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A Prayer for Owen Meany — Two Inconsistencies

In Books, Movies and Television on October 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Owen MeanyJohn 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.


A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Finger”

In Books, Movies and Television on October 13, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Owen MeanyThis 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.

Other resources:

Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Voice”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Owen MeanyThe 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.