(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....

(The entire section is 987 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“’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.)