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A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany


by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany Chapter 6 Summary

The Voice

  • We learn that Harriet Wheelwright is a very principled Yankee woman who believes in hard work. She despises TV because she hates the way it takes no effort to watch it.
  • That said, after Tabby and Lydia both die, Harriet gets a television. In retrospect, John thinks this is a pretty reasonable move – Ethel can't be the same kind of company for Harriet that Lydia was.
  • Germaine resigns; she's too freaked out about what happened to Lydia.
  • Since Lydia is dead, Harriet doesn't really need to find a replacement for Germaine. Still, since Johnny spends half his time at Dan's place, she only has Ethel to hang out with. Thus, she springs for a TV. (Is it just us, or is this totally sad?)
  • Owen is totally surprised when he finds out that Harriet is getting a TV. Hester is really jealous.
  • Owen and Johnny haven't ever really watched TV before, so they're not really prepared for what they see.
  • Harriet and Owen share a favorite TV personality: Liberace, a totally over-the-top and flamboyant pianist. He was Elton John before Elton John even existed.
  • We learn that their shared love of Liberace creates a kind of bond between Harriet and Owen that never existed before – all of a sudden they can talk to each other frankly.
  • One subject that comes up between the two of them is Gravesend Academy. Harriet has decided that Owen is completely brilliant, and she insists that he has to go. Owen is so smart that he'll definitely get in, and he'll probably get a full scholarship, to boot.
  • Owen's only objection is that he can't afford the fancy clothes that one needs to wear at such a hoity-toity place as Gravesend Academy.
  • Harriet decides to take Owen shopping.
  • Owen gets into Gravesend Academy. Johnny, on the other hand, isn't the best student. The admissions committee tells Dan that Johnny can come to the Academy if he first does a year of 9th Grade at the public school – and then he can start at Gravesend, albeit by doing 9th grade again.
  • Owen tells everyone that he's going to stick by Johnny's side. He argues that he's so small that it would be a good idea to let him grow for a year and then start at the Academy afterward. Everyone is touched by how loyal Owen is to Johnny.
  • Grab some tissues, because here's one of the most heartwarming moments in the novel: "DON'T GIVE IT ANOTHER THOUGHT," he said. "WE'RE PALS, AREN'T WE? WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR? I'LL NEVER LEAVE YOU" (6.64).
  • We move forward in time to Thanksgiving, 1954.
  • Johnny's cousins come to 80 Front Street and see the TV for the first time. They sit around and watch movies. Hester criticizes everything.
  • The Eastmans decide to spend Christmas of 1954 in the Caribbean. Owen is disappointed because he figures he'll never get to go to Sawyer Depot.
  • We learn that Owen doesn't just have contempt for Catholics as people; he's also super-critical about the way they worship objects.
  • One of Owen's biggest pet peeves is the statue of Mary Magdalene that stands outside of the playground of St. Michael's parochial school. The statue stands in an archway and kind of looks like a goalie in a soccer game.
  • We also learn that nuns really freak Owen out.
  • Owen and Johnny spend a lot of time standing backstage during productions by the Gravesend Players. They don't watch the performances – instead, they watch the audience to try to piece together the group of people sitting in the bleachers during the baseball game.
  • Owen gives Johnny some pretty sound advice: he shouldn't expect his birth father to be anyone that great, because, if he were, Tabby probably would have introduced the two of them to one another. He certainly shouldn't expect another Dan.
  • We move forward in time some more. It's now Christmastime of 1957. Just for a point of reference, Owen and Johnny are now fifteen years old.
  • We learn that the Eastmans feel the need to spend Christmas at home this year after what happened last year – apparently Hester had an affair with a boatman who wanted to rendezvous with her in the British Virgin Islands (and yes, Hester was only fifteen when this happened).
  • We come back to the present – it is now April 12, 1987.
  • It's Palm Sunday. John goes to the Sunday boarder's lunch at the school where he teaches. Katherine Keeling is there. We learn that these Sunday lunches are important to John.
  • A week goes by; it's Easter Sunday. At church, they hear the story of Mary Magdalene finding that the stone had been rolled away from Jesus' tomb.
  • We go back to the past – this time, we're in the summer of 1958.
  • Owen has just gotten his driver's license. He drives his dad's tomato-red pickup. It will always be described as the tomato-red pickup.
  • Dan teaches Johnny to drive. He constantly quotes lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that talk about bravery in the face of death.
  • Owen and Johnny spend the summer going down to the beach.
  • Owen's appearance has changed a bit: he's still tiny, but he has developed muscles from hauling granite at his dad's quarry. He also has the slightest fuzzy moustache that looks like a smear of granite dust.
  • In the Fall of 1958, Owen and Johnny start attending Gravesend Academy. Owen wears fancy clothes that Harriet bought him at the Small Gentleman's departments of fancy department stores.
  • Within Owen's first semester at Gravesend Academy, he earns the nickname of "Sarcasm Master." He starts writing for the school's paper, which is called The Grave. He writes a column under the pen name "The Voice."
  • Interestingly, Owen writes just like he speaks – in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.
  • As The Voice, Owen champions his fellow students' causes. He challenges a bunch of rules and traditions at The Academy, from having to wear uniforms to the expulsion of a student for killing cats.
  • During their freshman year, Owen invites Hester to the Senior Dance. She agrees. After the dance, they go back to 80 Front Street.
  • Owen says that they watched a movie, but when Johnny asks him which movie they watched, he can't remember. Simon announces that they must have hooked up.
  • Owen writes a column complaining about how two students got in trouble for hooking up with their dates.
  • Pretty soon, Owen becomes a pretty important figure on campus. In fact, several applicants for the position of headmaster even ask to meet Owen. They all agree that talking to him is a daunting experience. One applicant even withdraws his application.
  • The current headmaster, who was going to retire, decides to hold on for another year. His name is Archibald Thorndike.
  • Summer comes. Johnny gets a job giving tours for the admissions office. Owen works at the quarry, as per usual. They cruise the beach just like the previous summer.
  • That next fall of 1959, Simon and Noah both go off to college on the West Coast. The Eastmans send Hester to the University of New Hampshire, just twenty minutes away from Gravesend Academy.
  • We get the gist that Owen and Hester are an item.
  • When school starts again, Owen already has a stack of columns written for The Grave.
  • In one article, he advocates for the Search Committee to hire a new headmaster who puts the students and faculty first and fundraising second.
  • He also writes an article denouncing the way that the school serves fish on Fridays to appease the Catholics – he thinks they should offer other options that please everyone. Pretty soon, there are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner.
  • We learn that Owen loves basketball. He can't play on the team because he's too small, but we find out that he has an amazing leap – even though he's so tiny, Owen can reach the other players' eye-level.
  • Pretty soon, Owen becomes obsessed with the possibility of slam-dunking – or, as they call it, "stuffing."
  • Owen devises a special move to help him dunk that is probably illegal in actual organized games. He runs toward another player while dribbling, and then times his leap to coincide with his teammate's readiness to lift him up into the air. Only one person is willing to practice this shot with him – wonder who that might be?
  • After Owen and Johnny perfect the move, the school's basketball coach jokes with him that he just might use Owen in a game. Owen insists that his skill is "NOT FOR A GAME" (6.267). Hmm…does Owen know something that we don't know?
  • Over Christmas vacation of 1959, Johnny and Owen spend hours practicing the shot. Owen also helps Johnny with a few term papers but makes sure to make mistakes so it seems like Johnny actually wrote it.
  • We learn that Johnny is not great at spelling or reading. He's in remedial classes and has to go see the school psychiatrist to help him with the problem.
  • Owen writes an article in The Grave about how he believes some people have actual learning disabilities (it seems that he thinks that John is dyslexic – remember, this is 1959, so things that we take for granted to be true now weren't the same way then).
  • We meet Johnny's psychiatrist, Dr. Dolder. Dr. Dolder is convinced that Johnny struggles with school because Owen murdered his mother. He tries to get Johnny to say that he hates Dan and his grandmother.
  • Dr. Dolder also wants to meet Owen and talk to him.
  • We come back to the present – it's May 11, 1987. John gets an American newspaper and starts reading about Ronald Reagan's policies. He starts thinking about how Americans are all moralists and that they'd be more likely to punish a president for having an affair than for committing some kind of political atrocity. (It seems Irving was onto something…)
  • John tells to his twelfth grade English class to reread the first part of Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. The students are more concerned about whether or not they can have class outside.
  • We go back into the past. It's the winter term of the boys' tenth-grade year. Their Religion and Scripture teacher dies when he slips and falls and cracks his head on the steps of Hurd's Church. Rev. Lewis Merrill is hired as a temporary replacement.
  • As usual, Rev. Merrill preaches about how doubt is an important part of faith rather than faith's opposite. He also tells the students that if you need to witness a miracle to have faith, then you don't really have faith.
  • Rev. Merrill gives them a bunch of classic works of literature to wrap their minds around.
  • Owen starts to side with Rev. Merrill, and he writes an article in The Grave about how Merrill is way better than their old teacher ever was. The school hires Rev. Merrill as the school minister.
  • We go back to 1987 again – it's May 12th. John gets in a discussion with Mrs. Brocklebank, one of his neighbors, about how starfish can regenerate after they lose an arm. We learn that Archibald Thorndike (a.k.a. "Old Thorny") spent two years studying them and wrote a book about starfish after retiring from Gravesend Academy.
  • John asks Mrs. Brocklebank to remind her daughter Heather, a student of John's, to reread the first phase of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
  • Then John remembers when he had to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles for school. It was the winter term of 1960. He and Owen were in the tenth grade. Mr. Early was their English teacher.
  • John was extremely frustrated about the fact that he couldn't understand Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Owen tries to get him to adjust his attitude. Owen offers to tell him the whole story and then to do his homework for him.
  • Then Owen has a change of heart – maybe it's a better idea to teach John how to do his homework. After all, Owen argues, "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO AFTER I'M GONE?" (6.349).
  • John's all like, what does that mean? (We smell some foreshadowing here!)
  • Owen makes John realize that it's not Tess that's boring to him – reading bores John because he probably has a learning disability.
  • We snap back into 1987. John is in the midst of remembering the lessons that Owen taught him and realizes that he's crying. Mrs. Brocklebank asks him if he has allergies, and he responds that it must be from the dandelions.
  • The dandelions remind John of the spring term of 1960, which marked the beginning of a tumultuous decade – "the decade that would defeat us" (6.370). Let's go visit the spring of 1960, shall we?
  • In the spring of 1960, Randolph White is appointed the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy. He comes from a small private school in Lake Forest, Illinois. He is well-versed in the world of the rich and exclusive. In fact, rumor has it that Mr. White is a little too exclusive: the boys hear that there were "no Jews allowed" at his school (6.373).
  • Owen is automatically suspicious of Randolph White, because of all of the potential candidates for the position of headmaster, White is the only one who refused to meet with Owen during the interview process.
  • White insists that he'll talk to Owen after he gets the job. He tells Owen that he's a decision-maker.
  • As The Voice, Owen writes an article called "WHITEWASH," in which he predicts that the faculty will select White and in which Owen thinks it's a mistake and calls the teachers "INDECISIVE" and "WISHY-WASHY." He also asks the administration to check in on Mr. White's track record of discrimination. (6.384). Of course, Mr. Early kills the column and it's not published.
  • We come back to 1987 – it's May 13th now.
  • John buys an American newspaper again and reads about the sales of U.S. arms to Iran. He notes that he was good and didn't bring the paper to school.
  • John thinks about how the actions of the U.S.A. are borderline criminal.
  • We learn that some of John's students have complained to their parents about the rants that John goes on against the U.S. Katherine Keeling, the headmistress and John's BFF, has advised him to keep his politics out of the classroom.
  • During John's Grade 13 class, the girls start to talk smack about Reagan. They think he's a liar. It seems like they're trying to get John to take the bait so he starts talking smack about America instead of teaching them.
  • They go back to discussing The Great Gatsby. Their discussion includes a really interesting moment in which John pipes up about the narrator, Nick Carraway – it seems a little like he sees a parallel between himself and Nick.
  • John mentions that his colleagues enjoy getting him riled up just as much as his students do.
  • We go back to the past. We learn that Owen came up with strategies to help John overcome his dyslexia, including reading through a small rectangle cut out of a piece of paper and writing by typing on a typewriter instead of writing longhand. He also makes John read the poems of Robert Frost to him out loud.
  • It's the summer of 1960, and Owen and John are eighteen. Turning eighteen means that the boys have to register for the draft (yup, military service wasn't all voluntary in those days).
  • On Sundays, Owen and John spend their time practicing "the shot" in the basketball court, which they have to themselves. Sometimes the old janitor stands around and watches them.
  • They practice the shot to the point where they go from completing it in eight seconds, to doing it in five, to doing it in four.
  • Owen starts using the school's photocopier to make fake IDs out of his classmates' draft cards. He charges them 21 dollars apiece. They use the fake IDs to drink themselves silly.
  • Owen continues to criticize Randy White, the new Headmaster, in The Grave.
  • The headmaster isn't too wowed by the house that the school provides for him, so Rev. Lewis Merrill and his family end up moving into it instead.
  • Mr. White makes a lot of other changes to how the school is run. For instance, he decides that Hurd's Church is too gloomy, so they start having daily assembly in the school's theater. He also decides to cancel the school's Latin requirement without consulting the faculty as a whole.
  • Owen starts using his articles as The Voice in The Grave as a platform for criticizing Mr. White. Meanwhile, Mr. White starts using the daily assemblies as a way to shoot down Owen's opinions.
  • When Mr. White single-handedly decides to dismiss the school's attorney, Owen writes a piece talking about how the school is turning into an oligarchy (FYI, an "oligarchy" is a society ruled by a small handful of powerful people).
  • We also find out that it is a pretty big moment in the American political world. Richard Nixon (a Republican) is running against John F. Kennedy (a Democrat) for the presidency. Owen supports JFK. This news surprises John – he never expected Owen to support a Catholic candidate.
  • The school has a mock Presidential election. Kennedy wins in a landslide. Owen writes a piece about it for The Grave in which he talks about how Kennedy represents the interests of young Americans.
  • This article rubs Mr. White the wrong way. He is a Republican and considers the school's mock election to have been a mere beauty contest. He speaks out against Owen's article and insists that Nixon will probably win the real election.
  • Owen writes another article in response to Mr. White's opinions. The article prompts Mr. White to take over Mr. Early's position as the advisor to The Grave. Dan and John warn Owen that he needs to be careful.
  • One evening after Christmas, Owen and John drive by St. Michael's church, where the statue of Mary Magdalene is still standing in the archway looking like a goalie.
  • John notices that Owen has begun to carry his diary around with him constantly.
  • The night that John most clearly remembers Owen writing in his diary was the night of Kennedy's inauguration. (Kennedy's inaugural speech, by the way, is one of the most famous speeches in American history.)
  • Kennedy totally inspires Owen. He writes in his diary that he won't be sarcastic or negative any more. He pledges to figure out some way to serve his country.
  • In fact, for the longest time after Kennedy's inauguration, Owen continues reciting the most famous line of Kennedy's speech: "ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU—ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY" (6.483).

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