A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Armless Figures: The Dressmaker's Dummy, The Armadillo, and Mary Magdalene
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Isn't it kind of weird how there are all of these objects in A Prayer for Owen Meany that are supposed to have arms, but either don't have them to begin with or lose them for strange and seemingly unexplained reasons? Isn't it even weirder that Owen seems to be so fascinated with armless figures throughout his entire life? Let's take a look at some of these objects and try to make sense of what they're doing here.
There's Tabby's dressmakers dummy, which doesn't even have arms to begin with. In terms of its height, size, and figure, it's a nearly perfect copy of Tabby's body. Owen and John make a fun game of dressing it up in Tabby's clothes, but Owen seems to go beyond seeing it as a mere plaything. Instead, he seems to be kind of obsessed with it. After Tabby dies, Owen takes the dummy out of Dan's apartment and keeps it in his own bedroom. What's the big deal? Well, let's think about the role that the dummy has had in Owen's life outside of playing dress-up. One night, when Owen's sleeping over John's house, he feels sick and goes into Tabby's room to tell her so. He sees the dummy and is convinced that it is the Angel of Death. He's pretty sure that he interrupted the Angel of Death at work, and so he doesn't feel all that guilty later on when he kills Tabby. He thinks that it was his destiny to hasten her death because he prevented the Angel of Death from taking her when she was supposed to die.
Then there's the armadillo. Unlike the dressmaker's dummy, the armadillo actually does have arms – well, legs and claws, at least – when John receives it from Dan as a gift. After Owen kills Tabby, however, John gives Owen the armadillo as a way of showing him that he still loves him, and when Owen returns the armadillo, it has no claws. Huh?! We will later learn that Owen is trying to show John how God has made Owen his instrument and has taken his hands in order to accomplish things that are destined to happen.
After all of that, there's still the statue of Mary Magdalene to consider. After he's expelled from Gravesend Academy, Owen steals the statue of Mary Magdalene from St. Michael's Church and welds it to the stage of the Great Hall at Gravesend Academy. In this case, Owen doesn't just remove the statue's arms; he takes off its head, too. There are a lot of ways to interpret this gesture. One possible explanation is that Owen is just trying to stick it to Randy White for throwing him out of school. Another might be that he wants it to appear like a miracle has happened at Gravesend Academy. Still, one hunch that we can't shake about Owen's fascination with Mary Magdalene is how much Mary Magdalene seems to stand in as a figure for Tabby. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a disciple of Jesus. Rumor has it that she's a prostitute, albeit one who has repented. She doesn't seem to be too unlike Tabby in the sense that everyone seems to know that she is a "loose" woman but still sees her as being a sweet and good person. The likening of Tabby to Mary Magdalene may explain why Owen saws off her head in addition to her arms – after all, he killed Tabby by hitting her in the head with a baseball.
OK, so we have a lot of armless images in this novel – so what do they add up to? Well, let's think about how Owen dies – a grenade explodes his arms off. In one sense, then, all of these different armless images help to foreshadow the way that Owen will meet his maker. He loses his arms and bleeds to death. Still, they don't seem to just foreshadow Owen's fate; they also show how everything that happens to him is intertwined in some way that makes us believe that his death is scripted and inevitable. We start to understand why Owen thinks he's God's instrument, because all of these images culminate in his final act. In the same vein, armless-ness is also an image of powerlessness. The images of figures without arms emphasize Owen's belief that he doesn't have control over everything that happens; some bigger force is in charge of putting all of the pieces into place.