A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany Summary
How It All Goes Down
Our narrator, John Wheelwright, is an American expatriate living in Toronto, Canada in 1987. He tells us the story of his friendship with Owen Meany and how it has affected his whole life. He sets the scene in Gravesend, New Hampshire, beginning in 1952. John (or Johnny, as he's called as a kid) lives with his mother and grandmother at 80 Front Street. Johnny's mom, Tabby, gave birth to him out of wedlock and refuses to tell anyone who Johnny's father is. All anyone knows is that Johnny's father is someone she met on the train to Boston, where Tabby would travel once a week for voice lessons.
Johnny spends most of his time with Owen Meany, whose family owns a granite quarry in Gravesend. We learn right away that Owen is totally different from the other kids in town – physically, he's the smallest kid around. He has ears that stick out and a voice that terrifies people who hear it for the first time. We get a sense of Owen's voice from the first time he speaks because all of his dialogue is written LIKE THIS, IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Owen also sticks out because he kind of acts like a little old man; he's wise beyond his years and isn't afraid to tell other people about his beliefs and principles.
When Johnny is ten years old (in 1952), Tabby marries a man named Dan Needham, a sort of geeky guy whom she met on the train four years earlier. Dan is a drama teacher at Gravesend Academy. Johnny loves Dan from the second he meets him, perhaps because Dan brings him a pretty awesome gift: a real armadillo that has been preserved and stuffed. Owen and Johnny love playing with the armadillo, which we don't really get, but it's sweet anyway.
One day in 1953 when the boys are eleven, Johnny and Owen are playing in a little league game. Their team is losing pretty badly, so their coach, Mr. Chickering, has a "what the heck" moment and puts Owen up to bat in Johnny's place. Owen swings a couple of times. Meanwhile, Tabby arrives at the game and stands just outside of third base waving at someone in the stands. Owen hits a foul ball that smacks Tabby in the head. She dies immediately. That night, Owen gives Johnny his whole collection of baseball cards as a way of showing Johnny how sorry he is. Johnny knows that Owen wants the cards back, so he returns them to Owen along with the stuffed armadillo. Owen ends up returning the armadillo, except not the whole thing – he actually removes all of the armadillo's claws first. At the time, Johnny doesn't really get why Owen would do that – and neither do we – but in time we'll all figure it out.
We go back in time and get a bit of backstory on events that happened between Owen and Johnny while Tabby was still alive. One night, Owen sleeps over Johnny's house and comes down with a fever. He goes into Tabby's room to let her know he's not feeling well. He sees her dressmaker's dummy standing there in the dark, and he's convinced that it's the Angel of Death. Owen believes that Tabby was supposed to die that night, but he interrupted the Angel of Death from taking her. Later, Owen will tell Johnny that he believes the responsibility of killing Tabby was transferred to him.
The Christmas after Tabby dies is a rough time for everyone. Dan drinks a lot, and Johnny spends his time divided between his grandmother Harriet's house and Dan's apartment. Johnny and Owen start rehearsing for the Christ Church Christmas pageant. Owen steps up and basically determines who gets which part. Owen will play the part of Baby Jesus, and Johnny will play Joseph.
At the same time, Dan starts rehearsing the Gravesend Players for the annual production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol that he's in charge of directing. Mr. Morrison, who plays the part of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, quits the play because it's not a speaking part. Owen ends up convincing Dan to give him the part after he shows up at rehearsal and scares the you-know-what out of everyone. Just like that, Owen gets the two most important non-speaking parts in the two major Christmas plays in Gravesend.
The actual productions of the plays are really memorable. Let's start with the Christ Church pageant, in which Owen plays Baby Jesus. Owen sees his parents in the audience and starts shouting at them – he says that it's a SACRILEGE for them to be there (5.159). He shows them the door. Then Johnny carries Owen through the audience and out the front door.
The production of A Christmas Carol is no less memorable. In fact, Owen is so scary-looking that Maureen Early pees in her pants. In the middle of his big scene, Owen jumps up and starts screaming. He tells Rev. Lewis Merrill that, instead of seeing Scrooge's name and date of death on the gravestone prop, he saw his own name and the date of his death. At the time, everyone is convinced that Owen is delusional because he has a fever. Still, this moment will keep coming back to us throughout the rest of the novel.
Time passes, and Owen and Johnny start attending Gravesend Academy, a really fancy private high school in their community. Owen starts writing a column for the school newspaper, The Grave, under the pseudonym The Voice. Owen writes in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, just like he speaks. Owen becomes a well-respected figure around the school. His opinions seem to matter to everyone to the point where he gets to have a private audience with candidates who apply to be the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy. Things seem to go well for Owen until the spring of 1960, when Gravesend Academy hires Randy White as the new headmaster. The two have it out for each other almost immediately.
That summer, Owen picks up a couple of interesting hobbies. One hobby is something he calls "the shot": he and John start working on a routine in which John helps Owen slam dunk a basketball by hoisting him up in the air. They practice to the point where they can complete the shot in a matter of seconds. Owen's other big hobby is making fake IDs for his fellow students out of their draft cards.
During their senior year, a pretty pivotal thing happens: John and Owen go to Boston one day, and Owen takes John to Jerrod's, a store on Newbury Street whose logo matches the tag on one of Tabby's old dresses. Tabby had always talked about how the store had burned down, but the boys find out pretty quickly that this was never the case. It seems like Owen has been doing some homework to try to figure out Tabby's biggest secrets. The boys find out that Tabby was a singer in a supper club (that is to say, a high-class nightclub with dinner and dancing) once a week. They also meet her former voice teacher. It seems that Tabby had a secret life as an entertainer that nobody ever knew about. This newfound information blows Johnny's mind and makes him question whether he ever really knew his mom all that well.
The boys' senior year is also notable because of all of the shenanigans that Owen causes. He gets put on disciplinary probation when he jokes to Larry Lish's mother that he'd sleep with her if she were game for it. He also bets the basketball team that they can't lift Dr. Dolder's Volkswagen Beetle and put it on the stage in the Great Hall. Of course, they take the bait. Finally, Larry Lish rats Owen out for selling fake IDs and Owen is expelled with only a couple of months to go until graduation. As a final act against Mr. White, Owen steals the statue of Mary Magdalene from St. Michael's Church and welds it to the stage of the Great Hall so it stands right at the podium.
In the midst of all of these antics, Owen has regular counseling appointments with Dr. Dolder as well as Rev. Lewis Merrill. We get the vibe that Owen's relationship with Rev. Merrill is way more open and honest. One day, Dan and John walk into Dr. Merrill's office and see Owen sitting there. Owen asks Dr. Merrill to say a prayer for him at the school's morning assembly. After John and Owen leave, they overhear Rev. Merrill asking Owen if he is still having "the dream" and Owen sobs uncontrollably. Interesting.
We find out that Mr. White has really done a good job of trying to screw up Owen's college plans. Harvard and Yale won't accept him anymore unless he takes off a year to work. The University of New Hampshire yanks Owen's full scholarship out from under him. Owen decides to go to the University of New Hampshire with John. He goes to the U.S. Army recruiting offices and signs up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). The army will pay for Owen to go to college, and then Owen will owe them four years of service after he graduates.
John and Owen start at the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 1962. Owen starts getting kind of lazy, while John turns out to be a pretty good student. We sort of zoom through the boys' college years. All the while, the war in Vietnam starts to pick up; more and more troops are sent there every year. Owen goes to Basic Training in 1965. He tells John that, it's not that he wants to go to Vietnam – it's that he's supposed to go there in the grand scheme of things. After years of keeping it a secret from John, Owen finally tells John about his recurring dream. In his dream, he saves a bunch of Vietnamese children from an explosion. There are nuns there. Owen sees his blood all over the place. All of a sudden, he feels like he's far away and looks down on everyone from above the palm trees. He sees his dead body lying there. This is why Owen is convinced that he has to go to Vietnam – he thinks he's destined to be a hero.
In the spring of 1967, John gets a notice from the local draft board that it's time for him to come in for a physical exam that will determine if he's fit to be drafted into the army (back in the Vietnam War Era, military service wasn't voluntary – you could be told to report for duty if you were regarded as being mentally and physically fit). John calls Owen and tells him the news. Owen says he'll be back in Gravesend as soon as he can. One day, John meets Owen at the Meanys' monument shop. Owen uses the diamond saw to slice off John's trigger finger. No Vietnam for John!
The events of the end of the novel are presented out of order. We start with Owen's funeral in the summer of 1968. Right before the service, John goes to visit Mr. and Mrs. Meany. John finds a bunch of the random oddities that Owen has picked up over the years – the claws from John's stuffed armadillo, Owen's baseball card collection, and Tabby's dressmaker's dummy. He expects to find the baseball that killed Tabby, but it's nowhere to be found.
Mr. Meany comes in with some unexpected news: he tells John that his wife was a virgin when she gave birth to Owen. In fact, she still is a virgin. He insists that the two of them never romped in the sack together. He insists that this fact makes Owen just like Jesus. Mrs. Meany starts to totally flip out at Mr. Meany. Mr. Meany, in the meantime, tells John that he broke the news to Owen around the same time that Owen killed Tabby. John is furious and is about to leave, but Mr. Meany brings him into the monument shop. He shows John Owen's gravestone, which has the correct birth and death dates on it. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Meany didn't make it – Owen did. This means that Owen really did know the exact date of his death before it even happened.
John goes to Rev. Lewis Merrill's office to talk about the crazy things that he's found out that day. Rev. Merrill starts stuttering like crazy, a typical sign that he's feeling really anxious. John suddenly feels like Owen is nearby. Rev. Merrill opens his mouth to speak, but Owen's voice comes out instead: "LOOK IN THE THIRD DRAWER, RIGHT HAND SIDE" (9.236). Rev. Merrill pulls out the drawer and the baseball that killed Tabby comes flying out. Rev. Merrill confesses that he is John's real father.
Owen's funeral is totally packed – everyone we've met through the course of the entire novel seems to be there, except for Hester, who refuses to go. Rev. Merrill conducts a pretty straightforward funeral, full of the usual prayers and hymns. All of a sudden, Rev. Merrill regains his fervor and begs God to give Owen back to all of them. He tells the congregation that he had lost his faith (a really gutsy thing for a minister to admit), but that he got it back because of Owen Meany. Owen is his personal hero.
So then, after we find out about what things were like after Owen died, we get the scoop on exactly how it all went down. Owen is stationed on the West Coast but has to make a trip to Phoenix to deliver the body of a dead officer to his family. He asks John to meet him there so they can catch up and have a little vacation. John and Owen meet at the airport. They also meet the dead officer's family, the Jarvits family. The officer's brother is a sketchy kid named Dick who is really into wearing war gear. Later, he shows Owen and John his collection of fighting gear, including some machetes, an AK-47, and a couple of grenades. Otherwise, Owen and John spend some time having fun in Phoenix. Owen seems really focused on talking about their past together and remembering important times from their childhood.
One day, Owen and John go to the airport. All of a sudden, a plane lands. When the passengers get off the plane, we see a bunch of nuns and Vietnamese orphans among them. One of the nuns asks Owen to take the boys to the bathroom. John goes with him. While they're in the bathroom, Dick Jarvits shows up with a grenade in his hand. He pulls out the key and throws it at John. John passes it to Owen, and they basically re-enact "the shot" that they practiced in the gym for so many years. John hoists Owen up, who holds the grenade down under his arms on the high windowsill. The grenade explodes and blows Owen's arms off. He bleeds to death, but everyone else survives. As the novel draws to its close, John prays that God will return Owen to him.