Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A Prayer for Owen Meany is the story of John Wheelwright’s relationship with his childhood friend Owen Meany, a midget with a high, squeaky voice, whose life and death move John to have faith in God. Despite his size, Owen has a commanding presence that directs John’s life. Owen comes to symbolize a moral intensity that John finds sorely absent from American life.
In 1987, John Wheelwright, a forty-five-year-old English teacher living in Canada, is finally able to write about his experiences with Owen Meany in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when they were growing up in Gravesend, New Hampshire. John’s narrative is disjointed and nonsequential, oscillating between past and present, intermixing current news events, historical statistics, and cultural commentary with personal recollections. Unable to adjust to Canadian life and outraged at the moral malaise in the United States, John is drawn back to his youth in New England. His recollections focus on his illegitimate birth to a single mother, his mother’s marriage and untimely death, and his close relationship with Owen Meany.
Tabitha Wheelwright, John’s mother, had an affair during one of her overnight trips to Boston that resulted in John’s birth. She never tells John the identity of his father. Tabitha rises above town gossip and rears John in the stately house of her mother, Harriet Wheelwright, whose ancestors go back to the Mayflower. Tabitha is devoted to John. She later marries Dan Needham, a Harvard graduate and a teacher at Gravesend Academy. During Tabitha and Dan’s wedding, an ominous hailstorm breaks out. As Tabitha offers a ride to Owen, whom she loves almost as much as her son, a hailstone hits her on the head. Owen apologizes for the accident.
This part of the wedding scene carefully mirrors the scene of Tabitha’s death. During a boring Little League baseball game that is already lost, Owen hits a foul ball that strikes Tabitha on the head, killing her. This scene propels John on his quest for his father. John believes that his mother was waving to his father when she was hit. The baseball, which the local policeman calls the murder weapon, mysteriously disappears. Owen is convinced that he is God’s instrument. Overcome by a sense of destiny, Owen believes that he frightened the angel of death away from John’s mother one night and thus was ordained to be the instrument of her death....
(The entire section is 987 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“’INTO PARADISE MAY THE ANGELS LEAD YOU,’” quotes Owen Meany over the grave of the narrator’s mother. Tiny Owen Meany is an alter-ego for the novel’s narrator, John Wheelwright. From the vantage point of the late 1980’s, Wheelwright, a schoolteacher in Toronto, remembers the 1960’s, when he and Owen were growing up in the small town of Gravesend, New Hampshire.
The story begins with an odd death of the sort that frequently occurs in Irving’s novels: Owen accidentally kills John’s mother by hitting a baseball that strikes her in the head. John, who takes his surname, Wheelwright, from his mother’s family because his father is unknown, spends a good part of the novel wondering who his father is; at the moment of her death, he realizes his mother was waving to his father in the stands.
Owen, who never reaches normal adult stature, comes from an indrawn family, the local quarry owners. His relationship with John is like that between soul and body, separate but united; he eventually becomes the love interest of John’s cousin. At one point Owen plays the Christ child in a Christmas pageant. Indeed, Owen is Christlike in several respects; all of his lines appear in capital letters, reminiscent of red-letter Bibles that highlight the words of Jesus. Owen’s words, in capital letters, are much more than conversational responses or innocuous chatter.
By putting them in capitals, Irving gives them an importance that cannot be ignored by even the casual reader. Everything Owen says seems practical, even wise, by comparison with those around him. His voice is large, both in print and in the rooms of the narrator’s home. John’s grandmother often remarks about the strange little boy...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In the first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany, the adult John Wheelwright, the narrator, tells the reader three things: that Owen Meany was the smallest person he ever knew; that he was the instrument of John’s mother’s death; and that Owen is the reason John believes in God: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.
This sentence lays out some of the complex issues of the novel in simple terms. The novel then proceeds to tell the story of John and Owen, the boy with the “wrecked voice,” from their childhood to their adulthood.
As children, John and Owen live in Gravesend, New Hampshire, where John is the grandson of Harriet Wheelwright and a descendant of John Adams; Owen, by contrast, is the son of an owner of a granite business. They go to church together (where a favorite Sunday School game was picking Owen up and passing him around over the heads of the other children), they play Little League baseball together, and they attend school together. John Irving renders the “wrecked voice” to which the opening sentence refers in full capital letters; in fact, that Irving intends Owen to be associated in the reader’s mind with Christ is made partially clear by this use of capital letters for Owen’s words, a device that parallels the printing of the words of Christ in red in some versions of the Bible. The capital letters also represent Owen’s otherworldly voice, described by the narrator as a “voice from another planet” and “a voice not entirely of this world.” However, one of the strongest connections with Christ is made when Owen’s father tells John that Owen was born to a virgin mother, that there was no sexual congress to account for his conception.
John is the illegitimate son of Tabitha Wheelwright, who sometimes refers to him as her “little fling.” Tabitha holds the secret of his parentage closely; no one knows who John’s father is, and Owen seems rather more curious about the father than is John. Tabitha had regularly attended singing lessons in Boston, to which she took the train and stayed overnight for her early lesson. On one of these trips, she became pregnant with John, but no one has an inkling as to who her lover might have been. When John is ten, Tabitha marries Dan Needham, a...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Johnny and Owen are best friends growing up in Gravesend, New Hampshire. Johnny resides in a lively household with his wealthy and outspoken grandmother Harriet, his pretty unwed mother Tabitha, visiting rambunctious cousins, and servants. Owen has a crush on Tabitha and likes to put clothes on her dressmaker’s dummy. Johnny’s grandmother financially supports Owen, and the two conduct a running commentary about television programs and world events.
Owen’s father owns a granite quarry, and his mother is a recluse. In a good-natured game, Johnny and other children in their Sunday school class lift tiny Owen up in the air and pass him around above their heads. Owen and Johnny speculate about who Johnny’s biological father could be. Dan, a suitor for Tabitha’s hand, brings Johnny the gift of a stuffed armadillo, and both boys cherish it. Dan and Tabitha marry, giving Johnny a wonderful father figure. Dan is a teacher and also directs the town’s amateur plays.
Owen is small but possesses exceptional intellect and wisdom. He presides over ceremonies such as the funeral for a neighbor’s dog and shows precocious understanding of world events. He wins over Johnny’s cousins, becoming the pack leader. Females are particularly attracted to Owen, always wanting to touch him. Owen expresses great dislike for the Catholic Church, a view he learned from his parents.
In a terrible accident, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball game that strikes Johnny’s mother and kills her. The ball disappears, and the boys come to believe that it will lead them to Johnny’s biological father. Owen and Johnny comfort each other after the death with an exchange of valued objects: the stuffed armadillo and baseball cards. Owen takes possession of the dressmaker’s dummy to save Dan and Johnny from further sadness.
The boys attend the private Gravesend Academy, where Owen is an academic star. He writes opinion columns in the school newspaper as “The Voice.” His strong beliefs enrage the controlling and mean-spirited headmaster, Randy White. At the end of his senior year, Owen is dismissed for making fake draft cards on the school’s copying machine. Owen pulls a prank on the headmaster: Using his granite-quarry skills, Owen hauls a headless, armless religious statue to the school stage and bolts it in place just before a student body meeting.
Though still tiny, teenaged Owen matures earlier than Johnny. He drives a car, smokes, dates girls, and develops muscles working in the granite quarry. He begins a serious romantic relationship with Johnny’s headstrong cousin Hester. Owen develops a fervent religious faith and the ability to predict the future. He tries to convince Johnny that he, too, should believe in God. Owen believes that he is God’s instrument, and that he will do something heroic...
(The entire section is 1162 words.)