A Prayer for Owen Meany Summary
by John Irving

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Owen Meany’s father owns a granite quarry that primarily engages in manufacturing tombstones; his mother is reclusive and unstable. Owen becomes a dominant figure in the life of John and his family. Although a diminutive young man with a screechy voice, Owen creates an overpowering presence. He directs the Christmas pageant, stuns the audience with his performance in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol, and becomes the leading spokesperson for student rights at Gravesend Academy. Brilliant, attractive to women, and able to beat off bullies, Owen helps John through school, stays back with John when he repeats the ninth grade, teaches John how to read, inspires John to become an English major, practically writes John’s master’s thesis, amputates John’s finger to keep him out of the Vietnam War, and tells John to go to Canada to escape America’s moral exhaustion.

Owen Meany also directs John on his quest to find his biological father. Owen, who sees everything and forgets nothing, leads John to discover that his mother was a supper-club singer called “The Lady in Red.” After Owen’s death, Owen’s spiritual voice directs the Reverend Lewis Merrill to pull the missing baseball out of his desk drawer and to admit that he is John’s father. Merrill waved at Tabitha during the fatal baseball game and wished her dead; when she was killed, he wallowed in remorse and guilt. Owen, however, kept Tabitha’s dressmaker’s dummy with her red dress. John uses it to convince Merrill that he is seeing an apparition of Tabitha and to shock him into...

(The entire section is 2,999 words.)