A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
At times, the images that liken Owen to Jesus kind of hit us over the head. Maybe the most obvious instance that compares Owen to Jesus is the events that take place during Christmas of 1953. Owen convinces Rev. Wiggin and the other kids that he should play the part of Baby Jesus during the Christ Church Christmas pageant. We see him actually embody the Christ Child, wearing swaddling clothes and being surrounded by other kids playing shepherds, donkeys, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. OK, so what? Well, when we think about his actions through the rest of the novel, Owen's role as the Little Lord Jesus kind of signals to us the extent to which Owen identifies with Jesus, even outside of the play.
To begin, we see Owen's identity as a Christ figure play out through his relationship with his parents. Owen kind of rules the roost at home; it reminds us of the instances in the Bible where Jesus is this precocious kid teaching other adults about faith and God while his parents cheer him on from the background. Owen feels weird telling his parents that he's playing the part of Jesus, and he makes a huge stink about the fact that they show up to watch the play. At the moment, we find it kind of weird – after all, if you had a starring role in a play, wouldn't you want your parents to be there rooting for you? Only later do we find out that Owen's parents believe that he was a virgin birth, just like Jesus – that is to say, his mother got pregnant without ever having sex; it just happened. To Owen, the fact that they show up to watch him play Jesus in a play is just completely weird and distasteful – in fact, he thinks it's sacrilegious. We don't know whether or not we believe that his birth was miraculous, and it's OK if you aren't totally sure about it, either. Still, there's lots of food for thought there.
The Christmas pageant and the supposed circumstances surrounding Owen's birth are definitely the most straightforward examples of Christ imagery in A Prayer for Owen Meany, but there are a lot of other ways in which Owen is portrayed as a Christ figure. Owen's professions of faith and interest in preaching to others resonate with Jesus' interest in spreading his teachings to others. Furthermore, Owen's relationship with God is strikingly Christ-like. When Tabby dies, for instance, Hester and John go to the gravesite at night and see Owen praying over her grave. When Owen hears them approaching, he shouts off into the night, asking God what he wants from him. It is as if Owen thinks that he is somehow chosen as God's messenger – just like Jesus.
Owen's death is also a key indicator of the way that he figures into the novel as a Christ figure. Jesus knew ahead of time that he was going to die, and so does Owen. Owen knows the exact date of his death, and he knows that he is going to die to save a bunch of children. Likewise, Jesus knows that he's going to die and why: he believes that it is his mission in life to die to save God's children from their sins. It may seem like a stretch, and it also might seem a tad dramatic, but it is hard to deny that there are some pretty strong parallels between Jesus and Owen.