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A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

Chapter 9: The Shot

Chapter 8: The Finger



In 1987, John writes, Hester has actually succeeded in becoming a rock star. Calling herself "Hester the Molester"--Noah and Simon's childhood nickname for her--she plays a kind of seamy hard rock that garners considerable airplay on music video channels. John thinks her videos are disgusting and stupid, but his students love her. He describes bringing the girls from the Bishop Strachan School to Hester's concerts; backstage, Hester always tells the girls that John is a virgin. The girls think she is joking, but she is not. John says that he is not a "non-practicing homosexual," but that what happened to him has simply neutered him.

In Hester's defense, John says that she was badly hurt and even damaged by Owen's death; she felt that Owen left her behind. John says that Owen has not exactly left him behind: as recently as last August, John had a visitation from Owen's spirit, the second such visitation he has had since Owen's death. Visiting Dan at 80 Front Street, where Dan lives now that Mrs. Wheelwright is dead, John nearly falls down the darkened stairs in the secret passage. He feels a tiny hand catch him, and hears Owen's voice telling him not to be afraid. When he emerges from the passage, Dan is shocked to see that the roots of John's hair have turned stark white.

John remembers his grandmother's death, only two weeks before her hundredth birthday: her increasing senility led Dan and John to place her in a retirement home, where she slipped regally away. She died watching television; Dan found her with her thumb on the remote control, so that the channel continued to change. John also remembers the summer of 1967, when he began his Master's thesis on Thomas Hardy; Owen gave him a great deal of advice about Hardy's fatalism and advised John to "JUST PLUNGE IN."

During John's most recent visit to 80 Front Street (he visits Dan each August), Dan asked John again to move back from Canada and return to Gravesend, saying that Owen has been dead for twenty years, and it is time for John to forgive and forget. But John says that he cannot forget, and deflects Dan's questioning by asking questions about the theater. Writing in September, 1987, John says that a new school year has begun at the Bishop Strachan School, but that he has been troubled by a new faculty member named Eleanor Pribst, who is a sexual bully with snobbish notions about literature.

John remembers that before Owen died, Hester vowed not to attend his funeral: she told him that she would marry him and follow him anywhere, but that she refused to attend his "fucking funeral" if he insisted on going to Vietnam. In 1967, John attends the March on the Pentagon with his cousin, but because of his amputated finger he feels utterly detached; there is no chance that he will be sent to Vietnam, and he suspects (as Owen does) that most of the protesters are simply afraid to be drafted.

John remembers the time just after Owen's death, in the summer of 1968. He goes to the Meany household to speak to Mr. Meany about the funeral arrangements--he wants Rev. Merrill to perform the service--and Mr. Meany takes him into Owen's room, where he is shocked to see that Owen has attached Mary Magdalene's arms to John's mother's dressmaker's dummy. John goes through Owen's things, but does not find the baseball that killed his mother. Mr. Meany--as Mrs. Meany angrily objects in the background--tells John that Owen was not natural; he was, Mr. Meany claims, a virgin birth. He says that he told Owen this fact when Owen was about eleven--at about the same time as John's mother died--and that the infamous "great insult" the Catholic Church has paid the Meanys is to disbelieve their claim. Mr. Meany also shows John Owen's tombstone, which he claims Owen made for himself six months before he died. It is exactly like the vision of Scrooge's tombstone Owen had while acting in A Christmas Carol--and the date inscribed on the tombstone is the actual date of Owen's death.

John thinks that the Meanys are monsters for telling their eleven-year-old son that he was a virgin birth, a kind of second Christ, when it is obviously, patently, untrue. John talks to Rev. Merrill about it, and the reverend agrees--though he disagrees with John that Owen's foreknowledge of his own death constitutes a miracle, which John does believe. As they argue about faith, John suddenly remembers seeing the reverend's face in the bleachers the day his mother was killed--he feels suddenly that Owen is very close to him. The reverend blanches, and suddenly cries out in Owen's voice: "LOOK IN THE THIRD DRAWER, \RIGHT-HAND SIDE." His hand wrenches open the drawer, and John sees the baseball that killed his mother. John knows at once that the Rev. Merrill is his father, and that Merrill was the man his mother waved to just before she died.

The reverend admits the truth, and says that it was Tabby's death that shattered his faith in God. He says that when he saw her walking by the baseball field, he prayed for a split second that she would die; immediately after that, Owen's baseball struck her. Rev. Merrill believes that he killed John's mother by wishing her dead, and that, as punishment, God has turned his face away from him. John, numbly disappointed to learn that his father is the spineless Rev. Merrill, thinks that this is nonsense. That night, he retrieves his mother's dummy from Owen's bedroom, places it outside the church, and throws the baseball through the reverend's window. The reverend comes outside, sees the dummy in the red dress, and believes that it is Tabby Wheelwright come back from the grave. He falls to his hands and knees, his faith restored. The following day at Owen's service, he delivers a powerful and sincere eulogy, and his faith never wavers again.

During Owen's funeral service, the light from the hole the baseball made in the window twinkles on Owen's military medal. At the committal, a grown-up Mary Beth Baird asks John if he remembers lifting Owen above their heads in Sunday school class, and asks how Owen could possibly have been so light. John, realizing powerfully that Owen is gone, is unable to answer. He describes briefly his move to Canada, and tells about Mrs. Meany's death not long after Owen's--she burned to death when Owen's army memorial flag caught fire in her living room. Mr. Meany's granite business goes belly-up, and he begins to work as a meter-reader; everywhere he goes, he wears Owen's medal on his own chest.

At last John describes the manner of Owen Meany's death. Shortly after the Fourth of July, 1968, Owen calls John and asks him to meet him in Phoenix, where he is detained for a few days because of a military mix-up with the body of a soldier--it is Owen's job, remember, to return dead bodies to their families. John flies out to meet him, unaware that Owen believes he is going to die. Quoting Owen's diary, John says that the only thing that confused Owen was the location--he was so sure he was going to die in Vietnam, and that his death would be to save Vietnamese children, that he thinks his prophetic dream might have been simply a dream. But at the time, John has no idea of Owen's fatalistic belief. They spend a few days in a motel, drinking beer by the swimming pool, and meet the trashy family of the deceased warrant sergeant, including his machete-toting half-brother Dick Jarvits, a hulking, fifteen-year-old giant who lives for the day he will be old enough to go to Vietnam.

On the day Owen believes is appointed for his death, Major Rawls--Owen's cynical, muscular contact in Phoenix--drives them to the airport for John's return flight. While they wait, Owen sees a group deplaning: several nuns escorting a passel of Vietnamese war orphans, mostly young children. One of the nuns asks him to take the Vietnamese boys to the men's room. John accompanies them to a cramped facility with a giant sink and a deep, recessed window about ten feet from the floor.

Suddenly, Dick Jarvits appears in the doorway, a grenade in his hand. He has lived to kill the Viet Cong, and intends to practice on these children. Owen cries out to the children in Vietnamese--"Don't be afraid! Lie down!" Dick tosses the grenade into the room, and John catches it. Owen quietly asks him if he now understands why they spent so much time practicing The Shot, and leaps into the air. John passes him the grenade, lifts him up a la The Shot, and Owen buries the grenade in the window, pinning it there with his arms, dangling from the ledge.

The grenade explodes; John's eardrums begin to bleed. Owen's arms are blown off just below the elbow, and he flies into the sink. A nun rushes to him. As Dick Jarvits runs out of the men's room, Major Rawls kills him with his own machete. Owen quickly bleeds to death; his last words to John are "YOU'RE GETTING SMALLER, BUT I CAN STILL SEE YOU!" Owen is awarded a medal posthumously, and John finally accepts Owen's sense of purpose and accepts Owen as the instrument of God. Owen's voice had to be high, so the children would not be frightened of it; Owen had to be small, so that the children would trust him. Owen has lived to save the children, even to the point of learning Vietnamese--"Phoenix" is even written in his diary--and John accepts Owen Meany as a miracle, as a proof of God's existence. He believes that Owen was lifted up by supernatural forces his entire life, and that this is why he weighed so little. Mournfully, John asks God to give Owen Meany back, and pledges to keep asking.


This final chapter is essentially divided into two parts, the first centering around the time just after Owen's death and the second describing Owen's death itself. The first part of the chapter features the two great bombshells of plot resolution, when we learn that Rev. Merrill is John's father and that Owen's parents told him he was a virgin birth. Neither John nor the Reverend believe them, thinking that the Meanys invented the story for personal reasons. Given the other miracles associated with Owen, the reasons for their disbelief are not entirely clear, and Irving leaves this part of the novel relatively ambiguous, never saying whether Mrs. Meany had an affair, or whether Mr. Meany was ashamed to be the father of a dwarf, or whether Owen really was a miraculous birth. In any case, he never proposes a different candidate for Owen's father. Most readers of the book have assumed that we are meant to believe that the Meanys are lying, simply because of John's vehemence on the subject. But Mr. Meanys articulates an important problem with religious faith when he asks: if you were able to believe in one virgin birth, why are you unable to believe in a second? If you actually believe that miracles have happened, why is it impossible to believe that a miracle could occur in one's own life?

Whatever the case, the matter of John's parentage is not left in similar doubt. Rev. Merrill, the philosophical representative in the book of the relationship between doubt and faith, is his father, much to John's disappointment. This section of the book is laced with a heavy and not entirely convincing irony, as John describes his prank to reawaken the reverend's faith. The irony is that, with all the miracles the reverend has witnessed (Owen's life and death, Owen's visitation when he reveals the baseball in his desk drawer, the divine--he believes--intervention that caused Tabby's death), the reverend has lost his faith; the only thing that can make him believe again is a very mortal prank played by John. In this way, the reverend becomes an increasingly pathetic figure throughout the novel, and some of the book's final musings on religious faith are savagely undercut with a sense of human failing. John has lived his whole life desperate to know the identity of his father, and when he does so, he feels nothing in particular. The fact that the Rev. Merrill is his father does not "mean" anything--it seems to have no real symbolic importance in the novel (except perhaps to say that the skeptical John is born of doubt), and does nothing but make John slightly more miserable. This revelation forms something of a satisfying anticlimax--satisfying because it puts to rest a question left unanswered since the beginning of the novel, anticlimactic because it lacks energy, thematic importance, and catharsis, which is exactly the point.

The long scene in which Owen is killed--in exactly the manner he thought he would be, validating his own long-held conviction that he was God's instrument--is the proper climax of the novel, and John delays it to the very end of the book. Owen is killed by a character who is his exact opposite: where Owen is tiny, brilliant, loving, and helpful, Dick Jarvits is gigantic, stupid, hateful, and murderous, living for nothing except to kill the Vietnamese. Of course Owen's death miraculously rounds out the armlessness motif, implying that Owen's foreknowledge of his own manner of dying actually caused the armlessness motif by suggesting to Owen his obsession with amputation.

Owen's death is one of the most densely layered subjects in the novel, with philosophical, religious, and mythological references ranging from resurrection (the city of Phoenix--a mythological phoenix was a bird which rose from its own ashes--and the "Easter service" of the funeral, as well as the pleas of John and the reverend for God to return Owen to Earth) to messianism (the idea that the characters believe in Owen; the idea that Owen should rise from the grave like Christ). Still, it is arguable that Irving leaves the main religious question of the novel unresolved. Throughout the book, the thematic argument of the novel is between faith on the one hand and the miraculous on the other; as Owen says, where there are miracles, there can be no faith, because a miracle obviates the need for faith. The essence of religious doubt is lack of evidence for God's existence--that is, lack of miracles. Faith is a blind leap despite a lack of evidence; therefore, the condition of doubt is the basis of religious faith, as the epigraph of the novel implies. When a miracle occurs, there is then evidence for God's existence; there is no reason for doubt, and faith can be replaced with a certainty of belief.

The principle characters in the book struggle with religious doubt throughout the novel; Owen is the only character with unwavering belief. But at the end of the novel, strangely, John is not forced to make a choice between faith and doubt; rather, he is given a miracle--the life and death of Owen, which obviously defies any other explanation--on which to base his religious belief. Apart from Owen's death, he receives two supernatural visitations from his friend, including one which turns his hair white, as further proof of God's existence. So when John says that Owen Meany made him a Christian, he means not that Owen taught him how to overcome doubt with faith, but rather that Owen provided him with a miracle--on the basis of which he could banish doubt from his thinking.

Oddly, however, neither John nor the Rev. Merrill (who is actually possessed by Owen for a moment) is able to banish doubt fully, despite the supernatural evidence at their disposal. John continues to have a "rummage-sale" faith, and obviously remains unable to accept the idea that everything that happens is part of God's plan--he is too bitter, too sad, and too hateful toward the Reagan administration. And the Rev. Merrill simply refuses to acknowledge the evidence of his own miraculous experience; when his faith returns, ironically, it does so because of a very un-miraculous prank. Both John and the Rev. Merrill seem desperate to make Owen into a kind of messianic figure, asking God to resurrect Owen and "give him back," as though this will fully bolster their belief. But even this lingering doubt does not sustain the tension in the reader's mind: in the world of the novel, Owen is obviously right, God obviously exists, and the other characters' doubts are simply mistaken.

Of course, it is arguable that Irving's intent in this arrangement is to dramatize the extraordinary difficulties of believing in God, even with evidence. And it is arguable that he simply wanted to tell the story of a miracle. But it is not arguable that A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that affirms the legitimacy of everyday religious faith, as has often been claimed. On its own terms, it the novel simply cannot be so, because of its important comments about the nature of the miraculous, and because it places the entire impetus for the main characters' religious belief upon the miraculous figure of Owen Meany. In fact, the novel's problematic ending means that, unless one has experienced a miracle on par with Owen's, it will be literally impossible for one to identify with the religious positions of the novel's main characters. John has seen a miracle; if you have not seen a miracle, then your religious belief is fundamentally different from John's. Further, Owen is a fictional creation of John Irving, and not an example of reality as it actually functions: for the reader, he cannot be taken as "proof" of anything beyond John Irving's creative powers. Of course, in a world in which miracles are not common occurrences, it is probably impossible to resolve the tension between faith and doubt, and Irving seems to indicate that a certain measure of doubt is appropriate to any thoughtful person's belief in God. But Owen Meany is a miracle; and because he is a fictional miracle, he is ultimately very difficult to believe.

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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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