Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Identity

By John Irving

Identity

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.

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