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A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

Chapter 3: The Angel

Chapter 2: The Armadillo

Chapter 4: The Little Lord Jesus

Summary

John relates another memory from childhood, from before his mother's death. His mother keeps a dressmaker's dummy next to her bed, which is always dressed in tasteful clothes. John's mother is an expert seamstress, and has a habit of taking clothes out from expensive stores in Boston, then copying them herself and returning them. The dummy wears the clothes while she sews. At night, John and Dan Needham occasionally mistake the dummy for John's mother. John and Owen like to dress the dummy up, and occasionally Owen invents an outfit that John's mother actually wears. But no one can convince her to wear the one red dress in her closet--it is a beautiful dress, but it is the only garment she owns that is not white or black. The only time she ever wore the red dress was during a production of Angel Street by the Gravesend Players, which Dan resurrected after moving to town; she played the role of a wife driven insane by her evil husband, and Dan played the evil husband. Mrs. Walker played the flirtatious maid, and Mr. Fish--a neighbor of Mrs. Wheelwright who was at the time in mourning over the death of his dog Sagamore, who was killed by a diaper truck--played the hero. Owen and John watched every production; it was the only time John's mother ever acted with the Gravesend Players.

One night, Owen spends the night at John's, and wakes up with a fever. When he goes to tell John's mother, he stops short, and hurries back to John's room, crying that he has seen an angel by the bed. John creeps back to the room with him and sees the silhouette of the dummy; he assumes that Owen has mistaken it for an angel, but Owen insists that the angel was on the other side of the bed. John feels Owen's fever and thinks that he hallucinated the angel, but Owen is adamant. Later, after Owen's baseball kills John's mother, Owen will become vocal about his belief in predestination, the idea that every action and every person serves a specific purpose and that every deed is fated. He believes that, when he saw the angel in John's mother's room, he disturbed it, and therefore interfered with the scheme of fate. After the baseball kills John's mother, Owen refers to it as "fated," and John realizes that he believed the angel was not a guardian angel--it was the Angel of Death, and he deterred it from its work.

On the night in question, Owen sleeps with John's mother, and remains vigilant in case the angel should come back. Hours later, Mrs. Wheelwright (John's grandmother) bursts into the room to scold her daughter for leaving the tap running--though it was actually John's mistake--and Owen, believing her to be an apparition, screams hideously, waking half the neighborhood. For years after that, John writes, Owen insisted that John's grandmother had wailed "like a banshee." John had always thought the description ludicrous--after all, Owen made the most noise--but one day Dan Needham looked the word up, and found that a banshee is literally a premonition of a loved one's death. Perhaps, John says, Owen was not so preposterous after all.

John remembers a time when his grandmother actually consented to act in a play directed by Dan Needham; she played an English matriarch in Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife. She performed marvelously, and brought the house down. But despite the acceptance Dan found in the Wheelwright family and in the academic community of Gravesend Academy, it was four years before he and Tabby were married. John speculates about why they waited so long, but ultimately cannot settle on an answer. Perhaps his mother was overly proper, since she was so reckless with the fling that produced him, or perhaps Dan demanded to know more about John's father and John's mother would not tell him.

Whatever it was, it was not the disapproval of the couple's two religious communities; the Episcopalians and the Congregationalists practically competed to win the couple over. John vastly preferred the Congregationalists, whose pastor, Reverend Louis Merrill, was a serious, doubtful, educated man, to the Episcopalians, whose rector, Reverend Dudley Wiggin, was a Bible-thumping ex-pilot. Owen is not impressed with Rev. Merrill; he says that a preacher should not have so much intellectual doubt. But the Wheelwrights, and most of the Gravesend community, love him; he is a frequent speaker at the Academy. They also pity him for his family: his wife, a California girl, wilted in New Hampshire, and their children were sickly. The Rev. Wiggin's wife was a brash redhead called Barb, and his children were oafish athletes. Nevertheless, Dan and Tabby chose to join the Episcopalians, and John began his long tenure of attending Sunday school class with Owen Meany. However, the wedding was held at Hurd's Church, the nondenominational chapel at Gravesend Academy, and the ceremony was conducted by both Rev. Merrill and Rev. Wiggin. A year later, John's mother's funeral was held in the same church.

At the wedding, both ministers shared their thoughts on love with the congregation. Afterward, the wedding party retired to a reception at Mrs. Wheelwright's house at 80 Front Street. Here, Simon commented on Owen's dark suit, saying that he looked like he was attending a funeral. Hester angrily defended Owen. During the party, Hester went into the bushes to pee because she wanted to avoid the long line at the ladies' room, and she handed Owen her panties, which he embarrassedly stuffed into his jacket pocket. Owen's wedding present for Dan and John's mother was a granite marker that he made at his father's tombstone factory, reading "JULY 1952," the month of the wedding. As the couple prepared to drive away for their honeymoon, a sudden storm arose, and it began to hail. Owen rode away with the newlyweds, who agreed to drop him off at his house. Unbeknownst to everyone but Hester, Owen escaped with her panties still in his pocket. Her thin yellow dress soaked and clinging to her, her plight was visible to everyone, and she bolted for the house.

John writes that Mr. Chickering, the Little League coach who ordered Owen to swing at the ball that killed John's mother, is now wasting away with Alzheimer's disease. John remembers that Mr. Chickering wept at his mother's funeral, feeling responsible for her death. John thinks about Harry Hoyt, who was walked before Owen batted--had he been the last out, Owen would have never gone to the plate. Harry was later killed in Vietnam, and his mother became a war protester in Gravesend. Buzzy Thurston, who reached base on an error before Owen batted, did not attend the funeral. Later, he evaded Vietnam through drug use--he was declared psychologically unfit to serve--but he was killed in a car accident caused by his drinking.

The graveyard in Gravesend was near the high school, and at the burial of Tabby, Rev. Merrill's voice was interrupted by the sound of a high school baseball practice. Many of the mourners cover their ears with their hands, and Owen repeats "I'M SORRY! I'M SORRY!" Afterward, John narrates, his Aunt Martha, Mrs. Wheelwright, and Dan each tell John that he is welcome to live with them; he elects to spend some of his time with Dan--who legally adopted him when he married Tabby--and some with his grandmother at 80 Front Street. He takes a walk with Hester, who tells him that Owen feels even worse than he does. They walk to the cemetery, where they find Owen praying over the grave, his father waiting in the Granite Company truck nearby. Owen says that they must go to the apartment and take the dummy, or Dan will stare at it and make himself miserable. They retrieve it from an uncomplaining Dan, and Owen decides that he should keep the dummy himself. The dummy is wearing the red dress.

As he writes his story, on February 1, 1987, in Toronto, John says that he has come to believe in angels. He says that this belief has not much helped him--he was not even elected to a parish office during the last council session at church, though he has held many offices in the past. He says that he was irritated by the service, too, which emphasized the beatitudes of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He does not like the new canon, either. But the psalm rang true: "Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: / fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil." John says that he himself has felt wrath, and been moved to do evil--as we shall see.

Commentary

One of the most important motifs of the novel was introduced in the previous chapter: the motif of armlessness and amputation runs through the entire novel, and subsumes almost all of its important symbols. That motif will be explored later, but one of its key symbols is introduced in this chapter: Tabby Wheelwright's dummy. The dummy also introduces a motif of doubles, of objects or people who are or become identical to one another in some way. The dummy exactly resembles John's mother's body, so that John sometimes startles himself in the night, thinking the dummy is his mother. In this way, after John's mother dies, the dummy becomes a powerful symbol of memory; it represents each character's memory of Tabby.

Interestingly, the book's other main set of doubles--Mrs. Wheelwright and her maid, Lydia--seem to work in exactly the opposite fashion. When Lydia is confined to a wheelchair after losing her leg to cancer (another example of amputation in the novel), she continues to live at 80 Front Street in the care of the Wheelwrights. She begins to pattern her speech, attitudes, and opinions on those of Mrs. Wheelwright, until she becomes a virtual dummy herself, merely a copy of John's grandmother. She is a bit older than Mrs. Wheelwright, however, and as the book progresses, Mrs. Wheelwright begins using Lydia's growing senility to predict what she herself will experience. Tabby's dummy becomes a symbol of memory, of the past, while Lydia, Mrs. Wheelwright's "dummy," becomes a bizarre symbol of the future.

In the first two chapters of the novel, Owen's extraordinary connection to the world of the supernatural is mainly implied by his bizarre appearance, his voice, and his occasional comments. By Chapter 3, however, Owen is increasingly becoming the focus of John's narrative, and his connection to the substantive world of religion is beginning to be more fully explored. Here, for instance, Owen believes that he sees an angel over Tabby Wheelwright's bed, and then stays with her all night in case it comes back. John assumes that an angel is benign- -that Owen must have thought he saw a guardian angel, or some other force of good. But he later realized that Owen thinks he saw the Angel of Death, and that he disrupted it--that he literally prevented it from killing John's mother. For that reason, Owen believes that he was appointed to kill John's mother, and that his unlucky foul ball in the baseball game was far more than just a coincidence. This revelation provides the first inkling of the entrenched notion of fatalism that is at the heart of Owen's concept of faith: he believes that everything is fated, and that everyone exists to serve a special purpose. What makes Owen unique, in the world of the novel, is his apparent foreknowledge of his own fate. Owen not only believes that he is God's instrument, he understands how he is God's instrument.

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Armlessness

by GEC0419, February 20, 2014

I think that Owen's being swaddled too tightly to move his arms in "The Little Lord Jesus" is another instance of the armlessness motif, especially considering the religious setting of the pageant.

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4 out of 4 people found this helpful

Wow

by Shaggymcruff, March 01, 2014

This story is too great a fabrication to take seriously. It borders on fantasy. Irving is a strange person with a very warped perspective of religion.

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1 out of 3 people found this helpful

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