A Prayer for Owen Meany
Chapter 8: The Finger
Owen and John spend the summer of 1962 apart: Owen works for his father's quarry, and John works for his Uncle Alfred's lumberyard in Sawyer Depot. He lives with his aunt and uncle, and works with Noah and Simon. They spend their evenings waterskiing on Loveless Lake, and Noah and Simon set John up on innumerable dates with local girls; despite their help, he is still unable to lose his virginity. Owen and Hester live together in Hester's apartment, a fact which causes Aunt Martha a great deal of distress. John finds Owen and Hester to be a depressing couple: Owen is still maddeningly fatalistic about his own death--he even wants to be assigned to Vietnam after he finishes his ROTC training--and Hester is full of inchoate rage. As the years pass, she becomes a virulent antiwar protester.
In 1987, as he narrates his story, John is vacationing with his friend Katherine Keeling on her family's island; he describes watching wildlife, fishing with Katherine's husband, and shopping with the children. But he is troubled, as well: he cannot seem to put aside his addiction to the newspapers, or his uncontrollable anger about the Reagan administration. He describes his early years in Canada, when, unlike most American expatriates fleeing Vietnam service, he is mostly concerned about fitting in to his new country. John is not in Canada to evade the draft; somehow he was able to do that before he left America, though he does not say how. He also describes overhearing Katherine's husband refer to him as a "non-practicing homosexual"; he heaps scorn upon the description, but does not directly comment on his own sexuality.
In the summer of 1962, Owen and John correspond by letters, and John escorts Simon to the emergency room after he cuts his finger working with a logging crew in the forest. In the emergency room, a car-wreck victim tells him that Marilyn Monroe has died. In a letter, Owen says that Marilyn Monroe was just like America: "A LITTLE BREATHLESS, VERY BEAUTIFUL, MAYBE A LITTLE STUPID, MAYBE A LOT SMARTER THAN SHE SEEMED." In a diatribe, he accuses John F. Kennedy of having treated Monroe as simply a cheap thrill, just as powerful politicians always treat America. Commenting on the moral tone, John writes that in 1987, Larry Lish has become a well-known journalist in New York.
In the fall of 1962, Owen and John begin their freshman year at the University of New Hampshire. For once, Owen does not excel academically; he puts most of his energy into his ROTC courses, and lets his studies slide. For his own part, John, now an English major, finds the work so easy compared to Gravesend Academy that he actually makes better grades than Owen. Both the boys live at home and commute to school--John in a new Volkswagen Beetle purchased for him by his grandmother.
In the summer of 1963, John gets a job in the monument shop at Mr. Meany's quarry, making gravestones. That November, they are at 80 Front Street when they learn about Kennedy's assassination, a development which deeply upsets Mrs. Wheelwright. In late December, John asks Hester about Owen's recurring dream, but all she will say is that she hates to watch him when he is having it. All that year, Owen works with the Catholics in Gravesend to replace the statue of Mary Magdalene--he even designs the pedestal himself. Time goes by, their college years pass, and more and more American boys are sent to Vietnam; Hester becomes angrier, and Owen works even harder to ensure his future combat assignment. John and Hester cannot understand him, and Owen and Hester argue frequently. Worried, John pays a secret visit to Owen's ROTC leader and tells him that he does not think Owen Meany is emotionally stable enough to be sent to Vietnam. But Owen tells him he has to go, because he cannot make a judgment about the war until he has seen it for himself.
After their junior year, Owen goes to Basic Training, desperate to finish first in his group. He finishes second, because he is too short to jump over the obstacle course wall. Owen begins to worry that he may not be sent to Vietnam; he seems destined for an administrative assignment, but he does not want to spend the war "behind a desk." By February of 1966, John's own situation seems perilous; he will attend graduate school at the university next year, and will thus be exempt from the draft; but the year after, the graduate deferment rule will end, and he will be eligible to be drafted. Everyone in his life encourages John to take steps to avoid the draft, but John is an indecisive twenty-four-year-old, and does not do so.
Owen and John continue to argue about Owen's desire to go to Vietnam, and at last Owen reveals to John that he believes he is destined to die there, that God wants him to go to Vietnam. He tells Owen about the dream, in which he sees himself rescuing Vietnamese children and dying in the arms of a nun. He believes that he is destined to be a hero; John thinks that he is crazy.
PARGRAPH After they graduate from college, Owen is assigned to the Adjutant General's corps and given orders to ship out to Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Disappointed and angry, Owen promises that it will be a temporary assignment. Before he leaves, he and John take a trip to Sawyer Depot, which Owen has never seen, and drive into Canada before turning back for Gravesend. In Arizona, Owen curries the favor of the commanding officer, hoping that it will help his quest to be sent to Vietnam. He works as a "Casualty Assistance Officer," which means that he escorts the bodies of dead soldiers to their families and presents them with the condolences of the United States Army.
At last John finishes his first year of graduate school--which included a stint teaching Expository Writing at Gravesend Academy--and receives orders to report to the draft board for a physical. Confused about what he should do, John receives a letter from Owen telling him to do nothing--ignore the draft board order, and wait for Owen to arrive. When Owen returns to Gravesend, he summons John to the monument shop. Here, he says that he does not believe that John could be happy in the army, and says that, as John has a gift for reading, he should be allowed to stay in America, study, and read. He gives John a great deal of beer, then reveals his intention to cut off John's right index finger with the diamond-wheel saw used for etching tombstones. Without a trigger finger, John will be ineligible for the draft.
Terrified, John places his finger on the board; he hears the saw whine, and watches the blood spatter on Owen's safety goggles. "JUST THINK OF THIS AS MY LITTLE GIFT TO YOU," says Owen Meany.
Structurally, this section makes something of a return to the earlier form of the novel, in which events are covered hurriedly and in a scattershot fashion. Now that Owen and John are growing up--they enter and graduate from college in this chapter--the pace of their lives has increased, and their contact and closeness has decreased; this chapter is in many ways a transitional phase for the novel leading into the climaxes of Chapter 9. Its tone is far more detached and political than that of any preceding chapter, and John spends a great deal of time writing about both Vietnam and about his own early years in Canada. It is interesting that, as the story moves forward in time, John's current situation becomes clearer and clearer; as the novel enters the late '60s, it is easy to draw a connection between John-in-the-story and John-the narrator, where at the beginning of the novel there seemed to be a complete gulf between them. One technique Irving uses to achieve this connection is the political diatribe: by having narrator-John rant about the '80s in the early part of the novel, and then, when he narrates events from the '60s, rant about the '60s, he is able to draw a direct line between John's current life and his past life.
Of course the most important single occurrence in this transitional chapter is the last, Owen's amputation of John's right index finger. This scene not only solves the mystery of how Owen helped John avoid Vietnam (how he gave John far more than he took from him, as John said, even though he took his mother), it also furthers the motif of amputation and armlessness. John is not armless, but he is a little closer than he was before. As he writes later in the book, what one notices in the case of an amputation is a lack; one notices what is not there rather than what is there. In this way, the armlessness/amputation motif becomes a symbol of John's (and Hester's) life without Owen: after Owen dies, what John seems to notice most about the world is its lack of Owen. This partially explains his bitterness towards America, which he blames for Owen's death because of the Vietnam War. He is able to keep blaming America by staying current with examples of its inexcusable international aggression, or at least what he labels as such.
Thus John's addiction to the news, which he tries to soothe by traveling to Katherine Keeling's island in the summer of 1987. As he progresses further and further into his narrative, and comes closer and closer to the scene of Owen's death, John becomes more and more obsessed with headlines, and more easily upset by them. In this way, Irving cleverly uses the news to foreshadow the climax of the novel: because John projects his own grief onto news headlines, Irving is able to build his anguish gradually by dramatizing his need to look at more and more headlines. Because we never see John's character fully in his narration of Owen's story, little clues such as this are extremely important to developing an understanding of John. He claims that Owen Meany has given him religious faith, which he has; but John does not admit that the death of Owen Meany has, in many ways, ruined him, so that he is unable to act, interact normally with others, or live fully outside of books.
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