Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By John Irving

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Jesus

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.

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