Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Memory and the Past

By John Irving

Memory and the Past

"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.

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