A Prayer for Owen Meany Essay - Essays and Criticism

John Irving

Essays and Criticism

Owen Meany as a Christ-Figure

Hunting for Christ-figures in literature is a popular pastime amongst students searching for a thesis to carry them through a term paper assignment. Although Western literature can yield many examples of such figures (Melville's Billy Budd is perhaps the best example), identifying Christ-figures in modern literature is often a more problematic enterprise. Many have been proposed, ranging from Frodo or Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1956) to R. P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), although none of these examples is highly convincing. But such is not the case with Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen is clearly and unambiguously a Christ-figure on many levels, from the obvious to the subtle. Irving uses the more esoteric aspects of the Christ symbol to add depth to his portrayal of the significance of Owen's life, as well as to buttress his critique of American politics and society.

It is obvious from the beginning of the novel that Owen Meany is special. John, the narrator, comments that he used to think Owen's strange falsetto voice came from another planet; now he believes that "it was a voice not entirely of this world." When, as a child, John sees Owen framed by a shaft of sunlight in the attic as they are playing, his appearance is so striking that "he looked like a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways."

From then on, Irving gives broad hints that Owen is neither alien nor angel but a Christ-figure. There is nothing ambiguous or ironic about the religious allusions. Irving wields his symbolism like a heavy blunt instrument; he wants to make sure readers get the point. For example, in chapter 4, when Owen, Dan, and John return home after Owen has secured the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant, the chapter ends with a quotation from the well-known Christmas carol:

As Owen finished knocking the snow off his boots— as the little Lord Jesus stepped inside our house— Dan half-sang, half-mumbled the refrain we knew so well: 'Hark! the her-ald an-gels sing, 'Glo-ry to the new-born King!'

Readers are meant to make the connection and not to doubt or question it. Irving wants readers to believe that Owen is following in Christ's footsteps in a way that is more than human. When Owen plays the Christ child with great authority—even his parents obey him—Mr. Fish says it is clear that Owen's Christ is no ordinary baby: "You know, he's the Lord! Jesus—from Day One."

There are clear thematic parallels between the life of Owen and the life of Christ. Like Christ, Owen must sacrifice his own life to save others. Like Christ, he is aware of his fate in advance. (In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed.) And just as Christ rises from the dead and appears to his disciples, so Owen "appears" to his friend John twice after his death. The first occasion is when John learns that the Reverend Merrill is his father and Merrill speaks in Owen's voice; the second time is when John believes that Owen's hand literally reaches out and keeps him from falling down the cellar stairs at his home. At the same time, he hears Owen's voice telling him that nothing bad is going to happen to him.

There is also the fact that Owen believes his parents' story that he, like Christ, is the product of a virgin birth. Although Irving cannot quite bring himself to present this without skepticism—John vehemently expresses his disbelief in such a notion— Irving very deliberately puts this extreme parallel to Christ in the reader's mind.

Owen is Christ-like in other ways as well. Everyone likes to touch him, which recalls how in the Gospel of Luke the crowd presses upon Jesus, wanting to touch him because of his healing power (Luke 6:19). And just as Christ describes himself in John's Gospel as "the light of the world," Owen is also consistently associated with light. The quality of his skin is such that it absorbs and reflects light, "as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times." As a child playing in the attic, "The powerful morning sun struck Owen's head from above, and from a little behind him, so the light itself seemed to be presenting him." Owen brings light to the cemetery on the night John's mother is buried, arranging his flashlight so that it illuminates her grave. Then, at his own funeral, sunlight plays upon the medal that is pinned to the flag that covers his coffin. Irving regards this moment as so significant that he draws attention to it no less than four times in six pages. And just in case the...

(The entire section is 1913 words.)

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