A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians
Our first epigraph helps to guide the way that we think about Owen and his relationship to his faith. It's pretty obvious before you even pick up the book that there's a relationship between Owen and faith – we mean, the title itself suggests that the book itself is a prayer for this kid. This particular quote, though, pushes us to focus about the way that prayer conquers anxiety. Basically, it says, "Don't worry – trust in God. Talk to Him. It'll be OK." Isn't that what Owen is always doing? He has a strong belief that things are meant to be the way they turn out. He views prayer as a way of communicating directly with God – not necessarily as a way of asking God for what he wants, but more as a way of working through what he knows will inevitably happen.
Now on to the second epigraph:
"Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me." –Frederick Buechner
Religious conviction and religious doubt constantly come to blows in this novel. When we meet John as an adult, for example, he seems to be full of certainty about the nature of God and Christianity. Yet, as a young man, he is full of doubt – he'd probably go so far to say that he didn't really have any strong religious beliefs to begin with. As we see throughout the novel, this is not an unusual feeling. Even Rev. Merrill, who is a self-proclaimed man of God, is plagued by religious doubt after Tabby is killed. He encourages his parishioners to experience and think about their doubts. Some might even argue that it's better to have some doubts about faith than firm conviction – it means you're really thinking about it instead of just blindly believing, so that when you do come to a conclusion about what you believe, you can be certain that it's best for you.
Moving on to the third epigraph…
"Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." –Leon Bloy
We like this one – it's brief and to the point. There's nothing flowery about this epigraph. Basically, it tells us that a good Christian should be a hero. So, how does this figure into the novel and frame the way we read it? Well, we're going to put it right out there and say that Owen is the most Christian character we encounter in this novel. He is completely firm in his beliefs. When he has the opportunity to go to Vietnam and become a hero, he doesn't regard it as a choice – he sees it as his duty. In fact, we could easily take away the name "Leon Bloy" from this quotation and attribute it to Owen Meany. Owen lives his life in pursuit of his destiny, and he is thrilled to believe that he is fated to be a hero. He feels that if he doesn't become a hero, he'll be going against what God wants him to do.