The second chapter of 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 the rest.
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 where the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. The presence of the spiritual enchants the physical and gives the world meaning–meaning is in the world. Meaning, then, 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 attribute to it; 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 of 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 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 comes 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’s is not. He lives in a secular world. These characters function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent lies 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 a 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.”