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.