to be the former: these are things that will be, and nothing anyone can do can alter them. Certainly this is what Owen believes. He never feels that he has any choice, or free will. He tells John, "IT'S NOT THAT I WANT TO GO TO VIETNAM—IT'S WHERE I HAVE TO GO. IT'S WHERE I'M A HERO. I'VE GOT TO BE THERE."
He is wrong about the place, of course, but everything else works out exactly as he foresaw it.
Although this evidence of a predetermined pattern to life (at least to Owen Meany's life) contributes greatly to John's discovery of religious faith, he is also ready to admit that it leaves some questions unanswered: "If God had a hand in what Owen 'knew,' what a horrible question that poses! For how could God have let that happen to Owen Meany?"
The question of how a loving God can permit evil things to happen is a perennial and difficult one for religious believers. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving is content to raise the question and leave it unanswered.
There is a recurring motif of armlessness and amputation. It is first mentioned early in the novel, in the figure of Watahantowet, the seventeenth-century Indian chief in John's hometown of Gravesend, whose totem was an armless man. John explains that, to some, the totem symbolized how Watahantowet felt powerless after the white settlers had taken his land. Sometimes the totem was shown with a tomahawk in its mouth, which some identified, according to John, as a sign of peace: the Indian literally would not take arms against his enemies.
Another armless symbol is the dressmaker's dummy. Since the dummy is used in the novel as a reminder of Tabitha—almost as her silent double—it perhaps also suggests powerlessness or helplessness. Tabitha is powerless to resist or alter her fate.
A third example of the symbol of armlessness is when Owen removes the statue of Mary Magdalene and places it in the great hall in the academy. He cuts off the statue's arms above the elbows. John comments on this, saying that "her gesture of beseeching the assembled audience would seem all the more an act of supplication—and all the more helpless."
A fourth example is the stuffed armadillo, but this carries a very different meaning than the other examples. Owen returns the armadillo to John with its front claws removed so it can no longer stand upright. Even at the age of eleven, Owen has a symbolic purpose in mind, although it is not until he and John are students at Gravesend Academy that he explains what he meant by his actions: "GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." In other words, Owen does not believe that he has an individual will; he cannot act simply to please himself. He was used by God as the instrument of Tabitha's death—it was not his arms but God's arms that were swinging the bat that resulted in her death. Armlessness thus becomes a symbol of the submission of an individual person to the will of God. The symbol takes on a gruesome reality when Owen, meeting his destined death, obeying the will of God, literally has his arms blown off by the grenade that kills him.
Foreshadowing is a literary technique in which a future event is hinted at, often symbolically or obliquely, before it happens. An example is the symbol of armlessness explained above, which foreshadows the moment Owen literally loses his arms. Irving hints at this moment as early as chapter 2, when John sees Owen with his hands clasped behind his back and thinks he looks as armless as Watahantowet.
Another example of foreshadowing is when Tabitha is hit on the head by a hailstone at her wedding, which foreshadows the incident with the baseball that kills her. Just to make sure the reader gets the point, Irving has John squeeze a hailstone in his hand, and John finds that it is as "hard as a baseball." (Because of the nonlinear structure of the narrative, particularly in the early part of the book, this incident is placed after rather than before the description of the fatal accident.)
A third example is the way John and Owen practice their basketball slam-dunk shot. John's lifting of Owen and the need to accomplish the shot in three seconds both foreshadow the scene of Owen's death when the basketball move is repeated in a different context.
Owen's vision of the gravestone with his name on it and his dream of his own death are other examples of foreshadowing.
A technique similar to foreshadowing is the storyteller's art of creating suspense. Irving accomplishes this often, simply by using the phrase "as you shall see" to hint at future plot twists. For example, at the end of chapter 3, John comments in his diary entry that he has in the past "been moved to do evil—as you shall see"; the reader is eager to discover what this evil might have been, which is only revealed near the end of the novel. (It is his deception of the Reverend Merrill with a bogus miracle.)
Another example of creating suspense is when Owen refers to the "UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" that his father and mother suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church. This is mentioned in the first chapter and repeated several times during the course of the novel. What it refers to (Owen's supposed virgin birth) is not revealed until well into the last chapter. Similarly, at the end of chapter 2, John says it was Owen who kept him out of Vietnam with "a trick that only Owen could have managed." It is another 350 pages before the reader finds out what this trick was.
Point of View and Structure
The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Wheelwright. Although John is an important character and events are seen through his eyes, he usually plays a supporting role to Owen Meany. In most scenes, he is the more passive character. In the Christmas pageant, for example, John plays Joseph and has little to do but stand and watch. As observer and interpreter, John reflects on the events that have so deeply affected him, and he does this from a double perspective. The first standpoint is that of his own thoughts and experiences as a child growing up with Owen as his best friend. John does not always follow chronological order in his relating of these events. The early chapters in particular jump back and forth in time between different incidents in his childhood.
The second perspective, interspersed with the first, is that of John as a man in his forties, now living in Toronto in 1987. He looks back at a distance of over twenty years at those same events of his childhood and early manhood, and he also comments on contemporary events.
The advantage of this two-level structure is that it enables John to link his anger and distrust of American foreign policy in the 1980s with events in the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam War. It also gives the reader deeper insight into the key events in John's and Owen's lives and shows how those events shaped the man John has become.
The Vietnam War forms a constant backdrop in the novel, both in John's diary entries for 1987 and in the story of his and Owen's lives in the 1960s. Irving includes many statistics culled from the Vietnam War Almanac that show the stages by which the war escalated.
America's involvement in Vietnam began in the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration sent military advisers to aid the South Vietnamese government in its confrontation with North Vietnam. In 1962, there were over 11,000 military advisers in Vietnam, and President John F. Kennedy said that they would fire if fired upon.
In 1964, after attacks on U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese patrol boats, the U.S. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing presidential action in Vietnam. By the end of that year, there were over 23,000 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam, and in March 1965, the first U.S. combat troops arrived. In the novel, John and Owen follow the news about Vietnam, and at this point Owen presciently remarks, "THERE'S NO END TO THIS. THERE'S NO GOOD WAY TO END IT."
From this point on, American involvement in Vietnam escalated rapidly, as did American casualties. By the end of 1966, there were 385,300 American troops in South Vietnam, and 6,644 U.S. military personnel had been killed. (The number would rise to 56,000 dead by the end of the war.) By the end of the following year, the number of troops had risen to almost half a million. Troop numbers would peak at 543,000 in April 1969.
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: The United States is engaged in a war in Vietnam that bitterly divides the nation. It does not end until 1973. Many veterans encounter hostility toward them on their return to the United States.
1980s: Vietnam veterans, once scorned, are accorded more respect. The Vietnam Memorial Wall is built in Washington, D.C., and dedicated in 1982. It soon becomes one of the most visited sites in the city.
Today: The United States enjoys full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. Many veterans still suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome.
- 1960s: In a decade of violent unrest, young people are in rebellion on college campuses. Many are deeply concerned with issues of social justice and America's role in the world. Liberalism is the dominant political ideology.
1980s: During the 1980s, dubbed by some the "decade of greed," the nation moves to the political right under the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989).
Today: On college campuses, there is a decline in liberal arts majors and a corresponding increase in business majors. Many students are more interested in acquiring business degrees and profiting from rapidly growing electronic technologies in an expanding global economy than in protesting social issues. Liberalism is on the defensive.
- 1950s: The advent of rock 'n roll gives young people a music of their own. Elvis Presley begins his career and makes successful appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, a popular television show. Some of the older generation are shocked by Elvis's music and his sexy style. Television becomes the preferred form of entertainment for millions of Americans.
1980s: MTV is created and becomes hugely popular among young people. Sales of the new rock music videos soar. Madonna becomes a pop culture icon. Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore, leads a campaign against violent and sexually explicit song lyrics.
Today: Some groups continue to show concern about the violent, racist, and sexist tone of some popular song lyrics, particularly those of rap. The Parents' Music Resource Center, co-founded by Tipper Gore in the 1980s, continues to label some commercially sold music with 'explicit lyric' warnings.
The Vietnam War quickly became unpopular at home. In 1967, large antiwar demonstrations took place in many American cities and on college campuses. In October, 50,000 antiwar protesters as-sembled at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and some participated in a "March on the Pentagon." In the novel, John Wheelwright is one of them. His cousin Hester is also a regular at antiwar rallies. The peace movement reached its peak in November 1969, when 250,000 antiwar demonstrators marched in Washington, D.C.
Another aspect of the peace movement was draft resistance. Many men burned or turned in their draft cards in public. More than 25,000 men were indicted for draft evasion, and 4,000 of them were sentenced to prison. Many others fled to Canada (where they formed the Union of American Exiles) and elsewhere. In the novel, John Wheelwright moves to Toronto, Canada (although not as a draft evader), where he meets many American army deserters and "draft dodgers." In 1977, President Jimmy Carter pardoned most Vietnam War draft evaders.
In the present-day narrative, John is angered by the foreign policies of the Reagan administration. In particular, he is vexed about the Iran-contra scandal. This was a breaking scandal in 1987, the time of his diary entries. The heart of the affair was the discovery that the United States had sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held in Lebanon. This was against stated U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Profits from the arms sales were then diverted to support the contras in Nicaragua. The contras were U.S.-backed rebels against the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. In 1984, Congress had voted to cut off aid to the contras, so financing them was illegal.
President Ronald Reagan defended his administration. He denied that arms were exchanged for hostages and claimed he did not know that profits were being channeled to the contras. There was skepticism in many quarters about Reagan's professed ignorance, as he was a passionate supporter of the contras. But Reagan survived the scandal; there was no enthusiasm among legislators for impeaching a popular president.
Critical reaction to A Prayer for Owen Meany was decidedly mixed. R. Z. Sheppard's assessment in Time was almost entirely positive. Describing the novel as "a fable of political predestination," he commented that Irving "delivers a boisterous cast, a spirited story line and a quality of prose that is frequently underestimated, even by his admirers." On the other hand, Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek expressed a strong dislike for the novel, deriding its hero's "prep-school capers and comments on American foreign policy" and advising any potential reader to "run while you can." Prescott complained that "this grossly long book lacks charm precisely because it works so hard to be sweet."
William Pritchard, in a generally positive review in the New Republic, picked out Irving's quality of readability as a virtue, arguing that "the best and funniest things in the new novel are its superbly narrated sequences of comic action." But Pritchard had doubts about how effectively the novel's larger themes were handled. In particular, he found the narrator's present life in Canada uninteresting; without Owen Meany, John is not a compelling character. But Pritchard concluded that there were enough excellent moments in the book to allow Irving to be compared to authors such as Mark Twain or to Booth Tarkington or J. D. Salinger.
Robert Towers, in the New York Review of Books, argued that the book did not merit a comparison with Charles Dickens, with whom Irving's name is often linked, because it lacked Dickens's "power, vision, or humor." Towers also commented, as other reviewers did, that the narrator, John Wheelwright, does not fully come to life as a character. He added that some of the other characters, such as John's grandmother, failed to transcend stereotypes. Towers also had reservations about the Christian aspects in the novel:
It is hard to give imaginative credence to Owen's bizarre conviction without more to go on than the narrator's reporting of his words and actions, especially since the narrator himself does not inspire total confidence. Too often the Christian elements seem merely another aspect of the novel's sensationalism.
Towers conceded, however, that Irving had strong gifts as a storyteller: "The story of Owen and his fate has a lurid power, especially in the novel's final pages. Once he surrenders to the head-long rush of events, Irving shows himself a master of narrated action."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he discusses Owen Meany as a Christ-figure and shows how Irving connects this to a larger network of symbolism to buttress his critique of American politics and society.
Hunting for Christ-figures in literature is a popular pastime amongst students searching for a thesis to carry them through a term paper assignment. Although Western literature can yield many examples of such figures (Melville's Billy Budd is perhaps the best example), identifying Christ-figures in modern literature is often a more problematic enterprise. Many have been proposed, ranging from Frodo or Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1956) to R. P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), although none of these examples is highly convincing. But such is not the case with Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen is clearly and unambiguously a Christ-figure on many levels, from the obvious to the subtle. Irving uses the more esoteric aspects of the Christ symbol to add depth to his portrayal of the significance of Owen's life, as well as to buttress his critique of American politics and society.
It is obvious from the beginning of the novel that Owen Meany is special. John, the narrator, comments that he used to think Owen's strange falsetto voice came from another planet; now he believes that "it was a voice not entirely of this world." When, as a child, John sees Owen framed by a shaft of sunlight in the attic as they are playing, his appearance is so striking that "he looked like a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways."
From then on, Irving gives broad hints that Owen is neither alien nor angel but a Christ-figure. There is nothing ambiguous or ironic about the religious allusions. Irving wields his symbolism like a heavy blunt instrument; he wants to make sure readers get the point. For example, in chapter 4, when Owen, Dan, and John return home after Owen has secured the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant, the chapter ends with a quotation from the well-known Christmas carol:
As Owen finished knocking the snow off his boots—as the little Lord Jesus stepped inside our house—Dan half-sang, half-mumbled the refrain we knew so well: 'Hark! the herald an-gels sing, 'Glo-ry to the new-born King!'
Readers are meant to make the connection and not to doubt or question it. Irving wants readers to believe that Owen is following in Christ's footsteps in a way that is more than human. When Owen plays the Christ child with great authority—even his parents obey him—Mr. Fish says it is clear that Owen's Christ is no ordinary baby: "You know, he's the Lord! Jesus—from Day One."
There are clear thematic parallels between the life of Owen and the life of Christ. Like Christ, Owen must sacrifice his own life to save others. Like Christ, he is aware of his fate in advance. (In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed.) And just as Christ rises from the dead and appears to his disciples, so Owen "appears" to his friend John twice after his death. The first occasion is when John learns that the Reverend Merrill is his father and Merrill speaks in Owen's voice; the second time is when John believes that Owen's hand literally reaches out and keeps him from falling down the cellar stairs at his home. At the same time, he hears Owen's voice telling him that nothing bad is going to happen to him.
There is also the fact that Owen believes his parents' story that he, like Christ, is the product of a virgin birth. Although Irving cannot quite bring himself to present this without skepticism—John vehemently expresses his disbelief in such a notion—Irving very deliberately puts this extreme parallel to Christ in the reader's mind.
Owen is Christ-like in other ways as well. Everyone likes to touch him, which recalls how in the Gospel of Luke the crowd presses upon Jesus, wanting to touch him because of his healing power (Luke 6:19). And just as Christ describes himself in John's Gospel as "the light of the world," Owen is also consistently associated with light. The quality of his skin is such that it absorbs and reflects light, "as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times." As a child playing in the attic, "The powerful morning sun struck Owen's head from above, and from a little behind him, so the light itself seemed to be presenting him." Owen brings light to the cemetery on the night John's mother is buried, arranging his flashlight so that it illuminates her grave. Then, at his own funeral, sunlight plays upon the medal that is pinned to the flag that covers his coffin. Irving regards this moment as so significant that he draws attention to it no less than four times in six pages. And just in case the reader has missed all these allusions to light, Irving sums it up, as if he is anxious to explain the symbolism of his own novel. The moment comes near the end of the book, as John waits at the airport in Arizona for Owen's plane to arrive:
Although the sun had set, vivid streaks of vermilion-colored light traced the enormous sky, and through one of these streaks of light I saw Owen's plane descending—as if, wherever Owen Meany went, some kind of light always attended him.
Even the typographical technique of printing Owen's words in all capital letters suggests Christ; there are Bibles in existence that print the words of Jesus in this way.
In addition to these straightforward parallels between Owen and Christ, Irving mines the Christ symbolism for deeper, more mystical resonances. Owen is presented as a being who straddles two worlds and unites within himself opposite values. He is the bridge between the divine and the human realms, uniting matter and spirit. It is no coincidence that Owen learns to work with granite. Granite is a hard, dense, unyielding stone. It represents the opposite of spiritual transparency and lightness. Owen develops great skill in working in this dense medium, carving and engraving gravestones. This hints at a parallel with the actions of the Christian God, who reaches down into the human world of death and has the will and the power to refashion even the most opaque, recalcitrant aspects of the material world (including people like John, who eventually discovers religious faith). And yet Owen himself is physically light, the very opposite of the granite he works with. When Owen is very young, the children at school love to lift him up and pass him around over their heads. His physical lightness is a symbol for his spiritual status. Once more, Irving cannot resist pointing this out himself. Having near the end of the novel twice referred back to the childhood entertainment of passing Owen around, John reflects in the final paragraph that the reason Owen felt light—the children even regarded him as weightless—was simply that some other, spiritual force was holding him up:
We did not realize that there were forces beyond our play. Now I know they were the forces that contributed to our illusion of Owen's weightlessness; they were the forces we didn't have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in—and they were also lifting up Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands.
Another way in which Owen Meany unites opposites is in that he is a curiously androgynous figure. As a child he is tiny, and even as an adult he is only five feet tall. He speaks in a falsetto voice, both as child and man. So although he is muscular and strong for his size, there is something very feminine about him, too. This represents yet another parallel with Christ. There is a long tradition on the fringes of mainstream Christianity that regards Christ as an androgynous figure, a savior who embodies both the male and female aspects of life. Depictions of an androgynous Christ can be found in medieval Christian art and in the writings of Protestant mystics such as the seventeenth-century German seer, Jacob Boehme.
The notion of an androgynous Christ points to a larger symbolic framework in A Prayer for Owen Meany. In this framework, American society is shown as being out of balance due to a preponderance of an aggressive, destructive male energy that rides roughshod over the feminine aspects of life. This is made clear in the analogy that Owen carefully draws when he hears about the death of Marilyn Monroe, the glamorous actress and icon of femininity in America in the 1950s and early 1960s. Owen believes that Monroe was the victim of powerful men who used her for their own ends, and he compares her to America itself: "SHE WAS JUST LIKE OUR WHOLE COUNTRY—NOT QUITE YOUNG ANYMORE, BUT NOT OLD EITHER; A LITTLE BREATHLESS, VERY BEAUTIFUL, MAYBE A LITTLE STUPID, LOOKING FOR SOMETHING—I THINK SHE WANTED TO BE GOOD."
Just as Marilyn Monroe was "used," so, in Owen's eyes, America is used by powerful men, including his former hero, President John F. Kennedy. These are men who say they love their country but in reality merely use it for their own selfish and immoral ends. In terms of the male-female analogy, this amounts to the rape of the country, in which the innocence of a people who crave a savior and want to do good is betrayed. As far as John, the narrator, is concerned, this deceitfulness manifests in America's aggressive war in Vietnam, and from there it is a direct line to the lies and political chicanery that he sees in American foreign policy in the 1980s.
What Do I Read Next?
- Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1982, Bantam Classic edition with an introduction by Irving), which tells the story of the village boy Pip and his "great expectations," is one of the novels that inspired Irving to become a writer.
- The family saga The World according to Garp (1976) was Irving's first best-selling novel, achieving cult status as well as critical acclaim.
- Neil Sheehen's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1989) is a harsh critique of the war as exemplified in the career of John Paul Vann, who was an American military adviser in Vietnam. Sheehen is a journalist who covered the Vietnam War, and this book won a Pulitzer Prize.
- In Miracles (reprint, 2001), C. S. Lewis argues in his accessible, conversational style that miracles really do happen, even in everyday life, and are an essential element in the life of Christian faith.
- In The Problem of Pain (reprint, 2001), C. S. Lewis tackles the question of why a loving God would allow people to experience pain and suffering. He concludes that suffering is necessary to perfect a person and make him or her ready for heaven.
Given his comments about the exploitation of the country by powerful men and his siding with the victim, it is not surprising that Owen Meany is symbolically linked to the armless totem of the Indian chief Watahantowet. (John makes the comparison explicit when as a child he sees Owen with his arms clasped behind his back.) Owen accepts the Indian belief in the sacredness of the land and repudiates the vanity of the white man who thinks that only humans have souls and spirits. As he does with Marilyn Monroe, Owen takes the side of the victim—in this case the Indians who were robbed of their lands by the ruthless trickery of the white man. And of course, eventually, Owen becomes a victim of a similar kind of male aggression. He meets his death at the hands of Dick Jarvits, an adolescent male who embodies the violence-prone, testosterone-driven, doped-up, male-dominant society that looms up in the book as the defining nature of America in the 1960s. The surly, threatening, weapons-loving Dick cannot wait to attain legal age so that he can commit government-approved mayhem in Vietnam. And Irving is not above making a crude double entendre when he names this young man "Dick," as if to force home the idea of a link between aggressive male sexuality and the destructive instincts that give rise to war. Stacked against all these forces of destruction, Owen Meany is destined to become, like his role model Christ, at once hero and victim. All Owen can do, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, is submit to the will of God, however difficult the consequences may be, and hope that that is sufficient.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Prayer for Owen Meany, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay excerpt, Shostak explores Irving's use of repetition to "confirm Owen Meany's conviction … that he has been ordained an instrument of God."
The structure of A Prayer for Owen Meany is likewise circular, but in this novel, the determination of plot takes on a vastly different emphasis. Whereas The World According to Garp posits design as psychological entrapment, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents patterns of repetition as elements in a providential plan. Determinism can be teased out of the plot of Garp, as I have tried to show, by looking at the patterns of repetition and their relation to the thematic plan and psychological energies depicted in the novel; Owen Meany, however, has an inherently deterministic premise. That is, Irving means the repetitions in the novel to confirm Owen Meany's conviction, prompted by precognitive knowledge of his own future, that he has been ordained an instrument of God. Owen's "election" is, as it were, proven in the novel's climactic closing scene, where the major repeated elements—amputation, voice, the slam dunk shot, and allusions to Jesus—are brought together and "explained" by Owen's heroic rescue of a group of Vietnamese children from a grenade tossed into an airport bathroom. In this way, then, the whole of the plot may be seen to unwind, backward, from the requirements of its violent ending.
In many ways, it is this predestination plot that caused the novel to receive such mixed reviews. Alfred Kazin, for one, questions the depth of Irving's theology:
There is something much too cute about Owen's conviction that since he can foretell so much he must be God's instrument. It never seems to occur to John Wheelwright [the narrator] … that his prophet Owen is caricaturing Calvinist predestination in the role of fortuneteller. To believe that everything is in God's hands hardly entitles anyone to believe that everything is determined in advance and that he knows exactly what will happen. This is astrology and denies the principle of free will.
Without taking up the theological debate, one can see the point in Kazin's assertion—Irving wishes in the novel to deny the principle of free will as it is represented by the development of plot. Irving asks a lot. His novel seems to suggest that spiritual meaning is discoverable only in the human recognition of a miracle that portends providential design—a divine plot—and that necessarily erases the possibility of fully autonomous choice. A Prayer for Owen Meany is, in a sense, a prayer for meaning, for events to add up into a pur-poseful design. The yearning for religiosity, for an intuition of meaningfulness, is epitomized in the novel by a mute object, a statue in a schoolyard:
In all of Gravesend, the object that most attracted Owen's contempt was the stone statue of Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute who guarded the playground of St. Michael's—the parochial school. The life-sized statue stood in a meaningless cement archway—"meaningless" because the archway led nowhere; it was a gate without a place to be admitted to; it was an entrance without a house.
Irving's novel attempts to find where the archway leads, to be admitted to a place, to restore the meaning that has been stripped from this icon, and though perhaps lacking theological sophistication (or, as Kazin charges, irony), it is, like Garp, an earnest plea for a vision that will make sense of a world of otherwise random violence. By this token, the pun in the title implies that the novel is not just, in the conventional sense, a prayer said for the soul of a dead young man, but it is a prayer to discover the "meaning" that Owen Meany's name—and life—limn.
The miracle that Irving chooses to supply meaning—Owen's foreknowledge of events—is also peculiarly apt for testing the workings of narrative desire, because plot is a temporal phenomenon. First, foreknowledge is, in narrative terms, the mirror image of memory, because both involve a linear relationship between knowledge and time, one relating knowledge to the past, the other to the future. The temporality of narrative is therefore another reason that the plotting of A Prayer for Owen Meany reverses that of The World According to Garp. As Irving's novels imply, then, the compulsion to repeat derives either from what has happened or what must happen. Second, plot necessitates both the suppression and revelation of knowledge. Because Owen is prophetic, Irving's calculations involve what and how much knowledge to reveal as well as when to reveal it, so as to sustain the possibility of Owen's precognitions until their fulfillment. In this regard, Irving's remark to Michael Anderson is telling: he noted that it was "the element of precognition in the Gospels that appealed to his artistic imagination." That is, A Prayer for Owen Meany is perhaps driven as much by an aesthetic as by a spiritual conviction—by a desire to contrive a "miracle" that would seem to justify deterministic plotting. The book raises the question: what happens to narrative form if a character knows his own ending?
One of the risks Irving takes, as I suggested earlier, is that the "miraculous" repetition of event from foreknowledge and symbolic motif into a narrative's "actuality," which so obviously counters commonsense expectations of verisimilitude, will cause readers to displace the uncanny feeling that arises with a judgment against the narrative's contrivances. Recurrence is, of course, at the center of Freud's insights about the source of the uncanny, and it may be useful to summarize part of his argument in order to see how it explains the uneven reception of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Freud observes that the uncanny is the result of "involuntary repetition" ("The 'Uncanny'" ); having postulated the principle of the repetition compulsion, he concludes that "whatever reminds us of this inner 'compulsion to repeat' is perceived as uncanny." More specifically, he asserts that "this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression." Finally, in trying to explain why "in the realm of fiction many things are not uncanny which would be so if they happened in real life", Freud concludes that "The uncanny … retains its character not only in experience but in fiction as well, so long as the setting is one of material reality; but where it is given an arbitrary and artificial setting in fiction [as in fairy tales], it is apt to lose that character." When Irving created uncanny effects in The World According to Garp, he did so, for example, in "The Pension Grillparzer," where we encounter the meaningful recurrences of Johanna's dream and the dream man's "unspeakable" ability to tell it; but this story is clearly, in Freud's terms, "artificial," and so the effects are simultaneously preserved and tamed in such a way that we absorb among the narrative's conventions what is potentially uncanny. Likewise, in the narrative of Garp's life, the self-fulfilling repetitions of violence, whose visitations conform to the novel's originating episode, are conventionalized by both the eccentricities of the novel's cast and the context of the pervasively violent world.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, maintains "material reality" except in the distinctive way it repeats the signs of Owen's prophecy as they both defer meaning and develop toward their fulfillment in the climactic scene. The novel thus retains its uncanny effect, resisting our efforts to naturalize its anomalies. The compulsive repetitions cannot be fully understood except in retrospect, once we have reached the end of the narrative—that is, once the repressed "memory-trace," which in this context is the knowledge of the future, has been restored by being enacted in present time. This un-canny effect must surely have been Irving's intention, because what is at stake in the novel is faith, and Irving's conception of faith, he has intimated, relies on the miraculous: "I've always asked myself what would be the magnitude of the miracle that could convince me of religious faith." How then to represent miracle within his customary mode of comic realism provides Irving with his primary challenge in the novel. As Owen Meany himself says, disparaging Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, and in the capital letters that signify his "wrecked voice", "YOU CAN'T TAKE A MIRACLE AND JUST SHOW IT!… YOU CAN'T PROVE A MIRACLE—YOU JUST HAVE TO BELIEVE IT! IF THE RED SEA ACTUALLY PARTED, IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE THAT … IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE ANYTHING—IT'S NOT A PICTURE ANYONE CAN EVEN IMAGINE."
Irving's answer to his aesthetic problem of how to imagine the unimaginable is end-determined plotting, wherein secular coincidences reach toward saintly enactment. Repeated elements can be readily explained within their immediate contexts, but when they drive more and more obviously toward the end, they gather uncanny force, which strips them of their limited resonances until we are inclined to read them only in terms of their anticipated realization. In this sense the novel might be said to begin at its ending. The most encompassing example occurs in the link between the first and last chapters. The central event of chapter 1 is the death of Tabby Wheelwright, the narrator's mother, when a foul ball hit by Owen during a Little League game strikes her in the temple. This death, which anyone might term an accident, is what first seems to provoke Owen toward seeing a divine plan at work in his life, causing him to refer to it as "THAT FATED BASEBALL" and to become furious when John, the book's narrator, "suggested that anything was an 'accident.'" One could reasonably argue that psychological necessity alone lies behind Owen's search for the sacred—that he is, naturally enough, impelled by guilt over killing his best friend's mother—and Irving leaves that possibility open through much of the novel. In this respect, the novel might be seen to resemble Garp in evolving from an initiatory act of violence. Following that "accident," Owen's pre-cognitions can be explained plausibly without appealing to providential design. The gravestone on which he sees his date of death during a theatrical performance of Dickens's A Christmas Carol; his compulsion to practice "the shot"; his diary entries in which he records what he "knows," including "THAT I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT"; and, most specifically, the dream he relates to John that includes most of the details of his heroic death—all of these might be determined by his guilt, which causes him to desire both punishment and exoneration. By its last chapter, however, the book narrows the range of interpretation. Here, the final "foul ball" in Owen's life—the tossed grenade, which he slam dunks onto a high window ledge—legitimates, at least for John Wheelwright, Owen's conviction that he has been chosen as an instrument of God, and that he has been given the gift of foresight into his own instrumentality. It is this last shot that bestows meaning on all that has gone before.
In narrative terms, then, the repetitions have been required—or, perhaps, foreseen—by the ending, and one of Irving's main concerns has been how to weave them in so as to ensure the uncanny effect that will justify the narrator's subsequent conviction of faith. Irving has said that his "major preoccupation, his most time-consuming task … is fashioning his characters and devising his plots, making sure that what appear to be throwaway details early on in the book pop up again as crucial elements of the story later on"; but his task, in this case, is also to build the case for foreknowledge gradually, so that readers will find the miracle at the end—the confirmation of Owen's precognition—convincing. The result is a series of motifs, some of them apparently random or for local comic effect, others more noticeably cumulative. In each case, the figure, symbol, or event is realized in the novel's closing scene, so that the revealed "divine plot" explains the compulsiveness of the repetitions. In a sense, the narrative's repressed "memory" may appropriately be said to comprise both violence and the meaningful context for violence found in the Christian conventions of martyrdom. For it is in hagiographic narrative, and particularly in prefigurative readings of biblical texts, that one finds the end directing the interpretation of the beginning and middle, investing isolated details with spiritual significance.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, more specifically represents repression in the narrator himself. In the opening sentence of the novel, John writes:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.
This first sentence steers quickly away from the weight of the elegiac opening clause, which implies that this narrative is a memory of someone who has been lost. The paragraph continues in a rush of details so that the opening note of grief is easily forgotten, an account of its cause evaded. In fact, the essential piece of the puzzle—John's witness of the miracle, which also necessitates Owen's death—is suppressed in the narrative until its close. The narrative's suppression indicates the narrator's, and it continues even when he reaches the point at which the scene must be narrated. John tells the aftermath of Owen's death first, putting the epilogue before the climax, so that the event of the death is known long before its facts. Just before he narrates the climactic scene, John's language reveals his contradictory response to the trauma:
Let's see: there's not much else—there's almost nothing to add. Only this: that it took years for me to face my memory of how Owen Meany died—and once I forced myself to remember the details, I could never forget how he died; I will never forget it. I am doomed to remember this.
The closing echo of John's introductory statement—his doom—placed against the casual disclaimer of the first sentence ("there's not much else") reinforces that this suppressed narrative is the source of all the compulsive repetitions in A Prayer for Owen Meany. The "mind" of both text and narrator struggle to bring it forth, as both horribly painful and necessary origin of all plot.
One telling sequence of repetitions begins early in the first chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany. When John provides historical information about the New Hampshire town in which much of the action takes place, he includes a description of the local Indian sagamore, Watahantowet, whose totem was an armless man. Later, after John's mother has been killed by the foul ball, he and Owen negotiate their guilt and forgiveness by an exchange of prized property; when Owen returns John's stuffed armadillo, the front claws have been removed. After Tabby Wheelwright's death, Owen becomes attached to her dressmaker's dummy—similarly armless—and keeps it with him while he grows up, as a totemic reminder of his fate and of one of his earliest visions, when he thought he saw the angel of death hovering across Tabby's bed from the dummy. Even the above-mentioned statue of Mary Magdalene appears with her arms removed, when Owen wreaks his revenge against the unjust headmaster of his prep school. Each of these references makes secular sense in its context. Wata-hantowet provides ironic historical commentary on the arrival of Europeans among the peaceful Indians, as preparation for John's tirades against the violence and exploitations of contemporary American culture. The armadillo, as John's stepfather suggests, represents Owen's feeling that he has lost a part of himself with Tabby's death, and that he wishes he might obliterate his own hands, the agents of that death. The dummy connects him with his surrogate mother. And the statue of Mary Magdalene provides an appropriate stab at the headmaster's hypocrisy. All of these armless figures, however, prefigure Owen's fate. The repetitions prepare for the miraculous effects of his last act, when he traps the grenade against the very high window ledge with both hands and forearms so that it will not fall back into the room; when the grenade explodes, it amputates both of Owen's arms. He bleeds to death, but not before seeing that his action has saved the children and others gathered in the makeshift men's room.
Part of the power of the final repetition, and what makes it more convincingly miraculous, is that up until the end, even Owen cannot feel absolutely certain of the truth of his foreknowledge. For while he has had precognitive knowledge of his heroic action, it has been incomplete. He knows the date of his death and a number of its circumstances, but, like any text, his visions of the future have gaps, leaving room for interpretation—and, as it happens, for misinterpretation. Because his visions involve Vietnamese children, he assumes that the event must occur in Vietnam; when he finds himself on his foreseen date of death in Phoenix, he loses some of his certainty. Because this room for doubt matches and maintains the reader's uncertainty about the direction of the novel, it works to legitimize the final miraculousness of Owen's foresight.
Irving gathers up a number of other motifs in the final scene as well—these are obvious enough to need little explication. Owen's unchanging, "wrecked voice," which results because his Adam's apple is positioned in a "permanent scream", is explained when he must speak to the Vietnamese children in their language; they trust and obey him, because "it was a voice like their voice." Owen has been "afraid of nuns"; nuns are escorting the Vietnamese orphans through the airport, and a nun embraces Owen as he dies. Similarly, Owen and John have for many years made a game of practicing "the shot," the slam dunk maneuver enabling Owen, who is preternaturally small, to shoot a basket; they have worked to make it as fast and efficient as possible. "The shot" requires John to toss the ball to Owen, who leaps into John's arms and is propelled upward toward the basket; when a young homicidal maniac throws a grenade at John in the Arizona men's room, he and Owen do the maneuver in order to protect the room's inhabitants. Irving has emphasized each of these elements in the text—possibly drawing too much attention to them—so that their realization in the climactic scene will not be missed. But perhaps the most obvious web of motifs—and the one most difficult for many readers to accept—comprises the references, both overt and covert, to the life of Jesus.
In a sense, these repetitions provide a clue to how to read the novel. Some are local metaphors, and only in retrospect suggest Owen's saintly predestination, such as when John writes that solely by "some miracle" did Owen manage as a young child to catch a baseball; or when Owen, having played a trick on John while they swim in a granite quarry, becomes angry and says "REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE"; or when at his first meeting with John's cousins, Owen looks like "a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways." But these references begin both to gather force and to strain credibility by the time that Owen appears, at the age of eleven (during the year of the fatal foul ball), as the baby Jesus in the Sunday school Christmas pageant or when, in describing Owen's expulsion from prep school, John writes that "they crucified him." Our incredulity is probably greatest when Mr. Meany assures John after Owen's death that Owen was immaculately conceived—like Garp, the issue of a virgin birth. Irving accomplishes several things in these accumulating allusions, however. First, with repetition they become self-conscious references, and so move toward ironizing their content, even as they tend, in the voice of the narrator, to retain their innocence enough to be suggestive of "truth." This doubling of the interpretive possibilities underscores the difficulty of faith—and the need for accepting the miraculous—because there is always the opportunity to discount miracle by an ironic interpretation. Our incredulity here is the point. Irving must encourage us to disbelieve in order to urge us to believe. Second, the repeated allusions contribute to the comedy in A Prayer for Owen Meany. By the time we read the late discussion of Owen's virgin birth, the references have become predictable; the writer who builds in the expectation of a repeated event or line is using one of the key conventions of the comic. Most important, however, is that Irving shows us the way John, as narrator, casts the plot in terms of his own religious conversion. It is John's linguistic choices and emphases that connect Owen to sainthood—it is he who has "learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye"—and his narrative decisions serve the novel's ending by confirming Owen's precognitions.
John Wheelwright's teleological sense of how to govern the "dilatory space" of the narrative's middle is revealed in numerous comments that seem obvious or coy foreshadowings. About the coach who told Owen Meany to "Swing away" at the fateful baseball, he notes that "Had he known everything that would follow, he would have bathed his chubby face in even more tears." At the end of a chapter, he claims that "I have been 'moved to do evil,' too—as you shall soon see." He observes of the summer when he and Owen turned eighteen that "nothing seemed dangerous. That was the summer we registered for the draft, too; it was no big deal." In each case, Irving reminds us, as he had in the dream man's narrations of "The Pension Grillparzer," of the status of narration as a retrospective act. That is, from the privileged position of the end of events, a narrator can shape the plot toward his or her interpretation of the whole. As with the references to Jesus, then, Irving tries to have it both ways—to remind us of the mechanics of plotting the novel, that plotting is a self-conscious activity, and to prepare for the uncanny effects of the final scene. This is his answer to the question of what happens to narrative form if a character knows his own ending: the plot must be deterministic.
There are, of course, important differences between already-known meaning—ordained by God or, simply, invented by an author—and that which is forecast overtly to a reader rather than unfolding fully only by narrative's end, or, for that matter, that which is never fully revealed. Irving's decision to foreground these differences signifies his interest in exploring how narrative creates meaning. But he chooses to do his experiments within the context of realist conventions, and that qualification is significant. Even as he experiments, Irving stands in opposition to the postmodern literary culture that has questioned the referential meaning of language and, in turn, the connection between representation and human value. At this point, Robert Caserio's opening insight in Plot, Story, and the Novel is useful. He writes:
Walter Benjamin thought that when we lose interest in stories and storytelling we lose the ability to exchange experiences. It is perhaps more significant that when writers and readers of novels lose interest in plot and story, they appear to lose faith in the meaning and the moral value of acts.
Irving's concentration on some of the features of narrative desire suggest that he is committed to restoring "faith in the meaning and the moral value of acts." In the world according to Irving, acts mean because they form larger patterns of intentional design. In both Garp and Owen Meany, the compulsive repetitions open the door to understanding how acts are meaningful for Irving, because these repetitions are functioning within a closed scheme, directed either toward the origins or the end of the narrative. In this respect, his plotting of the fiction uncovers its ethical dimension. But Irving also exposes the epistemological dimension of narrative when he demonstrates the way plot itself constructs knowledge and belief. Garp's fictions purport to imagine a world and John Wheelwright's tale aims to represent one transparently, but each of them can only narrate the world that is "according" to him. For both, the point of view is inevitably limited to compulsive repetitions of traumas. The "last shot" is the last plot in the narratives John and Garp write and in those they live. Irving represents in this the way fictional narrative constructs its meanings deterministically. More generally, his novels define a circle in the way we structure the stories of our lives: our knowledge and experience always shape and are shaped by our already known patterns of meaning.
Source: Debra Shostak, "Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments," in Critique, Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall 1995, pp. 51-70.
Edward C. Reilly
In the following essay excerpt, Reilly examines the overriding theme in Owen Meany—religious faith and miracles—and how it informs every aspect of Irving's novel.
Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany contains no bears, no Vienna, no World War II, and no rapes. However, it does contain a boy's school, Gravesend Academy; a sports metaphor, slam-dunking basketballs; a war, the Vietnam War; dual settings in the United States and Canada; and violence. The major difference, however, between this novel and Irving's preceding ones is that it is ultimately about religious faith and miracles, a theme absent in the other novels. In commenting about Owen Meany, Irving emphasizes, "I've always asked myself what would be the magnitude of the miracle that could convince me of religious faith". This idea is the novel's core and controls the settings, characters, themes, and literary techniques.
Like Cider House, the setting is not expansive, and except for sporadic scene shifts to Sawyer's Depot in northern New Hampshire, the University of New Hampshire at Durham, and Phoenix and Fort Huachuca in Arizona, the primary setting is Gravesend, New Hampshire, where protagonists John Wheelwright and Owen Meany experience their rites of passage. Gravesend's history is linked with the novel's religious theme since Reverend John Wheelwright, the protagonist's ancestor, founded the town when he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he proposed radical religious beliefs. Indeed, John claims that "his own religious confusion, and stubbornness, owe much to my ancestor." In Gravesend is the Wheelwrights' "grand, brick, Federal monster of a house", the scene for major portions of the novel's actions. While the home suggests permanency amid change, John will eventually forsake home and country when he emigrates to Canada after Owen Meany's tragic death. Dan Needham, John's step-father, often asks him to return, but John says, "Although I enjoy my visits, not even the tempting nostalgia of the house at 80 Front Street could entice me to return to the United States." John thus becomes Irving's only protagonist who abandons his ancestral home for a self-imposed isolation in a foreign country. In this sense, too, Gravesend is important because it represents small-town life that is forever changed because of the Vietnam War.
Whereas in the other novels a foreign place, usually Vienna, suggests the Anschluss-spawned violence, in Owen Meany Canada represents a relatively calm refuge that contrasts with the violent anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and protests that are racking the United States. John Wheelwright even says that the Canadians calmly welcomed the American draft dodgers and war resisters. For example, even though he often apologizes, "I'm not really a draft dodger," he quickly realizes that "most Canadians didn't care what I was [and] didn't care why I'd come; they didn't ask any questions. It was 1968, probably the midpoint of Vietnam 'resisters' coming to Canada; most Canadians were sympathetic—they thought the war in Vietnam was stupid and wrong, too." Canada's relatively calm attitude is also evident when John notes that even the most militant American resisters in Canada, the Union of American Exiles, are a "pretty tame lot" when "compared to Hester—and her SDS friends."
Partly to protest the Vietnam War but mainly in anger because of Owen's death, John crosses the New Hampshire-Canadian border in 1968, the year Owen is killed. Although his defection to Canada is supposed to be a "very forceful political statement," John admits that he "never had to suffer" because with his teaching experience at Gravesend Academy, his graduate degree, and his sound recommendations, he becomes "instantly respectable and almost immediately employed." John's expatriate life in Canada also heightens his alienation and isolation, especially since he teaches at Bishop Strachan School for Girls, where he is often the only male teacher.
Regarding John's self-imposed isolation and alienation in Canada, Dan Needham, his foster father, counsels: "Let bygones be bygones—not even Owen would still be angry. Do you think Owen Meany would have blamed the whole country for what happened to him? That was madness; this is madness, too." Canada thus becomes the setting in which John assuages his anger by rekindling his faith. He says that he is different from most Americans who fled to Canada because he has "the church; don't underestimate the church—its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart … And so the first Canadians I knew were churchgoers—an almost universally helpful lot, and much less confused and troubled than the few Americans I'd met in Toronto (and most Americans I had known at home)." Although he wrestles with his faith for the twenty years he lives in Canada, John's "oral history" concludes with his renewed faith as he prays for himself and for Owen Meany. Metaphorically, just as Vienna teaches Irving's other characters about the world's ways, Canada teaches John about the ways of faith.
Irving says that in Owen Meany he wanted "to create two victims of the Vietnam period in our his-tory," and one is John Wheelwright, the narrator-protagonist. Unlike Irving's other protagonists, John is mainly an observer and reporter instead of a principal actor in the plot, and various plot details emphasize his neutral role. During the Christmas pageant at Christ Church, for example, John plays Saint Joseph, a role requiring neither words nor actions. Even when he and Owen practice the slam-dunk shot, John says that "my part in this exercise was extremely limited." In addition, John never has a girl friend, is never sexually initiated, and he sadly admits, "I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I'm just a Joseph now." When Owen cuts off John's right index finger to keep him out of the draft, John becomes even more isolated and alienated from his own generation. During a Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, for instance, John carries no placard and admits:"
But I tried to feel I was part of the demonstration; sadly, I didn't feel I was part of it—I didn't feel I was part of anything. I had a 4-F deferment; I would never have to go to war, or to Canada. By the simple act of removing the first two joints of my right index finger, Owen Meany had enabled me to feel completely detached from my generation.
His further detachment and alienation also result when he moves to Canada but still craves news about the United States. As Canon Mackie gently reminds him, "You're a Canadian citizen, but what are you always talking about? You talk about America more than any American I know."
Indirectly, John becomes a Vietnam War victim. In 1968, the year Owen will die, John has completed his master's degree, will enter the Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts in the fall, and his student deferment plus his missing index finger will keep him out of the service. Moreover, because his grandmother finances his education, John confesses: "If I was thinking anything—if I was thinking at all—I was considering that my life had become a kind of doorstep-sitting, watching the parades pass by … I wasn't doing anything; there wasn't anything I had to do." Finally, Owen Meany's death affects John the most. He says that both he and Hester were "damaged by what happened to Owen," and adds, "What has happened to me has simply neutered me. I just don't feel like 'practicing'."
Besides being an integral part of the novel's bildungsroman motif, John Wheelwright is necessary for the novel's religious theme. The narrative is not only John's prayer for Owen Meany, but the plot also analyzes various aspects of faith in the contemporary world. Whereas in Cider House Larch and Homer believed in private religious views and prayers, in Owen Meany the dramatic opening sentence announces the theme, "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
Recounted twenty years after his emigration to Canada and Owen's death, John Wheelwright's narration traces the development of his own confused faith. He was baptized as a Congregationalist, confirmed as an Episcopalian, and finally becomes an Anglican with a "church-rummage faith—the kind that needs patching up every weekend." Significantly, too, as in most hagiographies, John's faith has often been tested by adversities that include his mother's death, the Vietnam War, and especially Owen Meany's tragic death. However, not only is the last chapter, "The Shot," a typical Irving epilogue that details the characters' fates but also the chapter's last five sections become both John's catharsis and the novel's main thrust. After almost concluding his story, John adds:
Let's see: there's not much else—there's almost nothing to add. Only this: that it took years for me to face my memory of how Owen Meany died—and once I forced myself to remember the details, I could never forget how he died; I will never forget it. I am doomed to remember this.
How Owen died explains all that preceded it—the novel's armless symbols, Owen's prophecies and life's mission, and the reason for practicing "the shot." Besides becoming the novel's affirmative vision, the chapter's closing paragraphs are John's prayer for Owen Meany as well as John's testimony about his own faith that has been rekindled and strengthened because Owen "had been a hero" and a "miracle too." After admitting that he is "always saying prayers" for Owen, John confirms that Owen symbolized those "forces we didn't have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in—and they were also lifting Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands. O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You." John's quiet, reverent prayer not only assuages the novel's general chaos and confusion, but it explains his opening comments that what faith he has in God he owes to Owen Meany.
In contrast with John's observer-reporter role, Owen Meany is the novel's central focus because he is the principal actor. He hits the foul ball that kills John's mother, and this act convinces Owen that he is God's instrument. He also suggests and directs the games that he, John, Hester, Noah, and Simon play. Owen also directs the Christmas pageant at Christ Church when he suggests dynamic changes in staging and the actors' roles; similarly, he is instrumental in changing Dan Needham's ideas about staging and roles in A Christmas Carol. At Gravesend Academy where he edits The Grave, the campus newspaper, he is nicknamed "the Voice" for his outspoken editorials that criticize school policies and headmasters, especially the ingratiating Randy White. In addition, Owen is directly responsible for the fiascoes involving Dr. Dolder's Volkswagen and Mary Magdalene's statue, both of which appear on the Main Academy Building's stage. Finally, Owen subtly severs his relationship with Hester, decides that he must cut John's finger off to save him from the war, and he always insists that he and John practice "the shot."
Owen becomes, furthermore, a victim of the Vietnam War, and Irving tells Phyllis Robinson that he "wanted to create two markedly dissimilar victims of the war, one a hero, the other a defector." That Owen will be a hero is evident, first of all, in his desire to serve in Vietnam. As he tells John, "IT'S NOT THAT I WANT TO GO TO VIETNAM—IT'S WHERE I HAVE TO GO. IT'S WHERE I'M A HERO. I'VE GOT TO BE THERE" When John thinks Owen is joking, Owen ominously emphasizes:
I'M NOT PLAYING AROUND … WOULD I REQUEST A COMBAT ASSIGNMENT IF I WERE PLAYING AROUND?… I SAVE LOTS OF CHILDREN … THAT'S HOW I KNOW WHERE I AM—THEY'RE DEFINITELY VIETNAMESE CHILDREN, AND I SAVE THEM.
Owen's prophecies come true when, in an ironic plot twist, Owen saves John and the Vietnamese children, not in Vietnam, but rather in a temporary rest room at the Phoenix airport.
In terms of the novel's religious theme, Irving says, "Jesus has always struck me as the perfect victim and perfect hero," and loose parallels exist between Christ and Owen Meany. When Owen first meets the Eastman children while they play in the Wheelwrights' attic, John emphasizes Owen's divine appearance, halo and all:
The powerful morning sun struck Owen's head from above, and from a little behind him, so that the light itself seemed to be presenting him … there is no doubt that, in the dazzling configurations of the sun that poured through the attic skylight, he looked like a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways.
More specifically, Owen plays the Christ child in the Christmas pageant, and in A Christmas Carol, he is the Ghost of Christmas Future and, instead of Scrooge's name and dates on the tombstone, Owen sees his name and the date of his own death. As "the Voice" of Gravesend Academy, Owen makes enemies with his tirades against hypocrisy, injustice, and Philistinism. Old Thorny, the retired, benign headmaster, warns Owen: "You've made more enemies in less than two years than I've made in twenty! Be careful you don't give your enemies a way to get you." When his enemies find a way "to get" him, John emphasizes a Christ-like fate, "the Executive Committee crucified Owen Meany—they axed him; they gave him the boot; they threw him out."
In addition to Owen's unique voice—John says Owen's voice is "not entirely of this world"—Owen writes and speaks in capital letters, an idea Irving adopted from "editions of the New Testament in which Jesus' utterances appear in red letters." Owen, of course, occasionally quotes biblical passages: "FATHER, FORGIVE THEM; FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO"; "WOE UNTO THEM THAT CALL EVIL GOOD AND GOOD EVIL"; "WHOSOEVER LIVETH AND BELIEVETH IN ME SHALL NEVER DIE." Another loose parallel is that Owen's life and actions strengthen Dan Needham's faith and restore John's and Reverend Lewis Merrill's faiths. Not only does Owen selflessly sacrifice his own life for John and the Vietnamese refugees, but Owen's preknowledge about his own death is similar to Christ's knowledge. As Phyllis Robinson notes: "The part of Jesus himself that most impresses Irving, 'the biggest miracle of them all,' is that Christ knows what is going to happen to him. 'That is truly a heroic burden to carry.'"
Like Susie in Hotel New Hampshire and Melony in Cider House, Hester Eastman is big-boned and big-bosomed—"her body belonged in the jungle"—but unlike these other heroines, she is very attractive and sings beautifully. Because she is older than John or Owen, she is more worldly wise, especially in sexual matters, earning her the nickname "Hester the Molester." Although John is attracted to Hester, she is attracted to Owen and sexually initiates him, and they eventually fall in love. Because she believes that women should have equal rights, her alienation from her family inexorably begins when the Eastmans plan to send Noah and Simon to Gravesend Academy but make no plans for Hester's future: "Hester was in as much need of rescuing from the wildness within her—and from the rural north country rituals of her sex—as Noah and Simon were in need of saving." As Owen foretells, "THAT'S WHEN HESTER WENT ON THE WARPATH." Hester's warpaths include various affairs—all designed "to educate her parents regarding the error of their ways." Hester's wild rebelliousness will also spur her to join the decade's demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War.
If Owen Meany "grew out of Irving's conviction that the Vietnam War made victims of us all, not just those who were killed or who left their country," then Hester is just as much a victim as are John and Owen. Although Hester and Owen love each other, the Vietnam War thwarts their potential for forming a solid family basis when he decides to become an Army officer, and she becomes a war protester. In addition, even though she wants to marry Owen, he refuses because he has foreseen his fate. His refusal actually proves just how much he loves her, and John says, "I think I know what he was doing; he was helping her to fall out of love with him before he died." Even so, Owen's death affects her: "Hester was damaged by what happened to Owen Meany; I'm sure she thinks she was damaged even more than I was damaged … We were both damaged by what happened to Owen." After Owen's death, Hester never becomes "seriously involved" again because he had been the "love of her life."
When she becomes a hard-rock singer—she adopts her childhood nickname Hester the Molester—her voice is "equivalent to an abused woman crying for help from the bottom of an iron barrel." Her "truly ugly" videos depict:
carnal encounters with unidentified young boys in-tercut with black-and-white, documentary footage from the Vietnam War. Napalm victims, mothers cradling their murdered children, helicopters landing and taking off and crashing in the midst of perilous ground fire, emergency surgeries in the field, countless GI's with their heads in their hands—and Hester herself entering and leaving different but similar hotel rooms, wherein a sheepish young boy is always putting on or just taking off his clothes.
Even her song titles reflect her life's circumstances, especially as they refer to Owen's life and death: "Gone to Arizona" (where Owen is stationed); "You Won't See Me at His Funeral" (Hester's words to Owen); "Drivin' with No Hands" (Owen's arms are blown off below the elbows); "There's No Forgettin' Nineteen Sixty-eight" (the year Owen died); "Just Another Dead Hero" (the futility of Owen's and other Americans' deaths during the Vietnam War). As John also points out, the irony is that "out of Owen's suffering, and her own, Hester has made a mindless muddle of sex and protest, which young girls who have never suffered feel they can 'relate to'." Significantly, however, as do Irving's other strong heroines, Hester confronts life's forces and survives: "I admire her—she's certainly been a more heroic survivor that I've been, and her kind of survival is admirable."
Tabitha Wheelwright, John's mother, typifies Irving's strong motherly figures. When she becomes pregnant, for example, she easily transcends her "little fling," gets "over Lewis Merrill rather quickly," and bears "up better than stoically to the task of bearing his illegitimate child." She is also a loving person who, to quote John, wants "nothing from life but a child and a loving husband; it is important to note these singulars—she did not want children, she wanted … just me and she got me; she did not want men in her life, she wanted a man, the right man, and shortly before she died, she found him." Not only does she become a "perfect mother" for John, but she becomes a surrogate mother for Owen Meany and thus emphasizes the less-than-motherly image cast by Mrs. Meany. Tabitha loves Owen as if he were her son, often drives him home, promises that she will see that he is admitted to Gravesend Academy, and will even buy him the proper school clothes. Her death is significant for the novel's religious theme because Owen believes that he has become God's instrument through the foul ball that struck Tabitha down. In addition, when John recalls his mother's death, he realizes: "That was when I first began to think about certain events or specific things being 'important' and having 'special purposes' … I was not what was commonly called a believer then, and I am a believer now: I believe in God, and I believe in the 'special purpose' of certain events or special things." Finally, not only do memories of her have a healing effect on those whom she cherished and loved, but the dressmaker's dummy clad in her red dress soothes Lewis Merrill's tormented conscience and then restores his dead faith.
In referring to his stepfather, John says, "Dan Needham is the best father a boy could have." Although Dan is a loving, caring stepfather, he does not become overly protective as were Bogus Trumper, Severin Winter, or Garp. Instead, Dan Needham is more of John's best friend and counsellor. For example, while his mother's other suit-ors are all handsome and bring ridiculous gifts ranging from "rubber ducks for the bath" to Fowler's Modern English Usage, Dan is "tall and gawky" and brings John a stuffed armadillo—"the first present any of my mother's 'beaus' gave me that I kept." John then adds, "But he knew very well what a six-year-old was like; to his credit, Dan Needham was always a little bit of a six-year-old himself." When John's mother is killed, Dan also helps John understand why Owen gives him the baseball card collection: "to show me how sorry he was about the accident, and how much he was hurting, too—because Owen had loved my mother almost as much as I did."
Within the plot, Dan Needham proposes a positive alternative despite life's inexplicable forces. When Owen returns the armadillo sans claws, Dan explains that the clawless animal represents all of them—"We've lost part of ourselves"—but he then concludes: "There was no way any of this was acceptable! What had happened was unacceptable. Yet we still had to live with it." Dan's positive approach to the injustice of Tabitha's death is to devote himself to teaching, "Like many dedicated educators, Dan Needham had made education his religion." He becomes a "good, spirited" teacher who believes it is "more difficult to be a teenager than a grown-up" but who also is more compassionate toward the elderly who are "suffering a second adolescence and … required special care." Dan's admirable fatherly virtues and his positive approach to life and faith contrast with Reverend Lewis Merrill, John Wheelwright's natural father.
While necessary for the novel's suspense regarding the identity of John's real father, Reverend Lewis Merrill is more significant for the novel's religious theme. While John's mother stoically transcends their affair, Merrill wallows in self-guilt and pity. However, when he sees her at the baseball game and realizes that he is still attracted to her, Merrill is ashamed and wishes that she would "drop dead." At that moment, Owen hits the fatal foul ball, and Merrill believes that "God had punished him; God had taught Pastor Merrill not to trifle with prayer." Merrill believes that he is now outside God's mercy and grace, and his faith dies. As John reminds him: "You're always talking about 'doubt as the essence and not the opposite of faith'—but it seems to me that your doubt has taken control of you. I think that's what Owen thought about you, too." Merrill's stutter symbolizes his lack of religious conviction and courage, and his stutter is especially evident as he talks to John about faith and miracles: "You want to call Owen, and everything that happened to him, a m-m-miracle … You sound positively converted … I would be careful not to confuse your g-g-g-grief with genuine, religious belief."
Even as they talk, Merrill does not understand the miracle that occurs when he speaks "in the exact falsetto, the 'permanent scream'" of Owen's voice, which reveals the exact location of the fatal foul ball. However, John recognizes the miracle, "That was the first time that Owen Meany let me hear from him—after he was gone … Owen promised me that God would tell me who my father was." After learning from Dan that Merrill had "once tried to be brave and honorable" regarding his affair with John's mother, John decides that he could teach Merrill "how to pray again" and "have a little faith." John takes his mother's dressmaker's dummy, places it under the chancel windows, and throws the fated baseball through one of the stained-glass windows. Merrill rushes out, sees the dummy, imagines it is John's mother, and says: "God—forgive me! Tabby—I didn't tell him! I promised you I wouldn't and I didn't … Tabby—forgive me, please!." He falls on his side, draws his knees up, and babbles incoherently. Symbolically, Merrill's confession and repentance become his catharsis, and his faith is restored as evident when he begins the prayers at Owen Meany's funeral:
"'I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord …'" my father began. There was something newly powerful and confident in his voice, and the mourners heard it; the congregation gave him their complete attention. Of course, I knew what it was that had changed him; he had found his lost faith—he spoke with absolute belief in every word he uttered; therefore, he never stuttered.
Source: Edward C. Reilly, "'The Magnitude of a Miracle': A Prayer for Owen Meany," in Understanding John Irving, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 121-35.
Campbell, Josie P., John Irving: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 125-41.
Prescott, Peter S., "Here They Come Again," in Newsweek, April 10, 1989, p. 64.
Pritchard, William, "Small Town Saint," in New Republic, May 22, 1989, p. 36.
Sheppard, R. Z., "The Message Is the Message," in Time, April 3, 1989, p. 80.
Summers, Harry G., Jr., Vietnam War Almanac, Facts on File Publications, 1985.
Towers, Robert, "The Raw and the Cooked," in New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989, pp. 30-31.
Bloom, Harold, ed., John Irving, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 2001.
This is a collection of some of the best recent critical essays on Irving's work.
Harter, Carol C, and James R. Thompson, John Irving, Twayne, 1986.
This is a concise survey of Irving's work up to The Cider House Rules.
Irving, John, "In Defense of Sentimentality," in New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1979, pp. 3, 96.
Irving writes in praise of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations and argues that writers should not shy away from the attempt to move their readers emotionally.
Reilly, Edward C, Understanding John Irving, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Reilly writes for the general reader and includes chapters on all of Irving's novels up to A Prayer for Owen Meany, as well as an annotated bibliography.