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A Prayer for Owen Meany Study Guide
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A Prayer for Owen Meany By John Irving
The novel is told through the eyes of a mature John Wheelwright, an English teacher at a private girls' school in Canada, who elaborates on the events surrounding his close friendship with Owen Meany during the 1950s and 1960s in a small town and at a private boarding school in New England. These events, John makes clear, are responsible for his belief in God.
Owen Meany has a striking appearance and personality. He is unusually tiny with an ethereal and adorable appearance. His voice, described by John as "wrecked", commands immediate attention. Children and adults alike are drawn to Owen, and many people, such as John's mother Tabitha, are unable to resist touching him. Others' urges to touch him often put Owen in embarrassing situations, such as a Sunday School ritual in which his classmates hold him over their heads and pass him around the room. Owen is extremely intelligent and self-possessed, even as a child. He directs the actions of many of the people around him by either charming them, frightening them, or craftily manipulating them. Owen's father, Mr. Meany, owns a granite quarry in Gravesend. He is a pleasant man who easily bends to his son's will. Owen's mother, Mrs. Meany, is a strange woman who isolates herself in her home and is described as almost catatonic. She rarely speaks or moves from her spot in front of the fireplace. John Wheelwright, the narrator of the book, is Owen's best friend. Owen spends a lot of time at the Wheelwright house with John and John's family.
The book begins in the fictitious town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. John Wheelwright lives at 80 Front Street with his formidable grandmother (and family matriarch) Harriot, his beautiful mother Tabitha (Tabby), and his grandmother's maid Lydia. John's paternity is a mystery to everyone but Tabitha. He was conceived out of wedlock and his mother steadfastly refuses reveal John's father's name to anyone. All she will say is that she met him on the train to Boston. Owen is enchanted with Tabitha and she adores him almost as much as she adores John. Eventually Tabitha meets a new man on the Boston & Maine line, Dan Needham. Everyone, even Grandmother Wheelwright, approves of Dan. Dan Needham is a good-natured red head who has traveled to Gravesend to apply for a job teaching at the boy's private school, Gravesend Academy. Dan is awarded the position, and he and Tabitha become engaged. Mysteriously, Tabitha makes Dan wait for four years before they are finally married. After the marriage, Tabitha and John move into Dan's apartment in the dormitory of Gravesend Academy.
Tragedy strikes when Owen hits a foul ball at a Little League game, which kills Tabitha. Her husband of a year, Dan, takes John under his wing and allows him to spend time at his house, an apartment at Gravesend Academy, where he teaches drama. The ball which killed her disappears, and John assumes Owen took it.
After Tabby's death, the whole community is affected, but life goes on. The narrator (John) introduces the characters of his three cousins: Hester, a tomboy, and Simon and Noah, both rough-housing older boys. Owen begs to be introduced, but embarrasses himself. All is forgiven, however, and although John is incestuously attracted to Hester, he puts these feelings away, chalking them to lust; especially after Owen admits he likes her.
Two major events that shape the narrative occur: The Gravesend Players, the local amateur acting group, put on a performance of A Christmas Carol while the boys' Episcopalian Church puts on a performance of The Nativity. Owen, with natural charisma, gets the parts of both baby Jesus and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but both performances become marred. In A Christmas Carol, during the last performance, Owen becomes overwhelmed and faints, nearly delirious with fever. He claims to have seen his own name on Scrooge's grave. Dan dismisses his concerns. In the Nativity performances, Owen sits up in his manger and shouts to his parents that it is a 'sacrilege' that they should attend, presumably something to do with a 'grave' injustice his parents were dealt at the hands of the Catholic Church, building a personal bigotry in Owen to them.
Soon, the two enter the prep school of Gravesend Academy, Owen with a scholarship and the financial backing of Harriet and John because his stepfather teaches there. John struggles, and Owen is there to help him. But these years are not simple. John finds no success with the search for his father, or the opposite sex, or his schoolwork, the last forcing him to see the bumbling school psychiatrist, Doctor Dolder. Owen takes up smoking and begins dating Hester while becoming 'The Voice', the pen name of his editorial in the school newspaper. This forces him into an antagonistic relationship with the new school headmaster, which ends with Owen being kicked out of school for printing false draft cards and the new headmaster being fired. All through school, Owen and John practice The Shot, a basketball move where John lifts Owen over his head so that he may dunk the basketball. They practice it intermittently over the following years, getting it to under three seconds (eventually).
Throughout the book, an older version of John, in Canada, has gone on massive tirades against the Reagan Administration. His teaching career is going moderately well, but he still struggles with his past life.
From here, the book changes. Owen becomes fixated upon his death, whose date he saw on the grave during the play: July 8, 1968. The Vietnam War begins, and Owen chooses to enter the Army as John begins work as graduate student to avoid the dreaded draft. Despite his determination to get into Vietnam, Owen ends up in Arizona as a casualty officer, bringing bodies of Arizona soldiers home from California. He later explains to John that he has had a recurring dream in which he saves many Vietnamese children, but is killed in the process. He believes this to happen on the date he saw on the grave, and strives to fulfil his destiny. His actions create discord, but he stays the course.
John ends his graduate work and is about to be drafted. Owen, however, saws John's finger off with a granite cutting saw to avoid it. John later learns from Owen's diary that this was both to save his friend and to avoid John having to go to Vietnam, since Owen sees him in the dream and he will die there.
The story dives forward: John has become a teacher and has never lost his virginity, Dan is much older, Hester has become a punk rock superstar, and almost everyone else is dead. Owen's funeral is held, and Mr. Meany confides in John that he allegedly never had sex with Owen's mother, and believes Owen to be 'like the Christ Child'. John is internally furious at the man, but says nothing, even when Mr. Meany says that he told Owen this 'fact' at the age of eleven, which John blames for Owen's belief he was a Son of God. John continues to dwell on his past, including finding out his father is the faithless Rev. Lewis Merill, then finally tells the story of Owen's death:
As the date approaches, Owen invites John to visit him in Arizona for one last get-together. Owen has matured in his role, even praising Catholics, whom he had earlier despised. The duo, along with a Major, confront a low-class family whose son was killed in Vietnam. The entire bunch, save the boy's sister is openly angry with the military. As Owen and John and the major meet at the airport, Owen becomes ecstatic that he may not die today. However, a planeload of Vietnamese children arrive, and he knows it is time. He helps escort the kids into the bathroom of the airport, where the brother of the fallen soldier attempts to kill them all with a grenade. He throws it to John, who passes it to Owen on his command, then using The Shot to throw Owen to an upper window where the grenade explodes, maiming Owen but not the children. The attacker is killed by the major, who, along with John and some nuns, tries to save Owen. It is no use, however, and Owen dies.