John Irving’s esteemed 1989 novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is a lot of things – but it is not subtle. Over the course of its 600 pages, “Owen Meany” lends to us a surplus of heavily symbolic and provocative moments, which illustrate its protagonist’s tragically manufactured fate as well as the struggles of humanity against inhumanity during the storm that was the Vietnam War, and all the years of calm before it. However, even in dealing with such a loud subject matter, and a protagonist with a PERMANENT SCREAM, Irving manages to weave in a few very quiet, understated scenes – most of which, upon first glance, may seem to be simply skimmable. Upon second glance, a lot of these moments add significantly to the depth and the intricacy of this story – certainly none of them are put in by mistake.
Take, for example, the scene where Johnny, Owen, and the gang are watching John F. Kennedy’s assassination on television (pg. 441 – 443). It seems fairly insignificant, taking place directly after a discussion between Johnny and Owen about the complexities of high school geology. Of course, it’s always significant when a President dies, but nothing seems to occur in this scene – besides a brief meltdown, courtesy of Harriet Wheelwright. However, some exchanges and narratives in this scene can give the reader a lot of insight regarding what Owen must be going through, with his dream always in the back of his mind.
The scene starts when Ethel enters the room, announcing that Missus Wheelwright would like to see Owen and Johnny in the TV room. She is immediately met by Owen’s startled reaction – “IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE TV?” (pg. 441). This question more or less sets the tone for this scene and this generation. Although the Wheelwrights (and Owen), proper and traditional people as they are, sought to avoid it, they are addicted to television – which, as Hester so eloquently observes, gives good disaster. Johnny points out in this scene that the death of President Kennedy more or less marks the birth of television, giving it more command over the American people than ever before, in its ability to give them escape or allow them to more thoroughly engage with the times. However, Johnny also sees an ominous side to the sudden dominance of television – it makes death somehow approachable – inviting, and romantic. He says, “… It makes the living feel like they have missed something – just by staying alive” (pg.442), which gives Owen more than anyone incentive to always be watching.
When first exposed to the President’s murder, Owen says, “IF WE FIRST APPEAR IN THE PLEISTOCENE [era], I THINK THIS IS WHERE WE DISAPPEAR…” (pg. 442). This is unexpected coming from Owen – to associate the end of mankind with this particular event – because at this point in the novel, Owen doesn’t really care for JFK. Less than twenty pages earlier, he goes on a rant describing how the President is only masquerading as a moralist and how he’s abusing his power so he can seduce and use America like he uses Marilyn Monroe (using her up). Here, Owen concludes that he will be used by men like John F. Kennedy. Owen also makes unsavory remarks about the former President after spending days on end watching and rewatching his murder – much like he does his own in his dream. He says, “I GET THE POINT. IF SOME MANIAC MURDERS YOU, YOU’RE AN INSTANT HERO – EVEN IF ALL YOU WERE DOING IS RIDING IN A MOTORCADE” (pg. 442). It’s evident that Owen does not believe that the disappearance of JFK marks the disappearance of man. Instead, the appearance of this murderous maniac trope does.
In an immaculate instance of foreshadowing, Harriet Wheelwright asks, overwhelmed by the thought of wasting away in her old age, if Owen, too, would rather be murdered by a maniac – to which he responds, “IF IT WOULD DO ANY GOOD – YES.” (pg. 443). And at the end of the novel, we know that Owen is killed by a maniac and it does do some good; he saves a group of school children led by nuns, he saves Johnny – he even attempts to save his own murderer (of course, until Major Rawls kills him) – but does the ‘goodness’ of his dying deed excuse the fact that he was used by the aforementioned political seductors of his time? If men like that hadn’t created a war, Owen wouldn’t have a role in it – he might never have had a dream at all.
“FORGIVE THEM FATHER,” Owen says, “THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.” (pg. 381)