Analysis of ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’, by John Irving
John Irving grew up in Philips Exeter Academy as the stepson of a faculty member. He did not meet his biological father even once in life though he used to attend John’s boxing matches. Though dyslexic, Irving was a voracious reader and loved writing. Wrestling was another of his great passions. He was tutored by the great Gunter Grass and mentored by Kurt Vonnegut as part of his college training. His novels are positioned somewhere between literary and popular fiction. Though his works were frequently shortlisted, they did not win special prizes. However many of them were turned into movies enabling him to become a wealthy man.
Relevance of the Title
Owen Meany is convinced that he has a larger role to play in life but his destiny as he knows it, scares him. So he tells Rev. Merrill to say a special prayer for him in front of the assembly at Gravesend Academy. The novel can also be read as an extended prayer for Owen by John.
Religion is the main theme of the novel. We see that John owes his religion to Owen. Owen is often presented as a Christ like figure who gives up his life for the good of man. There are descriptions of the struggle to maintain faith in difficult times when there are contradictions and waning interest in an organised religion. This is the essential theme of the novel.
John and Owen forge a friendship so strong that it sustains itself even when Owen is indirectly responsible for John’s mother’s death. Likewise, John helps Owen fulfil his destiny of saving people from destruction. Owen helps John renew his faith in Christianity and find his own identity.
There are wide differences in the backgrounds from which John and Owen come. Owen is born to working class parents whereas John’s mother belongs to an aristocratic family though he was an illegitimate child. John’s grandmother weighs people based on their last names.
John Wheelright is the narrator of the novel. He is the illegitimate child born to Tabitha Wheelright. It is only at the end of the novel that John comes to know that his father was Rev. Merrill. Not knowing who his father was had made John bitter. His faith in Christianity can be attributed to his friendship with Owen. John is a pacifist who is a perfect foil to Owen the dynamic protagonist who is destined for martyrdom. John helps Owen to attain that. John is oftentimes confused about God and faith. When he tells his own story he concludes by saying that he is a virgin due to the circumstances of his life.
Owen Meany stands out as being different by his appearance and high pitched nasal voice. Irving uses capital letters to indicate the nasal quality of his voice. He has weirdly luminous skin; his dynamism makes him precocious with even adults consulting him before making decisions. Fairly early in life he is convinced that he is God’s instrument on earth. He knows the day on which he will die; he also has these dreams in which he sees him saving a bunch of Vietnamese children and the nuns who accompany them. He has unshakable belief in fate; so he goes out of his way to make them come true.
The novel is in the form of recollections by John Wheelright of the life of Owen Meany who was his best friend during much of his life. It does not follow a strict chronological order but weaves in and out of time periods. John and Owen are as different as they come. Owen is the son of working class parents; John is the illegitimate son of Tabitha Wheelright who belongs to an aristocratic family. Owen is physically unusual with dwarf like stature and strangely luminous skin. John is meek whereas Owen is dynamic and precociously grown up. They were both students at the Gravesend Academy which is controlled by the Wheelright family. John does not know who his father is as Tabby, his mother steadfastly refuses to reveal his identity. Owen however assures that when the time comes God will reveal his identity. Even as a child, Owen is conscious that he is connected with God in a special way. Once when playing, Owen strikes a ball which hits Tabby and kills her. Though John is devastated by the loss of his mother, the boys remain the best of friends. This incident reaffirms Owen’s belief that he is God’s instrument on earth. He has visions of his own gravestone with the date of his death etched on it. Connected with this is his insistence that John and he practice a weird basketball move they call The Shot. This involves John carrying Owen on his shoulders so that the tiny Owen call slam dunk the ball. This is naturally not an accepted basketball tactic, nevertheless, they practice perfecting it until it can be carried out in the shortest time possible.
In school, there is a new Head Master with whom Owen does not get along. He indulges in wrongful activities for which he gets expelled. Though he had been accepted by both Yale and Harvard, the expulsion creates problems for him. John becomes a pacifist who refuses to take part in the Vietnam War. But the only way in which he can escape the draft is by being declared physically unfit. To achieve this, Owen cuts off part of John’s index finger so that he cannot handle a gun. While in the University, Owen begins having a dream of saving a group of Vietnamese children and the nuns accompanying them from an explosion though he dies in the effort.
1. “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. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ—and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim.”
The novel opens with these lines. John recollects the time that he spent with his best friend Owen Meany. The life of Meany has a profound influence on John’s life. John had been drifting without an identity as he did not know who his father was and his mother would not reveal his identity. Meany also dies saving a group of children and nuns just like he had dreamed he would. John was told by Owen’s father that Owen had been born of Immaculate Conception. These unusual incidents made John believe that his friend had some connexion with Christ that was not easy to explain.
2. “It made [Owen] furious when I suggested that anything was an “accident”—especially anything that had happened to him; on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith. There were no accidents; there was a reason for that baseball—just as there was a reason for Owen being small, and a reason for his voice. In Owen’s opinion, he had INTERRUPTED AN ANGEL, he had DISTURBED AN ANGEL AT WORK, he had UPSET THE SCHEME OF THINGS.”
Owen believed that all that happened in life had been fated. He did not approve of them being thought of mere accidents. There was no way fate could be prevented from happening. Incidents may appear as accidents but people were instruments of a divine will.
3. “The main thing is, Johnny,” Dan Needham said, “you have to show Owen that you love him enough to trust anything with him—to not care if you do or don’t get it back. It’s got to be something he knows you want back. That’s what makes it special.”
It is his step father Dan who shows John the way forward with his friendship with Owen. Owen has indirectly caused the death of John’s mother and he is shattered. But Dan has a deep insight into the friendship between the boys; it too precious for anything to upset it.
4. “His name was Dan Needham. How many times I have prayed to God that he was my real father!
John did not know who his father was; his mother would not reveal to him his identity. John was always searching for his identity. He was called a Wheelright but that was his mother’s maiden name. But when his mother married Dan Needham, the need for a father was met by Dan. He understood John and helped him to make peace with the world.