A Prayer for Owen Meany
The Cowardice of Popularity: Johnny’s Character
In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, protagonist Johnny experiences outward conformity while inwardly questioning throughout the duration of his entire life. An exemplar of cowardice, Johnny uses passive aggression and the voices of others to disguise his inability to take a stand. The tendency of Johnny to silently question while taking no action creates the trait of cowardice that dominates his character throughout the entirety of the novel.
It is said that “actions, not words, create change”. Johnny, although inwardly critical of the Vietnam War, not only took no actions to create a change, but was not even vocal or expressive about his feelings. In a time dominated by protests, rallies, and demonstrations, Johnny could not even bring himself to voice his distain for the war, expressing that “even when the Anglicans asked me what I thought of Prime Minister Pearson’s “old point of view”…. I actually said I agreed! Eve though- as I’ve admitted- I’d never met a harsh deserter, not one” (463). The generation of the Vietnam soldiers, upon return to America, worked to create an America that supported and listened to those who had, previously, not been listened to. Arizona Senator John McCain is just one example. McCain, unsatisfied with the war and the treatment of those who served, ran for office to combat these issues with more productive policy. Johnny never shared his opinion, let alone took action to combat the problems in society that he saw. Because Johnny was inwardly critical of the Vietnam War, but did not take any actions to create change, he was a coward.
Prior to the Vietnam War, Johnny conformed to agree with his classmates within the Academy, leaving the questioning to Owen and The Voice. “I did, or tried to do, everything Owen did” (287), said Johnny, dependent on Owen to be outspoken due to his inability to use language and speak well. As Johnny struggled throughout his educational career to succeed in English, reading, and writing, he was willing to give Owen the power to speak on his behalf. “The Voice was our voice; he championed our causes; he made us proud of ourselves in an atmosphere that belittled and intimidated us” (295). Johnny was dependent on Owen to vocally question events and standards, even though Johnny shared the same criticisms and questions Owen did about society. Johnny was too much of a coward and simply lacked the confidence and ability to say so. He settled for conformity, never voicing his true feelings. Thus, the inward criticism and outward conformity spurred from his dependence on Owen and struggle in English and made Johnny a coward.
Johnny is also a coward because he cared more about impressing people than standing up for his own beliefs. This standard led him to a life of inward criticism, and outward conformity. “I never actually said— to any of my Canadian friends— that I suspected these deserters were no more likely to become “public charges” than I was likely to become such a charge. By then, Canon Campbell has introduced me to old Teddybear Kilgore, who had hired me to teach at Bishop Strachan. We Wheelwrights have always benefited from our connections” (463). While working in a church and dedicating his life to teaching both English and the value of Christ, Johnny preaches morality and Christian superiority. However, this message conflicts with his actions as he inwardly criticized the war that represented the opposite of morality, while outwardly conforming in his words of support. Johnny placed more value on his societal status and networking abilities, thus hindering his ability to stand up for what is right, even if it means standing alone, leading to a lifetime of conformity.
Johnny’s interpretation of history and political issues showcases his cowardice. “When some of the Grace Church on-the Hill Anglicans asked me what I thought of Prime Minister Pearson’s “old point of view”— that the deserters (as opposed to the war resisters) were in a category of U.S. citizens to be discouraged form coming to Canada- I actually said I agreed! Even though- as I’ve admitted – I’d never met a harsh deserter, not one” (463). The “Church on-the Hill Anglicans” is a reference to John Winthrop’s speech, A City on a Hill, from the founding and settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop said that “America was to be a City on a Hill”, a model of superiority and moral purity. The phrase was used by both Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in major speeches. Johnny does not hide his love for Kennedy and despise for Reagan; his views strongly reflect the environments in which he was in- the popular opinion of the Academy strongly favored Kennedy, while the views of Canada in his time there did not support Reagan because of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The fact that both men had the same outlook on America shows Johnny’s cowardice as he is unable to go against what is popular and accepted in his environment. Johnny is a product of his environment as he cherry picks who he will criticize and who he will admire, thrusting him into a cycle of outward conformity.
Over the course of his life, Johnny conformed to be like those surrounding him, while questioning society inwardly. A lifetime of silent protest and dependence on those around him to voice their opinions and teach him what to think caused him to be a coward and unable to form and voice his own opinions.
Owen’s Struggle with Temptation
Owen Meany is a character who commands attention, not only because of his small stature and high-pitched voice, but also because of his blind and undying faith in God. Yet, even with his God-like qualities, Owen’s attraction to John’s mother, Tabitha, and cousin, Hester, continue to make Owen human, despite his belief that he is an instrument of God. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the similarities between Tabitha and Hester represent Owen’s lifelong battle with temptation.
One major similarity between Tabitha and Hester is the fact that they are both important parts of John’s life. In some ways, they represent the underlying jealousy that Owen has for Johnny. Owen, although he has two parents, is not nearly as loved as Johnny is by his mother. Because of this, Owen is constantly craving the attention of Tabitha who mothers him the way he never is by his own parents. Owen’s selfishness when it comes to Tabitha is seen later on when he refuses to part with the dummy that had belonged to her before she died. Similarly, Owen also experiences jealousy towards Johnny’s relationship with his cousins, who he frequently visits at Sawyer Depot. This can be see in the lines, “Owen was extremely irritable regarding the time I spent with my cousins…I thought he was jealous” (60). Owen and Hester’s relationship later on continues to leave Johnny isolated, as Owen often spends the night at her apartment rather than with him. Owen’s selfishness when it comes to Tabitha and Hester represent a human side to him unlike his usual purity and almost god-like manor.
Aside from being major parts of Johnny’s life, the two women are also similar in that they are both very attractive. Tabitha is often described as beautiful which can be seen in the lines, “Tabby Wheelwright looked like a starlet—lush, whimsical, easy to talk into anything” (38). Owen himself admits to finding Johnny’s mother attractive on several occasions. Often compared to a feline, Tabitha is not only beautiful, but manipulative as well. While she never purposely manipulates other people, they seem to be almost mesmerized by her charm. Her subtle ability to control people can be seen in the lines, “She had such a sweet-tempered disposition, it was impossible to stay angry with her. She never appeared to be as assertive as she was” (15). In a way, Owen accidently killing her represented his attempt to escape from his temptation. However, this is never truly achieved because of his lust for Hester later on. Like Tabitha, Hester is also very attractive. Even at a young age, Hester seems to radiate a sense of sexuality that gives her the nickname “Hester the Molester.” She contrasts Owen in that unlike his unrelenting child-like appearance, she appears to be an overly mature girl even as a child. Both Johnny and Owen find her very attractive and both lust for her. Because she is so aware of the affect she has on men, she is able to manipulate others in a way that is reminiscent of Tabitha’s subtle manipulation. The two women continue to draw out the sexual desires in Owen throughout his life.
Another similarity between Hester and Tabitha is that they are both involved in a scandal. Johnny’s mother is often criticized for having a child before she is married. The fact that the father turns out to be Reverend Merrill represents an even bigger scandal in that it is as if Tabitha had seduced one of God’s workers. This can be seen again in the way Owen, who thinks of himself as an instrument of God, seemed to lust for her as well. His acknowledgement of her attractiveness is seen when he says, “Your mother is so sexy, I keep forgetting she’s anyone’s mother” (38). In one incident, Owen goes into Tabitha’s room and falls asleep in her bed, an action that represents his lust for her as well as her willingness to allow it. Although she remains a conservative and modest character throughout the novel, her scandalous past continues to come back up. Yet despite Tabitha’s illegitimate pregnancy, the most scandalous character of the novel is Hester. Even at a young age, she is suspected of having sexual encounters with many men, which can be seen when it is said, “Hester was in much need of rescuing from the wildness within her” (265). Later on when she and Owen are suspected of seeing each other, Johnny continues to wonder whether or not they ever sleep together.
The mystery and scandal that surround each woman represent the temptation that Owen continues to struggle with throughout his life. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s struggle to remain sinless is often tempted by his lust for the characters of Tabitha and Hester. They help Irving to cast Owen’s battle with temptation in a particularly stark light, and to alert the reader to one of the most important complexities of the apparently principled Owen’s narrative.
A Lack of Confrontation: Repression and Evasion in the Work of John Irving
In The Cider House Rules, Homer, the protagonist, after stifling all of the uncomfortable situations in his life would “lay awake [at night] because the phantoms of those days were not gone” (312). While Homer liked to think that he was in control of his life, especially his emotions, the quote exemplifies a theme common for characters in John Irving novels: evasion and repression of feelings. In several of his novels, characters face disordering circumstances that cause discomfort. Rather than confronting these problems, the characters tend to evade the situations. Homer, despite his beliefs, is haunted at night because he cannot come to terms with his emotions during the day. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny, unable to face life at home after his best friend’s death, runs away to Canada; similarly, in The Cider House Rules, Homer moves due to unresolved and conflicting feelings towards his orphanage. The Water-Method Man and The World According to Garp involve characters that, fearful of their relationships, ruin ties with others. These situations are contrasted with organic imagery through symbolism, perceived by the characters, and the nature and actions of characters and their environment. The negative consequences that accompany the characters as they avoid the uncomfortable, described with organic imagery, reveal how evasion of confrontation is inherently unnatural. Thus, Irving suggests that repression is a temporary fix; evasion is unnatural and sequentially detrimental to one’s well being.
Irving presents the reader with deeply unsettled characters, who tend to focus on their relation to the world around them. For these characters, primarily the protagonists of each novel, the circumstances in their life dictate their behavior and reactions. These characters strain their relationships—those with people, their internal struggles and their environment, all developed through organic imagery and symbolism—as they attempt to distance themselves emotionally, to evade uncomfortable feelings and situations.
The animalistic imagery, symbolizing character’s romantic partners, reveals the character’s innermost, repressed feelings about their partners to themselves. In The Water-Method Man, Trumper’s fascination with his pet blowfish symbolizes the relationship with his ex-wife, Biggie. The blowfish “irked him […] whose gross practice was to smear its translucent lips against the aquarium wall […] The other fish were terrified of it. Trumper wanted to prick it with a pin at the pinnacle of its swollen state.” (172). Trumper’s bitterness towards the blowfish mirrors the bitterness he possesses towards Biggie. The use of negative words, like “gross” and “irked”, conveys the rudimentary aspects of Trumper’s unfavorable attitude towards Biggie—he views her as an irritant. However, Trump’s perception of the blowfish delves further than just a negative image of Biggie; it reveals how the relationship affects Trumper. Biggie “terrifie[s]” Trumper, as the blowfish does to its peers, and it causes him the desire to incite violence and “prick” the blowfish. By repressing how he truly feels about Biggie, Trumper is harming is own well-being and happiness. Irving exemplifies Trumper’s negative attitude towards Biggie when he sees Biggie as a beast, whom with “her strength […] had overcome [him] and left [him] gaping at her as if she were some animal, ugly and scary and able to eat [him] whole” (52). The simile comparing Biggie to an animal not only dehumanizes her, but the animalistic imagery used to describe her suggests that not only is she an animal, but a monster. Monsters by nature are scary, unnatural and undesired; by comparing Biggie to such, Bogus reveals his formerly repressed feelings towards her. At one point Bogus admired Biggie’s strength, but as the relationship is withering away so is his optimal perception of her. Irving compares Trumper’s attitude towards Biggie to his attitude towards Tulpen, while Trumper observes his other pets. He “did worry about the turtles and fish. Not in the same way that [he] once worried about the mouse, though. That mouse lived in constant peril; it was [his] responsibility to keep him out of Biggie’s trap” (38). The way Trumper feels about the fish and mouse reflects his feelings towards Tulpen and Biggie respectively. While it is for different reasons, in both situations Trumper is inclined to keep the animals alive. He attempts to save the mouse, not in compliance with Biggie, but in spite of her. Alternatively, Trumper tries to protect the mouse, Tulpen, as an effort to save their doomed relationship. At one point, he did care for Biggie, but he understands that relationship is unviable; alternatively, despite the “peril”, Trumper has the opportunity to save his relationship with Tulpen. Trumper’s attempt to reconcile and save his relationship with Tulpen displays his progression in confronting uncomfortable situations; instead of denying the poor relationship with his girlfriend and sequentially hating her, he wants to repair the damage in the relationship, leaving positive outcomes in the future for them both.
The familial relationships in Irving’s novels, contrast artificiality with internal struggles to establish characters’ perceptions of themselves, suggesting their inability to connect and succeed in life. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny’s stump (received after the amputation of his finger to evade the draft) upset him. In a distressed tone, he contemplated why he felt incomplete; the amputation “was the cleanest cut imaginable. There’s nothing grotesque, or mangles–or even raw-looking–about the stump. The only thing wrong with [him] is what’s missing. Owen Meany is missing” (540). The imagery describing the artificiality of Johnny’s wound suggests that his sacrifice was unnatural. He sacrificed the appendage to evade a war, a physical reminder of the damage evasion can cause but more so, the story behind the stump haunts him. Johnny’s late best friend and brother figure Owen amputated Johnny’s finger. Unable to cope with the loss of his friend, Johnny abandons his life at home. He holds on to certain aspects of Owen, while repressing the rest; meanwhile the stump constantly reminds Johnny of whom he is missing. The lack of acceptance of Owen’s death causes Johnny to feel disconnected from the world around him—thus, incomplete. Denny J. Weaver states that, “Johnny’s belief in God stems from his belief that Owen was called by God–but there is no other continuing impact of Owen beyond his death that saved the Vietnamese orphans” (620). However, Owen’s resurrection, a moment when Johnny believed Owen saved him from falling down the steps, actually had a profound impact on his belief of Owen as a god figure. Johnny’s inability to relinquish the memory of Owen, and his refusal to move back to the United States from Canada where he is evading Owen’s death, displays how their relationship controls his identity. Likewise, Philip Page references this when he claims “the account [of Owen’s death] reflects John’s overblown sentimentality for Owen and his clearly biased claims of Owen’s divinity and foreknowledge of events” (144). Johnny’s perception of Owen as godly figure, as he represses the other memories of Owen, perpetuates how Johnny sees Owen in a larger light. In A Water-Method Man, Trumper, aspiring to connect with his son “would have chosen just that to make the bay roll and swell, inspire a cacophony of ulls to circle overhead, raise the Great White Whale from the depths and make him leap like a giant trout […] then watch the whole turn and steam out to sea, leaving them with the memory” (246). The ocean imagery, the exaggerated motions, the bay swellings and whale leaping, accentuate the mythical aspect of Trumper’s fantasy—not of Moby Dick, the “Great White Whale”, but his desire to maintain a relationship with his son, Colm. The intensity of Trumper’s fantasy, the way he wishes to “inspire” the ulls, and “raise the Great White Whale”, conveys his passion to connect with his son. However, Moby Dick is just an unreal fantasy, which suggests that Bogus’s attempt to stay close to Colm, after deserting him for so long, is also that, a fantasy. In The Cider House Rules, Homer perceives himself as a lynx sliding down a side of a hill who “traveled closer to the orphanage than it would ever have chosen to come, its ferocious death smell clashing with the freezing cold. […] It spit its rage at Homer Wells, as if Homer had caused its unwilling decent” (401). The sensory imagery, describing the orphanage as a place smelling of death, amplifies Homer’s dissatisfaction with his living arrangement. The personification of the lynx, spitting “rage” at Homer as if he caused the lynx’s struggle, mirrors how Homer feels towards Larch. Homer rarely expresses his feelings to Larch; he conceals them, and it strains his emotional health as now he sees this unhealthy relationship everywhere, even in a lynx. Debra Shostak notes, “That is, [the characters] never lives in a normalized, acknowledged paternal relation to [their sons]. Irving suggests one of two things: either the impossibility of fathers living in just relation to sons, or the impossibility of himself imagining such fathers” (134). Homer’s relationship with Dr. Larch never takes the true form of father-son; rather he repeals those feelings from the relationship in order to prevent becoming too detached. Similarly, this carries into Homer’s adult life; only when Homer leaves the orphanage does Larch begins to show fatherly affection. This repressive attitude carries over to Homer’s own relationship with his son. The pattern of repressing feelings and only carrying out father-son relationships from a distance does suggest that in the novel fathers and sons cannot coexist, or at least, carry out normal relationships, harming each character’s mental state. Lastly, Todd Davis Kenneth Womack note, “Homer cannot bring himself to believe what Latch preaches about abortion. At the same time, because of his relationship with Larch he cannot condemn his “father’s” actions either” (395). While Homer does repress his negative feelings towards Larch, causing him to abandon his home, once Homer confronts his relationship with Larch from a distance, he begins to relate to Larch. The beginning stages of this resolution display the mending of a relationship once harmed by concealed feelings and animosity.
The contrasting inorganic and organic imagery of fear of death and acceptance of it reveal how accepting life’s natural cycle is emotionally beneficial to the individual, rather than evading the reality of death. In The World According to Garp, prior to his son’s death
“Garp relished having such close scrutiny of the child; he lay beside Walt and smelled the boy’s fresh breath, remembering when Duncan’s breath had turned sour in his sleep in that grown up way. It had been an unpleasant sensation for Garp, shortly after Duncan turned six, to smell that Duncan’s breath was stale and faintly foul in his sleep. It was as if the process of decay, of slowly dying, was already begun in him” (310).
The paradox in the passage, between Duncan’s youth and dying breath, suggests Garp’s inherent frightful nature and fear of death. Garp is hyper aware of Duncan’s youth, evidently distant by the possibility of dying, however his pessimism causes him to only see the future death of Walt. “Decay” and turning “sour” imply that the process of death is natural; fruit and organic substances decay and die. Garp’s fear of death later is a large factor in his repression of feelings, especially after Walt’s death when, “Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became [a] code phrase for anxiety. […] Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger,” he recalls when “Duncan asked on the plane, ‘how Walt asked if [the Under Toad] was green or brown?’ Both Garp and Duncan laughed, But it was neither green nor brown […] It was [himself]. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather, It was the size of an automobile” (Garp 473). Garp’s fear of death takes form as the Under Toad, representing Garp’s passed son Walt and suggesting the weight death can carry for extended periods. Due to his passing Garp is always going to haunted by death, as per suggested by the anaphora of “when the”. Similarly, by the anaphora of “it was”, death haunts Garp because he feels guilty for it. In this case, he feels death was not natural or just, he caused it. Because of these feelings he strains his relationships with his family by evading situations he deems deadly, while simultaneously trying to repress his feelings about Walt. Garp observed death and believed it “‘does not have to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic’” (509). The personification of death is unnatural, because death simply is not a person and cannot feel the way Garp suggests it can. The fear of death and association with it as an unnatural event suggests, by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding death and Garp, that it’s better to accept death as a part of life’s cycle, rather than actively avoiding it. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, after Johnny’s mother Tabitha died, they planned a funeral and
“All those same crones of [Johnny’s] grandmother were there. [He] know what they came to see. How does royalty react to this? How will Harriet Wheelwright respond to Fate with a capital F—to a Freak Accident (with a capital F, too), or to an Act of God (if that’s what you believe it was)? All those same crones, as black and hunchbacked as crows gathered around some road kill—they came to the service as if to say: We acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free” (214).
The crones are symbolic of the Johnny’s society. Stratification and strict social norms riddle Gravesend, which Tabby had defied by having Johnny out of wedlock. The simile of the crones is censorious, suggesting that society is picking away at the remains of “road kill”, an innocent person. The arrival of the “crones” after her death reveals how even though they evaded confronting Tabby about her situation while she was alive, life has a natural cycle, and the crones coming to pick at road kill now that she is dead is expected. At the end of the novel, when Owen died, “The tissue that hung from the stumps of [his] arms was as filmy and delicate as gossamer–as fine and intricate as old lace” (Prayer 625). The simile associating Owen’s life threatening war injuries to delicate lace evokes a sentiment of peace. In Owen’s last moments, Irving romanticizes his bloody, violent amputation. The imagery associated with the gossamer and lace implies fragility, meaning Owen would need to be cared for. Death here is as beautiful due to the imagery, contrasting the fearful associations of death in Irving’s other work. The acceptance of death, Irving may suggest, is natural and likely will lead to more resolution than fearing it.
The vulgar and animalistic imagery used by John Irving concerning sex and its consequences suggests that repressing sexuality and demonizing natural parts of life, ultimately regresses societal and individual progress. In The World According to Garp, Jenny, a self proclaimed feminist, went to college where “the recommendation of Wellesley had come from her older brothers, who had assured her parents that Wellesley women were not thought of loosely and were considered high in marriage potential. Jenny felt […] as if she were really a cow, being prepared only for the insertion of the device for artificial insemination” (2). The simile comparing Jenny to a cow is reflective of how society dehumanizes Jenny and other women, caroling them into the wishes of men and authoritative figures. The condemnation of sex, calling woman who have it loose, creates an unbalanced power dynamic where women are treated like second hand citizens, lacking the agency to make comprehensive decisions. Irving compares the repression of her desires “artificial insemination”, literally unnatural, perhaps suggesting that treating women as less than men is also unnatural. In The Cider House Rules, Dr. Larch, an abortion doctor condemning pro-life society, notes, “Is it a democratic society that condemns people to the accident of conception? What are we-monkeys? […] What are you people thinking of? You’re not only crazy! You’re ogres!” (376). The animalistic imagery comparing society to “monkeys” and “ogres” reveals Irving’s accusatory tone towards the way society regards abortion. By alluding to society as monkeys and ogres, creatures that carry negative connotations, Irving condemns the mainstream pro-life, chaste society, switching the power dynamic vilifying society rather than women. In The World According to Garp, Garp makes a cruel joke about Ellen Jamesians, women who cut off their tongues in solidarity with a young rape victim. The joke goes as followed “Was that he conceived of his narrator-heroine as a lesbian who doesn’t realize that until after she cut off her tongue that she has made herself undesirable as a lover, too. […] There were, actually suicides. “There are always suicides,” Garp wrote, ‘among people who are unable to say what they mean’” (661). The amputation of the tongue, a motif appearing in several others of Irving’s novels, suggests a lack of autonomy within life. The direct link between sex and lack of control harms the individuals as their desires are minimized for mainstream society. In The Cider House Rules, Larch believes
“These same people who tell us we must defend the lives of the unborn—they are the same people who seem not so interested in defending anyone but themselves after the accident of birth is complete! These same people who profess their love of the unborn’s soul—they don’t care to make much of a contribution to the poor, they don’t care to offer much assistance to the unwanted or the oppressed! How do they justify such a concern for the fetus and such a lack of concern for unwanted and abused children? They condemn others for the accident of conception” (Cider 377).
The anaphora in the passage emphasizes Irving’s critical tone of people who condemn abortion. The passage contains views of people who condemn abortion juxtaposed with critical opposition. Irving ironically suggests through the juxtaposition, and accusatory repetition that people who demonize abortion, blaming it on a lack of responsibility, take no responsibility themselves. While they can be quick to judge those who left without a choice, they deliberately make the choice to take the freedom of choice away. Helena Wahlstrom a critic of Irving says, “the novel […] makes abortion almost universal, a part of normative reproduction practices. This representation is true to the reality of abortion in the US — where studies show that all kinds of women have abortions” (258). The book starts with back alley abortions and includes older women, young teens, and both wealthy and poor women seeking abortions, representative of the reality in America. While abortion can be viewed as the most evasive situation, (as women are supposedly giving up their children, thus running away from their problems) it is actually the truest forms of confrontation in the novel. Rather than running from their problems, by reclaiming control over their sexuality, no longer repressing it, the women take responsibility and make decisive choices that will lead to a resolution.
The characters in John Irving’s novels tend to physically distance themselves from their problems in order to gain short-term satisfaction, without considering the long-term effects. By abandoning their problems, they create poor situations for themselves, which Irving suggests is unnatural. Irving uses animal symbolism to establish how characters perceive themselves, in terms of identification and societies, revealing how self-perception affects the way characters view the world. In The Cider House Rules, a confused Homer witnesses a lynx, “panicked”, trying to run up a hill; “it was less than halfway up when it began to slide down again, […] the lynx was panting; it ran diagonally uphill, slipping but catching itself, and slipping again, finally escaping into the softer snow in the woods […] the lynx would accept any route of escape from the dark hospital.” (401). The lynx is symbolic of Homer and the struggle he faces growing up in a hostile environment. The repetition of the word “slipping” emphasizes Homer’s repressed feelings towards the hospital. Despite it being his home it is no longer is it the safe haven he would try to return to, inhospitable to the person he has become. While in The Cider House Rules, Homer perceived himself similarly to a lynx, in The Water Method Man, Trumper identifies with a eel: “He saw a tiny, translucent, turquoise eel, its inner organs visible and somehow functioning. […] As the bubble rose to the surface, other fish investigated it, nudged it, sometimes broke it. […] Was a bubble a word or a whole sentence? Perhaps a paragraph! A tiny, translucent, turquoise poet reading beautifully to his world!” (58). The aquatic imagery and personification describing the eel represents Trumper’s feelings towards himself. The imagery, describing the eels as “tiny, translucent”, with organs visible and simultaneously functioning, being probed by its peers, suggests a fragility about Trumper and a delicacy about his emotional state. Although Trumper is not formally an artist, the inquisition towards what the bubble, his words, reveals his belief that both he and his art are misunderstood. Later Trumper “stabbed and he stabbed, trying to lance one of [the fish] against the glass. They had killed the poet! The eel had been pleading with them–bubbles for mercy! And they had eaten him, the fuckers” (Water 61). While the previous comparison to the eel described Trumper’s feelings towards himself, this reveals how he perceives himself amongst his peers in society. Trumper believes he is a victim of his peers. The violent language, “killed” and “eaten”, suggests that his peers are consuming his worth. Furthermore, the quote reveals Trumper’s own violent tendencies and inclination towards revenge. He violently “stabbed and he stabbed” the tank trying to take out one of the fish, a behavior that may result from having bottled up his feelings about others. His justification is short, “they had killed the poet”. He victimizes the poet and demonizes the eel’s peers, displaying how Trumper feels that within his own society he is the subject of abuse.
Irving personifies the denial of reality to emphasize that repressing your problems is detrimental to oneself, because it haunts the individual, hindering them from growing. In The Cider House Rules, Senior Worthington believed his “brain [was] sending poison to [his] heart’” (232). The personification of the brain and heart as two separate entities with different emotional and logical purposes emphasizes the distinction between choice and having something forced upon one. The word choice of “poison” suggests that the weight of drinking for so many years has taken a toll on Senior Worthington, and that his repression and evasion of situations, masked by a drunken state, has led to his dismal demise. The distinction and personification between the brain and heart suggests that the brain is responsible for logical thought whereas Worthington’s true feelings come from his heart; by separating the brain from the heart; Irving thus separates feelings from rational, making it easier for people to repress how they feel. Repression thus leads to haunting, as Garp would “lay awake [at night] because the phantoms of those days were not gone” (Garp 312). Condoms by nature are supposed to protect and act as a shield towards STDs and pregnancy. Here the condom symbolize the shield Homer has put up against his past, however as the situation shows, condoms can break, thus Homer’s shield is penetrable. Repressing and evading the past can only work for so long; the situation is always going to have the capability of haunting one. Irving also uses evasion in his writing to add ‘to the suspense he establishes when he refuses to chronicle the accident immediately.’ While we learn of the injuries to Garp, Helen and Duncan right after the car crash, we don’t learn Walt has died until the end of the chapter (McKay par. 7). The ambiguity after Walt’s death is prevalent. The structure of the narrative and the language of it appropriate Garp’s personal voice translating the information regarding the accident in a poetic manner. The abstract ambience surrounding the situation adds suspense, causing Garp to seem regretful. Regret takes tolls on many of Irving’s characters, looming over them and influencing their perception of everyday life. In The Cider House Rules, Angel sat on the roof with Rose and “told her all about the ocean: the strange tiredness one feels at the edge of the sea, the weight in the air, the haze in the middle of a summer day, the way the surf softens sharp things” (511). The ocean imagery, symbolizes the repressed situations Rose and Angel are dealing with. With words like “weight” and “haze” in combination with words such as “summer day” and “soften[ing] sharp things” Irving suggests that the despite the beauty associated with the ocean, a toll has been taken on it. The overcast imagery reveals how despite something may appear perfect, flaws will arise and they cannot hide. Ironic because the characters try hard to repress and hide unwanted situations, the overcasting, evaded problems for the characters seen regardless. The idea that problems do not disappear is apparent in A Prayer for Owen Meany, when Irving personifies memory claiming, “Your memory is a monster; you forget–it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you–and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!” (36). The personification of memory suggests that memories themselves live separately from the people they belong to and the metaphor comparing memory to a monster implies that they are to be feared. Johnny is bound to his memories and has no free will, as depicted by the possessive verb in the last sentence. The association of fear with memories, especially memories that seemingly wish to be forgotten, indicates that perhaps instead of running from memories and the past, it would be better to just confront them. Memory is thus associated with time, and as McKay notes “the number of pages given to the brief episode of his mother’s death is inordinate to actual time, but memory works by selectively expanding and contracting time” (McKay). Memory and time are different because time is a set measurement; memory is completely dependent on the subject and how one remembers it. Therefore it makes sense that Johnny spends so much time remembering his mother’s death even though it only took a short amount of time; it’s relevance is much more prominent than any other event, regardless of its timeframe.
The organic imagery throughout the novel, juxtaposed to characters and the situations they find themselves in unwillingly, creates a reoccurring theme that the characters resort to: repression and evasion. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny runs away to Canada after his best friend’s death; similarly, in The Cider House Rules, Homer moves due to unresolved and conflicting feelings towards his orphanage. In The Water-Method Man and The World According to Garp characters, fearful of their relationships, ruin ties with others. The negative consequences that accompany the characters as they avoid the uncomfortable, described with organic imagery, reveals how evasion of confrontation is inherently unnatural. Thus, Irving suggests that in order to maintain a happy and fulfilled life, characters should confront reality, improving their relationships with others, satisfying their desire for emotional connections.
“The Little Lord Jesus”: The Existence of Higher Powers in A Prayer for Owen Meany
In a Prayer for Owen Meany the relationship between religion and faith is often contradictory to societal beliefs causing confusion. Johnny’s questioning of organized religion and his growing faith creates a tension. The last chapter of the novel reconciles the tension through the parallelism that occurs between Owen and religious, supernatural imagery, indicating that faith and religion are not necessarily linked. Thus the novel suggests that the existence of higher powers is dependent on an individual’s perceptions, not traditional norms.
Throughout the span of Johnny’s life, the contrast between his struggle to find truth in religion and his increasing faith in his best friend, Owen Meany, illustrates the inner battle Johnny faces while determining what he believes in. The novel begins with Johnny criticizing religion claiming, “every study of the gods, of everyone’s gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent” (9). The use of “study” brings to question the difference between religion and faith, as in the passage religion is something to be studied, faith is something to believe in. Johnny is questioning the validity of organized religion, as he sees it as more corrupt than beneficial. His uncertainty towards Christianity is apparent throughout the novel as he questions the practice of religious figures between various branches of Christianity. The act of deciding his favorite practice of religion puts a strain on Johnny’s faith, which Owen analyzes by saying that “BELIEF IS NOT AN INTELLECTUAL MATTER” (115). Comparable to Irving’s use of “study” in the previous passage, “intellectual” suggests that using analytical thought, in regard to faith, dismisses its strength.
In youth, religion played a larger role in Johnny’s life than faith, which is contrasted in adulthood, after Owen’s death, when “a small, strong hand (or something like a small, strong hand) guided [his] own hand to the light switch; a small, strong hand, or something like it, pulled [him] forward from where [he] teetered on the top step of the stairs. And his voice–it was unmistakably Owen’s voice–said: ‘DON’T BE AFRAID. NOTHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU’” (526). The repetition emphasizes the implication, even before it’s outright said, that Owen is helping Johnny from beyond the grave. The italicized text indicates the bewilderment Johnny must have felt in the moment, and further it signifies how much he truly believes Owen saved him. The miracle of Owen coming back to Johnny from death perpetuates his faith in Owen as a godly force. Much more than a boy or childhood friend, Owen is a miracle, someone to look up to–God. The belief in faith that Owen instilled within Johnny cascades into his adult life when he found that “[he] was more of an Anglican than [he] ever was a Congregationalist or an Episcopalian–or even a nondenominational, Hurd’s Church whatever-[he]-was. [He] was a participant at Grace Church on-the-Hill in a way that [he] had never been a participant before” (465). Before Owen’s death Johnny’s experience with religion had been inconsistent, having switched branches of Christianity as a child, critiquing the authority and practice in Church. It’s only after Owen’s death does Johnny start strongly identifying as a Christian, because he believes in the miracle that was Owen. The emphasis on word choice in the passage signifies the different stages of Johnny’s life, suggesting the last is most meaningful, as he’s participating actively, making his own deliberate choices about faith. Johnny defines Christianity for himself when he disregards traditional norms and allows himself to believe in the person he has always been faithful in, demonstrating how higher powers do not have to take traditional forms.
The parallelism between Owen and religious, supernatural imagery reconciles the tension between faith and religion, exhibiting how faith and traditional perceptions of religion can be two separate entities, further suggesting that the existence of godly figures is dependent on a person’s faith. As a boy Owen’s peculiar physical characteristics are often drawn attention to for the purpose of displaying his physical weakness. The irony throughout the novel, however, is that despite his small stature Owen has great spiritual power, demonstrated in the context of religious imagery as when “he looked like a descending angel–a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways” (72). The heavenly imagery associated with Owen is suggestive that he is more than human and that he possesses some form of holy power. Owen and Jesus are analogous through adjudication, as Jesus was asked to adjudicate sins, indicating that Owen has the same purpose. His physical characteristics represent him as a religious figure as do the way he is perceived figuratively: “The editorial and the subsequent weekly essays that Owen published in The Grave were ascribed not to Owen Meany by name, but to “The Voice”; and the text was printed in uniform upper-case letters” (293). The parallelism between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ is shown through the way Owen is portrayed at his school newspaper. He’s referred to as “The Voice” with a capital V that is similar to how God is capitalized, as He. Similarly Owen and Jesus both have distinct forms of recognition in terms of their writing. In the Bible Jesus’s words are distinguished by red text, comparable to Owen’s capitalized writing in the paper (and his dialogue). The similarities in style and recognition indicate that Owen is as transcendent and important to his following (his community at Gravesend) as Jesus was to Christians.
Furthermore Owen’s presence, although physically small, carried great weight among his community. Often a leader, his voice is prevalent as is the light imagery that he is associated with, seen at the end of the novel when “the sun had set, vivid streaks of vermilion-colored light traced the enormous sky, and through one of these streaks of light [Johnny] saw Owen’s plane descending–as if, wherever Owen Meany went, some kind of light always attended him” (607). The imagery associated with Owen describes him as a figure followed by a constant presence of light: a supernatural, heavenly characteristic. Light is often implicit of positivity and purity, characteristics reminiscent of angels and holy figures. Moreover, the most explicit comparison of Owen to Jesus is the Meanys’ suggestion that Owen is the product of a “virgin birth” (549). While many find the notion preposterous, the implication of it suggests that Owen, like Jesus, was born fated for a sacrificial cause. The parallelism between Owen and Jesus resolve Johnny’s contradictory feelings about organized religion and faith, because he no longer has to decide which takes the more prevalent role in his life. Johnny’s redefinition of Christianity, through means of Owen, exhibits the flexibility of faith and religion, showing that, although separate entities, they can coexist; in Johnny’s case his religion is dependent on his faith in Owen.
The tension between Johnny’s questioning of religion throughout the novel and his growing faith is reconciled by the parallelism that occurs between Owen and religious imagery in the last chapter of the novel, which indicates that faith and religion are not necessarily linked. The contradicting forces of spirituality, religion and faith, have been tearing at Johnny his entire life. It was not until Johnny was able to define how religion would play in his life, through the means of fate, that he was able to have confidence in his spiritual identity. By allowing Owen to be the higher power in his life Johnny proves that the existence of higher powers do not have to depend on societal norms, but rather an individual’s beliefs.
Friendship in A Prayer For Owen Meany
A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving is a humorous, thrilling novel that takes the reader to unexpected places. Structurally, the book is not in chronological order. The narrator, John Wheelwright, dictates memories, anecdotes, and scenes from his experiences with his best friend, Owen Meany. Irving follows the journey from childhood friendship into adulthood between the two, showing the true meaning of friendship and the impact that Owen has on John. Using these two appealing characters, Irving presents themes and moral lessons in a constantly entertaining way. Through A Prayer For Owen Meany, Irving discusses religion and the persistence of friendship, even through adversity.John Irving’s narrator, John Wheelwright, serves as a foil to the character of Owen Meany, the protagonist. Meany embodies the qualities of a true leader while John grows more like his father: doubtful and lost. In the beginning of the novel, immediately there is a clear difference between Owen and Johnny. In the field of academics, Owen is the valedictorian of his class while he helps John not to fail in his studies. Owen is very sure of his belief system and Johnny, very doubtful and unsure about his beliefs or feelings towards God, admits that he skips “a Sunday service now and then, makes no claims to be especially pious, [and says he] has a church-rummage faith-the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2). Compared to Johnny’s more passive personality, Owen is extremely active. For example, in the Christmas pageant of 1953, Owen demands not to be the Announcing Angel: “PUT SOMEONE ELSE UP IN THE AIR,” Owen said. “MAYBE THE SHEPHERDS CAN JUST STARE AT THE ‘PILLAR OF LIGHT.’ THE BIBLE SAYS THE ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARED TO THE SHEPARDS – NOT TO THE WHOLE CONGREGATION. AND USE SOMEONE WITH A VOICE EVERYONE DOESN’T LAUGH AT,” he said, pausing while everyone laughed. (159) Even though everyone is laughing at him, Meany follows through anyway, adamant in his decision to not be the angel. Throughout the novel, John has a constantly worships Owen as a hero. The narrator comments, “Thus did Owen get his way, again; ‘On the hay’ was where he would lie…” (165) after he gets the part as baby Jesus. This excerpt shows Johnny in awe of his friend, the way Owen takes charge of the situation and creates the pageant the exact way he wants it. John on the other hand, the passive character, ends up being Joseph out of the fact that Owen prescribed him the part. Owen has an advantage over Johnny in the sense that Owen has a purpose in life that is very clear to him. On the other hand, Johnny can do nothing but follow his friend from class to class, major to major, into college. When Owen follows his mission and goes to the army, John is left without a sense of direction. With Owen gone, he has no one to tell him what his next move will consist of. He ends up going into graduate school because he fears the day when he actually has to make a decision about what he will do for the rest of his life. In the end, he does make a decision for the rest of his life by going to school for a degree in English. However, Owen has no hesitation when it comes to his future and his decision-making: “Owen Meany got his scholarship to the University of New Hampshire; he signed up for the ROTC…” (343). This could also stem from Owen’s strong relationship with god. He believes he is God’s instrument, making every action meaningful, making every move count. Another example is when Owen accidently kills John’s mother by hitting a foul ball to her head. However, he claims to Johnny, “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen actually thinks that God wanted him to kill John’s mother, Tabitha, and that he was doing God’s bidding because when he saw an angel in John’s mother’s room, he thinks he disturbed it, interfering with the scheme of fate. John has a weak relationship with god and is left doubting the existence of a higher power and a purpose for himself. The productivity deck is stacked in Owens favor because John has to play his own game; he is not just a chess piece being directed by God. He has no idea if his next day will be his last or if his next decision will matter in the least, whereas Owen just follows his road map to the date on his grave. The fact that John grows doubtful and lost throughout the book is only partially his fault. The early death of his mother puts a premature veil of grief over his eyes, clouding his potential for the future. The other reason is his friendship with Owen, a crippling indulgence for John. It is crippling in the way that it takes away Johns power of choice: he only follows the directions of his best friend. Owen has the qualities that John can never have: He is persuasive, has a mission, is motivated, is prepared, and is sure of himself, all of which leave him a very strong man. On the other hand, John is passive, has no mission, has no initiative, is unprepared, and doubts himself and his beliefs, all of which leave him a very weak man. Owen is the person that John could never be; he has the character that John could never have. He lives the way that John could never live, and he dies in a way that John could never die. One theme in A Prayer For Owen Meany is religion and believing in the existence of God. John admits that “Owen Meany is the reason [he believes] in God. [He] is a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1). Owen had such an effect on Johnny’s faith because of who Owen was and all that he accomplished. His life was unusual to say the least. Meany had supernatural visions and dreams that he believed were of the time and place of his death. During the play of A Christmas Carol, Owen faints after seeing his own name on Scrooge’s tombstone. The tombstone said “THE WHOLE THING” (254), which became the first vision Meany had of his own death, a death that eventually becomes reality. Owen believes that he acts as God’s instrument and offers miraculous evidence of God’s existence. For example, Owen claimed that John’s father would “know that [his] mother was dead – and that – when [he] was old enough – he would identify himself to [him]…that was the day Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to [his] belief in God” (10). At the end of the story, Meany’s claim came true when Wheelwright’s father, Reverend Louis Merrill, revealed himself to him. Clearly, Owen has an extremely strong faith, to the extent that he believes God is working through him. Johnny remains troubled over his faith because Owen’s sacrificial death seems unfair to him. Owen saved the lives of many Vietnamese children, what he believes is his destiny, but kills himself in the process. He loses both of his arms, and then bleeds to death. As he died, all he had to say to the children was “DOONG SA – DON’T BE AFRAID” (614). His destiny was fulfilled. Johnny has the problem of accepting God’s will. Even if John has a hard time believing in God, he definitely puts faith in Owen himself and Owen appears to be a God-like character. Another prevalent theme in Irving’s text is the persistence of friendship, even through adversity. Even though Owen killing John’s mother was an accident, it was still extremely difficult for Johnny to lose his mother. However, Johnny gives Owen his armadillo “to show [him] that [he] loves him enough to trust anything with him – to not care if [he does or does not] get it back. It had to be something he [knew he] wanted back. That’s what made it special” (83). So, even though Owen did kill his mother, Johnny recognized that it was an accident and forgave his friend. Their friendship persisted, even through that adversity. Secondly, while in the gym practicing their basketball move “The Shot” (338), the two friends argue over the fact that Owen thinks he is “GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (337):“I SUPPOSE YOU HEARD THAT FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS,” he said. “THE TROUBLE WITH YOU IS, YOU DON’T HAVE ANY FAITH.” “The trouble with you is, you’re crazy,” [John] told him, but I retrieved the basketball. “It’s simply irresponsible,” [he] said – “for someone your age, and of your education, to go around thinking he’s God’s instrument!” (338)However, the two friends get over the argument and perform “the shot” in less than four seconds, a new record for them. Irving’s text shows that friendship can persist even through adversity. Using two appealing characters, Irving presents themes and moral lessons in a constantly entertaining way. The two themes, religion and friendship can be applied to today’s society, making Irving’s text even more rewarding for the reader. Many people today struggle with finding God or strongly believing, just like Johnny. In addition, friendships can come and go. However, Irving shows that a true friendship can last, even through adversity.
Arms and Hands: Symbols of Power, Faith, and Doubt in A Prayer For Owen Meany
In many religions, arms and hands are regarded as symbols of divine power and expression. Author John Irving uses this tradition in A Prayer for Owen Meany to illustrate Owen’s power and portray Owen as a deity. A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the story of two best friends growing up, and how one’s religious devoutness influences the other into late adulthood. Owen is sure of his faith throughout his life, and as a young adult believes he is the ‘Christ Child’. His belief stems from his supernatural ability to see the future, to sense death, and his birth from a ‘virgin’ mother. John, his best friend, struggles with his faith and identity throughout his life and is greatly influenced by Owen and his actions, beliefs, and powers. Arms and hands are motifs in the novel that add depth to the meaning of the story.
Arms are often used in religion to symbolize a deity’s power, which is illustrated in Irving’s novel; the armadillo, dressmaker’s dummy, and Mary Magdalene are symbols used to depict the ways in which Owen receives power from God. In Christianity, the power of God is written in the Bible as “the arm of God”. According to the Rev. Edward Craig Mitchell in Scripture Symbolism: An Introduction to the Science of Correspondences, Or Natural and Spiritual Counterparts, “The arm of Jehovah signifies the Divine Power. In a special sense, the arm of Jehovah is the Divine Humanity, assumed in ultimates, or externals, in Jesus Christ,” (Mitchell, 165). At the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany, when Owen saves a dozen children from death, it is his arms, and the arms of Johnny, that propel him into the ceiling to throw out the grenade. Thus, it is his arms which emphasize his power as a hero, and which consummate the theory that Owen’s power to see the future is a trait of his divinity. This incident leaves him armless, symbolizing that as he dies God is relieving Owen of his duties as “His instrument”, and that Owen has lost purpose for life. Throughout the novel, armless figures are used to symbolize that God has dismembered someone in order to express His will. After he kills Johnny’s mother, Owen and Johnny take part in a sort of exchange of offerings, in which Owen takes the claws of a stuffed armadillo both boys hold sacred. The taking of the ‘arms’ of the armadillo represents that it was not Owen’s hands which killed Tabby Wheelwright, but God’s. This notion is expressed also in the “Angel of Death” that comes for Tabby. When Owen walks into her bedroom and sees the armless dressmaker’s dummy, he believes it to be the Angel of Death. He says, “THAT ANGEL WAS VERY BUSY- SHE WAS MOVING, ALWAYS MOVING. ESPECIALLY HER HANDS- SHE KEPT REACHING OUT WITH HER HANDS.” (450). That night, Owen had ‘taken’ the arms/hands of the dressmaker’s dummy and assumed its role as the Angel of Death. After he kills Tabby, this becomes evident to him, and he realizes that he is the hand of God. Further, at Gravesend Academy Owen is expelled because of his illegal copying of draft cards and contentious relationship with the administration. In protest he mutilates the statue of Mary Magdalene. By removing her arms and placing her in sight of the administration, Owen demonstrates his power to control his own fate and execute the will of God. Arms are used in A Prayer for Owen Meany as a way for God to communicate through Owen. The symbols of the armadillo, dressmaker’s dummy, and Mary Magdalene represent how Owen receives power from God.
Hands are also prominent symbols in religious scripture and A Prayer for Owen Meany. The Rev. Edward Craig Mitchell claims that God blesses his constituents by “the laying-on of hands”, and thus the laying-on of hands symbolizes the communication of divine power (168). Irving writes that “you simply had to put your hands on Owen,” (31), and that girls who saw him were “compelled” to touch him (352). Throughout the book, characters such as Johnny’s mom, Mary Beth Baird, Hester, and Owen’s Sunday School peers, are moved to touch him by some unnamed force. This force is the attraction of his supernatural powers; by touching Owen (‘the instrument of God’), one is able to feel closer to God and receive his message. In Buddhism, mudras, or finger-based patterns, are used to express and communicate divine messages. According to Stanford University’s Exotic India Newsletter, mudras are “used to evoke in the mind ideas symbolizing divine powers or the deities themselves” (Kumar). When Owen amputates Johnny’s finger to help him avoid the draft, he is using his ‘powerful’ hands to decide Johnny’s fate, and remove some of his ability to communicate with God. As a consequence, as an adult, Johnny is uncertain of his faith. Irving writes that Johnny went through a period of concrete faith in Canada, but began to question it. Johnny says: “my belief in God disturbs and unsettles me … belief poses so many unanswerable questions!” (504). Johnny’s faith is founded on his belief in miracles, namely Owen’s existence; his doubt is founded on questions that he cannot answer, most of which are political or ethical. Irving uses hands in A Prayer for Owen Meany to symbolize communication, or lack thereof lack of in Johnny’s case, with God.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, author John Irving presents Owen Meany as a deity through symbolism, particularly through the symbols of arms and hands. In Christian and Buddhist scripture, arms and hands are used as symbols of religious authority and communication with a divine power. Irving uses arms and hands, particularly those of Owen, to show that he has the power of God, and that his life is devoted to expressing the will of God. Other symbols include the armadillo, dressmaker’s dummy, the statue of Mary Magdalene, and Johnny’s amputated finger. These represent the transfer of celestial capacity from an object onto Owen. Owen’s power as an expression of God’s will is the miracle that is the foundation of Johnny’s faith, and is used to conclude that faith and doubt come in conjuncture.
A Close Reading of the Death of JFK and Owen Meaney’s Reactions
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)