A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
We've read a lot of books in our day, and we're sure that you have, too, but we think it's safe to say that we've never met any character quite like Owen Meany. Lots of things about Owen strike us as a little bit, well, unusual. To begin with, we've never heard a character quite like him. John, our narrator, tells us that when Owen speaks, it sounds like he's shouting through his nose. This is a detail we can't forget, not only because the image is a little gross and snot-ridden, but also because every time Owen speaks, THE TEXT LOOKS LIKE THIS. Owen literally speaks in all capital letters. (We feel like John Irving was kind of onto something when he wrote this novel in the pre-internet era; maybe he anticipated the fact that when we chat online, you write in caps to "shout." Just saying.) But it's not just his speech that's a little weird; he's also quite unusual-looking. Owen is described as being tiny and rodent-like, but not necessarily in a bad way. We can't help thinking that he might be kind of cute. Strangely enough, a lot of people can't help but want to touch him and pet him. He's sort of like the community pet in a lot of ways.
Owen stands out from the people around him not just in terms of how he looks, but also in terms of what he thinks and does. When we meet him, he strikes us as one of the smartest and most mature kids we've ever seen. In fact, he kind of strikes us as a little old man in a lot of ways. In spite of the many scrapes he gets into, he has very firm and informed principles – and he can be pretty darn stubborn about them. A number of his opinions come from his firm religious beliefs. Owen's belief in God is unshakeable. In fact, after Tabby dies, Owen becomes convinced that he had to hit the baseball that killed her because God meant it to happen. He spends a lot of time lecturing John about faith.
Owen doesn't just believe in God; he also believes that God has a specific plan for him. He frequently refers to himself as "God's Instrument," which we take to mean that he thinks that God calls the shots but uses Owen as the guy who actually carries out the plans. As a result, Owen takes one of his recurring dreams very seriously. He believes that he is destined to die on a pre-determined day in the process of saving the lives of a bunch of Vietnamese orphans. This, eerily enough, ends up happening, though we're left to question whether it was a product of fate or if Owen controlled his circumstances to the extent that he helped make it happen.
Questions of destiny aside, there are a lot of things to say about Owen's character outside of his beliefs and his ultimate death. He's also one of the most loyal friends we've ever encountered in a novel. He cares deeply for his best friend, John Wheelwright, and does everything he can to help his life go smoothly, from teaching him how to overcome his learning disabilities to helping him evade the draft by cutting off his trigger finger. Sure, Owen is a memorable character for the astounding things that he accomplishes in his lifetime, but he's also unforgettable for being one of the most true-blue friends we've ever read about.
For more on Owen, including his role as a Christ figure, see our section on "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." See you there.Timeline