Study Guide

A Prayer for the Dying

by Stewart O’Nan

A Prayer for the Dying Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A gifted young author, Stewart O’Nan has already produced a number of books, including a collection of stories and four novels. The Pittsburgh native and former aerospace engineer has received recognition for his work, having won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for In the Walled City (1993) and having been named by the literary magazine Granta in 1996 as one of the nation’s best young novelists. A Prayer for the Dying propels him to what may be the top of his craft. It is not that the themes he uses are new: Albert Camus long ago inoculated readers against the horror of contagion; Bret Harte painted the varied hues of bucolic life; many have captured on paper the fortitude and fault of complex protagonists. What is new is that O’Nan has taken the genre of horror directly to the interior of the human person, forcing not only the main character but also the reader to confront the cauldron of the potential for evil that boils within.

The novel opens, innocently enough, with a wide-angle view of a rural American town shortly after the Civil War (1861-1865). The author serves up the scene slowly, allowing the reader to steep gently in the steamy cup of summer. One notices workers in the field, small children and tiny streams giggling their way through a heavy summer day, insects annoying the requisite cows, people moving through their everyday lives. They love, laugh, and argue, kill their kin and tend their tomatoes, perform the pedestrian and not so pedestrian tasks of living and of dying.

Jacob Hansen, Civil War veteran, functions in the tiny community not only as constable and preacher but also as undertaker. He is a person of honor and humility. He is family man, gentle man, model citizen—almost too good to be true. He is devoted to his talented and lovely wife, Marta, and to his young daughter. His life is ordered and controlled, as he takes time for both the pleasures of the flesh and the prayers of faith. He accepts the townsfolk and himself as they are, fully appreciating their good qualities and overlooking their faults. “They’ll all come to you someday,” he remarks to himself, “and they know you’ll do right by them.” Jacob certainly does right for the town. He is the sturdy warp upon which the town weaves its successes and troubles. Its fabric is strong because he is strong; it is orderly and good because he is orderly and good; it keeps the patterns of family and social life intact because he does; it is able to absorb and cope with its problems because in his own psyche he sets the design for how to behave. Friendships are closely woven and richly ornamented; lapses are dealt with in orderly fashion. While readers may not be drawn to like him—a bit too Milquetoast perhaps—they cannot help but admire him.

O’Nan’s plan is to capture interest not so much in the living of the town, but in its dying. The sunny reality of Friendship becomes overcast when a local farmer discovers an itinerant soldier dead beside his campfire, presumably the victim of murder and robbery. As Jacob arrives to claim the body, he marks the physical resemblance of the dead soldier to himself: There is the same battle-worn and dirty uniform, the same tin drinking cup. A shadow from Jacob’s dark history as a soldier in the Civil War passes briefly, but its meaning is made clear to the reader only later in the novel. Jacob’s congruence to the corpse is deeper than physical likeness. The soldier functions as a kind of metaphor for the main character. The corruption of disease in the dead man foreshadows what the author will reveal later about the constable himself. Questions of why Jacob travels by bicycle and not by horse and what really happened in the war linger among the gathering clouds in the reader’s mind.

As constable and undertaker, Jacob has a duty to solve the mystery of the soldier’s death as well as to prepare his corpse for burial. Both tasks are undertaken with equanimity and seriousness. The reader sees the undertaker’s meticulous care, his gentleness, and his almost too-good-to-be-true character. He speaks to the deceased and says a respectful prayer. It is both office and obsession for him to bathe the body, carefully drain the blood and clothe the rigid form, and arrange it in a coffin for burial. Jacob demonstrates the same care here as he had with...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)