The Christmas of 1953, the first Christmas since John's mother died, is a gloomy holiday. For the first time in John's memory, he does not go to Sawyer Depot, because his grandmother believes that that would make them all too lonely for John's mother. Instead, eleven-year-old John and Owen root around in the Gravesend Academy dormitories (Dan has a master key), while Dan works on the Gravesend Players' production of A Christmas Carol, starring Mr. Fish as Mr. Scrooge. Owen and John are to act in the church Christmas pageant; Owen is adamant that he not be forced to play the Announcing Angel, a role he has felt humiliated by for the past several Christmases.
Rev. Wiggin and Barb have a unique approach to a Christmas pageant: they dress the littlest children in absurd turtledove costumes, let the prettiest girl play Mary, and keep a huge supply of infants backstage in case the Christ Child begins to bawl. Over the Christmas holiday, as Owen and John snoop through the empty rooms of vacationing boys, they learn where to look for pornography--and when they discover it, it inevitably lowers Owen's opinion of the room's occupant. The experience is depressing, the numbing sameness of each boy's belongings, each boy's sense of homesickness, contributing to Owen's belief that dormitories are "EVIL." In one boy's room, they discover condoms, which Owen gleefully announces are banned by the Catholic Church. They take turns putting one on their "tiny penises," which John sees for Owen as an act of religious rebellion--one more proof that he has escaped the Catholic Church, one more repayment for the unknown insult the church dealt his mother and father.
At the meeting to cast parts for the Christmas pageant, Owen sternly declares to Barb Wiggin that he will under no circumstances play the Announcing (or Descending) Angel. John is cast as Joseph, but no one will step forward to be the angel. Suddenly, a fat boy named Harold Crosby tips over backward and falls out of his chair--an accident mistaken by the rector for volunteering. Harold protests that he is afraid of heights, but the rector is unflinching: Harold will play the angel. Owen convinces the group that he should be allowed to play the Christ Child, to eliminate the need for droves of babies being passed about backstage. In this way, Owen Meany is chosen to play the Baby Jesus.
Using a textual argument based on the carol "Away in a Manger," Owen successfully lobbies to have the crib removed from the manger scene ("...no crib for a bed..."), and constructs himself a regal nest amid the hay. Mary Beth Baird, the Virgin Mary, desperately wants to be able to show her affection for the Baby Jesus, and Owen suggests that she could bow to him. She does, and the rector decides to keep this in the pageant.
Writing in 1987, John says that he prefers to go to his current church, Grace Church, for services on the weekdays, when there are no sermons and no families with children. He describes the usual experience of sitting behind a family with children dragged to church against their will. Again, he criticizes the clergy at his church--one of them is a racist, one of them wears faded clothes. He says that he does not go to the Christmas pageants at Grace Church because the Christmas pageant of 1953 was all the Nativity he needed: he has already witnessed the miracle.
In 1953, Dan's production of A Christmas Carol is stymied by poor performances by the amateur actors; the Scrooge of the show, Mr. Fish, frequently drops by to complain. John writes that though Mr. Fish lived next door to 80 Front Street, he never knew Mr. Fish's occupation--to John, he was all neighbors, everyone who rakes their lawn and plays fetch with their dog nearby. John remembers the day Mr. Fish's dog, Sagamore, died; Mr. Fish likes to lure John and Owen over to play football, and one day Owen succeeds in kicking a punt a very long way. Sagamore runs after the ball, and collides with a diaper truck bringing a delivery to a young family on the street. Sagamore is buried in Mrs. Wheelwright's rosebushes; Owen presides over the ceremony, providing the little group of mourners with sorrowful candles. The Rev. Merrill appears, but he stutters and cannot say anything, so Owen recites the "I am the resurrection and the life" verse. This was before John's mother's death, and she takes Owen's hand.
In 1953, John visits Owen's peculiar house only rarely, though he notices the tortured Nativity scene on the mantle: the Virgin Mary has a mutilated face, and the Baby Jesus is actually missing. John lets it slip to Owen's parents that Owen is playing the Christ Child in the pageant, and they seem stunned. Mrs. Meany even tells John that she is sorry for his mother's death--it is the first time the laconic woman has ever spoken to him. John's mother's dummy is still in Owen's room, and John sees Mrs. Meany scrutinizing it closely. John and Owen pass under a railway bridge just as a blazing fast train--the Flying Yankee--passes over it. John thinks it is a lucky coincidence, but Owen does not believe in coincidence, only in the rigid machinations of destiny.
One night at dinner, John announces to his grandmother--in the company of Lydia, Ethel (Lydia's replacement), and Germaine (the clumsy maid hired to care for Lydia)--that Owen does not intend to visit the Boston singing teacher to try to change his voice. He believes that his voice comes from God, and is intended to serve a special purpose. Mrs. Wheelwright contemptuously replies that it does not come from God, it comes from his having breathed too much granite dust as a baby, which also stunted his growth.
One day, Owen and John are exploring the rooms at Waterhouse Hall when they hear another master key turn in the lock, and the Brinker-Smiths enter. The Brinker-Smiths are a young faculty couple with a new set of twins, and Ginger Brinker-Smith is a legendary object of lust among Gravesend Academy students. Owen and John hide, and the Brinker-Smiths proceed to have sex gleefully on the dormitory bed, enjoying their mischievous retreat from their children. Owen and John are shocked, and Owen is almost offended. "SEX," he says, "MAKES PEOPLE CRAZY."
Owen continues to orchestrate events, just as he has done for the Christmas pageant. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come quits the Gravesend Players' show, Owen convinces Dan to let him play the part. At rehearsal, he terrifies the other cast members--no one laughs once, and Mr. Fish actually forgets his lines. When Owen next comes to 80 Front Street, even Mrs. Wheelwright is respectful of him. After all, Owen is now the Lord Jesus and the Ghost of the Future, all in one.
Chapter 4 begins a new phase of the novel. Structurally, the previous chapters have skipped around through different memories and time schemes without focusing on any particular period for very long. With Chapter 4, the novel takes on a more linear chronology, with most of the important events related in sequence. Further, Chapter 4 begins the most protracted narrative episode of the novel, with the simultaneous productions of the Christmas pageant and A Christmas Carol occupying most of the next two chapters. Finally, the novel changes in tone in Chapter 4; where it had been somewhat maudlin, dominated by the memory of John's mother's death, it now becomes much more jaunty, comic, and satirical, dominated by the charismatic presence of Owen Meany.
For much of the novel, Owen represents the relationship between the natural and the supernatural--literally, between man and God. In this chapter, that relationship takes on an ironic cast, as Owen is chosen to portray both the Lord Jesus and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in important Gravesend plays. Owen continues to possess his unique fatalism and focus on the spiritual (he does not plan to undergo voice therapy, because his voice is fated by God), but he also begins to exercise an extraordinary degree of influence over human affairs, seizing the Christmas pageant out from under Barb Wiggin and even improbably managing to assume the most fearsome role in A Christmas Carol, despite his tiny size. If Owen is God's instrument, he also seems to have some of the authority of the Almighty at his own disposal: though he is only eleven, he already routinely gives orders to adults, and even Mrs. Wheelwright begins to admire him.
Owen's portrayal of the Christ Child is especially ironic (and especially portentous), because of a revelation that will not occur until the end of the book, when John discovers that, shortly before the pageant, Owen's parents revealed to Owen that, like Jesus Christ, was a virgin birth--that he was conceived by God. This declaration, which John does not believe but which Owen, an impressionable eleven-year-old, probably does believe, is neatly foreshadowed here in the scene at Owen's house: when John looks at the mangled nativity scene, the overall effect is comic; but he notices that Jesus' cradle is empty. This will also explain the mysterious insult the Catholic Church paid Owen's parents: they refused to accept Owen's birth as a miracle because they did not believe that he was a virgin birth. (Keep in mind, however, that is only foreshadowed in Chapter 4; it is not explicitly revealed until near the end of the novel.)
The theme of sex is also furthered in this chapter--specifically the theme of the way sex gradually intrudes on the lives of young boys. We have seen a trickle of sexuality in John's and Owen's lives from the beginning of the book--the interest in John's mother's breasts, Hester and the kissing game--but their rifling through dorm rooms at the academy brings them into direct contact with it. They discover pornography, condoms, and even witness the Brinker-Smiths having sex, all of which is rather startling to their childhood game of searching the dormitory. Interestingly, Owen seems to disapprove of sex, saying that it confuses the mind (it "MAKES PEOPLE CRAZY"--Owen will later refuse to drink alcohol for the same reason), while John seems more accepting of it. But Owen also seems to develop a sexual relationship with Hester later in the book, while John is doomed to remain a virgin. Of course, Irving's style of narration means that we never learn too much about John at any one time--as a narrator, John tends to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself. Whatever he thinks about sex, he is not terribly inclined to say.
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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