In the first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany, the adult John Wheelwright, the narrator, tells the reader three things: that Owen Meany was the smallest person he ever knew; that he was the instrument of John’s mother’s death; and that Owen is the reason John believes in God:I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
This sentence lays out some of the complex issues of the novel in simple terms. The novel then proceeds to tell the story of John and Owen, the boy with the “wrecked voice,” from their childhood to their adulthood.
As children, John and Owen live in Gravesend, New Hampshire, where John is the grandson of Harriet Wheelwright and a descendant of John Adams; Owen, by contrast, is the son of an owner of a granite business. They go to church together (where a favorite Sunday School game was picking Owen up and passing him around over the heads of the other children), they play Little League baseball together, and they attend school together. John Irving renders the “wrecked voice” to which the opening sentence refers in full capital letters; in fact, that Irving intends Owen to be associated in the reader’s mind with Christ is made partially clear by this use of capital letters for Owen’s words, a device that parallels the printing of the words of Christ in red in some versions of the Bible. The capital letters also represent Owen’s otherworldly voice, described by the narrator as a “voice from another planet” and “a voice not entirely of this world.” However, one of the strongest connections with Christ is made when Owen’s father tells John that Owen was born to a virgin mother, that there was no sexual congress to account for his conception.
John is the illegitimate son of Tabitha Wheelwright, who sometimes refers to him as her “little fling.” Tabitha holds the secret of his parentage closely; no one knows who John’s father is, and Owen seems rather more curious about the father than is John. Tabitha had regularly attended singing lessons in Boston, to which she took the train and stayed overnight for her early lesson. On one of these trips, she became pregnant with John, but no one has an inkling as to who her lover might have been. When John is ten, Tabitha marries Dan Needham, a...
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