Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Prayer for Owen Meany is postmodern in its approach, blending the grotesque and the comic with the mysterious and the realistic. It views a declining civilization through the eyes of an alienated narrator. In the tradition of American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Irving reduces minor characters to short biographies, forecasting their ironic deaths, such as Harry Hoyt’s death by snakebite in Vietnam. Like Vonnegut, Irving mixes statistics and historical events with the lives of characters, even pointing out the ironic fates of real people. Although Liberace supposedly died from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), for example, the official press release said that he overdosed on watermelons.

Despite its modern tone, the novel is closely connected to the traditional romantic American novel. It is heavily weighted in the New England Calvinist tradition of predestination. John is named for John Wheelwright, the rebellious Puritan who believed in justification by faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit. The novel’s secret sins, fated destinies, search for the father, mysterious dark-haired women, biblical allusions, and prominent symbolic objects all could come straight from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville. The novel clearly mirrors elements found in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Tabitha Wheelwright, the good woman, is called “The Lady in Red,” and her red dress becomes the symbol of her illicit sexual relationship with the Reverend Merrill, a guilt-obsessed minister who eventually confesses to John. Even the scandalization of the town matrons at Tabitha’s wedding and their belief that divine justice had been done at her death reflect the Puritan wives in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Eastman, a dark-haired, primitive woman, resembles Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. The Christ figure with the speech problem resembles Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Even the novel’s interconnecting symbols are in the tradition of the classic American novel. The armless totem of the Indian chief who sold his land, the declawed armadillo, the armless dressmaker’s dummy, and the statue of Mary Magdalene with her arms sawed off all reflect Owen’s martyrdom when a grenade blows his arms off, just as the statue of Joseph with his missing hand forecasts the amputation of John’s finger.