A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
It was Owen who introduced me to Wall's History of Gravesend, although I didn't read the whole book until I was a senior at Gravesend Academy, where the tome was required as a part of a town history project; Owen read it before he was ten. He told me that the book was FULL OF WHEELWRIGHTS. (1.51)
The Wheelwrights play a prominent role in the history of Gravesend. This gives them a certain quality of being regal and important. This is their town (well, at least as far as Harriet is concerned).
Delivery boys and guests in the house frequently mistook Lydia for my grandmother, because Lydia looked quite regal in her wheelchair and she was about my grandmother's age; she had tea with my grandmother every afternoon, and she played cards with my grandmother's bridge club—with those very same ladies whose tea she had once fetched. Shortly before Lydia died, even my Aunt Martha was struck by the resemblance Lydia bore to my grandmother. Yet to various guests and delivery boys, Lydia would always say—with a certain indignation of tone that was borrowed from my grandmother—"I am not Missus Wheelwright, I am Missus Wheelwright's former maid." It was exactly in the manner that Grandmother would claim that her house was not the Gravesend Inn. (1.73)
The relationship between Lydia and Harriet is really interesting, largely because it gives us a close look at how deeply rooted class identity is among the older generation in Gravesend. Harriet and Lydia are totally besties – Lydia even sticks around and lives with Harriet after she can't work as a maid anymore. Still, Lydia seems to be really aware of what her place in society is in relation to her former boss.
The Meanys, in my grandmother's lexicon, were not Mayflower stock. They were not descended from the founding fathers; you could not trace a Meany back to John Adams. They were descended from later immigrants; they were Boston Irish. The Meanys made their move to New Hampshire from Boston, which was never England; they'd also lived in Concord, New Hampshire, and in Barre, Vermont—those were much more working-class places than Gravesend. Those were New England's true granite kingdoms. My grandmother believed that mining and quarrying, of all kinds, was groveling work—and that quarries and miners were more closely related to moles than to men. As for the Meanys: none of the family was especially small, except for Owen. (1.91)
The Wheelwrights are like town royalty because they can trace their roots back to the founding fathers; there's a place for their family in the history books (literally). The Meanys, on the other hand, are working-class folk. Their background shows that, in terms of social status, moving to Gravesend is a step up from their roots. For the Wheelwrights, it's all they've ever known.