John Wheelwright, the narrator of the story, writes that he will always remember Owen Meany--not because of Owen's loud voice or his tiny body, or even because he was the instrument of John's mother's death, but because Owen Meany is the reason that John believes in God. John describes his history of religious faith, his conversion from Congregationalism to Episcopalianism and from Episcopalianism to Anglicanism. He says that he is not exactly a devout Christian, but he is a regular churchgoer and reads his prayer book often--more often, in fact, than he reads his Bible. He says that when he dies, he will attempt to be buried in New Hampshire next to his mother, though it will be difficult to have his body returned to the United States from Canada, where he now lives. He says that he has a "church-rummage" religious faith--one that needs patching up every Sunday. But he owes the faith he has to Owen Meany.
John remembers the way he and his friends used to torment Owen in Sunday school class. Owen had an unbelievably tiny body and undeveloped vocal cords, so that the only way he could be heard was to shout through his nose. In Sunday school, the teacher, Mrs. Walker, often walks out of the class--ostensibly to leave the students to think about their lessons, though John suspects that she simply needs a smoke--and when she does, the other students lift Owen up above their heads and pass him around the room. They love Owen--the girls call him a "little doll"--but they are too fascinated by his tininess to leave him alone. As he passes over their heads, he loses the change from his pockets and his baseball cards. Owen loves baseball cards, even though he is never allowed to swing at a pitch in Little League--his strike zone is so small, he is always forced to walk. When the teacher returns to class and blames Owen for the disarray, Owen never complains; John remembers that even when he was hung up from his locker at school and left dangling, he simply called out "NOT FUNNY!" in his ethereal nasal voice until someone took him down.
John writes that he grew up in the town of Gravesend, New Hampshire, where his family, the Wheelwrights, occupy a position of aristocratic prestige. In Gravesend during John's childhood, his maternal grandmother, Harriet Wheelwright, was the matriarch of the town, descended from John Adams and wielding the Wheelwright name with expert authority. John describes his ancestors' role in the founding of Gravesend--an earlier John Wheelwright, in 1638, bought the location from an Indian sagamore; this earlier John Wheelwright became a Puritan in England and was later expelled from Massachusetts for his unorthodox religious beliefs. John feels that much of his own religious confusion stems from his ancestor's legacy. John writes that Watahantowet, the Indian sagamore who sold the town site to the first Wheelwright, could not write, so he signed his name with his totem, an image of an armless man.
Of John's parents, his mother was the Wheelwright, not his father; but John's mother kept her maiden name and John was raised as a Wheelwright, never even knowing who his father was. John's mother occasionally referred to John's father as her "little fling." John's mother died when he was eleven, before ever telling him about his father. John remembers that once, as the two of them sat throwing rocks into the Squamscott River, Owen prophecized that John will learn about his father one day. Owen's little arms cannot pitch the rocks all the way into the water, but he tells John that even if his father does not come forward, God will reveal his presence to John. As he says this, he hurls a pebble all the way out into the water, surprising both John and himself. John says that with this stroke, Owen "began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God."
John talks a bit about the history of Gravesend, whose first great industry was lumber. John's grandmother always preferred trees to rocks, so that she was proud of the lumber trade and contemptuous of the Meany family, which ran a granite quarry. John remembers Owen telling him about the quality of granite required to make a gravestone, and remembers that he wondered why Owen wasn't deaf; there was something wrong with his size and his voice, but, despite the noise of the granite quarry, his ears were healthy. Owen also introduced John to Wall's History of Gravesend, a book that John refers to often in his own narrative.
John relates the story of his mother's pregnancy, during which time she never divulged the details of her affair, saying only that she met a man on the railroad that took her to Boston for singing lessons. Only her sister, John's Aunt Martha, was resentful; everyone else accepted her behavior as they always accepted her behavior, because she was beautiful and affectionate. John says that the only hurtful action she was incapable of making amends for was dying.
John remembers a scene from his childhood during which Owen loses his way in the dark passageway of his grandmother's mansion. Owen's nasal screams disturbed John's grandmother, who told John that Owen's voice could make dead mice come back to life. (He says that his grandmother was not an unkind woman--when her maid Lydia lost her leg, Mrs. Wheelwright hired another maid just to take care of Lydia.) Another time, when swimming in the quarry lake--an almost unfathomably deep body of water--Owen unties the rope the children used to anchor themselves to shore and hides in a rock crevice, making the other children believe that he was drowning. When none of them leap in after him, an enraged Owen appears on shore, screaming that his friends have chosen to let him die.
When John begins attending Episcopalian Sunday school, he does so because his mother has married an Episcopalian man who becomes like a father to him; when Owen begins to attend Episcopalian Sunday school, he does so because, as he says, the Catholic Church has insulted his father and mother. John does not know what this "insult" was. Owen and John discuss religion, and John realizes that Owen has very specific and passionately held convictions.
There are two schools in Gravesend--the prestigious academy and the public high school. Owen intends to attend the high school, but John's mother wants Owen to go to the academy, because he is a brilliant student. Owen refuses, saying that public schools are for people like him.
One day Owen tells John that his mother went to the Meanys' house to bring up the subject of the academy with Owen's parents. Owen knows this because he recognized John's mother's perfume in the living room; he has a terrible crush on John's mother, as do all of John's friends. Then John remembers the last Little League season he and Owen spent together, when they were eleven. In one game, in the last inning, Owen Meany is allowed to swing at a pitch for the first time. He hits a hard foul ball over the fence; John's mother, who is waiting to take John and Owen home, is struck in the head. John's mother is dead almost as soon as she hits the ground. In the chaos that follows, someone throws a coat over John's head, and the chief of police argues with the Little League coach about the ball. Owen is gone; John suspects that he took the ball with him.
Structurally, the opening chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany serves to introduce some of the main characters, especially John and Owen, and to begin familiarizing the reader with the world of Gravesend, New Hampshire. Throughout the cyclical, non-chronological narrative of Owen Meany, Irving sustains the reader's interest with unsolved mysteries rather than with direct plot development, and this chapter introduces the two most important of those mysteries: the identity of John's father and the nature of the "insult" the Catholic Church has paid to Owen's family. While not part of the main plot of the story, these mysteries will linger and recur throughout the book, not to be solved until the final chapter.
The main (though by no means the only) theme of Owen Meany is religious faith, specifically the relationship of faith and doubt: how can one believe in God in a world where there is no evidence of his existence, a world where there are no miracles? John says that Owen Meany is the reason for his faith, and even in the early chapters, when we do not know why his faith would be based on Owen, it is clear that Owen is a symbol of something not quite worldly: his tiny stature, his weightlessness, his eerie, almost glowing skin, and above all, his voice, mark him as being in some way not human, in some way closer to a world of the spirit than the other characters of the novel. And yet, at the same time, Owen is the epitome of earthiness--his native environment is a rock quarry. And his name is "Meany"--both literally and in the Gravesend social hierarchy a signifier of commonness and littleness; it is an unexalted name for an instrument of God to possess. In this way, Owen seems to represent the relationship of world and spirit, of the natural and the supernatural, of man and the almighty. He is a dwarf who believes himself to be the instrument of God.
John, on the other hand, is all uncertainty; he is an intentional and marked contrast with Owen. John's mother is not really developed in this chapter, but from her loving, self-possessed, and unflappable exterior, as well as from her physical beauty, she already emerges as a symbol of a kind of idealized motherhood and womanhood--as Owen says, she has "THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS." One of the key themes of Owen Meany is how sexuality interacts with moral and religious faith in the experience of boys, and John's mother is the first representative of the complication. Breasts are symbols of both sexuality and motherhood, and, to the young Owen and even to John, John's mother is the epitome of both.
Because of the way Owen Meany is narrated--out of chronological sequence, seemingly in an order dictated only by John's reminiscences--Irving is able to delay key descriptions and plot events until they take on maximum weight. For instance, he spends all of Chapter 1 idling around several seemingly insignificant stories in order to introduce Owen to the reader before depicting the scene in which Owen kills John's mother. (He does allude to the fact that Owen was "the instrument of my mother's death" on the opening page, but he delays the impact of the actual scene until the end of the chapter.) Then, after we see John's mother lying dead on the ground, he opens Chapter 2 with a description of her personality and her early life, developing her as a character only after we watch her die. In this way, Irving maximizes the emotional tone of John's narration, while also subtly enacting one of the key principles of religious faith--the belief in resurrection. After all, the name of the town in which the book is set is Gravesend--"Grave's End"--and one consequence of the form of Irving's narration is that he continually brings characters back to life. Another way of reading the town's name, of course, is "Grave Send," and by the end of the book, those characters die again.