A Prayer for Owen Meany

Some voices you can’t get out of your head. After recently reading John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s unforgettable voice is ringing in my ears.




John Irving said he chose to write all of Owen’s speech in capital letters because he had to have some visual way of setting apart his unique voice on the page. Owen’s Adam’s apple didn’t move when he spoke, and so his voice was stuck as in a “permanent scream.” Owen’s best friend and the narrator of the story, Johnny Wheelwright, opens the story this way:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Owen often wonders why his voice doesn’t change. We don’t find out till the end of the story, but there is a very good reason for Owen’s voice sounding the way it is—a reason he attributes to God’ s plan. Owen’s voice is just one of the many mysteries the reader is confronted with in the early stages of the novel that Irving expertly and unexpectedly ties together in the end.

In writing classes I’ve taken over the years, teachers have said to look out for physical traits of characters, such as a scar or birthmark, that the author draws our attention to as we’re reading. It’s for a reason. Owen’s short stature (everyone loves lifting him up all the time) and his voice set Owen apart right away.

Irving continues this theme inwardly too. Owen stands out for his unwavering faith in God from such a young age. How many 11-year-olds talk about being God’s instrument? That their life is part of God’s bigger plan?

It’s hard not to like Owen Meany but it’s hard to like him too. Irving summarizes this tension in his Afterword:

Owen’s voice is irritating, not only because of how it sounds but because of how right he is. People who are always right, and are given to reminding us of it, are irritating; prophets are irritating, and Owen Meany is decidedly a prophet.

When I was reading the novel, I didn’t think of Owen exactly as a prophet, but now I see that Irving was dropping hints of this along the way. Owen foresaw the future, including his death; he had visions that reality would imitate; he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth. His unique voice would become “institutionalized,” when he and Johnny attended Gravesend Academy for boys and Owen wrote a regular column for the school newspapers under the pen name THE VOICE. His words were always in capital letters, of course. Johnny reflects, “The Voice expressed what we were unable to say.” I think Owen’s voice functions as a conscience too.

What made this novel a delight to read, and why I would read it again, is because Irving connects everything so well, though of course you don’t realize it until you’re finished.

Owen playing the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant makes for a very comedic scene early in the novel and emphasizes how small he is—i.e. he can fit in the manger. Not until the end of the novel, though, do you realize how symbolic this role is in light of what his parents reveal to Johnny.

There are many symbols in A Prayer for Owen Meany and none of them are thrown in half-heartedly. A dressmaker’s dummy, a stuffed toy armadillo, and Watahantowet’s totem become powerful, armless images of suffering and submission.

Even the ridiculous slam-dunk that Owen and Johnny practice countless times to do in under 4, then under 3 seconds has a very serious purpose.

“I may use you in a game, Owen,” the coach said, joking with him.

IT’S NOT FOR A GAME, said Owen Meany, who had his own reasons for everything.

Indeed, John Irving had his reasons for everything too. The story is long (about 600 pages), but it is well crafted and held my interest. The highest praise I could give an author is making me feel their character was real, that I actually knew this person from spending so much time on the page with them. Owen is whom the story is named after, but Johnny was just as real to me. His loss felt like my loss. His gut-wrenching prayer that closes the story felt like my prayer.

There is More Day to Dawn

I first encountered him here, in high school English class.

Then I ran into him in New York, two years ago in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.

probably my favourite picture from the trip, all because of the light.

A section of the floor had over a dozen plaques dedicated to American poets. He was inside and he was outside the cathedral.

A child’s rendering of Thoreau with passage on solitude


an art exposition called “The Value of Water” was taking place inside the cathedral when we visited

A few weeks ago, I encountered him at my brother’s wedding. My brother made a reference to one of these lines in what might be the most original wedding vows I’ve ever heard:

I’ve remembered these lines since that high school English class, but I never read Thoreau for myself. After these encounters accumulated for me recently, it was about time to read Walden.

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods in 1854 and built a log cabin on the edge of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. His writing is part autobiography, part social critique of the consumerist lifestyle (yes, even back then). Thoreau is one of the central figures of Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement begun in New England and influenced by Romanticism, in which divinity was thought to pervade all nature and humanity. Man is believed to be his best when he’s living independently, without society and its institutions that ultimately corrupt his inherent goodness and purity.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond and his statue

the famous quote

Thoreau calls his two years at Walden an experiment in living simply and in solitude, where he could think, read, and reflect. He confesses a few times how much he liked being alone (too much alone, in my opinion) – yet not enough that he stayed there forever.

I think it’s important he tells us why he left just like he tells us why he went:

I left the woods for as good reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

I collected six pages of quotes from the book. There were a lot of boring parts–trodding through passages of cultivating the land (he was very proud of his bean crop) and how he calculated the depth of Walden Pond, for example. But it’s these glimpses of beauty, of the transcendent peeking out from the everyday, that made it entirely worth the effort:

However mean your life is, do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode.

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like a sage. Do not trouble yourself to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.

And his last words (who’s John/Jonathan? Not sure–I think he means me and you):

I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.