Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Family

By John Irving

Family

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.