John Irving had published five novels, including the best-selling The World According to Garp (1978), when he released A Prayer for Owen Meany in 1989. The novel also became a best seller and a favorite of Irving’s fans. Irving disowned a 1998 film adaption, Simon Birch, demanding that character names be changed to distance the project from his work.
A Prayer for Owen Meany shares common themes with Irving’s other books, including the setting of a boy’s boarding school, absent or missing parents, and a fatal accident. Irving uses the repeated motif of an armless figure in the novel: The armadillo’s claws have been removed, the Mary Magdalene statue’s arms have been severed, Owen cuts off John’s finger, and Owen’s arms are blown away in the explosion. As with many of Irving’s main characters, Owen embodies multiple symbolic identities: He is at times a Christ figure, a martyr, a prophet, and a toy. His small size contrasts with his emotional and spiritual stature, emphasizing that he is a larger-than-life hero.
Irving uses two primary characters: Johnny, who narrates the story of their youth and young adulthood, and Owen, who teaches Johnny about life and faith through his words and deeds. Irving prints all Owen’s words in capital letters, a device that calls attention to Owen’s precocious thoughts while reminding readers of his unusual, squeaky voice and tiny stature. The story follows a fairly linear chronological sequence, except for the many inserted short references to Johnny Wheelwright in the 1980’s reflecting back upon Owen’s lasting influences on him.
The story poses multiple mysteries to be solved, and eventually all the solutions are revealed. Readers discover what happened to the baseball, the identity of Johnny’s father, the reason that Owen’s parents dislike Catholicism, the purpose of Owen’s unusual voice, and the role of the dunk shot the boys practice...
(The entire section is 809 words.)