Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Society and Class

By John Irving

Society and Class

It was Owen who introduced me to Wall's History of Gravesend, although I didn't read the whole book until I was a senior at Gravesend Academy, where the tome was required as a part of a town history project; Owen read it before he was ten. He told me that the book was FULL OF WHEELWRIGHTS. (1.51)

The Wheelwrights play a prominent role in the history of Gravesend. This gives them a certain quality of being regal and important. This is their town (well, at least as far as Harriet is concerned).

Delivery boys and guests in the house frequently mistook Lydia for my grandmother, because Lydia looked quite regal in her wheelchair and she was about my grandmother's age; she had tea with my grandmother every afternoon, and she played cards with my grandmother's bridge club—with those very same ladies whose tea she had once fetched. Shortly before Lydia died, even my Aunt Martha was struck by the resemblance Lydia bore to my grandmother. Yet to various guests and delivery boys, Lydia would always say—with a certain indignation of tone that was borrowed from my grandmother—"I am not Missus Wheelwright, I am Missus Wheelwright's former maid." It was exactly in the manner that Grandmother would claim that her house was not the Gravesend Inn. (1.73)

The relationship between Lydia and Harriet is really interesting, largely because it gives us a close look at how deeply rooted class identity is among the older generation in Gravesend. Harriet and Lydia are totally besties – Lydia even sticks around and lives with Harriet after she can't work as a maid anymore. Still, Lydia seems to be really aware of what her place in society is in relation to her former boss.

The Meanys, in my grandmother's lexicon, were not Mayflower stock. They were not descended from the founding fathers; you could not trace a Meany back to John Adams. They were descended from later immigrants; they were Boston Irish. The Meanys made their move to New Hampshire from Boston, which was never England; they'd also lived in Concord, New Hampshire, and in Barre, Vermont—those were much more working-class places than Gravesend. Those were New England's true granite kingdoms. My grandmother believed that mining and quarrying, of all kinds, was groveling work—and that quarries and miners were more closely related to moles than to men. As for the Meanys: none of the family was especially small, except for Owen. (1.91)

The Wheelwrights are like town royalty because they can trace their roots back to the founding fathers; there's a place for their family in the history books (literally). The Meanys, on the other hand, are working-class folk. Their background shows that, in terms of social status, moving to Gravesend is a step up from their roots. For the Wheelwrights, it's all they've ever known.

But one day when my mother was driving Owen and me to the beach—Owen and I were ten—my mother said, "I hope you never stop helping Johnny with his homework, Owen, because when you're both at the academy, the homework's going to be much harder—especially for Johnny."

"BUT I'M NOT GOING TO THE ACADEMY," Owen said.

"Of course you are! My mother said. "You're the best student in New Hampshire—maybe, in the whole country!"

"THE ACADEMY'S NOT FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME," Owen said. "THE PUBLIC SCHOOL IS FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME." (1.113-115)

Even as a kid, Owen is acutely aware of social divisions and distinctions. Based on his roots, he sees himself fit for the public school, rather than the ritzy and prestigious Gravesend Academy, home to the silver-spoon kids of the world.

"THERE'S ALSO DRESS SHIRTS, AND SHOES," Owen said. "IF YOU GO TO SCHOOL WITH RICH PEOPLE, YOU DON'T WANT TO LOOK LIKE THEIR SERVANTS." I now suppose that my mother could hear Mr. Meany's prickly, working-class politics behind this observation. (1.119)

Owen's background and family life shape the way he thinks about Gravesend Academy. His attitude is based on a sense of pride that he seems to have inherited from his dad; he knows that he doesn't fit the common mold for students at the Academy.

"What does he do, Tabitha?" my grandmother asked. That was a Wheelwright thing to ask. In my grandmother's opinion, what one "did" was related to where one's family "came from"—she always hoped it was from England, and in the seventeenth century. And the short list of things that my grandmother approved of "doing" was no less specific than seventeenth-century England. (2.34)

Harriet is pretty old school in her ideas about society and class. She's very proud about how proper and refined she is, and her standards for what is acceptable are pretty narrow when we meet her (though she seems to cool it over time). It's interesting to see how John seems to poke fun at her attitudes all the way through the novel.

"So he's a teacher?" my grandmother asked. This was borderline acceptable to Harriet Wheelwright—although my grandmother was a shrewd enough businesswoman to know that the dollars and cents of teaching (even at as prestigious a prep school as Gravesend Academy) were not exactly in her league.

"Yes!" my mother said in an exhausted voice. "He's a teacher. He's been teaching dramatics at a private school in Boston. Before that, he went to Harvard—Class of Forty-five."

"Goodness gracious!" my grandmother said. "Why didn't you begin with Harvard?"

"It's not important to him," my mother said.

But Harvard '45 was important enough to my grandmother to calm her troubled hands; they left her brooch alone, and returned to rest in her lap. (2.43-47)

Name brands are a big deal to Harriet. While she's been nervous this whole time about the kind of guy that Tabby intends to bring home, she calms down immediately when she finds out that Dan is Harvard-educated.

Grandmother was not won over quickly, as a rule—not by anyone. Yet she became infatuated with the magic Dan wrought upon the amateurs at The Gravesend Players so much that she accepted a part in Maugham's The Constant Wife; she was the regal mother of the deceived wife, and she proved to have the perfect, frivolous touch for drawing-room comedy—she was a model of the kind of sophistication we could all do well without. She even discovered a British accent, with no prodding from Dan, who was no fool and fully realized that a British accent lay never very deeply concealed in the bosom of Harriet Wheelwright—it simply wanted an occasion to bring it out. (3.129)

What is it with British accents being associated with all things high-class? We totally buy it, and we don't know why!

Dan came from a very high-powered family; they were doctors and lawyers, and they disapproved of Dan for not completing a more serious education. To have started out at Harvard and not gone on to law school, not gone on to medical school—this was criminal laziness; Dan came from a family very keen about going on. They disapproved of him ending up as a mere prep-school teacher, and of his indulging his hobby of amateur theatrical performances—they believed these frivolities were unworthy of a grown-up's interest! They disapproved of my mother, too—and that was the end of Dan having any more to do with them. (3.119)

Dan's family seems to have a lot in common with Harriet Wheelwright – they put a premium on good breeding, high levels of fancy education, and lucrative and prestigious jobs. Dan, like Tabby, seems to have broken the mold – he follows his own interests and dreams instead.

By then, Canon Campbell had introduced me to old Teddybear Kilgore, who had hired me to teach at Bishop Strachan. We Wheelwrights have always benefited from our connections.

Owen Meany didn't have any connections. It was never easy for him to fit in. (8.290-291)

It's sad but true: sometimes who you know has a lot to do with what opportunities are available to you. John is pretty well-connected, and he realizes that this puts him at what others might see as an unfair advantage.