Study Guide

John Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany

By John Irving

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John Wheelwright

When we first get to know our narrator, we know him as Johnny Wheelwright. He's a curious but quiet young boy who lives with his mother and grandmother, has no clue who his father is, and has an embarrassing crush on his cousin Hester. John is sort of shy and quiet – if he were a flavor of ice cream, he'd probably be vanilla. On his own, John seems pretty reserved. If there's any commotion or excitement in John's life, it's probably safe to bet that it was caused by his cousins, Hester, Simon, and Noah, or his best friend, Owen Meany. In fact, Owen is also responsible for one of the biggest shake-ups in Johnny's life: he accidentally kills Johnny's mother, Tabby, when he hits a foul ball that smacks her in the temple. One of the most interesting things about Johnny's relationship with Owen is that he's able to get past the fact that Owen killed his mom. He knows that Owen didn't mean to kill her, and he almost feels sorry for Owen for being permanently connected to the event.

John's relationship with Owen really shapes and defines who he is and who he becomes. While you would think that John would be Owen's protector for the sheer reason that he's so much bigger than Owen is, it actually seems to be the case that Owen takes care of John. Owen vows never to leave John's side – he even goes through the ninth grade twice just to make sure that he's there for John. John struggles with dyslexia, and Owen helps him to figure out strategies to overcome his learning disability. John isn't nearly as good of a student in high school as Owen is, so Owen passes up Harvard and Yale to go to college with John. Owen encourages John and constantly helps him out, and John ends up succeeding in school and doing really well in college.

John also has another big reason to be thankful to Owen: Owen keeps John from fighting in Vietnam by cutting off his index finger (if you can't pull the trigger of a gun, you can't be in the Army). Interestingly, this is one of the only physical characteristics we ever learn about John. This novel is full of vivid descriptions of what each of the characters look like, but really only a couple of characteristics stand out about John. What's even more interesting is that these traits are actually changes on John's physical person that come about when he's a young adult. The first, as we mentioned, is his missing finger. The second is that as an adult his hair is pure white. John's hair turns white at the roots when he almost falls down the stairs of the secret passageway at 80 Front Street. This event occurs after Owen has already died, but John hears Owen's voice and feels a force pulling him upwards. The event causes him to undergo a permanent and memorable physical change. Still, aside from these instances, we don't really have a great idea of what John looks like.

Owen's death has a profound effect on John, and not just because it means that he's lost his very best friend. Owen's death changes John's ideas about God and religion. He goes from having a lot of doubts about his faith to becoming deeply introspective and religious. Owen's death also shapes John's attitude toward the United States. John moves to Toronto, Canada in 1968 and is still there in 1987 when he narrates the novel. He teaches English at the Bishop Strachan School (which, by the way, exists in the real world). He's known for being a little bit eccentric and unorthodox, but the thing that everyone notices the most about John is his strange attitude towards his home country. John openly disparages the United States for what he perceives to be its arrogance and incompetency in world affairs. He is really critical of American politicians and their policies. Still, even though he really hates on the US, he never really assimilates as a Canadian – if anything, moving to Canada has made John seem even more American. John's friends in Canada complain about this fact, and they also insist that John lives in the past. We guess we have to agree, but maybe that's a good thing for us; if John didn't live in the past, we wouldn't get the great story that he gives us.

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