“The Angel,” chapter 3 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, is one example of the pattern of rebirth 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, the meanings and values of an object are only those that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, meanings and values are inherent in the objects without the help of any human subject.
The Dressmaker’s Dummy
We might say that, in the eyes of Owen Meany, some objects are subjects. The armadillo and his baseball card connection for example–perhaps even Hester’s panties. The dressmaker’s dummy is certainly an object that Owen sees as subject. 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 meanings include or perhaps penetrate Owen. 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.
Secular or Incarnational
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. 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.”