A Prayer for Owen Meany

by: John Irving

Chapter 3: The Angel

Summary Chapter 3: The Angel

John writes that Mr. Chickering, the Little League coach who ordered Owen to swing at the ball that killed John's mother, is now wasting away with Alzheimer's disease. John remembers that Mr. Chickering wept at his mother's funeral, feeling responsible for her death. John thinks about Harry Hoyt, who was walked before Owen batted--had he been the last out, Owen would have never gone to the plate. Harry was later killed in Vietnam, and his mother became a war protester in Gravesend. Buzzy Thurston, who reached base on an error before Owen batted, did not attend the funeral. Later, he evaded Vietnam through drug use--he was declared psychologically unfit to serve--but he was killed in a car accident caused by his drinking.

The graveyard in Gravesend was near the high school, and at the burial of Tabby, Rev. Merrill's voice was interrupted by the sound of a high school baseball practice. Many of the mourners cover their ears with their hands, and Owen repeats "I'M SORRY! I'M SORRY!" Afterward, John narrates, his Aunt Martha, Mrs. Wheelwright, and Dan each tell John that he is welcome to live with them; he elects to spend some of his time with Dan--who legally adopted him when he married Tabby--and some with his grandmother at 80 Front Street. He takes a walk with Hester, who tells him that Owen feels even worse than he does. They walk to the cemetery, where they find Owen praying over the grave, his father waiting in the Granite Company truck nearby. Owen says that they must go to the apartment and take the dummy, or Dan will stare at it and make himself miserable. They retrieve it from an uncomplaining Dan, and Owen decides that he should keep the dummy himself. The dummy is wearing the red dress.

As he writes his story, on February 1, 1987, in Toronto, John says that he has come to believe in angels. He says that this belief has not much helped him--he was not even elected to a parish office during the last council session at church, though he has held many offices in the past. He says that he was irritated by the service, too, which emphasized the beatitudes of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He does not like the new canon, either. But the psalm rang true: "Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: / fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil." John says that he himself has felt wrath, and been moved to do evil--as we shall see.

One of the most important motifs of the novel was introduced in the previous chapter: the motif of armlessness and amputation runs through the entire novel, and subsumes almost all of its important symbols. That motif will be explored later, but one of its key symbols is introduced in this chapter: Tabby Wheelwright's dummy. The dummy also introduces a motif of doubles, of objects or people who are or become identical to one another in some way. The dummy exactly resembles John's mother's body, so that John sometimes startles himself in the night, thinking the dummy is his mother. In this way, after John's mother dies, the dummy becomes a powerful symbol of memory; it represents each character's memory of Tabby.

Interestingly, the book's other main set of doubles--Mrs. Wheelwright and her maid, Lydia--seem to work in exactly the opposite fashion. When Lydia is confined to a wheelchair after losing her leg to cancer (another example of amputation in the novel), she continues to live at 80 Front Street in the care of the Wheelwrights. She begins to pattern her speech, attitudes, and opinions on those of Mrs. Wheelwright, until she becomes a virtual dummy herself, merely a copy of John's grandmother. She is a bit older than Mrs. Wheelwright, however, and as the book progresses, Mrs. Wheelwright begins using Lydia's growing senility to predict what she herself will experience. Tabby's dummy becomes a symbol of memory, of the past, while Lydia, Mrs. Wheelwright's "dummy," becomes a bizarre symbol of the future.

In the first two chapters of the novel, Owen's extraordinary connection to the world of the supernatural is mainly implied by his bizarre appearance, his voice, and his occasional comments. By Chapter 3, however, Owen is increasingly becoming the focus of John's narrative, and his connection to the substantive world of religion is beginning to be more fully explored. Here, for instance, Owen believes that he sees an angel over Tabby Wheelwright's bed, and then stays with her all night in case it comes back. John assumes that an angel is benign- -that Owen must have thought he saw a guardian angel, or some other force of good. But he later realized that Owen thinks he saw the Angel of Death, and that he disrupted it--that he literally prevented it from killing John's mother. For that reason, Owen believes that he was appointed to kill John's mother, and that his unlucky foul ball in the baseball game was far more than just a coincidence. This revelation provides the first inkling of the entrenched notion of fatalism that is at the heart of Owen's concept of faith: he believes that everything is fated, and that everyone exists to serve a special purpose. What makes Owen unique, in the world of the novel, is his apparent foreknowledge of his own fate. Owen not only believes that he is God's instrument, he understands how he is God's instrument.

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