Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Fate and Free Will

By John Irving

Fate and Free Will

Chapter 3

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.

Tabby Wheelwright

"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?

Chapter 4

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.

Chapter 7
Graham McSwiney

"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.

Chapter 8
Owen Meany

"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.

Chapter 9
Owen Meany

"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?

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