John Wheelwright’s view of a radical transcendence (God is there, but he’s so very, very far away), results in his inability to experience a flourishing faith like that of Owen Meany or many of his spiritual mentors since. I can’t help but wonder if this is a result of John Irving’s failure to recognize the incarnational nature of reality. I think that this would explain the two serious inconsistencies in the novel. One is a fundamental inconsistency regarding John Wheelwright’s leap of faith. The second is that because of the inadequate understanding of the incarnation, the novel, inadvertently, offers no alternative to meaninglessness, when it seems it is Irving’s intention to offer a least the option of hope.
As has been discussed, it appears that John Irving works very hard to establish that the choice between a material reality that is infused with the transcendent and one that is closed to transcendence. Every supernatural explanation is always countered with a material one. Irving does this so that he can be faithful to the freedom necessary to faith as articulated by Fredrick Buechner at the beginning of the novel. It reads,
Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there is not room for doubt, there would be no room for me.
More so now than ever before, there is this type of freedom in secular society. Charles Taylor says that in modern society we have no compulsion to choose sides in the war between belief and unbelief. We live in “a kind of a no-man’s-land; except that it has got wide enough to take on the character rather of a neutral zone, where one can escape the war altogether” (Taylor 351).
Johnny would likely have lived in the “neutral zone” between belief and unbelief indefinitely, except for the miracle of Owen’s life and death. In this, Irving breaks the stalemate and forces the narrator to choose in favor of belief. Although Irving offers Rev. Merrill as the doubting Thomas, when taken together, the circumstances surrounding Owen’s death suffer no other interpretation—a leap of faith is no longer required. Johnny has no choice but to believe and then, to ask Buechner’s question, can there be any room for John Wheelwright? In forcing faith upon his narrator, Irving went against the understanding of faith he so consistently presented through every other aspect of the novel.
Second inconsistency that arises from Irving’s understanding of a radical transcendence is that, although he attempts to offer hope as at least an option, the novel ultimately offers no alternative to meaninglessness. The sense one picks up is that Irving “seems to have a Christian apologetic aim for the novel” (Sykes 58). The “book’s foregrounding of Christian spirituality, its development of a modern-day Christ-figure” (Haynes 74-75) sets a hopeful tone to the novel, but he fails, ultimately, to deliver any hope because the author’s non-incarnational (or secular) perspective forces the actions of Christ to be duplicated by Owen rather than imitated.
Irving draws very clear the parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. One of the persistent mysteries in the book revolves around the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” perpetuated by the Catholic Church on the Meany family. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Mr. Meany believes, and communicated his belief to Owen when he was eleven years old, that Owen’s was a virgin birth. There is certainly ambiguity surrounding this claim, not the least of which is the insanity of Owen’s mother, so it is not clear whether her insanity is the cause of the UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE or a result of it. Later, in 1953, Owen’s role in the Christmas pageant will not be suspension from the rafters as the transcendent announcing angel, but instead he will replace the babies and play the more immanent role of the Little Lord Jesus. Although he never raised anyone from the dead, it was once said that his voice “could bring those mice back to life!” (17). To reflect the unusual quality of his voice, Irving represents Owen’s words using all capital letters, and the effect is much like that of a red letter edition of the Bible in which the words of Christ are set off from the rest of the text. Then there is Owen’s Mary Magdalene relationship with Hester the Molester. “She with the reputation for promiscuity becomes devoted to Owen, yet so far as anyone knows, they are never lovers” (Sykes 64). In the chapter called “The Voice,” he preaches against the establishment, occasionally breaking its laws, and he attacks the hypocrisy of the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy. Consequently, he is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will. He even repeats the words of Christ on several occasions; “FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY NO NOT WHAT THEY DO,” (151) is one example. Johnny, in a frustrated attempt to thwart “Owen’s stubborn pursuit of a heroic death, . . . plays Judas to Owen’s Christ, betraying him” (Haynes 82) to his commander. Owen has a Gethsemane experience the day before his death (Irving 585). The most significant parallel to Christ is of course his sacrificial death. Owen death does not achieve cosmic redemption—he saves a group of Vietnamese orphans—but he willingly gives his life for others, just the same. There is even a final Pieta when the nun cradles him in her arms.
In attempting to create meaning through the illumination of the Christ of the Christian faith, Irving instead undercuts meaning, by creating a duplicate Christ rather than an imitation of Christ. The real Christ is too transcendent, so Irving has to create “a new character of God’s holy choosing” (542)—Owen Meany. A Christ figure can function as a powerful metaphor which “carries us away, embodies us in itself and moves us deeply when we surrender ourselves to it” (Polanyi 79), but in Owen Meany, Irving gives us a literal Christ. The meaning of Owen Meany is not found in the focal point that is Jesus Christ; the meaning of Owen Meaning goes no further than Owen Meany. Thus, John Wheelwright’s “belief is notably a-christological. Owen, John’s Christ figure, plays a larger role in his thoughts than does Christ; the Christian paradigm is more important that Christ himself” (Sykes 63). Once again, Irving falls into this trap because he does not really have an adequate understanding of the incarnate Christ; his Christ is radically transcendent.
The effect of Irving’s non-incarnational spirituality shapes the conclusion. As a duplicate Christ, there are many parallels between the life of Owen and that of Jesus. Owen’s sacrificial death is the most significant parallel, for his whole life has meaning in his death. Taylor says that death, particularly the moment of death, “is the privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped” (723). Irving understands this and therefore structures the plot accordingly; the funeral and almost all of the resolutions occur before the recounting of the events surrounding Owen’s death. Death brings out meaning for both the one who faces his own death as well as for the bereaved (Taylor 722). Those who have lost a loved one “struggle to hold onto the meaning they have built with the deceased” (722) while at the same time letting go. The purpose of our funeral rites and ceremonies is to “connect this person . . . with something eternal” (722). Within the world of the novel, this is the reason for John Wheelwright to tell the story of Owen Meany. Yet for Johnny, that eternal is so far away that to link Owen to it is to lose Owen. With the loss of Owen, is the loss of meaning.
Irving attempts to offer Wheelwright, and his readers, a resurrection of sorts by “subtle references to death and rebirth” (Haynes 79). Owen is regularly linked with death. His skin is “the color of a gravestone” (2); he encounters and scars off the Angel of Death; his summer job is working in his father’s monument shop; and in the army he becomes a casualty assistance officer in the army. There is very little irony behind Owen’s statement to Johnny the day before his death that he is “IN THE DYING BUSINESS” (604). Irving builds suggestions of rebirth into the novel as well. The setting for the story is Gravesend—graves end; Owen wrote for the school newspaper, “The Grave,” under the penname, “The Voice”: the voice from the grave (Haynes 79). The pattern of rebirth is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the second we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapter two. Lastly, Owen’s sacrificial death occurs in the Phoenix airport, named for the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes (79).
By associating Owen with the pattern of death and rebirth, Irving’s attempts to connect Owen to the transcendent, but because he thinks of it as so distant, the attempt fails. In secular society, there is no sense of flourishing in and after death. Such is the case with Johnny following Owen’s death. So all he can do is tell a story about Owen’s life. The last line of the novel is the prayer for Owen Meany. John Wheelwright prays, “Oh God—Please give him back! I shall keep asking you” (617). It is a prayer for John Wheelwright to have his own meaning back – in its immanent form. After his conversion, Irving’s narrator believes in the transcendent and through the writing of the book he seeks meaning, but he will not seek it in the incarnate Christ; he will seek it in His duplicate. Therefore, with Owen dies meaning. As things stand at the novel’s end, Owen is too far away—just like the God to whom the narrator offers his final prayer.
We live in a secular age and therefore belief in God is not a given as it once was. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving honestly presents this reality by presenting characters in various states of belief and unbelief. In almost every case, he maintains ambiguity by undercutting both faith and doubt. However, in the life and death of Owen Meany, he gives us a miracle. Within the world of the novel, there is no explanation other than the transcendent puncturing the ordinary world. This reflects Irving’s view of the radical otherness of the transcendent that governs the novel. The inadequacy of this view is seen in the continued struggles of the adult John Wheelwright after his conversion. He fails to achieve fullness because, once he accepts the presence of God, he cannot encounter him. Therefore, he is stuck in between. He believes in God, but only as an impersonal force who has poked his celestial finger into objective reality and for all he knows, that divine digit may since have been amputated like his own. John Wheelwright’s story illustrates that in a secular, closed immanent world, Christians have to “struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean” (Taylor 753). That is, to understand that God does not just poke, but He’s got the whole world in his hands. And in that reality, we can find the fullness we desire.
This book concludes my chapter by chapter commentary through A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. If you missed these posts, you can read the first one here.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality in the novel. Owen is the character that embodies this view of reality. That Irving is not able to embrace the incarnational view is manifest in the conversion of the story’s narrator, John Wheelwright.
Wheelwright ends up believing in God in the end, but where Owen’s faith is “certain, personal, and immediate,” Johnny’s is “tenuous, ritualized and mediated in many ways” (Haynes 91). In his chapter on conversion, Charles Taylor says that “people who undergo conversion . . . may take on a new view about religion from others . . . who have radiated some sense of more direct contact” (729). This is clearly the route of John Wheelwright’s conversion since it was the miracle of Owen’s life and death that caused Johnny to think differently about God. As narrator, John Wheelwright declares his belief in the first sentence of the novel: “[Owen Meany] is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1); but he is certainly not the Bible thumping warrior that Reverend Wiggins is. Although he is a “pretty regular churchgoer” (1), he “skips a Sunday now and then;” he “makes no claims to be especially pious” (2), nor does he read the Bible much, preferring the orderliness of The Book of Common Prayer.
Irving emphasizes this passive expression of faith by metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph. Owen chose for Johnny the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who describes Joseph, and himself by association, as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Still he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167), and again, “I, Joseph—forever standing in the wings” (214). He appears to have had very little success in getting himself out of the role for he says, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I am just a Joseph now” (439). When he finally discovers the identity of his biological father, he expresses his disappointment in the discovery by saying, “My father is a Joseph, just like me” (571). Wheelwright admits that he has a faith just like his father used to have, before he was tricked into having “absolute and unshakable faith” (571).
So why is John Wheelwright “just a Joseph”?
Because his faith is never like that of Owen’s. The differences between the faith as lived by Owen and that of John Wheelwright are not attributable to the difference between the direct and indirect varieties of religious experience that Charles Taylor talks about. In Johnny’s case, there is something inadequate about his leap of faith.
Johnny certainly experiences a conversion, according to the criteria set out by Taylor, because he experiences “a transformation of the frame in which [he] thought, felt and lived before” (Taylor 731). However, if we look at the nature of Johnny’s conversion the reason for his passive and vacillating faith becomes clear. When Johnny is converted, it is to a belief merely in the existence of the transcendent. If conversion is “breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field” (Taylor 768), then he has a conversion experience, but the field into which he breaks is not broad. He recognizes the transcendent, but does not go so far as to see the it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Human kind cannot bear too much reality,” (769) so it is necessary for us to shut out the transcendent to some degree. The extent to which an individual does this varies. Johnny’s equilibrium does not shift very much. He “shuts out” much of the new view of the transcendent; his new equilibrium is not very far from where it was when he did not believe in the transcendent. He is a believer, but this remains a fact, and never develops into a life.
Given that this is the state of his narrator at the end of the novel, I wonder if John Irving himself cannot make the leap that he forced on his narrator. Although Irving seems to locate transcendence in immanence in the character of Owen Meany, he is not able to overcome his own secular framework; instead he holds to an oppositional model of transcendence–transcendence is opposite of immanence, rather than inhabiting it. So, the conversion of his narrator is, at best, only one of imposed rational acceptance. Wheelwright never achieves a flourishing faith because he remains trapped in a secular immanence—his acceptance of the existence of God, even Jesus Christ faith is not able to provide the meaning that an incarnational faith would offer, because they are as far away as is Owen Meany.
Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.
This post will not be about the finger. You probably already figured out that through the removal of his finger, John Wheelwright joins Chief Watahantowet, the armadillo, the dressmaker’s dummy, the Mary Magdalene statue in armlessness.
By this point in the novel we have a pretty good understanding of the person who is telling us this story. Our impressions are gleaned, in particular, from the diary-like interjections into each chapter. To understand what Irving is trying to tell us about his narrator, we can look at the contrast between the life of the adult John Wheelwright and that of Rev. Katherine Keeling, headmistress of the Bishop Strachan School.
Wheelwright comments of the thinness of Katherine Keeling. Her thinness is symbolic of her unselfishness as she gives her life away to her charges–family, friends and the students of the school. She’s very nurturing, even of Wheelwright in that she takes him on family vacations to the cabin.
It can be said that Katherine experiences “fullness” in her life where Wheelwright does not.
Charles Taylor describes “fullness” as a sense that “life is richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more than it should be” (Taylor 5). Fullness, whether we recognize the existence of the supernatural or not, is “a reflection of the transcendent” (769). But fullness also has its “negative slope; where we experience above all a distance and absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity to ever reach this place” (6).
It is clear through the narration of this story that John Wheelwright experiences fulfillment in his relationship with Owen Meany, indeed, it is likely that the reader experiences something of the same thing while reading the novel—but he has not experienced it since Owen’s death.
There has never been another encounter with a richer and deeper life for Wheelwright because he still holds the transcendent to be oppositional rather than incarnational. With this chasm between immanent and transcendent realities, Wheelwright’s perspective is laden with a host of other oppositions—the United States “must either be perfect or damned;” Owen must be either divine or human” and his own life must be “either wonderful or terrible” ( Taylor 153). In the absence of an incarnational perspective, he does not encounter fullness in the transcendent, instead he often experiences a “self-exile into bitterness, childishness, self-pity and nostalgia” (153)—the negative orientation of fullness.
Most of the characters continue to oppose Owen’s faith, particularly in his belief that “the dream” is a vision of the future. Owen tells the story of his dream with “the certainty and authority . . . of a documentary, which is the tone of voice of those undoubting parts of the Bible” (473). According to Johnny, to treat the dream seriously is infantile; as he puts it to Owen, “this is so childish. . . . You can’t believe that everything that pops into your head means something! You can’t have a dream and believe that you ‘know’ what you’re supposed to do” (472). Johnny repeats, “It’s just a dream” and declares it “a stereotype” (475). Johnny argues from a psychoanalytical perspective that in the dream the nuns, the palm trees and the children “are tied to unresolved psychological conflicts in Owen that merely take the most available raw material for their indirect expression” (Eisenstein 8).
Owen insists that his faith is not childish, or irrational. He tries to explain reasonable faith to Johnny using the statue of Mary Magdalene that was near the basketball court where they practiced “the shot” until it was dark. Owen would ask, “YOU CAN’T SEE HER, BUT YOU KNOW SHE’S STILL THERE, RIGHT?” He repeatedly, and annoyingly, returned to this question, “YOU’RE SURE . . . YOU HAVE NO DOUBT . . . YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE?” until Johnny screams, “Yes!” Then Owen says, “NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD” (451).
When you have finished the chapter entitled, “The Shot,” read my commentary on this final chapter.
Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.
In the seventh chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s life continues to parallel that of Jesus: Because of Owen’s attacks on the establishment, especially the hypocrisy of the new headmaster. Owen is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will.
Owen has a recurring dream. We don’t know the specifics, but Owen understands it as a divinely inspired “vision.” Predictably, to the more secular Johnny, it’s “just a dream.” For Wheelwright, faith is a “trust that is antithetical to rational demonstration” (Sykes 59). Because of this, it is not possible for him to have faith, or understand that of Owen. All the other characters of the novel share Johnny’s opinion (Dan Needham, Harriet Wheelwright, Hester, Pastor Merrill, and Father Findley), and for the same reason.
The dispute between Owen and Johnny on the issue of belief is the same in our culture at large. According to Charles Taylor, there is little argument as to whether there is an immanent reality or not. What is disputable is whether it lies within a transcendent one. According to Taylor, the material world “allows of both readings, without compelling us to either” (Taylor 550). Because the material reality allows for both, taking a position on whether or not there is also a supernatural realm requires a ‘leap of faith.’ The particular direction we chose to leap is dictated by “our over-all personal take on . . . life” (Taylor 550). However, our “take” can change through experience. This is conversion. Taylor describes two types of conversions. The first type is a “seemingly self-authenticating experience” and the second comes about more indirectly through those whose experience is more direct. Owen’s conversion is of the first order and Johnny’s is of the second.
It becomes more and more clear that Owen, like most theists to one degree or another, believes the events of his life a following a divine plan. Like a good secular modernist, John Wheelwright believes in free will; he believes that ones choices or chance govern the universe. “Disbelief is hard in the enchanted world” (Taylor 41); because Owen lives in such a world, it is far easier to be a believer, but Johnny, who experiences the world as disenchanted, was continuously puzzled by Owen’s faith. Irving makes it clear that choosing between these two is extremely difficult; he consistently problematizes both views.
Irving insures an ambiguity between faith and doubt by “giving us access to Owen only through Johnny’s second hand narration, rather than the direct evidence on which Owen’s own faith is based” (Haynes 78). With this narrative device, Irving undercuts both belief and unbelief and maintains a non-didactic stance. This is seen in one of the novel’s major story lines—the search for the identity of Johnny Wheelwright’s biological father. Unbelief, or faith in rationalistic explanation, is undercut in the elaborate investigation of this paternal mystery. Pursuit of the facts takes the boys down various avenues all of which turn out to be far from the truth. By keeping both paths ambiguous, Irving is consistent with Taylor’s assertion that we have no compulsion to choose one over the other.
Owen’s faith arises from a combination of that which underlies the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” and the hitting the foul ball which kills Tabitha Wheelwright. “The first of these events determines Owen’s religious interpretation of the second” (Eisenstien 7). This fusion is not “rational”; it is believed as a leap of faith. The fusion amounts to a direct encounter with God and once it is believed, other things follow which are equally irrational but do not require another leap of faith. Owen sees the inseparability of material reality and the transcendent as having a real bearing on his life. His voice and diminutive size, his obsession with “the shot,” the regular return to the image of armlessness, his vision of the date on the tombstone in the play, and his recurring dream are all informed by his belief in the fusion of the transcendent and the immanent—he has an integrative and incarnational view of reality.
On the one hand, recognizing that faith is not required to be in accordance with reason, he asserts “YOU CAN’T PROVE A MIRACLE” (272). “REAL MIRACLES AREN’T ANYTHING YOU CAN SEE—THEY’RE THINGS YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE WITHOUT SEEING (309). On the other hand, he doesn’t believe everything that pops into his head; “FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT” (472). Because Owen’s faith is incarnational, he is not so focused on the either faith or reason, but on the purpose of his life in which each event or action has meaning.
This bears repeating: the battle is not between faith and reason; it’s between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness.
Sykes, John. “Christian Apologetic Uses of the Grotesque in John Irving and Flannery O. Connor.” Literature and Theology 10.1 (1996) : 58-67.
Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.
Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.
The life of Owen Meany has many parallels to that of Jesus Christ. Who else is Hester, but Owen’s Mary Magdalene? She has “the reputation for promiscuity [and is]devoted to Owen, yet so far as anyone knows, they are never lovers” (Sykes 64). Another parallel between Owen and Jesus is that, as “The Voice,” Owen preaches against the established authorities and occasionally breaking its laws–and he attacks the hypocrisy of the high priest, the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy
There is more to say about the Owen Meany material in the chapter entitled, “The Voice,” but I thought I would focus my discussion on the interjections of the narrator in this chapter.
These interjections are contain information about his present life in Toronto and are always signaled by a gap in the text and then a heading: “Toronto: May 13, 1987″ (319). It is fruitful to look for connections between the narrated stories and these diary-like sections from 1987. In this chapter, for instance, the adult John Wheelwright interrupts his Owen narrative to report on:
- Liberace’s death
- Holy Week
- Easter Sunday including a recounting of the Easter Story
- Mrs. Brocklebank’s dandelions and starfish regeneration
- On the teaching of Tess of the D’Urbervilles
- On the teaching of The Great Gatsby
The first four of these interjections tell a very important story as to the mindset of the narrator. Although the first interjection from February 5, 1987 comments on Liberace’s death specifically, it is important in that it brings up the topic of death in general. In the entry dated April 12, the beginning of Holy Week, the narrator expresses his anxiety that the Resurrection won’t happen this year. He knows what Owen would say, “IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN EASTER . . . DON’T KID YOUSELF–DON’T CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN.” On April 19 he recounts the Easter story. And on May 12, Wheelwright’s discussion with Mrs. Brocklebank moves from dandelion removal to the regeneration of starfish. Taken in the context of the preceding entries, aren’t we are really talking about resurrection even if it is only that of starfish? In this chapter, the narrators interjections move from death, through resurrection anxiety, to resurrection. This subject is important for anyone who has lost someone important to them, as is the case with the narrator
The later interjections in this chapter, are comments on the novels the teacher Wheelwright uses in his English classes. And interjections are just as telling. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was written by Thomas Hardy. Fatalism is one of the characteristics of Hardy’s novels in general and Tess in particular. In Tess, fate drives the plot. Tess’s decisions and the events of the early part of the novel begin an irreversible sequence of events. She is powerless to change the trajectory of her life as governed by Fate. The use of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby says something about the narrator. The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Caraway, who is enamoured with his idol and who is well known for his observations of the events in the novel rather than his participation in them. As with these references to classic novels, the other interjections by the narrator throughout the novel are not without their significance.
Read the next chapter, “The Dream,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and then read my commentary here.
In chapters 4 and 5 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen fills two roles in the dramatic productions of Gravesend 1953 Christmas season. He assumes the role of the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant in the Episcopalian church and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Gravesend Players annual presentation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the former, with a little irony, Owen embodies the fusion of the transcendence within immanence as Christ did in the Incarnation. In the latter, Owen confronts the question: Is the future completely determined?
Owen Meany casts himself as the Christ child in the church’s Christmas pageant. As we’ve said before, Irving makes very strong connections between Jesus and Owen, so it makes perfect sense for the incarnational Owen to play the lead role in the annual celebration of the Incarnation.
Perhaps not quite as predictable, Owen also choses a role for Johnny, the role of Joseph. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who strongly identifies with Jesus’ earthly fahter, whom he describes as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Further, he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167). By metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph, Irving emphasizes this passivity with which John Wheelwright engages questions of faith .
Chapter 5 centers on Owen’s part in A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the three ghosts. Owen Meany ends up playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The key to the visitation of this final ghost is in Scrooge’s question: “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question: Are these the shadows of the things that will be or are they shadows of the things that may be only” (197). We know the question because Mr. Fish, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, gets to ask it during Owen’s remarkable audition, but this key question is not asked in the final performance because Owen faints. He faints because he sees on the tombstone his own name and, we can assume, the date of his own death. The question, it seems, is never asked because the answer, at least according to this particular Ghost, is clear. Since the “FATED” foul ball, Owen has accepted his future is determined, and “on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith” (102).
Owen explicitly states his views when Johnny declared it a coincidence that they were beneath the trestle bridge just as The Flying Yankee crossed it; Owen chastised him. The narrator explains that “Owen didn’t believe in coincidences. Owen Meany believed that “‘coincidence’ was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design—more powerful and unstoppable that The Flying Yankee” (Irving 186).
That Owen Meany saw the date of his death, he has no doubt. He also has no doubt that this cup would not pass from him.
Modern people, Christian or otherwise, don’t take naturally to the notion of predestination. We put a lot of stock into our personal power to choose our destiny. This is easily done if one believes that God and the rest of the transcendent is so far away that, if he exists at all, the best he can do is provide the odd parking space in front of the Christian bookstore during the Christmas rush. Owen doesn’t see the world in this way, so it is not much of a stretch to see God managing everything, big and small, in our lives.
Read the next chapter, “The Voice,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and then read my commentary here.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live. The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.
This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room. Owen
looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (Irving 155)
Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).
In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.
The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).
Irving has not made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so shows that Irving understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.
Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany. In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.
Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.
Before I get into chapter 3 in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wanted to point out the pattern of rebirth that is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the following chapters we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapters 2 and 3.
The episode when Owen saw an Angel illustrates the essential difference between Owen, with his incarnational view of reality, and Johnny, who sees the immanent and the transcendent as radically separate.
‘THAT’S SO CATHOLIC . . . TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS.’
This was a theme of Owen’s–the Catholics and their adoration of OBJECTS. Yet Owen’s habit of collecting objects that he made (in his own way) RELIGIOUS was well known” (270).
Owen’s understanding of objects is definitely incarnational rather than secular. In the secular worldview, an object has only meanings that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, the objects possess inherent meaning and value without the help of any human subject.
In the eyes of Owen Meany, the objects are subjects–that is, they are something meaningful in and of themselves. The dressmaker’s dummy is one such object. The boys use Tabitha Wheelwright’s dressmaker’s dummy as an object of entertainment, but it seems to have special meaning for Owen. After Tabitha’s death, Owen commandeers it from Dan and takes it to his house, bedecked in the mysterious red dress. Although he provides the excuse, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO STARE AT THIS DUMMY AND MAKE YOURSELF MORE UNHAPPY” (140), he takes it because of the meaning that is inherent in it. The narrator suggests “that it had a purpose” (142) which only Owen could see.
The dummy, and other objects, possess significant meaning for Owen. Johnny observes Owen’s obsessions with them, but does not understand them, for he views these objects from a secular framework where the only meaning in an object is that which the individual human subject attributes to it. Regarding Owen’s engagement and use of these objects, we might go so far as to suggest that, in Charles Taylor’s words, as Owen enters “the zone of power of exogenous meaning,” the meaning includes or perhaps penetrates him. The important thing is that “the meaning can no longer be placed within; nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [in the modern world,] is a clear boundary” (A Secular Age 35). In other words, for Owen, the boundary between nature and supernature is porous. The transcendent isn’t way off somewhere, but within the physical world of objects and persons and actions.
How one interprets events is influenced by how one understands the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent. With his secular view, Johnny interprets Owen’s sighting of the angel much differently than does Owen with his incarnational view. Owen was sleeping over at 80 Front Street and was feeling sick, so Johnny told Owen to go tell his mother. Anticipating a reaction from Owen, as he is bound to be startled by the dressmaker’s dummy which stands near Tabitha’s bed, Johnny is not surprised when Owen returns saying, “YOUR MOTHER IS NOT ALONE . . . I THINK IT’S AN ANGEL” (101). It soon becomes apparent that Owen was not reacting to the dummy because the angel was standing on the other side of the bed. The secular Johnny is very quick to touch Owen’s forehead, and conclude that because he has a fever, the entire incident was imagined. Owen never accepts this explanation; he lives in an enchanted world where such visitations are possible. Later he concludes that he had interrupted the Angel of Death at its work, and in so doing, received responsibility to complete the task himself.
Here is the analysis of chapter 4, “The Little Lord Jesus.”
The novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents a clash of worldviews. Owen sees and understands the world in a much different way than do the young Johnny and the other characters in the novel. The key difference is that Owen is not as strongly influenced by modern secularism as are most.
Modern secularism is the dominant worldview of the West. One of the fundamental features of modern secularism (perhaps the fundamental feature) is the radical separation of the material world from the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. Importantly, modern secularism isn’t just out there in “the world”; it has shaped the church to a large degree.
Modern secularism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, and in those cultures less affected by the Enlightenment, it is not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material. For the pre-modern mind, a tree or a person or even an act have both spiritual and material dimensions that are inseparable. Where the modern mind believes this separation is essential, the pre-Modern mind rejects such boundaries. This latter view, because the transcendent indwells the immanent, can be called the incarnational view of reality.
In the novel, it is Owen Meany who sees the world incarnationally.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the features of the pre-modern understanding of the world that makes it different from that of the modern. Pre-modern societies live in an “enchanted” world when the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. In the enchanted world, meaning does not come from within our individual minds, but from outside of us–the meaning is already there in the object, person or event. It is not something we give; it is there quite independently of the subject, us, and it would be there even if there were no human mind to engage it. This is not the modern view where meaning is simply an operation of our minds.
The framework in which Owen Meany lives is one where the immanent is infused with the transcendent. He lives in a world of filled with enchanted objects–a world full of meaning. Perhaps this is the reason behind his surname.
The events surrounding the stuffed armadillo illustrates Owen’s vision of the world. The stuffed armadillo is an object, infused with meaning. Johnny loves the thing because it is a gift from Dan, but for Owen the armadillo holds far more significance. The narrator recounts the careful arrangement of the armadillo on the nightstand between their beds when Owen slept over. It is always placed so that its profile was perfect, but in the morning, it is turned more toward Owen. On one occasion, Johnny wakes up and found Owen awake, staring at the armadillo and smiling (62). Eventually Owen would tell John, “IT’S HARD TO GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT IT ONCE YOU GET USED TO IT” (79). It is never articulated what meaning Owen has discovered in the armadillo, but his behavior indicates he has found something
Because of what he sees in the armadillo, Owen uses it in an elaborate ritual of exchange to communicate his feelings for complicity in the death of Johnny’s mother. Owen has “no other way to articulate the way [he] felt” (84) about “the foul ball” than giving Johnny his most prized possession—his baseball card collection (another enchanted object). Johnny does not understand this gesture, but Dan Needham explains and coaches him to give something in return. Johnny chooses to give Owen the armadillo and Owen returns the armadillo with its front claws removed. Johnny is indignant at this act of violence and puzzled, for Owen loved the armadillo more than he did.
Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold the Whiteman the land where Gravesend is situated. Both the armless armadillo and the Indian totem speak from a frame of reference where “everything had its own souls, its own spirit” (86). For Watahantowet, the land was full of spirits so that when he sold it to the white men, he understood the terrible cost. According to the narrator, his armless totem said, “Here take my land. There go my arms!” (87). This might be true for Wheelwright who come across as impotent in many ways, but Watahantowet is also associated with Owen Meany who is the opposite of impotent. Owen had already formed the idea that he would later share with Johnny: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen sees his physical hands in the context of divine purpose and armlessness in symbolic of his, indeed all mankind’s, inability to resist the will of God. In this one event, we see that Owen lives out of a world that Charles Taylor calls the enchanted world.
Owen Meany’s world is enchanted, but Johnny Wheelwright lives in a secular world–they function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent is within the immanent; Johnny represents the secular view where the transcendent is so far separated from the immanent that it is irrelevant, if it exists at all. In this secular view, says Charles Taylor, “all thought, feeling and purpose, all features we normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the ‘outer’ world” (Taylor 539). As representative of the secular view, Johnny cannot understand a world where objects have meaning in themselves, that events may be meaningfully guided by a higher purpose.
Enjoy chapter 3 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Angel.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).
Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead. Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die. Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.
In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).
It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one. Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not. In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.
But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).
Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.
Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories. The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice. She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.
Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”
Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear. The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”
There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”