A Prayer for Owen Meany
Chapter 5: The Ghost of the Future
Owen's performance as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come wins rave reviews in the Gravesend News-Letter and makes a huge impression on the audience, but Dan worries that Owen's solemn stage presence casts a pallor over A Christmas Carol's happy ending. When Owen comes down with a cold, Dan is encouraged, thinking that perhaps a sniffling ghost will be less terrifying to the children. John, however, is nervous about the effect Owen's sneezing will have on his portrayal of the Baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant.
The morning of the pageant, Owen and John walk to church with Mr. Fish, who is not a churchgoer, but who has been so overshadowed by Owen's performance in A Christmas Carol that he cannot resist going to watch. On the way, they meet Dan, who walks with them. Outside the church, the foursome encounters a miserable-looking Rev. Merrill, who has come for the pageant, along with Rev. Wiggin and Barb. Inside, Owen insists that, before he is wrapped in his swaddling clothes, he be wrapped in his "lucky scarf"--a gift to him from John's mother. Barb Wiggin and Owen argue while the children are assembling and preparing for the pageant, and at last Barb picks Owen up to carry him to his spot in the manger. She presses him against her breasts, and gives him a kiss on the mouth "for luck"; when she steps away, John can see that Owen has an erection protruding through his swaddling clothes: the Baby Jesus has an erection. John thinks that this was an act of intentional cruelty on the part of Barb Wiggin, teaching Owen the lesson that "someone you hate can give you a hard-on."
As the pageant begins, however, Owen regains control of himself. He directs a withering gaze at Barb Wiggin as the show begins, frightening her and causing her to drop Harold Crosby, the announcing angel, too quickly from the ceiling; after a ten-foot free fall, Harold's rope catches him, but he has forgotten his lines. Owen whispers them to him, but the entire congregation can hear as well. When Owen is revealed as the Christ Child, the "pillar of light" spotlight shines down on the manger scene; the heat is so intense that many of the children in animal costumes begin to faint. Mary Beth Baird, the Virgin Mary, becomes so overwhelmed that she dives onto Owen, who can only shoo her away by goosing her. He directs a contemptuous glare into the audience that quiets the murmuring; but then he sees his parents in the crowd, his mother sobbing incomprehensibly, and is plunged into a rage. He cries out, "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING HERE?" The Meanys leave, and Owen directs Mary Beth and John (playing Joseph, of course) to carry him out of the church. As they march down the center aisle, the animals begin following behind them, forming a spontaneous procession off the stage. The children emerge in the snowy outdoors, and John bundles Owen into the cab of his parents' truck. Owen remarks, inscrutably, "IT'S A GOOD THING I WORE MY LUCKY SCARF."
Breaking away from his narrative of the Christmas of 1953, John describes a conversation he had with the rector of his church in Canada on February 4, 1987. Enraged about President Reagan's nuclear weapons policies, John launched into a diatribe against America and Americans; the rector, Canon Mackie, implied that what John was really upset about was the vestry elections, during which John was not even nominated for a position. Canon Mackie says that John's frequently-voiced anti-American opinions strike many of the Canadian parishioners of Grace Church, ironically, as quintessentially American. John continues to complain about nuclear arms proliferation, and Canon Mackie says that John lives in the past.
Remembering the Nativity of 1953, John writes that the vision of Owen Meany as Christ has replaced the actual Christmas story in his own mind: "a vision of the little Lord Jesus as a born victim, born raw, born bandaged, born angry and accusing; and wrapped so tightly that he could not bend his knees at all." He remembers the children standing in the snow after Owen drives away, fighting the exiting congregation to get back into the church. In the chaos--the congregation is baffled, Mr. Fish is commenting excitedly on the "primitivism" of the display, the children are milling about--John goes to get his and Owen's clothes. Suddenly Mr. Fish notices that Harold Crosby is still dangling up above the stage on his rope pulley; he has been abandoned by the enraged Barb Wiggin. Dan operates the machine to get him down. Barb Wiggin angrily tells John that Owen is not to be allowed back into the church until he speaks to her first. John, knowing that this declaration will cause Owen to cease coming to church altogether, warns Dan.
Angrily, Dan marches Harold Crosby over to Barb Wiggin, and reminds her that she left a young boy hanging twenty feet above a concrete floor. He tells her that she has no authority in the church, and that Owen is to be allowed back whenever he wishes to come; if Barb drops the matter, Dan says, he will not tell the Vestry members about Barb's oversight with Harold. Needless to say, Barb agrees. On the other side of the church, Mr. Fish is praising Rev. Wiggin for the success and inventiveness of the performance.
Thinking about Christmas Eve, John misses his mother; he has never spent Christmas Eve without her, and he has never spent Christmas Eve in Gravesend--they always traveled to Sawyer Depot to spend the holidays with Aunt Martha and his cousins. On Christmas Eve, John escorts his grandmother to the final production of A Christmas Carol. Backstage, he asks Owen about his severe behavior toward his parents at the Christmas pageant, and Owen refers vaguely to the ancient insult his parents received at the hands of the Catholic Church, implying that this old wound had something to do with his displeasure to see them at the Episcopalian pageant. In his seat as the play opens, John notices many people in the audience who were also at the baseball game in which Owen Meany caused his mother's death. John remembers that just before his mother was hit with the foul ball, she noticed someone in the stands and waved to that person. He tries to think who it could have been, and imagines for a moment that it might have been his father.
Gazing through the crowd, he is taken back to the memory of the baseball game, and sees every person as they looked in the bleachers that summer day. When Owen comes onstage, however, John watches the play unfold. Owen gives his usual harrowing performance as the ghost, but when he leads Scrooge to the graveyard and reads the name on the gravestone, he faints. He comes to just before Dan closes the curtain, and he leaps to his feet and screams. Mr. Fish, the hapless Scrooge, falls over his own grave. He tries to continue the performance, but Owen refuses to approach the grave; he hurries offstage, and John finds him sobbing in the makeup room, claiming to have seen his own name, "Owen Meany," inscribed on Scrooge's grave.
Rev. Merrill drives Owen and John home. When John sets foot inside 80 Front Street, he can immediately tell that something is wrong--at first he thinks the house has been pillaged by robbers. He hears the young maid Germaine sobbing in the secret passageway, and learns from her that Lydia has died. When Mrs. Wheelwright returns, she insists that Owen somehow foresaw Lydia's death and confused it with a premonition of his own. John is forced to sleep in a room with Germaine, who is frightened and superstitious. Suddenly, and strangely, he finds himself consumed with lust for Germaine, and even thinks about climbing into bed with her. Only eleven years old and unfamiliar with the idea of lust, John simply knows that his feeling is wrong, and imagines that it must have come from his father.
When Germaine falls asleep, John hurries into the kitchen to call Owen and tell him what has happened. Owen agrees with John that his mother might have been waving at his father before she was killed, and agrees to help him look for his father. On the subject of lust, Owen is supportive, and tells John that he is right to think lust comes from his father--and says that it might help him find his father, as well. But Owen disagrees with the idea that his vision at the play was a premonition of Lydia's death--he says that his vision included "the whole thing." John realizes that this means Owen saw a date under his name on the headstone. He asks Owen what the date was, but Owen denies there was a date. John wants to cry, because it is the first time Owen has ever lied to him.
The bizarre sequence of events surrounding the Christmas pageant and A Christmas Carol make up the bulk of this chapter, and make up one of the most memorable sequences in the novel--it is important, of course, to a novel whose main theme is Christian faith, that this sequence occurs during Christmas, the most important Christian holiday. Prophecy, mystical vision, mysterious death, and weird ritual ceremony all contribute to the charged atmosphere of this chapter, in which Owen's connection to the supernatural seems to cause a flood of unexplainable occurrences. Christmas, of course, is the holiday associated with the birth of the Messiah, the son of God; and Owen emerges in this section as, if not the son of God, at least his self-appointed instrument.
There is, to John, something almost mythical about Owen's conversion of the Christmas story into an angrier and more evocative event--when he cries out to his parents, "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING HERE?", everyone in the audience believes that he is talking to them, and he might be commenting on the painful imperfection of existence. To an eleven-year-old, of course, especially to one who has just lost his mother, the painful imperfection of existence is a far more powerful theme than the highly adult spiritual redemption typically represented by the Nativity, and that is probably the main reason why the pageant of 1953 redefines Christmas in John's mind. As an adult, he is never able to attend another pageant, and the meaning of Christmas is permanently rewritten around Owen Meany; as Canon Mackie tells him, he is living in the past.
Interestingly, sexuality, which intrudes increasingly on John's and Owen's young lives, makes its presence felt even during the Christmas pageant, as Irving develops the theme of sexuality's relationship to spirituality. When Barb Wiggin intentionally arouses Owen just before the show, she furthers the motif of women in the novel using sex as an instrument of control (Hester and Mitzy Lish do the same). She also provides the book with perhaps its most outlandish symbol of the human spiritual condition, which is always tied to the body. Owen is the most important symbol in the book of the relationship between spirituality and corporeality, or between God and man; in this chapter, he becomes a holy messiah with an embarrassing erection. In a sense, that is literally what he is--an instrument of God who is nevertheless inextricably tied to humanity. (By the same token, he becomes a ghost who faints when he sees something supernatural.) John's sudden thought that his own lust must be a clue to lead him back to his father re-emphasizes this theme: in A Prayer for Owen Meany, sex can never be entirely divorced from moral considerations; it is the area in which bodily instinct (which is an inherited unconscious trait, and thus does stem ultimately from one's parentage) almost inevitably trumps conscience.
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