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A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

Study Questions

Analytical Overview

Quiz

Why might Irving have had John choose Thomas Hardy as the subject of his Master's thesis?

The choice of the writer Thomas Hardy for John's Master's thesis is highly deliberate. Hardy's work is obsessed with the idea of fate, a belief that all is predestined to end in tragedy. Hardy's fatalism gives Owen the opportunity to expound on his own fatalism, and gives Irving the opportunity not only to develop Owen's character and the theme of fate, but also to include important passages from Hardy's writing that enhance the thematic exploration at work in Irving's novel.

What importance do names have in A Prayer for Owen Meany? Are names such as "Gravesend" and "Meany" significant, and if so, how? What other significant names can you think of?

Certain names, such as "Meany" and "Gravesend", are extremely important in the novel. "Gravesend" can be read as either "Grave's End" (referencing themes of resurrection and rebirth) or "Grave Send" (referencing themes of death and fate). "Meany" emphasizes Owen's commonness and littleness by invoking those senses of the word "mean." Other important names include "Tabby" (a cat's name, and John's mother is often described as being catlike), "Barb" (a sharp thorn, just as Barb Wiggin seems to be), and "Sawyer Depot" (referencing the rustic wildness of Tom Sawyer and the outpost quality of a train station). Irving learned the knack for turning names into thematic signifiers from Charles Dickens, a writer to whom he is often compared, and whose characters are often given highly evocative names--a cruel schoolmaster in Dickens' Hard Times, for instance, is named "Mr. M'Choakumchild."

"John claims that the effect Owen Meany has had on his life is to give him religious faith, but in reality, Owen has left John a broken and ruined man. Owen killed John's mother, drastically injuring his childhood, and then died himself, leaving John permanently "damaged," as John himself admits. What John passes as a positive religious faith is in reality simply a not-terribly- effective form of comfort, as John is unable to overcome the traumatic events of his past." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Defend your answer with examples from the novel.

If you think the statement is true, you should emphasize John's restless bitterness, his unsatisfying spiritual life (his disagreements with nearly every rector in his church, for instance), his undeveloped sexuality (he is still a virgin at age forty-five), and his lingering pain over Owen's death--he lives in the past, as both Dan and Canon Mackie tell him, and the past is painful to him. If you think the statement is not true, you should argue that John is troubled, but by no means "ruined"; he has positive friendships with his fellow teachers and with Dan Needham, and his spiritual life is bolstered by his supernatural visitations from Owen. He is unable to resolve the question of how God could act so unjustly in taking Owen, but he is not stymied as a human being. Of the two possible answers, the first is by far the easiest to make; John is clearly still suffering the effects of Owen's death--even though Owen's story is clearly meant to seem inspirational to the reader.

What do you think of John as a narrator? Is he reliable or unreliable? What is his motivation for writing his story?

How does Irving use symbolism in the novel? Taking one of the book's important symbols (armlessness, doubles, American history, Owen himself, etc.), describe Irving's development of a symbolic theme, and discuss the specific meanings with which your symbol is invested in the story.

How does Owen develop as a character throughout the novel? Does he seem to change at all between his early childhood and the day of his death? How do major occurrences in the book--particularly the death of John's mother--seem to affect him?

It is possible to construct a reading of Owen Meany in which the plot of the novel represents the period of American history in which it is set: the death of Owen, and John's resultant loss, can be read as the national loss of innocence experienced in the late '60s as a result of the Vietnam War, for instance. Other elements of the book could also contribute to such a reading: John's mother is killed by a game of baseball, an important symbol of America; when Marilyn Monroe dies, Owen says that she was just like America. How else does the book thematize the idea of America? Do you think the plot of the novel intentionally dramatizes American history, or is the give-and-take between history and story more complex than that?

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Armlessness

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.

Wow

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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