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A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

Chapter 7: The Dream

Chapter 6: The Voice

Chapter 8: The Finger


When Owen and John are nineteen-year-old seniors at Gravesend Academy, Owen tells John what he meant by removing the claws from John's armadillo after John's mother's death in 1953: "GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." John is so surprised that he drops Owen as he catches him for "The Shot." At the time, John thinks Owen is a lunatic for believing himself to be the instrument of God. While practicing The Shot in the academy gym over the Christmas holiday of 1961, they argue fiercely about it. But after their argument in the high school gym, they successfully perform The Shot in under four seconds for the first time. Owen triumphantly announces that "IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE FAITH."

They also argue that year about college: John plans to attend the state university in New Hampshire, while Owen could easily get a full scholarship to Harvard or Yale. Owen wants John to at least apply to a better school, but John is certain he would be rejected. Owen insists that they stay together, but John refuses to let Owen deny himself the chance to go to a better school simply to stay with John in New Hampshire--even though Owen has been given a prestigious scholarship to the University of New Hampshire as the most outstanding high school student in the state. Owen is the shoo-in valedictorian of his class, and is now in charge of The Grave--he even uses the editorial copy machine to make fake IDs for his classmates.

As seniors in the academy, they are granted the privilege of traveling to Boston by train two afternoons a week. Most of the students use this privilege to meet up with former Gravesend students now at Harvard, and to drink and go to strip clubs. But Owen takes John to a clothing store called Jerrold's, whose sign matches the tag on John's mother's red dress--the dress she claimed to have kept only because the clothing store burned down before she could return it. Owen is on a mission to obtain more information about John's mother, and also, possibly, his still-unknown father; he shows a picture of Tabby Wheelwright to the owner of Jerrold's, who identifies her as "The Lady in Red," who used to sing at a local supper club in the '40s and '50s. John, shocked by this revelation--his mother lied to him--goes numbly with Owen to the home of her former singing teacher, the man she had traveled to Boston to study under, Graham McSwiney. Owen gains an audience with this illustrious man by pretending that he wants his vocal cords to be examined, in the hope that his shrill, nasal voice might someday deepen. When Mr. McSwiney examines him, he discovers that Owen's Adam's apple is in the position of a constant scream, elevated into his throat. But Owen says that God gave him his voice for a reason, and shows the man a picture of John's mother. Mr. McSwiney recognizes her as The Lady in Red, as well, and says that he did teach her--she was a pretty-voiced but fairly lazy student--and find her the job at The Orange Grove. He gives them the names of some men who used to be associated with The Orange Grove before it closed, but he is unable to help them in any other way.

John frequently interrupts his narrative of 1961 with increasingly hostile attacks on America and the Reagan administration, which in July of 1987 is embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. He begins reading The New York Times, though it disgusts him, and longs to be invited to a friend's summer home for a retreat. He says that politics is like junk food: when he is eating a cheeseburger, he cannot concentrate on any other taste, and when he is thinking about politics, his anger blinds him to every other pursuit. His anger consistently makes him think of Vietnam, and he rages at length against that war, mentioning innumerable figures, dates, facts, and references. He remembers how he, Owen, and Hester spent their New Year's Eves from 1962 to 1968, noting during each year how many troops were in Vietnam and how many were killed; every year, Hester passes the stroke of midnight by vomiting after drinking too much. At last, John receives the invitation to his friend's home, and goes eagerly to a long-awaited vacation.

Interspersed with anti-Reagan diatribes, the narrative of the '60s continues piecemeal. For Christmas in 1961, Mrs. Wheelwright gives Owen a diary, and he begins to write in it regularly--he gushes about John F. Kennedy, and also writes extremely fatalistic prophecies about his own future: "I KNOW WHEN I'M GOING TO DIE." In 1961, John is not allowed to see the diary, but the 1987 John who is narrating the story has seen it, and occasionally provides glimpses.

Owen has continued to alienate Randy White, the head of the school, and his problems worsen dramatically as his senior year nears its close. A rich, cynical student named Larry Lish tells Owen that John F. Kennedy has been sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, a pronouncement that infuriates Owen. When Larry's mother Mitzy, a well-connected socialite, confirms the rumor for Owen, he is so upset, and she bullies him so shamelessly, that he sexually propositions her simply to shut her up. But she reports him to Mr. White, who uses the incident in an attempt to expel Owen from Gravesend Academy; in the end, faculty support keeps Owen in the school, but he is on probation, and any wrongdoing will result in his dismissal. In the meantime, Owen is forced to endure sessions with Dr. Dolder, a psychologist from Zurich whom Owen considers a reprehensible idiot. He also consults with Rev. Merrill, whose classes he has continued to take--he sometimes talks to Rev. Merrill about the afterlife, he says, but mostly he tells Rev. Merrill about Dr. Dolder and Dr. Dolder about Rev. Merrill.

As a scholarship student to the academy, Owen has a term-time job working as a waiter to the faculty table in the cafeteria; he is forced to arrive at school an hour before breakfast to help prepare the kitchen. One frigid New Hampshire morning, Owen discovers that his parking spot has been taken up by Dr. Dolder's Volkswagen Beetle: whenever Dr. Dolder drinks too much after a party at Mr. White's, he inevitably leaves the Beetle there. Angry and frustrated, Owen recruits the basketball team to move the Beetle into the school auditorium, where it will be found on the stage for morning meeting. He then parks in front of a different dormitory, pleased with his scheme. But the headmaster finds out about the prank before the meeting begins, and recruits a group of faculty members to help him carry the car back out the door. Unfortunately, the teachers are not as strong as the basketball team, and they roll it from side to side, smashing its windows and mirrors. When Mr. White tries to steer it down the stairs, it careens out of control, overturning and pinning Mr. White inside. Furious, the headmaster--who is certain Owen Meany is responsible--becomes even more hostile to Owen. When Larry Lish is caught buying alcohol with a fake ID supplied by Owen, Owen is immediately expelled--despite the fact that he has long since ceased making the fake IDs, spurred to do so by Kennedy's charge to act with renewed social faith.

Owen calls Mrs. Wheelwright to apologize for letting her down--he considers her his benefactor, since she buys his clothes--and asks her to tell John and Dan to make the morning meeting the next day. Terrified about what Owen might do, and worried about his chances to get into college now that he has been expelled from the academy, John and Dan spend all night searching for him, calling both Hester and his parents to no avail. When they reach the auditorium at the academy early in the morning, they are stunned to discover that Owen has somehow removed the giant statue of Mary Magdalene from in front of the Catholic school and bolted it to the stage in front of the podium, first removing its arms and its head. Headless, the statue mutely pleads with the audience; armless, it offers blunt supplication. Horrified, Dan rushes to find Rev. Merrill, hoping to learn the name of the head of the Catholic school and to intervene before charges are pressed. At Rev. Merrill's, he finds Owen, who simply asks the reverend to say a prayer for him at the morning meeting. Dan is troubled to hear Rev. Merrill ask Owen if he has had "the dream" again--a question that makes Owen sob. Neither Dan nor John know what dream he is referring to.

At the meeting, the students are so stunned by the maimed statue that they sit in silence; no one even laughs. Rev. Merrill asks the students to pray silently for Owen Meany, and when Mr. White attempts to disrupt the proceeding--first by physically trying to lift the statue, then by demanding that the prayer end at once--the reverend defies him, and Mr. White leaves. John says that Mr. White is finished: he is dismissed as the headmaster following a no confidence vote from the faculty. Owen is not allowed to graduate from Gravesend Academy, but the graduation ceremony is filled with signs and cheers for him. He obtains a diploma from the public high school, and manages to wring an acceptance from the University of New Hampshire after Harvard and Yale place heavy conditions on their scholarship offers in light of his recent disgrace. He loses his scholarship to New Hampshire, but decides to pay for the school by joining the ROTC. It is 1962, John writes, and there are only 11,300 troops in Vietnam--none of them in combat.

John writes that if he would have known about Owen's dream that day in the auditorium, or if he had read his diary, he would have prayed harder and more earnestly for Owen Meany. In explanation, he offers two snippets of Owen's diary. One is a long passage in which Owen claims to know the nature of his own death ("I KNOW WHEN I'M GOING TO DIE--AND NOW A DREAM HAS SHOWN ME HOW I'M GOING TO DIE"), and one short inscription, a copy of the vision Owen had of Scrooge's tombstone when he was playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come--long before he joined the army: "1LT PAUL O. MEANY, JR." "Paul" is Owen's actual first name; "1LT" is short for First Lieutenant.


It is time to discuss the most important motif in the novel, the motif of armlessness and amputation that runs throughout it. The armlessness motif begins in the very first chapter, with the description of the deed with which John's ancestor bought Gravesend from Watahantowet; unable to read, Watahantowet signed his name with his totem, an image of an armless man. Later, Owen removes the claws from John's armadillo, in a symbolic gesture meant to refer to Watahantowet's totem. Additionally, the dressmaker's dummy is armless and headless, and Owen removes the arms and the head from the statue of Mary Magdalene before he takes it inside the academy auditorium.

Throughout most of the novel, the idea of armlessness is symbolically important on several different levels. First, as Dan realizes when Owen removes the claws from the armadillo in Chapter 2, the condition of armlessness is "unacceptable"; without its claws, there is no way for the armadillo to stand upright. In the same way, John, Dan, and Owen metaphorically lose their arms when John's mother dies; they too lose something so precious that to be without it is to be unable to stand. Secondly, as John says about Watahantowet's totem, armlessness represents the idea that nothing comes without a price; in losing the land that is now Gravesend, Watahantowet made money, but he paid for it with his "arms"--that is, with the sacred lands of Gravesend and the Squamscott River. Thirdly, armlessness represents helplessness: when Owen removes the arms from the statue, he does so to make it seem even more supplicating and desperate, groping helplessly but unable to change the world. Combining these levels of meaning, we might say that armlessness represents both helplessness against the injustice of the world and the pain and suffering caused by that injustice.

But armlessness in A Prayer for Owen Meany is also, in some sense, a sacred condition. As Owen tells John, when he gave him the clawless armadillo, he meant to say: "GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." Literally, Owen means to say that because everything is intended by God, God intended for Owen's foul ball to kill John's mother; God used Owen's hands to take her. Because God used Owen's hands to perform his will, it is as if God had taken Owen's hands. To be armless in this sense is to be helpless not to the injustice of the world, but to the will of God--it is literally to be God's instrument. What Owen understands intrinsically, and what John is never fully able to believe, is that the injustice of the world is not contrary to God's will, it is (according to the Christian faith on which the novel is predicated) part of God's will. To be armless is not only to suffer: it is to participate in the divine mechanism of fate.

The crux, of course, is whether a person can believe that suffering is a desirable condition in that sense with no proof or even evidence. Owen, of course, does seem to have proof: he is in direct or semidirect contact with God, through his dreams and visions. (This is evident in all the most important passages in this chapter, from the statue of Mary Magdalene to The Shot to Owen's description of himself as God's instrument to the dream Owen has in which he foresees his own death.) For normal people such as John and the Rev. Merrill, however, there is no sign of God in the world, but only suffering, and a belief in God is not so easily attainable. Owen claims in this chapter that a faith based on evidence is not faith at all--that if there were proof of God's existence, there would be no need to make a leap of faith. This tension between faith and the evidence of miracles is at the heart of the novel; ultimately, however, Irving leaves it unresolved--as we shall see.

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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.


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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