(c) 1995-2000 Barbara J. Troyer-Turvey

Thoughts on John Irving's
A Prayer for Owen Meany

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Thoughts?

from circa 1995...

I've just finished reading A Prayer for Owen Meany again; the first time was about three years ago. Since I mention it on my home page, many people who have searched for Owen Meany or Irving have found my page and have written to me. Of course, I had forgotten many of the events that happened, and even some of the feel of it. I needed to read it again to get back in touch with what it made me think and feel, and so that I could discuss it with you all intelligently.

Please note: this is not a complete literary analysis. I'm throwing out some ideas for perusal and I'll refine them as I go along. It is hard for me to put up something that is not completely finished, but if I wait until it is perfected I may never get around to putting it up. All of my notes are taken out of the Ballantine Books 1989 paperback edition.

Maybe I should start with some of the themes that I’ve been mulling over the last few days. I’m not even sure that I really understand all that Irving is trying to say in this novel, which is frustrating, but an excellent catalyst for exploration. Here goes:

Doubt, Faith, and Fate

  • Doubt is faith’s and our greatest asset. (John seems to represent true doubt, rivaled only by Pastor Merrill.)
  • Faith can be based on many things, ignorance among them being the worst:
    1. Prime example: Owen’s parents believing that he was a virgin birth, and believing so strongly that they let Owen in on it when he was around age 10, irrevocably shaping the course of his entire life. [Is that why they never celebrated Christmas, because they were angry at the Catholic church for not believing them and if they couldn’t celebrate the second virgin birth then why should they celebrate the first? Is that why the nativity on the mantel with the baby missing?]
    2. Pastor Merrill’s "miracle" staged by John, that restored his "faith." Such irony.
  • Doubt is better than faith based on false assumptions.
  • To be a watcher is to gain wisdom (John was a watcher).
  • Is faith inspired or created in one's own mind? Was Owen a virgin birth and fulfilling God's will or was his faith in his fate so strong that he developed supernatural powers of observation and clairvoyance

To me, Irving really makes religion and most faith look ridiculous in this novel, but I’m sure to some, it could be a book that supports their religion, their "faith." Surely, he did not intend that, but he does seem to support a personal faith or fate to spend your life fulfilling your personal role in fate.

He has some pretty harsh comments about this in the opening quotes of the novel. They are:

  • Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians This one does nothing for me. Perhaps this is how Owen would look at it.
  • Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. Frederick Buechner. Now, I ought to look this guy up! I especially love the last line. How could this whole novel not be an exploration of doubt with that quote at the beginning.
  • Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. Leon Bloy. Hmm. What exactly he means by this I’m not sure, but it’s pretty funny.

See other notes on faith in the Finger section.

Other Observations

  • Instrument. Being God’s instrument, or not. Armlessness being the chief symbol of this. The armless theme is very pervasive. The dressmaker’s dummy, which represented John’s mom. (sidenote: why did Irving choose to use his real name no accident!) Owen thinking he is God’s instrument because he accidentally killed John’s mom with the first real hit of his life. Owen cutting off the arms of the armadillo. Owen’s arms are blown off at the end with the fulfillment of his dream/vision: when he saves the roomful of Vietnamese children from the grenade. (Nice touch that it didn’t turn out happening in Vietnam, not even the way Owen, with all his clairvoyance, had foreseen. Much more powerful this way, that to be a hero, you don’t have to be THERE, and that the war reached out and grabbed them from across the globe).
  • I cannot ignore that a central theme of this book was centered on the emotional devastation, the physical devastation, of the Vietnam War. It fucked them all to pieces. It is in part a generational thing I’m sure, that I don’t feel close to it, that I don’t understand it. But, if anyone can make that generation relive it, it would be John Irving in this book. He hammers it home again and again. A war book, with no schemes of war!
  • Why did we never get to wonder why she didn’t LOOK until the last minute. Why she was walking so close to the game. Why she wasn’t more careful. Is this because it is just human nature to not always be alert, or because we get the story from John’s telling and he couldn’t be that critical of his mother? Notice he blames everyone else but his mother, and Owen, his best friend.
  • Why didn’t we get to know more about Hester? Did anyone else think of Hester Prynne when they saw that name? But, I don’t know how much like that character she was. She was sexually mature at a young age, resented her family, grew to resent everything, was crass... but she was faithful to Owen Meany (John thought anyway). Who really knows -- we didn’t get to be inside her.
  • I love how he remembered in stages. And how the story jumped around with his memory. Very indicative of the way that the mind waits to release traumatic details in the months and years after a close relative or friend dies.
  • Irving's style is so detached. It seems alternately constructive and destructive. What I mean by this, is that what the characters feel is alluded to only, never told. At least not any examples I can think of. But the story is told and shown by John. It takes years to get to know him or any of them this way, but we get years.
  • It is amazing to me that Irving is able to recycle many of the same themes throughout many of his novels, and yet still give them a very fresh face. In Owen Meany I recognized the boys school environment from the perspective of a child of faculty, the death of a mother at a young age, the dressmaker’s dummy, expatriate living in Canada... I’m surprised that no reference to a bear was made.
  • The disappointment of finding out who his father was: so anticlimactic as he points out that most things in life are. How true.

These terse chapter titles
are truly impressive:

1. The Foul Ball

  • Isn’t it funny that John believes in God, not because of God, but 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. Foul Ball, page 1.
  • ...but every study of the gods, of everyone’s gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent. (This is a part of my particular faith that meets with opposition from my Congregationalist and Episcopalian and Anglican friends.) Foul Ball, Page 7.
  • Why Owen Meany – what does Meany signify? He certainly is no meaney, no bully. Am I missing something? Speaking of names – Gravesend, New Hampshire – ha ha.
  • Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keep 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! Foul Ball, p. 35. One of my favorite quotes !
  • But what has John gotten out of all this wisdom, this enlightenment? He is nearly celibate. He can’t live in his own country. He is constantly thinking of America and he lives in the past.

2. The Armadillo

  • Hester predicted John’s celibacy quite well. ‘You keep doing that and you’ll make yourself sterile,’ said my cousin Hester, to whom every event of our shared childhood was either sexually exhilarating or sexually damaging. Armadillo, p. 54
  • …Owen Meany and I were permanently conditioned to flinch at the sound of a different kind of gunshot: that much-loved and most American sound of summer, the good old crack of the bat! The Armadillo, p. 82. What a perfect action to associate this death with. Works in my head anyway. I can hear that "crack" as clearly as anyone. I can even remember the satisfaction of occasionally producing that crack in a P.E. class. More often I remember the humiliation of striking out though.

3. The Angel

  • I like the idea of Owen seeing the Angel in Tabby’s room and later thinking that he interrupted the angel of death and that he didn’t know what kind of angel it was (implying that there are good and bad angels). Angel p. 101-103. And then saying that grandmother was wailing like a banshee. I felt pretty unobservant when Dan (Irving) pointed out what banshee meant and how specifically Owen had picked those particular words.
  • I don’t know what to think about the Little Lord Jesus stuff. I mean, I think I understand the symbolism of Owen as the second Christ. This one was made of man and not of God. But it seemed a little bit too much. Like when he ordered his parents out of the assembly from the manger. I still don’t understand why he was so upset that they were there. If he really believed that his was a virgin birth, then why object to the parents being there? Why object to Mary and Joseph being there? He didn’t do that in the symbolic play.
  • Hypocrisy. Irving doesn’t miss a chance to point out any of the hypocrisies of the varying religions, of church itself. The portrait of the family sitting in front of him when the kids don’t want to be there – he tells about their dysfunction in such a personal way – you know he was there at some point. I’d be very surprised if Irving didn’t grow up in the church or churches. You can’t really just pick this stuff up from other people.

4. The Little Lord Jesus

  • Coincidence. Owen Meany believed that ‘coincidence’ was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design—more powerful and unstoppable than The Flying Yankee. The Little Lord Jesus, p. 186.

5. The Ghost of the Future

6. The Voice

  • What does his crazy voice mean? We are led to believe that it is a permanent scream, that it never changes, because it has to be the voice of a child; he stays small because he has to be non-intimidating to the Vietnamese orphans.

7. The Dream

  • Rituals are comforting; rituals combat loneliness. The Voice p. 280.
  • …it was such a ridiculous thing for him to want to do—for someone his size to set himself the challenge of soaring and reaching so high…it was just silliness, and I tired of the mindless, repetitive choreography. The Voice p. 303. Soaring and reaching so high—not just for the basket, but to aspire to be a hero.
  • Yet he seemed content to watch Ben Hur, and Hester throwing up; maybe that’s what faith is—exactly that contentment, even facing the future. The Dream p. 358.

8. The Finger

  • How true is this? THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM, Owen said. He said that once—when Hester proposed abolishing the draft. 'IF YOU ABOLISH THE DRAFT,' said Owen Meany, 'MOST AMERICANS WILL SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD.' The Finger, p. 431.
  • 'THAT ISN’T EXACTLY WHAT FAITH IS,' he said, turning his attention to the tomato sauce. 'I DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING THAT POPS INTO MY HEAD—FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT.' The Finger, p. 472.
  • 'You’re always telling me I don’t have any faith,' I wrote to Owen. 'Well—don’t you see—that’s a part of what makes me so indecisive. I wait to see what will happen next—because I don’t believe that anything I might decide to do would matter. You know Hardy’s poem…I believe in "Crass Casualty"—in chance, in luck. That’s what I mean. You see? What good does it do to make whatever decision you’re talking about? What good does courage do—when what happens next is up for grabs?' The Finger, p. 504.
  • I really wish I could have seen some more of the details right after the finger was cut off. I don’t mean just out of prurient interest, but in the interest of realism. I mean, what happened? What was the pain like?? He never mentions it. Never mentions the trip to the hospital. How they explain it—as an accident? What did they do with the finger? Did Owen keep it? They certainly didn’t take it to the hospital with them—if they had the doctors would have tried to reattach it. Nor did he really mention what they did for him at the hospital or how long it took to heal.
  • Bitterness as a kind of faith—is that what he was striving to get across? This is what Owen thinks of Thomas Hardy at least. THINK OF HARDY AS A MAN WHO WAS ALMOST RELIGIOUS, AS A MAN WHO CAME SO CLOSE TO BELIEVING IN GOD THAT WHEN HE REJECTED GOD, HIS REJECTION MADE HIM FEROCIOUSLY BITTER. THE KIND OF FATE HARDY BELIEVES IN IS ALMOST LIKE BELIEVING IN GOD…LIKE FAITH, WHAT HARDY BELIEVED WAS NAKED, PLAIN, VULNERABLE. BELIEF IN GOD OR BELIEF THAT—EVENTUALLY—EVERYTHING HAS TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES…EITHER WAY YOU DON’T LEAVE ANY ROOM FOR PHILOSOPHICAL DETACHMENT. EITHER WAY, YOU’RE NOT BEING VERY CLEVER…NEVER CONFUSE FAITH, OR BELIEF—OF ANY KIND—WITH SOMETHING EVEN REMOTELY INTELLECTUAL.

9. The Shot

  • NOTHING BEARS OUT IN PRACTICE WHAT IT PROMISES INCIPIENTLY…HE WASN’T A GREAT THINKER—HE WAS A GREAT FEELER. The Shot p. 518-519.
  • How could Owen Meany have known what he ‘knew’? It’s no answer, of course, to believe in accidents, or in coincidences; but is God really a better answer? 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! Watch out for people who call themselves religious; make sure you know what they mean—make sure they know what they mean!" The Shot p. 571-572.