When I complained about church, I complained about the usual things a kid complains about: the claustrophobia, the boredom. But Owen complained religiously. "A PERSON'S FAITH GOES AT ITS OWN PACE," Owen Meany said. "THE TROUBLE WITH CHURCH IS THE SERVICE. A SERVICE IS CONDUCTED FOR A MASS AUDIENCE. JUST WHEN I START TO LIKE THE HYMN, EVERYONE PLOPS DOWN TO PRAY. JUST WHEN I START TO HEAR THE PRAYER, EVERYONE POPS UP TO SING. AND WHAT DOES THE STUPID SERMON HAVE TO DO WITH GOD? WHO KNOWS WHAT GOD THINKS OF CURRENT EVENTS? WHO CARES?" (1.107)
Owen seems to think that going to church is not necessarily the best way of having a relationship with God. Church services seem to distract followers from what religion is really all about.
It occurred to me that the Catholics had done this to her—whatever it was, it surely qualified for the unmentioned UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE that Owen claimed his father and mother had suffered. There was something about Mrs. Meany's obdurate self-imprisonment that smacked of religious persecution—if not eternal damnation. (1.146)
Whenever he talks about the Catholic Church, Owen always mentions the "UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" that the Catholics committed against his parents. Here, we see Owen's mom up close. There's something up with this woman, that's for sure – Johnny just doesn't know what that could be.
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ—and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. (1.1)
These lines open the novel, and they prepare us for the exploration of faith that we're about to watch John undergo. From the get-go, we understand that John's faith is going to change – he's going to start believing in God more than he had in the past. We just need to find out why.
When I would complain about the kneeling, which was new to me—not to mention the abundance of litanies and recited creeds in the Episcopal service—Owen would tell me that I knew nothing. Not only did Catholics kneel and mutter litanies and creeds without ceasing, but they ritualized any hope of contact with God to such an extent that Owen felt they'd interfered with his ability to pray—to talk to God DIRECTLY, as Owen put it. And then there was confession! Here I was complaining about some simple kneeling, but what did I know about confessing my sins? Owen said the pressure to confess—as a Catholic—was so great that he'd often made things up in order to be forgiven for them. (1.101)
The difference between various types of Christianity is a recurring topic of conversation in this novel. While the Episcopal Church seems a little more appropriate for Owen than the Catholic Church (just based on what he expresses as preferences), we start to wonder if maybe Owen feels like organized religion gets in the way of his ability to have a relationship with God.
"BELIEF IS NOT AN INTELLECTUAL MATTER," he complained. "IF HE'S GOT SO MUCH DOUBT, HE'S IN THE WRONG BUSINESS." (3.131)
Rev. Merrill always emphasizes the importance of religious doubt. The point that Rev. Merrill seems to make is that doubt gets you thinking about God – and that can be a good thing. Owen, on the flip side, is so full of conviction that, in his opinion, you either believe in God or you don't.
"I love the part when he tells the angel what to say—that's brilliant," Mr. Fish said. "And how he throws his mother aside—how he starts right in with the criticism…I mean, you get the idea, right away, that this is no ordinary baby. You know, he's the Lord! Jesus—from Day One. I mean, he's born giving orders, telling I had no idea it was so…primitive a ritual, so violent, so barbaric. But it's very moving," Mr. Fish added hastily, lest Dan and I be offended to hear our religion described as "primitive" and "barbaric." (5.221)
Leave it to Mr. Fish to bring a little bit of comic relief. He was not raised in a religious household and has never seen a Christmas pageant before. When things unexpectedly go awry at the Christ Church pageant, Mr. Fish is totally oblivious – and in utter awe. Still, there is some truth to what he says. You get the idea that the Christ Child is no ordinary baby – whether we're talking about the one in the Bible or Owen Meany himself.
"WHAT A BIG FUSS ABOUT A BLANKET!" Owen said. "THAT'S SO CATHOLIC," he added—"TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS." (6.82)
Owen has a lot of beef with Catholicism. He's all about talking to God directly and getting rid of stuff that distracts from having a genuine relationship with God. He sees ceremony and symbolism as things that get in the way.
"IF KENNEDY CAN RATIONALIZE ADULTERY, WHAT ELSE CAN HE RATIONALIZE?" Owen asked me. Then he got angry and said: "I'M FORGETTING HE'S A MACKEREL-SNAPPER! IF CATHOLICS CAN CONFESS ANYTHING, THEY CAN FORGIVE THEMSELVES ANYTHING, TOO! CATHOLICS CAN'T EVEN GET DIVORCED; MAYBE THAT'S THE PROBLEM. IT'S SICK NOT TO LET PEOPLE GET DIVORCED!" (7.301)
As per usual, Owen goes on a tirade against Catholicism. Here, he criticizes the sacrament of confession – Catholics believe that they can be forgiven for their sins if they confess them to a priest and then say a prescribed number of prayers after. Owen sees this practice as being horribly misguided.
It's true: we Wheelwrights have rarely suffered. And unlike most of those other Americans, I also had the church; don't underestimate the church—its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart. (8.281)
Religion is also a source of comfort in this novel. Here, John suggests that, for those who believe strongly, faith can ease suffering. Still, he acknowledges, there are many people who can't experience this benefit because they don't have faith.
"YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE'S THERE—EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN'T SEE HER?" he asked me.
"Yes!" I screamed.
"WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD," said Owen Meany. "I CAN'T SEE HIM—BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!" (8.265-267)
The "she" in question is the statue of Mary Magdalene in front of the playground at St. Michael's. Owen draws a parallel between John's rational knowledge that a statue is still standing there in the dark even if he can't see it and his own belief that God is there even if he can't see God.
The crack of the bat was so unusually sharp and loud for a Little League game that the noise captured even my mother's wandering attention. She turned her head toward home plate—I guess, to see who had hit such a shot—and the ball struck her left temple, spinning her so quickly that one of her high heels broke and she fell forward, facing the stands, her knees splayed apart, her face hitting the ground first because her hands never moved from her sides (not even to break her fall), which later gave rise to the speculation that she was dead before she touched the earth. (1.198)
This is the scene of Tabby's death in the exact moment that it happens. For the first time in his life, Owen actually swings and hits a baseball. This moment of triumph is also a moment of defeat – he kills his best friend's mom, who has also been like a mom to him. It's really striking how it seems like she dies instantly – she doesn't even try to break her fall.
Whether she died that quickly, I don't know; but she was dead by the time Mr. Chickering reached her. He was the first one to her. He lifted her head, then turned her face to a slightly more comfortable position; someone said later that he closed her eyes before he let her head rest back on the ground. I remember that he pulled the skirt of her dress down—it was as high as midthigh—and he pinched her knees together. (1.199)
Tabby's death isn't peaceful – it's chaotic. She's such a mess when Mr. Chickering reaches her that he has to rearrange her body and close her eyes – it's just too shocking to look at her.
"YOU LET ME DROWN!" Owen said. "YOU DIDN'T DO ANYTHING! YOU JUST WATCHED ME DROWN! I'M ALREADY DEAD!" he told us. "REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE." (1.98)
Owen uses the concept of mortality as a way of testing to see who his "real" friends are. This scene is a key moment through which we learn about John and Owen's ideas about death before they ever encounter death for real. At this point, death is a vague concept that they sort of play around with. It will become much more real later on.
[Harry Hoyt] was embarrassed by his mother's lack of patriotic zeal; it may have been the only time he argued with anyone, but he won the argument—he got to go to Vietnam, where he was killed by one of the poisonous snakes of that region. It was a Russell's viper and it bit him while he was peeing under a tree; a later revelation was that the tree stood outside a whorehouse, where Harry had been waiting his turn. He was like that; he was a walker—when there was no good reason to walk. (3.210)
We encounter a number of death scenes in <em>A Prayer for Owen Meany</em> that are highly unusual. When we think of Harry Hoyt dying in Vietnam, our first hunch is to assume that he died in combat. Not so – he died in a stupid, random way while waiting to indulge in some guilty pleasures. It's just another example of how unexpected and nonsensical death can be.
As the ball rolled into Front Street with Sagamore in close pursuit, the baby-rattle tinkle of the odd bell of the diaper truck dinged persistently, even at the moment of the truck's sudden confluence with Sagamore's unlucky head.
Poor Mr. Fish; Owen ran to get him but Mr. Fish had heard the squealing tires—and even the dull thud—and he was halfway down the driveway when Owen met him. "I DON'T THINK YOU WANT TO SEE IT," Owen said to him. "WHY DON'T YOU GO SIT DOWN AND LET US TAKE CARE OF THINGS?" (3.263-264)
Sagamore's death seems to foreshadow Tabby's death in several ways. First of all, Owen sets the scene for death by hitting a ball (this time he punts a football rather than hitting a baseball) that in turn causes someone (a dog, in this case) to suffer a fatal head injury.
Mr. Chickering, who was completely good-hearted, had always told us that when we won, we won as a team, and when we lost, we lost as a team. Now—in his view—we had killed as a team; but he wept in his pew as if he bore more than his share of team responsibility. (3.208)
While baseball can usually be seen as a wholesome pastime that's as American as apple pie, Tabby's death seems to ruin the sport for everyone. What's also interesting is that, even though Owen was the individual to hit the ball that killed her, John continually thinks about how everyone's actions built up to that fatal moment – Harry Hoyt walked, Buzzy Thurston hit a grounder, Mr. Chickering changed the batting order. Somehow, everyone is partially responsible for Tabby's death.
"I SAW MY NAME—ON THE GRAVE," said Owen Meany.
Dan put his arms around Owen and hugged him. "Owen, Owen—it's part of the story! You're sick, you have a fever! You're too excited. Seeing a name on that grave is just like the story—it's make-believe, Owen," Dan said.
"IT WAS MY NAME," Owen said. "NOT SCROOGE'S." (5.316-318)
Owen's belief that he knows when he's going to die starts at this moment. Nobody really believes him until the end of the novel, but Owen is certain that he knows the exact date of his death. Owen's concept of his own mortality shapes his actions throughout the novel – he wants to be a hero before he dies.
[Owen] was very good at that part of it—very respectful of grief, very tactful (while at the same time he managed to be very specific). I don't mean that it was simply a matter of spelling the name correctly and double-checking the date of birth, and the date of death; I mean that the personality of the deceased was discussed, in depth—Owen sought nothing less than a PROPER monument, a COMPATIBLE monument. The aesthetics of the deceased were taken into consideration; the size, shape, and color of the stone were only the rough drafts of the business; Owen wanted to know the tastes of those mourners who would be viewing the gravestone more than once. I never saw a customer who was displeased with the final product; unfortunately—for the enterprises of Meany Granite—I never saw very many customers, either. (8.140)
It's pretty interesting how death seems to be a running theme throughout Owen's entire existence. He's brought up around death – his dad creates and sells monuments made from the granite he digs up at his granite quarry. Here, we see how seriously Owen takes death. He doesn't think that people should be stuck with some random gravestone after they die; he believes that monuments should represent the people that they commemorate.
The night [Grandmother] died, Dan found her propped up in her hospital bed; she appeared to have fallen asleep with the TV on and with the remote-control device held in her hand in such a way that the channels kept changing. But she was dead, not asleep, and her cold thumb had simply attached itself to the button that restlessly roamed the channels—looking for something good.
How I wish that Owen Meany could have died as peacefully as that! (9.112-113)
Peaceful deaths are far and few between in this novel. Even when we do encounter death when it comes naturally, we're constantly reminded that other people die in shocking and disturbing ways.
There was only the briefest moment, when Owen looked stricken—something deeper and darker than pain crossed over his face, and he said to the nun who held him: "I'M AWFULLY COLD, SISTER—CAN'T YOU DO SOMETHING?" Then whatever had troubled him passed over him completely, and he smiled again—he looked at us all with his old, infuriating smile.
Then he looked only at me. "YOU'RE GETTING SMALLER, BUT I CAN STILL SEE YOU!" said Owen Meany.
Then he left us; he was gone. I could tell by his almost cheerful expression that he was at least as high as the palm trees. (9.577-579)
It's amazing to see Owen go through so many different emotions at the scene of his death. He displays deep terror one moment, and then deep serenity the next. It's also touching how he focuses on his best friend, John, during his last moments rather than on himself.
My mother stopped the car and hugged him, and kissed him, and told him he was always welcome to come with us, anywhere we went; and I rather awkwardly put my arm around him, and we just sat that way in the car, until he had composed himself sufficiently for his return to 80 Front Street, where he marched in the back door, past Lydia's room and the maids fussing in the kitchen, up the back stairs past the maids' rooms, to my room and my bathroom, where he closed himself in and drew a deep bath. He handed me his sodden clothes, and I brought the clothes to the maids, who began their work on them. (2.423)
It's kind of nice to know you have a good friend who is supportive of you all the time, even when you pee all over yourself.
It was Owen Meany who kept me out of Vietnam—a trick that only Owen could have managed.
"JUST THINK OF THIS AS MY LITTLE GIFT TO YOU"—that was how he put it.
It makes me ashamed to remember that I was angry with him for taking my armadillo's claws. God knows, Owen gave me more than he ever took from me—even when you consider that he took my mother. (2.509-511)
There are many things for which John could be angry with Owen. Still, that's part of friendship – people are imperfect and do things to hurt one another without meaning to. But friends can also do amazing things for one another. In this case, Owen keeps John out of Vietnam. We don't know what would have happened to John if he had gone into the army, but perhaps Owen indirectly saves John's life by cutting off his trigger finger.
"The main thing is, Johnny," Dan Needham said, "you have to show Owen that you love him enough to trust anything with him—to not care if you do or don't get it back. It's got to be something he knows you want back. That's what makes it special." (2.451)
Dan's friendship and guidance is a key force in helping John and Owen to keep their friendship intact. Dan shows John how he has to be able to make certain sacrifices in order to show his best friend how much he loves him – even if it means giving up his stuffed armadillo.
Dan understood that I loved Owen, and that I wanted to talk with him—most of all—but that it was a conversation, for both Owen's sake and mine, that was best to delay. But before we finished loading the baseball cards in the car, Dan Needham asked me, "What are you giving him?"
"What?" I said.
"To show him that you love him," Dan Needham said. "That's what he was showing you. What have you got to give him?" (2.447-449)
John and Owen's exchange of gifts might seem like a trivial or overly sentimental scene in the novel, but it is a key moment in their friendship. Owen has just killed John's mother without meaning to. Rather than expressing his regret in words, Owen does it through actions: he gives John his baseball card collection, his most prized possession. What's striking here is that most of us would have an impossible time trying to forgive Owen – we mean, could you look at your best friend the same way if he or she killed your mother? This moment is a testament to the strength of the bond between these two friends.
It is amazing to me, now, how such wild imaginings and philosophies—inspired by a night charged with frights and calamities—made such perfectly good sense to Owen Meany and me; but good friends are nothing to each other if they are not supportive. (5.380)
John and Owen have unique – and often embarrassing – worries and preoccupations. The great thing is that they have each other to voice their concerns to, no matter how weird they are.
"Was there a date on the gravestone?" I asked him. He gave himself away by hesitating.
"NO," he said.
"What was the date, Owen?" I asked him. He hesitated again.
"THERE WAS NO DATE," Owen said. I wanted to cry—not because I believed a single thing about his stupid "vision," but because it was the first time he had lied to me. (5.394-397)
This moment is incredibly moving, isn't it? On one hand, John's devastated that Owen is keeping secrets from him. On the other hand, this moment shows us how much Owen really cares about John – he isn't trying to hurt John; he's trying to protect him. Still, we can totally see where John's coming from – we'd be pretty irked if our best friends were obviously keeping secrets from us, too.
Dan and my grandmother were quite touched by Owen's loyalty to me; Hester, naturally, denounced Owen's behavior as "queer"; naturally, I loved him, and I thanked him for his sacrifice—but in my heart I resented his power over me.
"DON'T GIVE IT ANOTHER THOUGHT," he said. "WE'RE PALS, AREN'T WE? WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR? I'LL NEVER LEAVE YOU." (6.63-64)
Owen really goes above and beyond for his best friend. He even offers to repeat the ninth grade to ensure that they'll always be together. We've got to admit, we don't know if <em>we'd</em> ever go that far….
Hearing about him made me even miss practicing that stupid shot; and so I wrote to him, just casually—since when would a twenty-year-old actually come out and say he missed his best friend? (8.88)
In some ways, it seems that John and Owen navigate their relationship in a different way as twenty-somethings than as kids. They used to be able to share anything; all of a sudden, it seems like social rules start to come into conflict with their closeness.
But there was no doubt that Owen had his heart set on my meeting him in Phoenix, and he sounded even more agitated than usual. I thought he might need the company; we hadn't seen each other since Christmas. After all, I'd never been to Arizona—and, I admit, at the time I was curious to see something of the so-called body escorting. It didn't occur to me that July was not the best season to be in Phoenix—but what did I know?
"Sure, let's do it—it sounds like fun," I told him.
"YOU'RE MY BEST FRIEND," said Owen Meany—his voice breaking a little. I assumed it was the telephone; I thought we had a bad connection. (9.444-446)
Did your heart break while reading this passage? Ours did. Owen knows that he's going to die soon, but he doesn't tell John – he keeps it a secret until the very end. We can see from Owen's perspective how important it is for John to be there with him when it happens – not just because John's a part of his vision, but also because he loves him so much.
All those same crones of my grandmother were there. I know what they came to see. How does royalty react to this? How will Harriet Wheelwright respond to Fate with a capital F—to a Freak Accident (with a capital F, too), or to an Act of God (if that's what you believe it was)? All those same crones, as black and hunchbacked as crows gathered around some road kill—they came to the service as if to say: We acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free. (3.214)
John gets the vibe that some members of the community see Tabby's death as her punishment for her "sin" of having Johnny out of wedlock. To them, it wasn't necessarily an accident; it was fate.
Squeezing a hailstone the size of a marble in my hand, feeling it melt in my palm, I was also surprised by its hardness; it was as hard as a baseball. (3.206)
Again, we get this spooky sense that Tabby's death isn't necessarily an accident. Johnny holds a hailstone in his hand, much like the one that just hit his mom on the head, and likens it to a baseball. To us, the similarity is a little too close for comfort.
It made [Owen] furious when I suggested that anything was an "accident"—especially anything that had happened to him; on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith. There were no accidents; there was a reason for that baseball—just as there was a reason for Owen being small, and a reason for his voice. In Owen's opinion, he had INTERRUPTED AN ANGEL, he had DISTURBED AN ANGEL AT WORK, he had UPSET THE SCHEME OF THINGS. (3.66)
Owen sees his role in Tabby's death as a product of fate rather than as an accident. He's convinced that he saw the Angel of Death in Tabby's room (even though, you know, he had a high fever and saw Tabby's dressmaker's dummy). He thinks that he interrupted the Angel of Death, and that the task of taking Tabby's life fell into his hands instead. In that sense, Owen is sort of able to excuse himself for killing Tabby because he thinks she was supposed to die anyway.
I must have repeated what Owen said to Dan Needham, because years later Dan asked me, "Did Owen say your grandmother was a banshee?"
He said she was "wailing like a banshee," I explained.
Dan got out the dictionary, then; he was clucking his tongue and shaking his head, and laughing to himself, saying, "That boy! What a boy! Brilliant but preposterous!" And that was the first time I learned, literally, what a banshee was—a banshee, in Irish folklore, is a female spirit whose wailing is a sign that a loved one will soon die. (3.94-96)
Owen's use of the word "banshee" implies that, somehow, Tabby's untimely death was always in the cards. We can see the moment when Harriet screams during the "angel of death" scene as a foretelling of Tabby's impending death, because banshees signal that someone who is with us now will be gone pretty soon.
I don't remember seeing Buzzy Thurston at my mother's funeral. He should have been there. After Harry Hoyt walked, Buzzy Thurston should have been the last out. He hit such an easy grounder—it was as sure an out as I've ever seen—but somehow the shortstop bobbled the ball. Buzzy Thurston reached base on an error. Who was that shortstop? He should have been in Hurd's Church, too. (3.213)
John's memory of the baseball game shows us how a lot of careless mistakes and strange errors paved the way for Owen to step up to the plate. Doesn't it seem a little weird that the shortstop messed up on such an easy hit? We're getting the shivers here, as John would say.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Let me out. You get in first." She meant that he was small enough to straddle the drive-shaft hump, in the middle of the seat, between her and Dan, but when she stepped outside the Buick—even for just a second—a hailstone ricocheted off the roof of the car and smacked her right between the eyes.
"Ow!" she cried, holding her head.
"I'M SORRY!" Owen said quickly. (3.195-197)
Hmm, remind you of another moment in the novel? This moment at Tabby's wedding foreshadows the event of her death. Is it possible that this is some sort of sign that her death at the baseball game is inevitable, or is it just a coincidence?
Since her death, Owen had hinted that the strongest force compelling him to attend Gravesend Academy—namely, my mother's insistence—was gone. Those rooms allowed us to imagine what we might become—if not exactly boarders (because I would continue to live with Dan, and with Grandmother, and Owen would live at home), we would still harbor such secrets, such barely restrained messiness, such lusts, even, as these poor residents of Waterhouse Hall. It was our lives in the near future that we were searching for when we searched in those rooms, and therefore it was shrewd of Owen that he made us take our time. (4.54)
Do you remember doing similar things as a kid – putting yourself in an older person's shoes, trying to figure out what your life is fated to be like, based on theirs? It's something we all have done, and John and Owen do it, too.
"Don't bother, kid," said Mr. McSwiney. "If he was looking for you, he would have found you."
"GOD WILL TELL HIM WHO HIS FATHER IS," Owen said; Graham McSwiney shrugged. (7.181-182)
Here, we see how fate and free will seem to exist in conflict with one another. Mr. McSwiney suggests that Johnny's father hasn't revealed himself yet because he doesn't want to – an exercise of his free will, so to speak. Owen seems to be suggesting that fate will overcome free will and that God will inevitably show Johnny who his real father is.
That was how we ended up on Newbury Street—one Wednesday afternoon in the fall of '61. I know now that it was NO ACCIDENT that we ended up there. (7.46)
Remember, Owen doesn't believe in accidents anymore. Increasingly, we get the sense that the things that he does are all components of some larger plan. In this case, Owen is all over the task of trying to figure out the identity of John's birth father, and the search takes the two boys to Newbury Street in Boston to the site of the dress store where Tabby bought her red dress.
"I DON'T WANT TO BE A HERO," said Owen Meany. "IT'S NOT THAT I WANT TO BE—IT'S THAT I AM A HERO. I KNOW THAT'S WHAT I'M SUPPOSED TO BE."
"How do you know?" I asked him.
"IT'S NOT THAT I WANT TO GO TO VIETNAM—IT'S WHERE I HAVE TO GO. IT'S WHERE I'M A HERO. I'VE GOT TO BE THERE," he said.
"Tell him how you 'know' this, you asshole!" Hester screamed at him.
"THE WAY YOU KNOW SOME THINGS—YOUR OBLIGATIONS, YOUR DESTINY OR YOUR FATE," HE SAID. "THE WAY YOU KNOW WHAT GOD WANTS YOU TO DO." (8.412-417)
This passage is a classic example of the conflict between fate and free will. In this case, fate once again trumps free will. Owen doesn't feel that he wants to go to Vietnam, but he has the sense that he's <em>supposed</em> to go there – he sees it as part of his destiny.
"HE DOESN'T KNOW WHY HE'S HERE, AND I DON'T DARE TELL HIM," Owen wrote. "I DON'T KNOW WHY HE'S HERE—I JUST KNOW HE HAS TO BE HERE! BUT I DON'T EVEN 'KNOW' THAT—NOT ANYMORE. IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE! WHERE IS VIETNAM—IN ALL OF THIS? WHERE ARE THOSE POOR CHILDREN? WAS IT JUST A TERRIBLE DREAM? AM I SIMPLY CRAZY? IS TOMORROW JUST ANOTHER DAY? (9.451)
This part of the novel is particularly interesting, partly because for the longest time, Owen has thought that he knows exactly what his fate is – he's certain that he's supposed to go to Vietnam, where he will die saving a whole bunch of children. He's been certain of the precise date since he was eleven years old. Yet, the day comes and he finds himself in Arizona instead. What do you think this says about Owen's control over his own destiny? Do you think it's fate that he ends up in Arizona? Do you think he was trying too hard to get himself to Vietnam?
She appeared to want nothing from life but a child and a loving husband; it is important to note these singulars—she did not want children, she wanted me, just me, and she got me; she did not want men in her life, she wanted a man, the right man, and shortly before she died, she found him. (2.3)
We see examples throughout the novel that show us how strong John's relationship with his mother is. Even though his birth is unplanned, she loves him utterly and completely. John has a remarkable relationship with his whole family – his family life is secure and loving both in good times and bad.
His name was Dan Needham. How many times I have prayed to God that he was my real father! (2.14)
John is totally right. Dan's the man. Step-parents tend to get a bad rap in literary depictions, but John knows that Dan is a better dad to him than any other birth father could ever be.
"They're sort of hard to control—my cousins," I said. "That's the problem."
"YOU MAKE THEM SOUND LIKE WILD ANIMALS," Owen said.
"They are—kind of," I said. (2.245-247)
At the beginning of the novel, John's relationship with his cousins is based on fear. Throwing Owen into the mix totally changes the dynamic though – all of a sudden the Eastman kids calm down, partly because Owen freaks them out so much.
"AND UNFORTUNATELY I REALLY CAN'T INVITE YOU TO MY HOUSE, BECAUSE THERE'S REALLY NOTHING TO DO IN THE HOUSE, AND BECAUSE MY FATHER RUNS A GRANITE QUARRY, HE'S RATHER STRICT ABOUT THE EQUIPMENT AND THE QUARRIES THEMSELVES, WHICH ARE OUTDOORS, ANYWAY. INDOORS, AT MY HOUSE, WOULD NOT BE A LOT OF FUN BECAUSE MY PARENTS ARE RATHER STRANGE ABOUT CHILDREN." (2.351)
We mostly learn about Owen's relationship with his family in bits and pieces. Every time he mentions his family, though, we get even more curious – what is up with these people? Well, we find out the answer sooner or later…
Dan was next. He sat on my bed, too. He reminded me that he had legally adopted me; that although I was Johnny Wheelwright to everyone in Gravesend, I was as good as a Johnny Needham to the school, and that meant that I could go to Gravesend Academy—when the time came, and just as my mother had wanted me to—as a legitimate faculty child, just as if I were Dan's actual son. Dan said he thought of me as his son, anyway, and he would never take a job that took him away from Gravesend Academy until I'd had the chance to graduate. He said he'd understand if I found 80 Front Street more comfortable than his dormitory apartment, but that he liked having me live in his apartment, with him, if I wasn't too bored with the confinement of the place. (3.247)
John and Dan really have the best stepson/stepdad relationship ever. Even after Tabby dies, Dan continues to take care of John and act as a loving father.
I thought [Owen] was excessively proud of himself—and that he treated his parents harshly. We all go through a phase—it lasts a lifetime, for some of us—when we're embarrassed by our parents; we don't want them hanging around us because we're afraid they'll do or say something that will make us feel ashamed of them. But Owen seemed to me to suffer this embarrassment more than most; that's why I thought he held his parents at such a great distance from himself. And he was, in my opinion, exceedingly bossy toward his father. At an age when most of our peers were enduring how much their parents bossed them around, Owen was always telling his father what to do. (5.35)
Owen's relationship with his parents is unusual, to say the least. It seems like there's a total role reversal between parent and child – Owen gets to run the show and call the shots, while his parents behave in a docile, obedient way towards him.
Dan had the good instincts to keep his distance from me—to be like a father to me, but not to assert himself too exactly in the role. Because of a physical caution that Dan expressed when he touched me, he was less restrained with Owen, whose father never once (at least, not in my presence) touched him. I think Dan Needham knew, too, that Owen was not ever handled at home. (5.46)
Physical affection is a really important way through which families express how much they care about one another. Owen doesn't seem to get too much of it at home – it seems like John's family acts more like a family to him than his own parents do.
I got a half-dozen presents from each relative or loved one—from my grandmother, from my aunt and uncle, from my cousins, from Dan; and more than a half-dozen from my mother. I had looked under the Christmas tree this year, and was touched at Dan's and my grandmother's efforts to match the sheer number of presents—for me—that usually lay under the Eastman's tree in Sawyer Depot. I had already counted them; I had over forty wrapped presents—and, God knows, there was usually something hidden in the basement or in the garage that was too big to wrap. (5.363)
It's amazing how hard everyone in Johnny's family tries to make sure that certain things in his life stay consistently the same after his mom dies. The first holiday or family event that you go through after losing a loved one can be really hard. Johnny's family seems to love him so much that they more than compensate for Tabby's absence – at least when it comes to presents – at Christmastime. It's a little thing, but it's meaningful.
"I'M JUST WARNING YOU," he said. "IT'S EXCITING TO LOOK FOR YOUR FATHER, BUT DON'T EXPECT TO BE THRILLED WHEN YOU FIND HIM. I HOPE YOU KNOW WE'RE NOT LOOKING FOR ANOTHER DAN!" (6.127)
Why do you think Johnny is looking so hard for his dad? Is it because he merely wants to know where he comes from, or does he think that he'll have a relationship with this person? If it's the latter, Owen suggests, then the search isn't worth it; John already has the best dad ever in Dan Needham.
My aunt manifests only the most occasional vestige of her old interest in who my actual father is or was; last Christmas, in Sawyer Depot, she managed to get me alone for a second and she said, "Do you still not know? You can tell me. I'll bet you know! How could you not have found out something? You can tell me. I'll bet you know. How could you not have found out something—in all this time?"
I put my finger to my lips, as if I were going to tell her something that I didn't want Uncle Alfred or Dan or Noah or Simon to hear. Aunt Martha grew very attentive—her eyes sparkling, her smile widening with mischief and conspiracy.
"Dan Needham is the best father a boy could have," I whispered to her. (8.11-13)
We find out later that, by the time this scene takes place, John already knows who his real dad is. Owen was right: it doesn't matter who John's birth dad is, because Dan Needham gets the award for World's Best Dad. Family isn't necessarily determined by the people you're related to by blood; it's all about who loves you and takes care of you.
"Stop it!" my grandmother told me. "I remember, I remember—for God's sake," she said. "Don't ever do that again!" she told me. But it was from my grandmother that I gained the confidence that I could imitate Owen Meany's voice at all. Even when her memory was shot, Grandmother remembered Owen's voice; if she remembered him as the instrument of her daughter's death, she didn't say. Near the end, Grandmother didn't remember that I had become an Anglican—and a Canadian. (1.90)
This moment is pretty interesting because it tells us a lot about how people remember Owen. Harriet has almost completely lost her memory – often, she doesn't even remember who John is – but Owen's voice is completely burned into her brain forever.
Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory, but it has you! (1.201)
Some things are too painful or important to ever forget – this is a central concept throughout the novel. We see how John lives largely in the past as an adult, constantly haunted by memories. Memory is a powerful force that is hard to escape.
I know many people, today, who instinctively cringe at any noise even faintly resembling a gunshot or an exploding bomb—a car backfires, the handle of a broom or a shovel whacks flat against a cement or a linoleum floor, a kid detonates a firecracker in an empty trash can, and my friends cover their heads, primed (as we all are, today) for the terrorist attack or the random assassin. But not me; and never Owen Meany. All because of one badly played baseball game, one unlucky swing—and the most unlikely contact—all because of one lousy foul ball, among millions, Owen Meany and I were permanently conditioned to flinch at the sound of a different kind of gunshot: that much-loved and most American sound of summer, the good old crack of the bat! (2.446)
Do you ever remember what song was playing when you got some bad news, or what you were doing when something unfortunate happened, or what you were wearing the day you failed a test? Little things – sounds, tastes, smells, sights – may seem insignificant in our day-to-day lives, but they have the powerful ability to evoke strong memories. For Owen and John, the sound of a bat hitting a ball will forever be connected with Tabby's death – just as people experiencing post-traumatic stress after fighting in a war cringe after hearing noises resembling gunshots.
Then I saw Simon raise his hands; Noah's hands were already in place—and my Uncle Alfred and my Aunt Martha: they held their ears, too. Even Lydia held her ears in her hands. My grandmother glowered, but she would not raise her hands; she made herself listen, although I could tell it was painful for her to hear it—and that was when I heard it: the children on the high-school athletic fields. They were playing baseball. There were the usual shouts, the occasional arguments, the voices coming all at once; and then the quiet, or almost quiet, was punctuated—as baseball games always are—by the crack of the bat. There it went, a pretty solid-sounding hit, and I watched even the rocklike face of Mr. Meany wince, his fingers close on Owen's shoulders. (3.242)
The sound of a bat hitting a ball is a strong – and loud – reminder of how Tabby died. Even the people who weren't present at the scene of her death are painfully aware of the connection between the sound of the bat and the graveyard scene in front of them.
When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part. (3.249)
Even after you lose someone, the memory of them lingers. Sooner or later, though, certain parts disappear into the past. It seems, however, that John is particularly good at holding onto memories of the past.
The first Christmas following my mother's death was the first Christmas I didn't spend in Sawyer Depot. My grandmother told Aunt Martha and Uncle Alfred that if the family were all together, my mother's absence would be too apparent. If Dan and Grandmother and I were alone in Gravesend, and if the Eastmans were alone in Sawyer Depot, my grandmother argued that we would all miss each other; then, she reasoned, we wouldn't miss my mother so much. (4.1)
Harriet tries to interfere with the family's sad memories by switching up Christmas traditions. If they do everything in a completely new and different way, they won't notice what's missing.
Canon Mackie is skillful with me, I have to admit. He mentions "dates" and what he calls my "head for history" to set up a familiar thesis: that I live in the past. Canon Mackie makes me wonder if my devotion to the memory of Canon Campbell is not also an aspect of how much I live in the past; years ago, when I felt so close to Canon Campbell, I lived less in the past—or else, what we now call the past was then the present; it was the actual time that Canon Campbell and I shared, and we were both caught up in it. (5.203)
What's interesting here is that John suggests that we tend to turn to memory more at certain points in our lives than others. Sometimes we are easily absorbed in the present moment; at others, we retreat into our memories.
I fall asleep listening to the astonishing complexity of a child breathing in his sleep—of a loon crying out on the dark water, of the waves lapping the rocks onshore. And in the morning, long before the child stirs, I hear the gulls and I think about the tomato-red pickup cruising the coastal road between Hampton Beach and Rye Harbor; I hear the raucous, embattled crows, whose shrill disputations and harangues remind me that I have awakened in the real world—in the world I know—after all. (8.48)
For John, the present (1987) is full of triggers that inspire memories at every turn. Staying at the lake with Katherine Keeling's family reminds him of the days he spent hanging out on the beach with Owen Meany. Just as easily, though, certain noises or events snap him back to the present.
I know that Grandmother was afraid of the old house, near the end. "Too many ghosts!" she would mutter. Finally, I think, she was happy not to be "murdered by a maniac"—a condition she had once found favorable to being removed from 80 Front Street. She left the old house rather quietly when she left; she was philosophic about her departure. "Time to leave," she said to Dan and me. "Too many ghosts!" (9.108)
80 Front Street is an old house with a lot of memories stored up inside. When Harriet insists that there are "too many ghosts" there, she implies a couple of things: first of all, it's true that a lot of the people who once inhabited its walls are now gone. Beyond that, though, it's interesting to think about memories themselves as ghosts – Harriet seems to suggest that she's actually haunted by her memories.
About the middle of the afternoon, Owen started playing what he called "THE REMEMBER GAME."
Owen asked me: "DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU MET MR. FISH?"
I said I couldn't remember—it seemed to me that Mr. Fish had always been there.
"I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN," Owen said. "DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOUR MOTHER WAS WERING WHEN WE BURIED SAGAMORE?"
I couldn't remember. "IT WAS THAT BLACK V-NECK SWEATER, AND THOSE GRAY FLANNEL SLACKS—OR MAYBE IT WAS A LONG, GRAY SKIRT," HE SAID.
"I don't think she had a long, gray skirt," I said.
"I THINK YOU'RE RIGHT," he said. "DO YOU REMEMBER DAN'S OLD SPORTS JACKET—THE ONE THAT LOOKED LIKE IT WAS MADE OF CARROTS?"
"It was the color of his hair!" I said.
"THAT'S THE ONE!" said Owen Meany. (9.461-469)
In this scene, Owen knows that he's going to die the next day. For him, playing the "remember" game is a way of going through his life with John – it's sort of like how TV shows seem to always do a clip show before going off the air.
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.
But one day when my mother was driving Owen and me to the beach—Owen and I were ten—my mother said, "I hope you never stop helping Johnny with his homework, Owen, because when you're both at the academy, the homework's going to be much harder—especially for Johnny."
"BUT I'M NOT GOING TO THE ACADEMY," Owen said.
"Of course you are! My mother said. "You're the best student in New Hampshire—maybe, in the whole country!"
"THE ACADEMY'S NOT FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME," Owen said. "THE PUBLIC SCHOOL IS FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME." (1.113-115)
Even as a kid, Owen is acutely aware of social divisions and distinctions. Based on his roots, he sees himself fit for the public school, rather than the ritzy and prestigious Gravesend Academy, home to the silver-spoon kids of the world.
"THERE'S ALSO DRESS SHIRTS, AND SHOES," Owen said. "IF YOU GO TO SCHOOL WITH RICH PEOPLE, YOU DON'T WANT TO LOOK LIKE THEIR SERVANTS." I now suppose that my mother could hear Mr. Meany's prickly, working-class politics behind this observation. (1.119)
Owen's background and family life shape the way he thinks about Gravesend Academy. His attitude is based on a sense of pride that he seems to have inherited from his dad; he knows that he doesn't fit the common mold for students at the Academy.
"What does he do, Tabitha?" my grandmother asked. That was a Wheelwright thing to ask. In my grandmother's opinion, what one "did" was related to where one's family "came from"—she always hoped it was from England, and in the seventeenth century. And the short list of things that my grandmother approved of "doing" was no less specific than seventeenth-century England. (2.34)
Harriet is pretty old school in her ideas about society and class. She's very proud about how proper and refined she is, and her standards for what is acceptable are pretty narrow when we meet her (though she seems to cool it over time). It's interesting to see how John seems to poke fun at her attitudes all the way through the novel.
"So he's a teacher?" my grandmother asked. This was borderline acceptable to Harriet Wheelwright—although my grandmother was a shrewd enough businesswoman to know that the dollars and cents of teaching (even at as prestigious a prep school as Gravesend Academy) were not exactly in her league.
"Yes!" my mother said in an exhausted voice. "He's a teacher. He's been teaching dramatics at a private school in Boston. Before that, he went to Harvard—Class of Forty-five."
"Goodness gracious!" my grandmother said. "Why didn't you begin with Harvard?"
"It's not important to him," my mother said.
But Harvard '45 was important enough to my grandmother to calm her troubled hands; they left her brooch alone, and returned to rest in her lap. (2.43-47)
Name brands are a big deal to Harriet. While she's been nervous this whole time about the kind of guy that Tabby intends to bring home, she calms down immediately when she finds out that Dan is Harvard-educated.
Grandmother was not won over quickly, as a rule—not by anyone. Yet she became infatuated with the magic Dan wrought upon the amateurs at The Gravesend Players so much that she accepted a part in Maugham's The Constant Wife; she was the regal mother of the deceived wife, and she proved to have the perfect, frivolous touch for drawing-room comedy—she was a model of the kind of sophistication we could all do well without. She even discovered a British accent, with no prodding from Dan, who was no fool and fully realized that a British accent lay never very deeply concealed in the bosom of Harriet Wheelwright—it simply wanted an occasion to bring it out. (3.129)
What is it with British accents being associated with all things high-class? We totally buy it, and we don't know why!
Dan came from a very high-powered family; they were doctors and lawyers, and they disapproved of Dan for not completing a more serious education. To have started out at Harvard and not gone on to law school, not gone on to medical school—this was criminal laziness; Dan came from a family very keen about going on. They disapproved of him ending up as a mere prep-school teacher, and of his indulging his hobby of amateur theatrical performances—they believed these frivolities were unworthy of a grown-up's interest! They disapproved of my mother, too—and that was the end of Dan having any more to do with them. (3.119)
Dan's family seems to have a lot in common with Harriet Wheelwright – they put a premium on good breeding, high levels of fancy education, and lucrative and prestigious jobs. Dan, like Tabby, seems to have broken the mold – he follows his own interests and dreams instead.
By then, Canon Campbell had introduced me to old Teddybear Kilgore, who had hired me to teach at Bishop Strachan. We Wheelwrights have always benefited from our connections.
Owen Meany didn't have any connections. It was never easy for him to fit in. (8.290-291)
It's sad but true: sometimes who you know has a lot to do with what opportunities are available to you. John is pretty well-connected, and he realizes that this puts him at what others might see as an unfair advantage.
I was little Johnny Wheelwright, father unknown, and—at the time—that was okay with me. I never complained. One day, I always thought, she would tell me about it—when I was old enough to know the story. It was, apparently, the kind of story you had to be "old enough" to hear. It wasn't until she died—without a word to me concerning who my father was—that I felt I'd been cheated out of information I had a right to know; it was only after her death that I felt the slightest anger toward her. Even if my father's identity and his story were painful to my mother—even if their relationship had been so sordid that any revelation of it would shed a continuous, unfavorable light upon both my parents—wasn't my mother being selfish not to tell my anything about my father? (1.37)
It seems like Johnny's sense of his own identity is compromised by not being able to find out who his father is. He feels cheated out of information that he feels is rightfully his.
And almost casually, with a confidence that stood in surprising and unreasonable juxtaposition to his tiny size, Owen Meany told me that he was sure my father was alive, that he was sure my father knew he was my father, and that God knew who my father was; even if my father never came forth to identify himself, Owen told me, God would identify him for me. "YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU," Owen said, "BUT HE CAN'T HIDE FROM GOD." (1.41)
As far as Owen is concerned, Johnny's dad is out there, and figuring out his identity is a matter of time and chance. Owen's sense of Johnny's dad's identity is closely linked to his deep faith and belief in fate.
Some Wheelwrights—not only our founding father—had even been in the ministry; in the last century, the Congregational ministry. And the move upset the pastor of the Congregational Church, the Rev. Lewis Merrill; he'd baptized me, and he was woebegone at the thought of losing my mother's voice from the choir—he'd known her since she was a young girl, and (my mother always said) he'd been especially supportive of her when she'd been calmly and good-naturedly insisting on her privacy regarding my origins. (1.99)
What's significant about this passage is that we start to get the vibe that Rev. Merrill somehow has a part in the big secret of Johnny's identity. Unlike everyone else, he doesn't press Tabby for details; rather, he's more than happy to support her right to privacy.<em>
So what if Owen has the ball? I was thinking. But at the time I was mainly thinking about my mother; I was already beginning to get angry with her for never telling me who my father was.
At the time, I was only eleven; I had no idea who else had attended that Little League game, and that death—and who had his own reason for wanting to possess the ball that Owen Meany hit. (1.221-222)
This passage brings up the theme in two distinct ways. On one hand, Johnny is angry because, now that his mother is dead, he might never find out who is father is. We also are introduced to somebody whose identity is a mystery to us: there is someone at the game who is particularly interested in possessing the deadly baseball. We don't know who either person is; at this point, neither does Johnny. Still, we get the sense that we will figure out the identity of both figures by the time we finish the novel.
That Owen Meany was a Chosen One was the furthest thing from my mind; that Owen could even consider himself one of God's Appointed would have been a surprise to me. To have seen him up in the air, at Sunday school, you would not have thought he was at work on God's Assignment. And you must remember—forgetting about Owen—that at the age of eleven I did not believe there were "chosen ones," or that God "appointed" anyone, or that God gave "assignments." As for Owen's belief that he was "God's instrument," I didn't know that there was other evidence upon which Owen was basing his conviction that he'd been specially selected to carry out the work of the Lord; but Owen's idea—that God's reasoning was somehow predetermining Owen's every move—came from much more than that one unlucky swing and crack of the bat. As you shall see. (2.471)
John's perception of Owen's identity as a kid is pretty different from his perception of Owen as an adult. As a kid, he just sees Owen as this goofy little kid who happens to be his best friend.
I never had a hint that Dan was the slightest bothered by this ritual, although I recall my grandmother asking my mother if Dan objected to her spending one night a week in Boston.
"Why should he?" my mother asked.
The answer, which was not forthcoming, was as obvious to my grandmother as it was to me: that the most likely candidate for the unclaimed position of my father, and my other's mystery lover, was that "famous" singing teacher. (3.110-112)
The whole family has their suspicions about the true identity of Johnny's father. It's kind of interesting to watch them obsess over it while Tabby pretends to be oblivious.
"YOUR FATHER IS NOT THE SINGING TEACHER," Owen Meany told me matter-of-factly. "THAT WOULD BE TOO OBVIOUS."
"This is a real-life story, Owen," I said. "It's not a mystery novel." In real life, I meant, there was nothing written that the missing father couldn't be OBVIOUS—but I didn't really think it was the singing teacher, either. He was only the most likely candidate because he was the only candidate my grandmother and I could think of.
"IF IT'S HIM, WHY MAKE IT A SECRET?" Owen asked. "IF IT'S HIM, WOULDN'T YOUR MOTHER SEE HIM MORE THAN ONCE A WEEK—OR NOT AT ALL?" (3.113-115)
Here we see that the secret identity of Johnny's father brings out the sleuth in Owen. To him, it's like a real-life mystery novel.
"What a waste, Tabby!" Aunt Martha would say. "It's an absolute waste of your memory—knowing all those words to the verses no one ever sings!"
"What else do I need my memory for?" my mother asked her sister; the two women would smile at each other—my Aunt Martha coveting that part of my mother's memory that might tell her the story of who my father was. (5.252-253)
Isn't it funny how Tabby seems to tease Aunt Martha so deliberately about the identity of Johnny's dad? Martha's interest in his identity also reveals some interesting aspects of her relationship with Tabby – Tabby seems to be totally aware of the game that her sister is playing with her, and she plays right along.
With a shudder, I imagined that it had been my father in the bleachers—it had been my father she'd waved to the instant she was killed! With no idea how I might hope to recognize him, I began with the front row, left-center; I went through the audience, face by face. From my perspective, backstage, the faces in the audience were almost uniformly still, and the attention upon them was not directed toward me; the faces were, at least in part, strangers to me, and—especially in the back rows—smaller than the faces on baseball cards. (5.226)
John's interest in figuring out his dad's identity is this weird mix of a game and a serious investigation.
"Who thought of the name "The Lady in Red'?" I asked the old teacher—in an effort to steer him back to what interested us.
"She found a dress in a store," Mr. McSwiney said. "She told me she wanted to be 'wholly out of character—but only once a week'!" He laughed. (7.164-165)
For Tabby, being "The Lady in Red" gave her the opportunity once a week to shed her wholesome Gravesend image and lifestyle and become someone completely different.
"HOW CAN YOU BE HAPPY IF YOU SPEND ALL YOUR TIME THINKING ABOUT DOING IT?" Owen asked. (4.53)
On principle, Owen thinks there's more to life than thinking about sex.
"Owen doesn't think it's right to try to change his voice," I said. (4.341)
Owen is convinced that his voice is so loud and screechy for a reason, and on principle he believes that it's not up to him to decide what to do with it.
"A GREAT ACTOR DOESN'T NEED A FACE," Owen said. (4.380)
According to Owen, a truly great actor can take over the room through his mere presence – he shows us this when he plays the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He has no lines, and nobody can see his face, yet he is the most disturbing and moving character in the whole play.
"WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO REFER TO ME AS 'LITTLE,' AS 'DIMINUTIVE,' AS 'MINIATURE'?" Owen raved. "THEY DON'T MAKE SUCH QUALIFYING REMARKS ABOUT THE OTHER ACTORS!"
"You forgot 'Tiny Tim-sized,'" I told him.
"I KNOW, I KNOW," he said. "DO THEY SAY, 'FORMER DOG-OWNER FISH' IS A SUPERB SCROOGE? DO THEY SAY, 'VICIOUS SUNDAY-SCHOOL TYRANT WALKER' MAKES CHARMING MOTHER FOR TINY TIM?" (5.6-8)
It really bugs Owen that the review of his acting pays so much attention to his physical size. Sure, his stature is one of his most noticeable characteristics, but it doesn't really have anything to do with his acting – and also, the review doesn't say anything about the other actors' personal characteristics!
"ARE YOU TELLING ME CHRIST WAS LUCKY?" Owen asked her. "I WOULD SAY HE COULD HAVE USED A LITTLE MORE LUCK THAN HE HAD. I WOULD SAY HE RAN OUT OF LUCK, AT THE END."
"But Owen," Rector Wiggin said. "He was crucified, yet he rose from the dead—he was resurrected. Isn't the point that he was saved?"
"HE WAS USED," said Owen Meany, who was in a contrary mood. (5.112-114)
Owen provides a different perspective on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If you look at him like just any other ordinary guy, Owen seems to be saying, he wasn't lucky; he was used.
Or we would drive to Rye Harbor and sit on the breakwater, and watch the small boats slapping on the ruffled, pondlike surface; the breakwater itself had been built with the slag—the broken slabs—from the Meany Granite Quarry.
"THEREFORE, I HAVE A RIGHT TO SIT HERE," Owen always said; no one, of course, ever challenged our being there. (6.181-182)
Here, Owen invokes a principle of ownership: if the slabs of granite that make up the breakwater once belonged to Owen's family, then somehow they still do. Even if nobody ever tells him not to sit there, he seems to think it's important to assert his right to be there.
And there was the column about required church-attendance, arguing that "IT RUINS THE PROPER ATMOSPHERE FOR PRAYER AND WORSHIP TO HAVE THE CHURCH—ANY CHURCH—FULL OF RESTLESS ADOLESCENTS WHO WOULD RATHER BE SLEEPING LATE OR INDULGING IN SEXUAL FANTASIES OR PLAYING SQUASH. FURTHERMORE, REQUIRING ATTENDANCE AT CHURCH—FORCING YOUNG PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE RITUALS OF A BELIEF THEY DON'T SHARE—SERVES MERELY TO PREJUDICE THOSE SAME YOUNG PEOPLE AGAINST ALL RELIGIONS, AND AGAINST SINCERELY RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS. I BELIEVE THAT IT IS NOT THE PURPOSE OF A LIBERAL EDUCATION TO BROADEN AND EXPAND OUR PREJUDICES." (6.202)
It's interesting to see Owen take such a strong position on not attending church. He's incredibly religious, but, more than anything, his faith stems from the fact that he has such a strong personal belief in God and not merely any organized religion. He thinks that religion should be a personal choice and not something that is forced on people.
Once again, The Voice put us in our places. "IT IS HARD TO KNOW IN THE WAKE OF THE DISTURBING DANCE WEEKEND, WHETHER OUR ESTEEMED PEERS OR OUR ESTEEMED FACULTY CHAPERONES SHOULD BE MORE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES. IT IS PUERILE FOR YOUNG MEN TO DISCUSS WHAT DEGREE OF ADVANTAGE THEY TOOK OF THEIR DATES; IT IS DISRESPECTFUL OF WOMEN—ALL THIS CHEAP BRAGGING—AND IT GIVES MEN A BAD REPUTATION. WHY SHOULD WOMEN TRUST US? BUT IT IS HARD TO SAY WHETHER THIS BOORISH BEHAVIOR IS WORSE OR BETTER THAN THE GESTAPO TACTICS OF OUR CHAPERONES." (6.229)
Owen has some pretty firm principles when it comes to sex and women. He always comments on how degrading it is to treat women like sex objects. Here, he takes on two issues: first, he thinks that a lot of guys behaved inappropriately towards their dates at the school dance. Second, he thinks that the chaperones cracked down a little too hard on the guys and interfered in areas that were none of their business.
There was more, and it was worse. Owen suggested that someone check into the admissions policy at the small private day school in Lake Forest; were there any Jews or blacks in Mr. White's school? Mr. Early, in his capacity as faculty adviser to The Grave, killed the column; the part about the faculty being "TYPICAL TEACHERS—INDECISIVE, WISHY-WASHY" […] that was what forced Mr. Early's hand. Dan Needham agreed that the column should have been killed.
"You can't imply that someone is a racist or an anti-Semite, Owen," Dan told him. You have to have proof." (6.384-385)
Here, we see a principle invoked by somebody other than Owen. Dan insists that you can't make claims against someone else without having a strong basis for them.
"Tell me what she said to you, Owen," the headmaster said.
"IT WAS VERY UGLY," said Owen Meany, who actually thought he was protecting the president of the United States! Owen Meany was protecting the reputation of his commander-in-chief!
"Tell him, Owen!" I said.
"IT IS CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION," Owen said. "YOU'LL JUST HAVE TO BELIEVE ME—SHE WAS UGLY. SHE DESERVED A JOKE—AT HER OWN EXPENSE," Owen said. (7.373-376)
The headmaster wants to know why Owen made an inappropriate sexual remark about Mrs. Lish. We know that it's because she was making speculations about President Kennedy's rumored affair with Marilyn Monroe, and these speculations offended Owen. Still, even though he could potentially get in a whole heap of trouble, Owen refuses to tell the backstory; he firmly believes that he is protecting the President's reputation.
Although my mother resisted the temptation of my generation—that is to say, she restrained herself from picking up Owen Meany—she could not resist touching Owen. You simply had to put your hands on Owen. He was mortally cute; he had a furry animal attractiveness—except for the nakedness of his nearly transparent ears, and the rodentlike way they protruded from his sharp face. My grandmother said that Owen resembled an embryonic fox. When touching Owen, one avoided his ears; they looked as if they would be cold to the touch. But not my mother; she even rubbed warmth into his rubbery ears. She hugged him, she kissed him, she touched noses with him. She did all these things as naturally as if she were doing them to me, but she did none of these things to my other friends—not even to my cousins. And Owen responded to her quite affectionately; he'd blush sometimes, but he'd always smile. His standard, nearly constant frown would disappear; an embarrassed beam would overcome his face. (1.151)
Here, we get a pretty vivid picture of Owen's physical appearance. There's more to it, though; we learn a lot about Owen's character, especially his affection for Johnny's mom, through the way his appearance changes when he's around her.
I remember him best when he stood level to my mother's girlish waist; the top of his head, if he stood on his toes, would brush against her breasts. When she was sitting down and he would go over to her, to receive his usual touches and hugs, his face would be dead-even with her breasts. My mother was a sweater girl; she had a lovely figure, and she knew it, and she wore those sweaters of the period that showed it.
A measure of Owen's seriousness was that we could talk about the mothers of all our friends, and Owen could be extremely frank in his appraisal of my mother to me; he could get away with it, because I knew he wasn't joking. Owen never joked.
"YOUR MOTHER HAS THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS." No other friend could have said this to me without starting a fight. (1.152-154)
At first glance, this passage seems to be a pretty straightforward description of Tabby's appearance – she's got a pretty nice figure, apparently, and is hotter than the other moms around town. Still, there's more beyond the surface here. It tells us about Owen's crush on Johnny's mom, that's for sure, but it also tells us a lot about Owen and Johnny's friendship. Owen can admire Johnny's mom's body without Johnny getting upset – something that no other friend can get away with.
One thing about my mother's "beaus": they were all good-looking. So on that superficial level I was unprepared for Dan Needham, who was tall and gawky, with curly carrot-colored hair, and who wore eyeglasses that were too small for his egg-shaped face—the perfectly round lenses giving him the apprehensive, hunting expression of a large, mutant owl. My grandmother said, after he'd gone, that it must have been the first time in the history of Gravesend Academy that they had hired "someone who looks younger than the students." Furthermore, his clothes didn't fit him; the jacket was too tight—the sleeves too short—and the trousers were so baggy that the crotch flapped nearer his knees than his hips, which were womanly and the only padded parts of his peculiar body. (2.68)
We aren't just getting a physical description of Dan here; we're also being shown just one out of many ways that he stands apart from the other men who pursue Tabby. In a way, Dan's unusual looks contribute to a larger sense that he's a pretty special guy. (Also, hurray for nerds!)
Hester just missed the Eastman good looks. It was an especially masculine good looks that Noah and Simon got from my Uncle Alfred—broad shoulders, big bones, a heavy jaw—and from my Aunt Martha the boys got their blondness, and their aristocracy. But the broad shoulders, the big bones, and the heavy jaw—these were less attractive on Hester, who did not receive either my aunt's blondness or her aristocracy. Hester was as dark and hairy as Uncle Alfred—even including his bushy eyebrows, which were actually one solid eyebrow without a gap above the bridge of the nose—and she had Uncle Alfred's big hands. Hester's hands looked like paws. (2.290)
Hester is described as being fairly rough – sort of masculine and almost animal-like. What's interesting here is that all of the details we get in this passage – big bones, a heavy jaw, and paw-like hands – seem to emphasize on the outside what we understand about Hester inside: she's fairly aggressive and tough. This seems to be a case of outward looks "matching" inward personality traits.
When I returned with the water and the aspirin, my mother had fallen asleep with her arm around Owen; with his protrusive ears spread on the pillow, and my mother's arm across his chest, he looked like a butterfly trapped by a cat. He managed to take the aspirin and drink the water without disturbing my mother, and he handed the glass back to me with a stoical expression.
"I'M GOING TO STAY HERE," he said bravely, "IN CASE IT COMES BACK."
He looked so absurd, I couldn't look at him. (3.60-62)
Owen is usually pretty funny-looking, but he seems especially ridiculous to John in this situation. It's not just that his appearance is absurd to John, his actions are also bizarre.
And Pastor Merrill was also good-looking—in an intense, pale, slightly undernourished way. He had a boyish face—a sudden, winning, embarrassed smile that contradicted a fairly constant look of worry that more usually gave him the expression of an anxious child. An errant lock of hair flopped on his forehead when he looked down upon his sermon, or bent over his Bible—his hair problem was the unruly result of a pronounced widow's peak, which further contributed to his boyishness. (3.132)
John Irving does a great job of creating characters whose outward looks emphasize their personality traits. We know Pastor Merrill as someone who seems to be plagued by self-doubt as well as religious doubt. Well, that's what's inside, but on the outside, he seems similarly young and unsure of himself (though he does have that "winning" smile. How dreamy…)
[Mrs. Merrill] suffered visibly. Her blondness turned to dry straw; her cheeks and nose turned a raw salmon color, her eyes watered—she caught every flu, every common cold there was; no epidemic missed her. Aghast at the loss of her California color, she tried makeup; but this turned her skin to clay. Even in summer, she couldn't tan; she turned so dead white in the winter, there was nothing for her to do in the sun but burn. She was sick all the time, and this cost her her energy; she grew listless; she developed a matronly spread, and the vague, unfocused look of someone over forty who might be sixty—or would be, tomorrow. (3.134)
The description of Mrs. Merrill tells us all kinds of things: we learn about her personality and her personal life; we learn about her background; and we also learn a lot about the novel's setting. We're in New Hampshire, where the weather can be so cold and rough that even the healthiest person from the west coast can suddenly be reduced to being sniffling, haggard, tired, and prematurely aged.
"Ah, yes, Owen, what was it about the turtledoves?" the Rev. Mr. Wiggin said.
"THEY LOOK LIKE THEY'RE FROM OUTER SPACE," Owen said. "NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO BE."
"They're doves!" Barb Wiggin said. "Everyone knows what doves are!"
"THEY'RE GIANT DOVES," Owen said. "THEY'RE AS BIG AS HALF A DONKEY. WHAT KIND OF BIRD IS THAT? A BIRD FROM MARS? THEY'RE ACTUALLY KIND OF FRIGHTENING." (4.116-119)
Owen's insistence on creating an accurate depiction of the nativity scene for the Christmas pageant is kind of interesting. There's no room for imagination in this play – it has to be precise. This shows us a couple of things about Owen: the birth of Christ isn't a legend to him – it's something that really happened and that needs to be represented perfectly. It also shows us how Owen is an expert at orchestrating the events that happen around him.
"You're too pale," she told him, actually pinching color into Owen's face.
"OW!" he said.
"The Baby Jesus should be apple-cheeked," she told him. She bent even closer to him and touched the tip of her nose to his nose; quite unexpectedly she kissed him on the mouth. It was not a tender, affectionate kiss; it was a cruel, teasing kiss that startled Owen—he flushed, he turned the rosy complexion Barb Wiggin had desired; tears sprang to his eyes. (5.121-123)
Barb's insistence that Baby Jesus be rosy-cheeked shows us a critical difference between her brand of faith and Owen's. Barb seems to be preoccupied with a pretty scripted vision of what Jesus looked like – probably blonde, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked. Owen, on the other hand, seems to care more about accurately representing the circumstances of Christ's birth.
"DO YOU KNOW WHY SHE BOUGHT THE DRESS?" Owen asked.
"Sure, I know! The old man told us. "It was the dress she always sung in! 'I need somethin' to sing in!'—that's what she said when she walked in here. 'I need somethin' not like me!'—that's what she said. I'll never forget her. But I didn't know who she was—not when she come in here, not then!" Mr. Giordano said. (7.97-98)
Tabby's appearance was pretty closely tied to the identity she took on (kind of like Superman, but without any cool superpowers). At home, Tabby was a suburban mom who always wore black and white. In Boston, she got totally out of character and actively tried to be someone else. She wore a bright red dress and became this glamorous bombshell.