Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Mortality

By John Irving

Mortality

Chapter 1

The crack of the bat was so unusually sharp and loud for a Little League game that the noise captured even my mother's wandering attention. She turned her head toward home plate—I guess, to see who had hit such a shot—and the ball struck her left temple, spinning her so quickly that one of her high heels broke and she fell forward, facing the stands, her knees splayed apart, her face hitting the ground first because her hands never moved from her sides (not even to break her fall), which later gave rise to the speculation that she was dead before she touched the earth. (1.198)

This is the scene of Tabby's death in the exact moment that it happens. For the first time in his life, Owen actually swings and hits a baseball. This moment of triumph is also a moment of defeat – he kills his best friend's mom, who has also been like a mom to him. It's really striking how it seems like she dies instantly – she doesn't even try to break her fall.

Whether she died that quickly, I don't know; but she was dead by the time Mr. Chickering reached her. He was the first one to her. He lifted her head, then turned her face to a slightly more comfortable position; someone said later that he closed her eyes before he let her head rest back on the ground. I remember that he pulled the skirt of her dress down—it was as high as midthigh—and he pinched her knees together. (1.199)

Tabby's death isn't peaceful – it's chaotic. She's such a mess when Mr. Chickering reaches her that he has to rearrange her body and close her eyes – it's just too shocking to look at her.

Owen Meany

"YOU LET ME DROWN!" Owen said. "YOU DIDN'T DO ANYTHING! YOU JUST WATCHED ME DROWN! I'M ALREADY DEAD!" he told us. "REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE." (1.98)

Owen uses the concept of mortality as a way of testing to see who his "real" friends are. This scene is a key moment through which we learn about John and Owen's ideas about death before they ever encounter death for real. At this point, death is a vague concept that they sort of play around with.  It will become much more real later on.

Chapter 3

[Harry Hoyt] was embarrassed by his mother's lack of patriotic zeal; it may have been the only time he argued with anyone, but he won the argument—he got to go to Vietnam, where he was killed by one of the poisonous snakes of that region. It was a Russell's viper and it bit him while he was peeing under a tree; a later revelation was that the tree stood outside a whorehouse, where Harry had been waiting his turn. He was like that; he was a walker—when there was no good reason to walk. (3.210)

We encounter a number of death scenes in <em>A Prayer for Owen Meany</em> that are highly unusual.  When we think of Harry Hoyt dying in Vietnam, our first hunch is to assume that he died in combat. Not so – he died in a stupid, random way while waiting to indulge in some guilty pleasures.  It's just another example of how unexpected and nonsensical death can be.

As the ball rolled into Front Street with Sagamore in close pursuit, the baby-rattle tinkle of the odd bell of the diaper truck dinged persistently, even at the moment of the truck's sudden confluence with Sagamore's unlucky head.

Poor Mr. Fish; Owen ran to get him but Mr. Fish had heard the squealing tires—and even the dull thud—and he was halfway down the driveway when Owen met him. "I DON'T THINK YOU WANT TO SEE IT," Owen said to him. "WHY DON'T YOU GO SIT DOWN AND LET US TAKE CARE OF THINGS?" (3.263-264)

Sagamore's death seems to foreshadow Tabby's death in several ways. First of all, Owen sets the scene for death by hitting a ball (this time he punts a football rather than hitting a baseball) that in turn causes someone (a dog, in this case) to suffer a fatal head injury.

Mr. Chickering, who was completely good-hearted, had always told us that when we won, we won as a team, and when we lost, we lost as a team. Now—in his view—we had killed as a team; but he wept in his pew as if he bore more than his share of team responsibility. (3.208)

While baseball can usually be seen as a wholesome pastime that's as American as apple pie, Tabby's death seems to ruin the sport for everyone. What's also interesting is that, even though Owen was the individual to hit the ball that killed her, John continually thinks about how everyone's actions built up to that fatal moment – Harry Hoyt walked, Buzzy Thurston hit a grounder, Mr. Chickering changed the batting order. Somehow, everyone is partially responsible for Tabby's death.

Chapter 5
Owen Meany

"I SAW MY NAME—ON THE GRAVE," said Owen Meany.

Dan put his arms around Owen and hugged him. "Owen, Owen—it's part of the story! You're sick, you have a fever! You're too excited. Seeing a name on that grave is just like the story—it's make-believe, Owen," Dan said.

"IT WAS MY NAME," Owen said. "NOT SCROOGE'S." (5.316-318)

Owen's belief that he knows when he's going to die starts at this moment. Nobody really believes him until the end of the novel, but Owen is certain that he knows the exact date of his death. Owen's concept of his own mortality shapes his actions throughout the novel – he wants to be a hero before he dies.

Chapter 8

[Owen] was very good at that part of it—very respectful of grief, very tactful (while at the same time he managed to be very specific). I don't mean that it was simply a matter of spelling the name correctly and double-checking the date of birth, and the date of death; I mean that the personality of the deceased was discussed, in depth—Owen sought nothing less than a PROPER monument, a COMPATIBLE monument. The aesthetics of the deceased were taken into consideration; the size, shape, and color of the stone were only the rough drafts of the business; Owen wanted to know the tastes of those mourners who would be viewing the gravestone more than once. I never saw a customer who was displeased with the final product; unfortunately—for the enterprises of Meany Granite—I never saw very many customers, either. (8.140)

It's pretty interesting how death seems to be a running theme throughout Owen's entire existence. He's brought up around death – his dad creates and sells monuments made from the granite he digs up at his granite quarry. Here, we see how seriously Owen takes death. He doesn't think that people should be stuck with some random gravestone after they die; he believes that monuments should represent the people that they commemorate.

Chapter 9

The night [Grandmother] died, Dan found her propped up in her hospital bed; she appeared to have fallen asleep with the TV on and with the remote-control device held in her hand in such a way that the channels kept changing. But she was dead, not asleep, and her cold thumb had simply attached itself to the button that restlessly roamed the channels—looking for something good.

How I wish that Owen Meany could have died as peacefully as that! (9.112-113)

Peaceful deaths are far and few between in this novel. Even when we do encounter death when it comes naturally, we're constantly reminded that other people die in shocking and disturbing ways.

Owen Meany

There was only the briefest moment, when Owen looked stricken—something deeper and darker than pain crossed over his face, and he said to the nun who held him: "I'M AWFULLY COLD, SISTER—CAN'T YOU DO SOMETHING?" Then whatever had troubled him passed over him completely, and he smiled again—he looked at us all with his old, infuriating smile.

Then he looked only at me. "YOU'RE GETTING SMALLER, BUT I CAN STILL SEE YOU!" said Owen Meany.

Then he left us; he was gone. I could tell by his almost cheerful expression that he was at least as high as the palm trees. (9.577-579)

It's amazing to see Owen go through so many different emotions at the scene of his death. He displays deep terror one moment, and then deep serenity the next. It's also touching how he focuses on his best friend, John, during his last moments rather than on himself.