Themes and Meanings
The novel principally concerns faith and the ability to hold on to it in a collapsing world. It is about young Americans growing up in an age of innocence and faced with the terrors of war abroad and senseless violence at home. The novel also chronicles the history of a lost generation and the failure of American leadership. At each New Year’s celebration, John rolls through the death count in Vietnam. When Defense Secretary Robert McNamara says that America is winning a war of attrition, Owen comments wryly that such a war is not the kind that one wins. In some ways, America’s guilt goes deeper than Vietnam. As he dies, Owen recalls the name of the Indian chief who sold his land to John’s ancestors, thus connecting Owen’s death to the genocide of the Indians. Owen also connects the fate of America to the abuse of women. Like Marilyn Monroe, America has become the plaything of powerful men.
Set in a world in which leadership is breaking down, the novel is also about the absence of the father. This theme is brought to the fore in the novel’s climactic scene. Dick Jarvits, a crazed and violent teenager whose father is dead, throws a grenade to John, a young man who does not know who his father is. Owen Meany, a truly fatherless young man who believes he is the result of a virgin birth, saves John and a group of orphans.
The novel also depicts a cultural wasteland in which television renders disasters entertaining and Liberace turns serious music into kitsch. Biblical epics turn religion into soap opera while rock videos present a mindless mixture of sex and violence. Owen uses the term “made for television” to comment on any absurd incident.
As James M. Wall notes in his review of the novel for The Christian Century:When evil befalls the innocent, the response is either to curse God or to embrace an ultimate reality which alone can give meaning to a broken world. Owen decides to embrace God; and all who know him are forced either to accept God or to reject God’s instrument and suffer the consequences.
Owen—the “wrecked voice,” The Voice, instrument of God—brooks no fools and states truth plainly, clearly, and (as the capital letters imply) loudly. He has strong views of what constitutes Christians and Christianity. “If you don’t believe in Easter . . . [d]on’t call yourself a Christian,” he says. Later, in a Bible class, he calls the disciples “stupid” because, he says, they never understood what Jesus was telling them. He nevertheless takes all of the scripture and religion classes offered at the academy. When he reaches his senior year, there are no more classes available, so he undertakes independent study with the Reverend Lewis Merrill, basing a term paper on Isaiah 5:20, “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.” This particular theme has considerable meaning when Randy White, the pompous, self-deluded headmaster at Gravesend Academy sets out to destroy Owen. White does manage to damage Owen, but his malice carries the seeds of his own destruction. Owen overcomes White’s evil; White himself does not.
Owen as the instrument of...
(The entire section is 518 words.)