A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Analysis: Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
First Person (Limited)
Our narrator, John Wheelwright, is an unbelievably nice guy, but when it comes down to his narration, he is also kind of tricky. What's interesting about the way he narrates the novel is that he creates a story within a story. It doesn't seem immediately like he's setting out to tell a story specifically about Owen. Rather, John's narration is kind of a classic bait-and-switch: we think that John is telling us his life story. We mean, he sort of does. We learn all about his family history, his thoughts on politics and religion, his (nonexistent) sex life, and, most importantly, his relationship with Owen Meany. It is through all of John's musings about his own life, though, that he tells us the story at the core of the novel: Owen's story. We never get into Owen's head – hence John's narration is from a limited first-person perspective – but we sort of piece together Owen's life story through a series of flashbacks, diary entries, remembered conversations, and so forth.
When you think about it, John is the perfect guy to tell Owen's story; nobody in the world is as close to Owen as he is or has spent as much time with him. Since they're the exact same age, John (or Johnny, as a kid) understands what Owen experiences because he experiences it too. One sort of curious aspect of the narrative style of A Prayer for Owen Meany is the way that John moves back and forth in time. Throughout the novel, John tells the story as a 45-year-old man in Toronto, Canada. When we're in 1987, everything seems a little bit removed. Yet, we constantly move back and forth in time, zooming into particular moments in the past and then zooming back out into the "present" (the awesome, high-tops-wearing, neon-colored, crimped-hair present).
What effect does this have on the story? Well, for one thing, this isn't the kind of novel in which stuff unexpectedly happens to the narrator, causing him to react in the present moment. We don't meet Johnny as a ten-year-old and then follow a linear timeline. Instead, even when we turn the first page, John already knows everything that happens – he knows Owen's complete story, from beginning to end. In fact, we get the sense that he has to be the one who tells the story, because Owen doesn't know what happens after he dies. John acts as a kind of filter for Owen's experiences, and along the way, we don't just learn a ton about Owen – we could probably write a whole book on John, too.