A Prayer for Owen Meany

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Salvation and redemption have long been among John Irving’s central themes, though they are not usually presented in such directly theological terms as in A Prayer for Owen Meany. In his earlier novels, especially The World According to Garp (1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), and The Cider House Rules (1985), the central characters search for meaning in the midst of chaos and absurdity, and find it in human connectedness, represented metaphorically by the family—often, odd families indeed. A Prayer for Owen Meany details the friendship—from childhood in the 1950’s to Owen Meany’s death in the late 1960’s—of two boys who grow up in Gravesend, New Hampshire, at opposite ends of the social scale: Owen’s reclusive family owns the local granite quarry, whereas John’s family boasts of Mayflower origins and functions as the local gentry. Their roles are reversed and confused, however, in the course of the narrative: Owen, a diminutive boy who even as an adult is never more than five feet tall, and whose voice-rendered by Irving in capital letters—is a prepubescent squeak, becomes a Christ figure with powers over life and death, whereas John Wheelwright leads a rather uneventful adult life, even remaining a virgin, having been convinced by Owen’s prescience and his sacrificial death that there is in fact a purpose to life—and to death.

The novel is narrated as a memoir by John Wheelwright, who has lived for twenty years in Toronto, where he teaches English at an Anglican secondary school for girls. The narrative describes the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of the two principal characters, interspersed with brief accounts of John’s current life in Toronto in 1987. His routine, almost monastic existence in Toronto contrasts sharply with the frequently tumultuous years of his friendship with Owen, whose energy, intelligence, and sense of purpose belie his childlike stature.

Imagery and actions identifying Owen Meany with Christ begin early in the novel and accumulate rapidly to the climactic scene of his death. When he is a small child, his size and lightness seem to the other children a “miracle”; for the same reason, he is cast as the Christ Child in a church Christmas pageant. Owen’s father tells John that Owen’s was a virgin birth—that his parents’ marriage was never consummated—and Owen “plays God” to save John from being drafted during the Vietnam War by cutting off one of his fingers with a diamond wheel used to engrave granite monuments. Owen foresees the date of his own death, and has a recurrent dream that he will die saving small children; the fact that both predictions are accurate lends to Owen a Godlike foreknowledge.

Yet A Prayer for Owen Meany is far from being a solemn theological tract. John Irving’s characteristically ebullient humor erupts throughout the novel in slapstick scenes, boyish pranks, and even in the ironic contrast between Owen’s small voice and the large print in which it leaps authoritatively from the page. As the Christ Child in the Christmas pageant, Owen feeds lines to the frightened boy being lowered to the stage on a pulley as the Announcing Angel, while the back ends of donkeys faint from the heat; as a student at the Gravesend Academy, he has the basketball team carry the Volkswagen Beetle of a less-than-beloved teacher to the stage of the Great Hall, where, in a scene of slapstick comedy, it is subsequently demolished by faculty members attempting to remove it. The blending of the serious and the comic reaches its apotheosis early in the novel, when the one ball that Owen Meany ever hits in Little League baseball kills John Wheelwright’s mother, Tabitha. The fact that Owen Meany is the agent of John’s mother’s death does not mar the boys’ friendship; indeed, it brings them closer together, partly because John knows that Owen worshiped his mother (and for the rest of his life keeps her dressmaker’s dummy in his bedroom as a kind of...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Vietnam War
The Vietnam War forms a constant backdrop in the novel, both in John's diary entries for 1987 and in the story of...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

There is a recurring motif of armlessness and amputation. It is first mentioned early in the novel, in the figure of...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most autobiographical of Irving's novels and, as such, is grounded in a world that will be recognizable...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving draws upon his own experiences and the atmosphere of the world he grew up in. He has said that the...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1960s: The United States is engaged in a war in Vietnam that bitterly divides the nation. It does not end until 1973. Many veterans...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Can religious faith exist alongside doubt, or are the two mutually exclusive? Explain your viewpoint.

Why is John so...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Irving's love for the novels of Charles Dickens is clearly evident in A Prayer for Owen Meany's thickly textured plot line, in its...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Prayer for Owen Meany contains many intratextual references to other works by Irving: the diminutive Lilly in The Hotel New...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The movie Simon Birch (1998) was very loosely based on A Prayer for Owen Meany, although the story was altered and Irving...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1982, Bantam Classic edition with an introduction by Irving), which tells the story of the...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Campbell, Josie P., John Irving: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 125–41.


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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

Campbell, Josie P. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Campbell looks at all of Irving’s novels written prior to 1998 and examines their themes and the critical response to the books.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womak. The Critical Response to John Irving. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A scholarly treatment of Irving’s work, including book reviews, essays on the novels, and the critical response.

Kazin, Alfred. “God’s Own Little Squirt.” The New York Times Book Review 94 (March 12, 1989): 1, 30-31....

(The entire section is 322 words.)