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. When he inspected a 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. (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).
Owen blurs the line between spiritual and physical
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 in 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.