Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Analysis

By John Irving

  • Tone

    Highly Personal; Poignant yet Comical

    One thing you'll notice immediately is that our narrator, John, makes himself vulnerable to us from the get-go. Even before we know what his name is, we know some pretty big details about his life: he lost his mother at a young age, and the boy responsible for her death was his best friend, Owen Meany. We also learn that it was because of Owen Meany that John has some pretty deep religious convictions. That highly-personal tone runs throughout the entire novel. (He's even willing to admit to us that he used to have a crush on his own cousin, for crying out loud.)

    The other notable aspect of the novel's tone is that it manages to tug at our heartstrings while also making us giggle. It can be really hard to find humor in situations like the ones our characters find themselves in, and yet you'll probably find yourself giggling pretty frequently at all of the situational humor the novel has to offer.

  • Genre

    Coming of Age, Quest

    On one hand, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a classic coming-of-age story, albeit with more than a few unique quirks and twists. The whole novel is narrated by John as an older man, reflecting upon the period of his life from early adolescence to early adulthood. Like so many other coming-of-age novels, we follow two friends – John and Owen – as they lose their innocence and start to understand the world in new and complicated ways. We see them develop from children to young men, and we witness the ways in which their perceptions of the world take shape.

    Still, there's a lot more going on in this novel than the transition from childhood to adulthood. The novel moves along a very specific path, and this path is pretty much determined by Owen Meany's sense of mission and purpose. Owen is convinced that he is "God's Instrument," starting when he "accidentally" kills John's mother by hitting a foul ball that subsequently hits her in the head (we say "accidentally" in quotation marks because Owen, as you probably noticed, doesn't believe in accidents – everything, according to him, is meant to be the way it is). Owen knows that he has some specific duty to fulfill in his life, but he doesn't know exactly what it is – he only knows that he has a purpose. The novel takes us along on Owen's journey to figure out exactly how a bunch of disparate events in his life combine in order to create the one big moment through which he will fulfill his destiny.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You'll find pretty quickly that the topic of prayer is a huge one in this novel. A Prayer for Owen Meany is all about figuring out one's personal faith. It's also about one man's sacrifice of himself in order to serve a bigger purpose. Owen is convinced that God has chosen him to fulfill a particular destiny, and, in spite of his strong faith, this scares him. When Owen is certain of what his fate will be, he asks Rev. Merrill to say a prayer for him in front of all of the students at Gravesend Academy.

    OK, so the book contains prayers for Owen Meany – so, what else? Well, we can look at the whole novel, narrated by John, as one big extended prayer on Owen's behalf. On one hand, prayer, according to Owen, doesn't have to entail asking for something; it can be as simple as talking to God directly in order to try to make sense of a difficult situation. If we look at it this way, then we can see the ways in which John uses his role as the narrator as a way of talking through his memories and making sense of what happened to Owen. On the other hand, the book itself ends with a prayer: John asks God to give Owen back. Thus, in one way we can see the novel as an extended prayer on Owen's behalf; in another way, we can see it as John's prayer for his own interests – he wants his friend back.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    We don't know about you, but when we were reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, we couldn't believe how much attention John, our narrator, pays to every single little detail. We also puzzled over why some events or activities received so much attention. Why, for instance, does John spend so much time describing how he and Owen practice "The Shot"? (In case you forgot, "The Shot" refers to the way that John assists Owen in making a slam-dunk in basketball by hoisting him up in the air.) Why does John spend the better part of two pages talking about the layout of the airport bathroom? What is it with Owen and nuns – why does he find them so terrifying? Why is Owen so preoccupied with representations of people and animals that don't have arms? We never cease to think of other things that puzzle us.

    The end of the novel takes all of these seemingly unrelated details and events and ties them into a pretty neat little bundle. John hasn't been rambling about just any old thing that popped into his head all this time; he was building up to Owen's big moment.

    The end of the novel plunks us in sunny, hot Phoenix, Arizona. Owen is in the army, and one of his big duties is to escort the bodies of dead soldiers back to their families. He asks John to come meet him in Arizona, telling him that they can have a nice, relaxing vacation together. Of course, this isn't the whole story. Owen believes that he's supposed to die on July 8, 1968, and he is almost certain, based on the dreams he's been having, that John has to be there. When it all goes down and Dick Jarvits throws a grenade at the boys in the airport bathroom, we start understanding the images that have been confronting us this whole time. Owen and John use The Shot to get the grenade away from the kids. All of the images of armless creatures and people have foreshadowed that Owen will have his arms blown off. The nuns are there to comfort him in his last hours. Every little thing that has puzzled Owen or has made him nervous factors into the scene of his death in some meaningful way.

  • Setting

    Gravesend, New Hampshire, 1952-1968; Toronto, Canada, 1987

    A Prayer for Owen Meany takes place in two distinct periods of John Wheelwright's life. These two periods are interwoven together, meaning that we constantly move back and forth in time. The first setting is the town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. Most of the scenes of John and Owen's childhood and adolescent years take place there. Gravesend is a fictional town that is based on the real town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Likewise, Gravesend Academy, the prep school that John and Owen attend, is based on the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. In a lot of ways, Gravesend seems like kind of an ideal town to grow up in; the community seems fairly tight-knit (we mean, when was the last time your whole town got together to put on a production of A Christmas Carol?), it's not too far from the beach, and kids ride bikes and play baseball and engage in good old-fashioned shenanigans.

    Still, Gravesend isn't entirely perfect; we get the vibe that there's some classism going on behind the scenes. We have fancy, Mayflower-stock Yankees like Harriet Wheelwright, who care all about pedigree, class, and Harvard degrees. Then we have working-class folk like the Meanys. The tension between the "haves" and "have-nots" in Gravesend becomes particularly easy to spot when we look at the scenes in which Tabby tries to convince Owen to apply to Gravesend Academy. Owen identifies with the public school; he figures that it's the right place for people "like him." Even if he gets a scholarship, he argues, he won't fit in because he doesn't have the look (he doesn't have the fancy clothes). Even though Owen ends up attending the Academy, we're still left thinking about what happens to kids who aren't as lucky or smart as Owen.

    It's also worth mentioning that John and Owen grow up during a period of immense cultural change and political turmoil. The world around them becomes far less idealistic and a whole lot meaner as they grow to be young men. In the 1950s, everything seems to be all peachy and innocent. Then the 1960s come, and things start to shift radically. Marilyn Monroe dies. President Kennedy is assassinated. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. The war in Vietnam escalates dramatically. Their friends and peers get drafted into the army; some, like Harry Hoyt, die in Vietnam (though, it is worth mentioning, he dies from a snakebite and not from combat). Others, like Buzzy Thurston, become addicted to drugs and alcohol. In a way, the world that the boys knew so well becomes unrecognizable.

    These changes bring us to the other major setting that we encounter in the novel: Toronto, Canada in 1987. John moved there in 1967. We initially get the hunch that, like many other young men of the Vietnam era, John moved there to escape the draft. We quickly learn that this isn't so – actually, John evaded the draft by letting Owen chop off his trigger finger. He didn't have to move to Canada – so why is he there now? Well, we find out throughout the novel that John is pretty disgusted with American politics. He is extremely critical of the current administration (FYI – Ronald Reagan was the president then). He feels like American politicians mishandle practically everything in their wake. While we see John seethe with anti-Americanism throughout the whole novel, though, it isn't until the end that we realize it was actually one of Owen's last wishes that John should high-tail it out of the US and go to the land of maple leaves.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    "Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians

    Our first epigraph helps to guide the way that we think about Owen and his relationship to his faith. It's pretty obvious before you even pick up the book that there's a relationship between Owen and faith – we mean, the title itself suggests that the book itself is a prayer for this kid. This particular quote, though, pushes us to focus about the way that prayer conquers anxiety. Basically, it says, "Don't worry – trust in God. Talk to Him. It'll be OK." Isn't that what Owen is always doing? He has a strong belief that things are meant to be the way they turn out. He views prayer as a way of communicating directly with God – not necessarily as a way of asking God for what he wants, but more as a way of working through what he knows will inevitably happen.

    Now on to the second epigraph:

    "Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me." –Frederick Buechner

    Religious conviction and religious doubt constantly come to blows in this novel. When we meet John as an adult, for example, he seems to be full of certainty about the nature of God and Christianity. Yet, as a young man, he is full of doubt – he'd probably go so far to say that he didn't really have any strong religious beliefs to begin with. As we see throughout the novel, this is not an unusual feeling. Even Rev. Merrill, who is a self-proclaimed man of God, is plagued by religious doubt after Tabby is killed. He encourages his parishioners to experience and think about their doubts. Some might even argue that it's better to have some doubts about faith than firm conviction – it means you're really thinking about it instead of just blindly believing, so that when you do come to a conclusion about what you believe, you can be certain that it's best for you.

    Moving on to the third epigraph…

    "Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." –Leon Bloy

    We like this one – it's brief and to the point. There's nothing flowery about this epigraph. Basically, it tells us that a good Christian should be a hero. So, how does this figure into the novel and frame the way we read it? Well, we're going to put it right out there and say that Owen is the most Christian character we encounter in this novel. He is completely firm in his beliefs. When he has the opportunity to go to Vietnam and become a hero, he doesn't regard it as a choice – he sees it as his duty. In fact, we could easily take away the name "Leon Bloy" from this quotation and attribute it to Owen Meany. Owen lives his life in pursuit of his destiny, and he is thrilled to believe that he is fated to be a hero. He feels that if he doesn't become a hero, he'll be going against what God wants him to do.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    A Prayer for Owen Meany can be really complex at times. All of the historical references (like the Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK, and the Iran-Contra affair) and all of the pop culture and literary references can leave you scratching your head. Still, you'll find pretty quickly that you don't need to have the best handle on these tidbits in order to understand what's actually happening in the novel. For instance, you don't really need to know what Ronald Reagan specifically was up to during the Iran-Contra affair to understand that John is really critical of the United States; you don't really need to know everything about the Kennedys to understand how shocked Owen and John are when JFK is assassinated.

    If anything, the most complex aspect of this novel is that there are so many tiny details and clues that keep reappearing and popping up. Everything little thing that happens seems to be a piece of a larger puzzle that isn't completed until the very end. It seems like everything happens for a reason (a sentiment that we think Owen and John would agree with). That said, A Prayer for Owen Meany is such a funny and engaging novel with such humorously memorable moments that you'll probably find yourself absorbing most of what you read and wanting to figure out what everything means.

  • Writing Style


    Our main man John Irving is a big fan of Charles Dickens (and heck, once you pick up a copy of Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, or David Copperfield you will be, too). We see Irving give Dickens some props by having the Gravesend Players put on a yearly production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Still, that's not the only way that Irving gives a wink and a nod to Señor Dickens. The style of the novel itself can be described as Dickensian.

    Charles Dickens's novels have a few trademark qualities. First of all, we'll come out and say the obvious: Dickens' novels are pretty darn long, and so is A Prayer for Owen Meany. Like Dickens' novels, Owen Meany is a sprawling, complicated, detail-heavy story. Owen Meany is also a prime example of one of Dickens' other trademarks: the novel has a cast of memorable characters, often with funny-sounding names – even the minor characters are hard to forget. Who can forget Rev. Dudley Wiggin, Buzzy Thurston or "Hester the Molester"? We don't just remember them because of their names, though; we remember them because Irving spends the time to create vivid portraits of each of them. Dickens's work is also often a tad on the sentimental side, but simultaneously provides strong social commentary. Likewise, A Prayer for Owen Meany is alternately comic and heartbreaking, and it also investigates some of the biggest social and political concerns that faced the Baby Boom generation.

  • 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.

    The Ghost of the Future

    For many people, Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol and the various movie and TV productions that have been made over the years are as big a part of Christmas as Santa Claus and mistletoe. Likewise, A Christmas Carol is a huge part of the way that the Gravesend community celebrates Christmas, and the Gravesend Players' dramatic production of A Christmas Carol is a central episode in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

    In the novel, Owen gets to play the part of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. If you've ever read Dickens's novel or seen one of the many movie adaptations, you know that this ghost is the scariest one of them all. He is the one who shows Ebenezer Scrooge that he's going to die. Well, Owen's portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is the scariest one that the Gravesend community has ever seen; it's so scary, in fact, that Maureen Early pees her pants (peeing in one's pants, by the way, also seems to be a big trend in this novel – but we digress). Still, when John tells us about the play, he doesn't talk about Owen as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which is the actual name of the character; he repeatedly refers to Owen as the Ghost of the Future (in fact, that's also the name of Chapter 5). What's up with that?

    Well, for one thing, we'd like to throw it out there that Owen's predictions for the future play a huge part, not only in how the novel progresses, but also in how Owen leads his life. During the final production of the play, Owen' doesn't just predict Ebenezer Scrooge's future; he also predicts his own when he sees his name and date of death on the gravestone prop. When John calls him the Ghost of the Future from then on, it doesn't seem that he's only referring to Owen's part in the play; he's also showing us how Owen seems to have an eerie foreknowledge of what is going to happen to him later.

    Owen's Voice

    One of the most noticeable characteristics about Owen is that he has this weird voice that, according to John, sounds like he's always shouting through his nose. It's not just the other characters in the novel who notice it; we notice it too – after all, every line spoken by Owen is WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, LIKE THIS. So why does Owen have a weird voice? Isn't it bad enough for him that he's so much shorter than everyone else and gets passed around like a doll? Isn't it tough enough for him that he has big, floppy ears and that you can see his veins through his skin? Why does he have to have a weird voice, too? We have a couple of thoughts on this front.

    To begin with, Owen's voice automatically sets him apart from other people. He's not just somebody that we remember; he sticks out to others, too. There are plenty of other short, funny-looking people in the world, but not just anyone has a voice like Owen's. In fact, Owen's voice makes him so memorable that even when Harriet loses her mind and can't remember anyone else in her own family, she remembers Owen solely because of the way he talked.

    Why is it important for Owen to have characteristics that make him so unique? Well, if we accept Owen's view that he's "chosen" and that he's "God's Instrument," it goes without saying that he should somehow be one of a kind, right? Beyond that, let's not forget that, at the end of the novel, Owen realizes that his voice is a key tool for helping the orphans to calm down when Dick Jarvits comes barging in with a grenade. Since Owen's voice is strangely childlike, the orphans calm down immediately and heed his instructions. For Owen, this is a real lightbulb moment; all of a sudden, he's got a very concrete reason to explain why his voice never changes: he needs it as part of his effort to save the orphans. Interestingly, this view also helps to solidify Owen's sense that what happens to him is destiny rather than coincidence. Owen's lifelong characteristic of having a weird voice ultimately seems meant to be, and it further justifies the idea that his fate is meant to be, too.

    Armless Figures: The Dressmaker's Dummy, The Armadillo, and Mary Magdalene

    Isn't it kind of weird how there are all of these objects in A Prayer for Owen Meany that are supposed to have arms, but either don't have them to begin with or lose them for strange and seemingly unexplained reasons? Isn't it even weirder that Owen seems to be so fascinated with armless figures throughout his entire life? Let's take a look at some of these objects and try to make sense of what they're doing here.

    There's Tabby's dressmakers dummy, which doesn't even have arms to begin with. In terms of its height, size, and figure, it's a nearly perfect copy of Tabby's body. Owen and John make a fun game of dressing it up in Tabby's clothes, but Owen seems to go beyond seeing it as a mere plaything. Instead, he seems to be kind of obsessed with it. After Tabby dies, Owen takes the dummy out of Dan's apartment and keeps it in his own bedroom. What's the big deal? Well, let's think about the role that the dummy has had in Owen's life outside of playing dress-up. One night, when Owen's sleeping over John's house, he feels sick and goes into Tabby's room to tell her so. He sees the dummy and is convinced that it is the Angel of Death. He's pretty sure that he interrupted the Angel of Death at work, and so he doesn't feel all that guilty later on when he kills Tabby. He thinks that it was his destiny to hasten her death because he prevented the Angel of Death from taking her when she was supposed to die.

    Then there's the armadillo. Unlike the dressmaker's dummy, the armadillo actually does have arms – well, legs and claws, at least – when John receives it from Dan as a gift. After Owen kills Tabby, however, John gives Owen the armadillo as a way of showing him that he still loves him, and when Owen returns the armadillo, it has no claws. Huh?! We will later learn that Owen is trying to show John how God has made Owen his instrument and has taken his hands in order to accomplish things that are destined to happen.

    After all of that, there's still the statue of Mary Magdalene to consider. After he's expelled from Gravesend Academy, Owen steals the statue of Mary Magdalene from St. Michael's Church and welds it to the stage of the Great Hall at Gravesend Academy. In this case, Owen doesn't just remove the statue's arms; he takes off its head, too. There are a lot of ways to interpret this gesture. One possible explanation is that Owen is just trying to stick it to Randy White for throwing him out of school. Another might be that he wants it to appear like a miracle has happened at Gravesend Academy. Still, one hunch that we can't shake about Owen's fascination with Mary Magdalene is how much Mary Magdalene seems to stand in as a figure for Tabby. In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a disciple of Jesus. Rumor has it that she's a prostitute, albeit one who has repented. She doesn't seem to be too unlike Tabby in the sense that everyone seems to know that she is a "loose" woman but still sees her as being a sweet and good person. The likening of Tabby to Mary Magdalene may explain why Owen saws off her head in addition to her arms – after all, he killed Tabby by hitting her in the head with a baseball.

    OK, so we have a lot of armless images in this novel – so what do they add up to? Well, let's think about how Owen dies – a grenade explodes his arms off. In one sense, then, all of these different armless images help to foreshadow the way that Owen will meet his maker. He loses his arms and bleeds to death. Still, they don't seem to just foreshadow Owen's fate; they also show how everything that happens to him is intertwined in some way that makes us believe that his death is scripted and inevitable. We start to understand why Owen thinks he's God's instrument, because all of these images culminate in his final act. In the same vein, armless-ness is also an image of powerlessness. The images of figures without arms emphasize Owen's belief that he doesn't have control over everything that happens; some bigger force is in charge of putting all of the pieces into place.

  • Narrator Point of View

    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.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    The Call

    Owen accidentally kills Tabby and becomes convinced that he is God's Instrument.

    In "The Call" stage, our hero realizes that he has to make a difficult journey and gets some kind of vision of the goal that he must aim for. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Tabby's death is a pivotal moment that sets the rest of the events of the novel in motion. Owen doesn't see it as an accident; he thinks that it was meant to be and takes it as a sign that God has bigger plans for him.

    The Journey

    Owen and John grow up and go to school. Owen talks a lot about his faith and the principles he most believes in.

    For our hero Owen, adolescence is a journey that is full of trials, tribulations, and adventures. We watch him engage in all kinds of antics, from writing for The Grave to learning and perfecting "the shot" to helping John try to piece together the puzzle of his father's identity. As all of these events come to pass, his faith becomes stronger and stronger, and he becomes more and more convinced of his life's purpose. He knows that he is supposed to die as a hero, and he has a dream in which he saves a whole bunch of Vietnamese children.

    Arrival and Frustration

    In spite of his best efforts, Owen doesn't get to go to Vietnam.

    Right when Owen thinks that he's on the brink of getting to go to Vietnam and fulfill his destiny, he's disappointed to find out that he's given a domestic job. His plans seem to be totally thwarted. He's almost positive that he knows the specific date on which he's supposed to die, but, when the date comes, he finds himself in Arizona instead of Vietnam. What the heck is going on?

    The Final Ordeals

    Dick Jarvits throws a grenade at Owen and John. Owen dies.

    As July 8, 1968 passes (the day on which Owen believes he will die), Owen starts to get a weird feeling of relief. Maybe his hunch was wrong this whole time – maybe he's not going to die after all! Oops, wrong, Owen, but thanks for playing. Right when Owen starts to think that he's in the clear, the final ordeal begins: Dick Jarvits follows Owen, John, and a bunch of Vietnamese orphans into the airport bathroom and throws a grenade at them. This is the last big task that Owen needs to complete to fulfill his destiny: he catches the grenade as John passes it to him and holds it under his arms to protect the kids from the explosion. Owen dies, but everyone else is OK.

    The Goal

    Owen becomes a hero; John becomes a believer; Rev. Merrill regains his faith.

    Unlike many other novels following the Quest plotline, Owen doesn't narrowly escape death – he dies. Yet, he is able to fulfill a couple of distinct goals after his death: he becomes a hero, as he expected, and he affirms the religious faith of those around him, particularly John and Rev. Merrill. Owen becomes a hero when he saves the lives of a group of Vietnamese orphans. Furthermore, he has spent the majority of the novel questioning the shaky faith of the people around him and talking about how it's possible to believe in God without having actual proof that he exists.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    John wonders who his father is. Tabby marries Dan.

    As John starts to set the scene for us, we learn about some pretty key circumstances that help put the story in motion. As we are introduced to our main characters, we learn that John is on a lifelong quest to figure out who his father is. He gets a wonderful surrogate dad, though, when Tabby marries Dan. Everything seems to be in perfect order.


    Owen kills Tabby when he hits a foul ball that then hits her in the head.

    John's quest to figure out his dad's identity is put on hold when Owen accidentally kills Tabby. Not only does John lose his mother, whom he loves dearly, but now his father's identity is even more of a mystery. Tabby's death also has major implications for Owen: he becomes convinced that it's a sign from God that he is God's Instrument. The event of Tabby's death also presents John and Owen with a difficult challenge – how can a friendship go back to normal when you've killed your best friend's mom?


    Owen becomes convinced that he's God's Instrument; he strives to figure out what his purpose is. Meanwhile, he sees the date of his death on the tombstone during the production of A Christmas Carol.

    OK, as if Owen didn't already think that God was meddling in his life in interesting ways when Tabby dies, now he is convinced that he knows exactly when he's going to die. Owen's belief that God has a specific plan for him is solidified by what he takes to be signs from the beyond. While we don't find out until the end what the exact date is, Owen starts operating like he's only got a limited time to live. He starts thinking seriously about what role he wants to have in the world and what impact he would like his actions to make. Think about it: wouldn't you be careful about how you spent your time if you thought you didn't have a whole lot of it left?


    Owen dies saving a bunch of children from a grenade.

    Even though it happens at the end of the novel, Owen's death is the most central, explosive event in the story (literally…thank you, folks, we'll be here all night!). It is the moment that all of Owen's actions have been building up to throughout his entire adolescence and young adulthood. It's also a major game-changing moment for John. John never really believed Owen's claims about fate or belief when Owen was alive. All of a sudden, Owen dies, and, as far as John is concerned, it's some kind of divine proof that guides his beliefs and actions for the rest of his life.


    John has two weird "encounters" with Owen. During one of them, he finds out who his father is.

    John has a couple of spooky experiences in which Owen seems to visit from beyond the grave. The first happens right before Owen's funeral: Owen somehow speaks through Rev. Merrill and tells John where he can find the baseball that killed Tabby (this is the kind of magic that doesn't just belong to television, people). Just like that, we find out that Rev. Merrill is actually John's father (Owen was right – what a letdown!). Years later, Dan and John are at 80 Front Street, drinking some booze, and John almost falls down the stairs of the secret passageway. He hears Owen's voice and feels some force pulling him up. Then, magically, John's hair turns white. Nothing like a little bit of added drama, huh? As the readers, we're held in suspense because we don't really know what we believe is true, but we read about these seemingly miraculous occurrences and have to figure out what to do with them.


    Everyone in town shows up for Owen's funeral.

    Owen's funeral is characteristic of falling action (although, remember, in this novel we actually go to the funeral before we see how Owen dies). Everyone is there (well, almost everyone – Hester refuses to show up, just as she promised Owen when he was alive). We get the vibe that Owen's story is coming to a close – we just have to wait for Rev. Merrill to get in a few last words.


    As an adult, John prays for Owen to return to him.

    We know all the way through the novel that John now (that is, in 1987) lives in Toronto and tells us Owen's story from a distance of almost 20 years. Still, as far as we're concerned, he's mostly telling the story because it's an interesting one and the events that it covers have had a pretty big impact on his life. As the novel closes, though, we get a different sort of vibe. John prays to God to give Owen back to him (and, we suppose, everyone else who loved him). We get the sense that this is why John has been telling us the story all along; because he's trying to grapple with what happened to his closest friend and the effects that his death had on his own life. John's prayer at the end is sort of like the period at the end of a sentence – it wraps everything up for us.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Owen accidentally kills Johnny's mom when he hits a foul ball that hits her in the head.

    Act II

    As Owen and John grow up, Owen becomes more and more convinced that he is answering a particular call to action. He sees himself as God's instrument.

    Act III

    Owen dies saving the kids at the airport; John moves to Canada and starts a new life there.

  • Allusions

    Biblical and Religious References

    • The Bible (1.1, 3.150.)
    • The Book of Common Prayer (1.1)
    • Jeremiah 1:5 (2.454)
    • The Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians (2.458)
    • John Calvin, French theologian (3.66)
    • "Crown Him with Many Crowns" (3.235, 9.378)
    • Psalm 37 (3.335, 9.256)
    • St. Joseph (4.16)
    • The Virgin Mary (4.16)
    • Luke 23:34 (4.23)
    • Mary Magdalene (6.83)
    • Judas Iscariot (6.143)
    • Pontius Pilate (6.143)
    • St. Peter (6.143)
    • The Gospel According to Matthew (6.145)
    • Isaiah 5:20 (7.437)
    • C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (9.323)
    • John 11:25 (9.330)
    • The Gospel According to Mark (9.368)
    • The Burial of the Dead, Rite II (9.584)

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • W. Somerset Maugham, The Constant Wife (3.99)
    • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (4.9)
    • William Shakespeare, King Lear (4.244, 5.278)
    • Charles Dickens (4.252)
    • Dracula , a film based on the novel by Bram Stoker (5.14)
    • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (5.284, 9.85)
    • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (5.284)
    • Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (5.284)
    • William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (6.177, 8.610)
    • Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (6.299)
    • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (6.310)
    • Jack Kerouac (6.314)
    • Allen Ginsberg (6.314)
    • Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (6.314)
    • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (6.314)
    • Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas (6.314)
    • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (6.314)
    • Jean-Paul Sartre (6.314)
    • Albert Camus (6.314)
    • Søren Kierkegaard (6.314)
    • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (6.395)
    • Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold can Stay" (6.427)
    • Robert Frost, " Fire and Ice " (6.427)
    • Robert Frost, " Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening " (6.427)
    • Robert Frost, " Birches " (6.427)
    • Robert Frost, "The Gift Outright" (6.473)
    • Arthur Miller, playwright (8.107)
    • Lawrence Durell, The Alexandria Quartet
    • Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, playwright, and journalist (8.270)
    • Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., American historian and social critic (8.563)
    • Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End (8.604)
    • Thomas Hardy, "Hap" (8.739)
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, " Rime of the Ancient Mariner " (9.73)
    • Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (9.74)
    • Euripides, Classical Greek tragedian (9.77)
    • Euripides, The Medea (9.77)
    • Euripides, The Trojan Women (9.77)
    • Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (9.87)
    • William Shakespeare, Hamlet (9.90)
    • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (9.90)
    • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (9.114)
    • Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (9.117)
    • Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse (9.117)
    • Alice Munro (9.119)
    • Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (9.130)
    • Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (9.130)
    • George Orwell, Burmese Days (9.133)
    • George Orwell, Animal Farm (9.133)
    • George Orwell, 1984 (9.133)
    • Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (9.154)
    • Selections from the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (9.162)
    • Robertson Davies, "The Ghost Who Vanished By Degrees" (9.258)
    • Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words (9.262)
    • Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (9.262)
    • Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (9.264)
    • Alice Munro, "The Moons of Jupiter" (9.268)

    Musical References

    • Frederic Chopin (6.22)
    • Claude Debussy (6.22)
    • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (6.22)
    • Johannes Brahms, "O Welt ich muss dich lassen" (6.142)
    • Frederic Handel, Messiah (9.352)

    Historical References

    • John Wheelwright, Founder of Exeter, New Hampshire (1.26)
    • John Adams, second President of the United States (1.26)
    • George Meany, American labor leader (1.27)
    • Oliver Cromwell, English military and political leader (1.30)
    • Anne Hutchinson (1.31)
    • John Smith (1.43)
    • Pocahontas (1.43)
    • Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States (2.478, 6.423, 7.201)
    • John F. Kennedy (a.k.a. JFK), 35th President of the United States (2.480, 6.469, 7.269)
    • Ngo Dinh Diem, first President of South Vietnam (2.485)
    • Ngo Dinh Nhu, younger brother of and chief political advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem (2.485)
    • Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., American politician and former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam (2.487)
    • Lyndon B. Johnson (a.k.a. LBJ), 35th President of the United States (2.490)
    • General William Childs Westmoreland, commander in the Vietnam War (2.500, 7.446)
    • Robert F. Kennedy (also referred to as "RFK" and "Bobby"), civil rights activist, Senator from New York, Presidential candidate, and younger brother of JFK (2.505, 7.286, 8.175-176)
    • Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States (2.505, 5.202)
    • Lt. William Laws Calley, convicted American war criminal (2.506)
    • Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (2.507)
    • Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States (5.205)
    • Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States (6.10)
    • Gary Hart, former Senator from Colorado and U.S. Presidential candidate (6.423)
    • King Fahd of Saudi Arabia (6.436)
    • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States (7.200)
    • General Chiang Kai-shek (7.200)
    • Nancy Reagan, former First Lady of the United States (7.257)
    • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Former First Lady of the United States (7.295, 8.175)
    • Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense (7.307)
    • Oliver North, U.S. Marine Corps Officer (7.446)
    • Melvin Laird, former Secretary of Defense (7.446)
    • General Creighton Abrams, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army (7.446)
    • General Maxwell Taylor (7.446)
    • General Curtis LeMay (7.446)
    • Ellsworth Bunker, former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (7.446)
    • Barry Goldwater, former U.S. Senator from Arizona and Presidential candidate (8.261)
    • Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (8.261)
    • Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (8.261)
    • Alexei Kosygin, former Soviet statesman (8.261)
    • Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Fifteenth Prime Minister of Canada (8.292)
    • Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States (8.609)
    • William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the United States (8.609)
    • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (9.154)
    • Senator Joseph McCarthy (9.205)
    • Hubert Humphrey (9.205)

    Pop Culture References

    • Angel Street (3.25)
    • Gaslight (3.25)
    • Ingrid Bergman, Swedish actress (3.25)
    • Charles Boyer, French actor (3.25)
    • Angela Lansbury, English actress (3.29)
    • Joseph Cotten, American actor (3.30)
    • Frank Sinatra, singer (6.4)
    • Tommy Dorsey, American jazz bandleader (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, "I'll be Seeing You" (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, ""Fools Rush In" (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, "I Haven't Time to Be a Millionaire" (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow" (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, "All This and Heaven, Too" (6.4)
    • Frank Sinatra, "Do You Keep Your Heart?" (6.5)
    • Frank Sinatra, "Trade Winds" (6.5)
    • Frank Sinatra, "The Call of the Canyon" (6.5)
    • Frank Sinatra, "Too Romantic" (6.5)
    • Tarzan (6.12-13)
    • Liberace, American entertainer and pianist (6.23)
    • Boy George (6.25)
    • Elton John (6.25)
    • "Mack the Knife" (6.25)
    • Appointment with Danger, a 1951 film (6.50)
    • Jack Webb, an American actor (6.52)
    • Dragnet, a 1950s TV crime drama (6.52)
    • Captain Blood, a 1935 film (6.71)
    • Errol Flynn, an Australian-American actor (6.71)
    • Olivia de Havilland, American actress (6.71)
    • It Happens Every Spring, a 1949 film (6.73)
    • Treasure of the Golden Condor, a 1953 film (6.79)
    • Cornel Wilde, Actor (6.79)
    • Drum Beat, a 1954 Film (6.79)
    • Alan Ladd, American actor (6.79)
    • Audrey Dalton, actress (6.79)
    • The Robe, a 1953 film (6.80)
    • Jean Simmons, an English actress (6.80)
    • Richard Burton, an English actor (6.81)
    • Cecil B. DeMille, legendary American film director (6.93)
    • The Ten Commandments, a 1956 film (6.93)
    • Charlton Heston, an American actor (6.93, 6.196)
    • Yul Brynner, a Russian actor (6.94)
    • John Derek, actor (6.94)
    • Edward G. Robinson, actor (6.94)
    • Bette Davis, actress (6.98)
    • Dark Victory, a 1939 film (6.98)
    • George Brent, actor (6.100)
    • Humphrey Bogart, actor (6.102)
    • Fred Astaire, dancer, singer and actor (6.141)
    • Audrey Hepburn, actress (6.141)
    • Funny Face, a 1957 film (6.141)
    • Ben-Hur, a 1959 film
    • Marilyn Monroe (7.269, 8.107, 8.176)
    • Joe DiMaggio (8.107)
    • Gordon Lightfoot (8.305)
    • Neil Young (8.305)
    • Joni Mitchell (8.305)
    • Ian and Sylvia (8.305)
    • Bob Dylan (8.305)
    • Joan Baez (8.305)
    • Ian Tyson, "Four Strong Winds" (8.305)
    • Betty Grable, actress (8.497)
    • Moon over Miami, a 1941 film (8.497)
    • Carole Landis, American actress (8.502)
    • Don Ameche, American actor (8.502)
    • John Wayne, American actor (8.556)
    • Esther Williams, competitive swimmer and movie star (8.556)
    • Operation Pacific, a 1951 film (8.556)
    • Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night, a 1946 mystery film (8.563)
    • Basil Rathbone, a British actor (8.563)
    • The Beatles (9.3)
    • Hank Bauer, Major League Baseball player (9.106)
    • The Today Show (9.110)
    • Simon and Garfunkel, "Mrs. Robinson" (9.154)
    • The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 film (9.426)
    • Mother is a Freshman, a 1949 film (9.426)
    • Loretta Young, an American actress (9.426)
    • An American in Paris (9.426)
    • Gene Kelly, an American actor (9.426)
    • "When You Wish Upon a Star" (9.433)