A Prayer for Owen Meany Additional Summary

John Irving


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Johnny and Owen are best friends growing up in Gravesend, New Hampshire. Johnny resides in a lively household with his wealthy and outspoken grandmother Harriet, his pretty unwed mother Tabitha, visiting rambunctious cousins, and servants. Owen has a crush on Tabitha and likes to put clothes on her dressmaker’s dummy. Johnny’s grandmother financially supports Owen, and the two conduct a running commentary about television programs and world events.

Owen’s father owns a granite quarry, and his mother is a recluse. In a good-natured game, Johnny and other children in their Sunday school class lift tiny Owen up in the air and pass him around above their heads. Owen and Johnny speculate about who Johnny’s biological father could be. Dan, a suitor for Tabitha’s hand, brings Johnny the gift of a stuffed armadillo, and both boys cherish it. Dan and Tabitha marry, giving Johnny a wonderful father figure. Dan is a teacher and also directs the town’s amateur plays.

Owen is small but possesses exceptional intellect and wisdom. He presides over ceremonies such as the funeral for a neighbor’s dog and shows precocious understanding of world events. He wins over Johnny’s cousins, becoming the pack leader. Females are particularly attracted to Owen, always wanting to touch him. Owen expresses great dislike for the Catholic Church, a view he learned from his parents.

In a terrible accident, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball game that strikes Johnny’s mother and kills her. The ball disappears, and the boys come to believe that it will lead them to Johnny’s biological father. Owen and Johnny comfort each other after the death with an exchange of valued objects: the stuffed armadillo and baseball cards. Owen takes possession of the dressmaker’s dummy to save Dan and Johnny from further sadness.

The boys attend the private Gravesend Academy, where Owen is an academic star. He writes opinion columns in the school newspaper as “The Voice.” His strong beliefs enrage the controlling and mean-spirited headmaster, Randy White. At the end of his senior year, Owen is dismissed for making fake draft cards on the school’s copying machine. Owen pulls a prank on the headmaster: Using his granite-quarry skills, Owen hauls a headless, armless religious statue to the school stage and bolts it in place just before a student body meeting.

Though still tiny, teenaged Owen matures earlier than Johnny. He drives a car, smokes, dates girls, and develops muscles working in the granite quarry. He begins a serious romantic relationship with Johnny’s headstrong cousin Hester. Owen develops a fervent religious faith and the ability to predict the future. He tries to convince Johnny that he, too, should believe in God. Owen believes that he is God’s instrument, and that he will do something heroic...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Chapter 1: The Foul Ball
A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with the narrator, John Wheelwright, commenting that he believes in...

(The entire section is 1304 words.)