A character analysis of john irving’s novel ‘a prayer for owen meany

Categories: Novel

Applying to the theme of religious faith and personal fate in his famous novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving discusses this crucial issue through the narrator John Wheelwright whose unusual understanding of God and extreme political views uncover inner doubts of people in relation to Christianity. In this regard, John Wheelwright is portrayed as a person who is lost in his wrong worship and who is destroyed by his obsession of his closest friend Owen Meany, failing to find the true meaning of his life.

In the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany John Wheelwright, the offspring of the noble family, uncovers the story of his upbringing, religious faith and his relations with Owen Meany who is usually treated by the narrator as a symbol of Christianity. In fact, John’s belief in God is based not on his faith, but on his belief in Owen Meany. As the narrator claims at the beginning of the novel, “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

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I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ – and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim” (Irving 1). John acknowledges that he has no profound knowledge of the Bible, although he regularly visits the Church and is used to repeat some passages from this Holy book. Such a contradictory attitude towards Christian religion reveals inner doubts of John, his inability to accept all religious dogmas created by the Church and his attempts to form his own belief.

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This is especially obvious from the following words of John Wheelwright: “… but every study of the gods, of everyone’s gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent (This is a part of my particular faith that meets with opposition from my Congregationalist and Episcopalian and Anglican friends)” (Irving 7). Thus, the narrator eliminates some wrong assumptions of Christianity, substituting them with his own concepts and demonstrating his ironical attitude towards the existing images of gods.

Applying to such a portrayal of the principal character, Irving makes an attempt to show that a person’s fate depends on his/her actions and his/her ability to critically evaluate social and religious systems of the modern world. But despite his acquired wisdom, John is unable to accept reality; instead he constantly returns to the past, failing to accept the changes that occur in the present. As John Wheelwright rightfully states, “Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t.

It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you! ” (Irving 35). As a result, in his middle age John appears to occupy a neutral position in life, while his friend Owen Meany is overwhelmed with powerful emotions and energy in his religious activity. Despite the fact that John claims to believe in God, he also expresses anger towards his religious faith and opposes Regan ruling.

John is greatly influenced by Owen, but deep inside he is not able to decide whether there is God or not; it is this doubt that makes John claim at the end of the novel: “watch out for people who call themselves religious; make sure you know what they mean – make sure they know what they mean” (Irving 572). The writer intentionally repeats the phrase two times to intensify the meaning of the whole narration and to reveal the importance of a personal choice; John is so influenced by Owen’s faith that he is not able to overcome the limitations of Christian dogmas and seek his own understanding of some crucial issues of existence.

On the other hand, inner doubts of the narrator contribute to the formation of such negative traits as self loss and indecisiveness in him. As John Wheelwright points out in the letter to Owen, “You’re always telling me I don’t have any faith… Well – don’t you see – that’s a part of what makes me so indecisive. I wait to see what will happen next – because I don’t believe that anything I might decide to do would matter” (Irving 504).

Perhaps, John’s childhood experience results in his self loss and his unusual worship of Owen; the narrator constantly wants to find out the truth about his father, but mother’s death deprives John of this opportunity. Simultaneously, John losses both his parents and long-expected truth, hoping that somehow God in the face of Owen will give him the clue to his birth. However, as John becomes older, he finds it impossible to blindly follow everything that he believed in youth; for instance, when at the end of the narration Mr.

Meany tells that Owen appeared as a result of a virgin birth and, thus, was similar to Christ, John expresses doubts as to this news. In fact, throughout the novel the narrator makes an attempt to overcome his doubts and understand the essence of religion, but he fails to find an appropriate balance between his doubts and his religious belief. The death of Owen relieves John of the necessity to differentiate between two excesses. However, John Wheelwright still has to decide whether to believe in the existence of God or not, but the novel ends without this answer.

The narrator’s ambiguity intensifies the narration, revealing that John is psychologically destroyed by certain events of his life. Although John tells the story of another person, he implicitly expresses his views on some religious and political issues, demonstrating his inability to overcome the events that occurred with him in the past. Searching for his identity, John tries to explain his profound relations with Owen and his unusual religious faith, but his explanation is rather complicated.

John makes an attempt to understand Owen and his belief in God, but everything that the narrator manages to achieve is intricacy. As John claims at the end of the novel, “How could Owen Meany have known what he ‘knew’? It’s no answer, of course, to believe in accidents, or in coincidences; but is God really a better answer? ” (Irving 571). Thus, on the one hand, the narrator challenges the necessity to believe in God, but, on the other hand, John Wheelwright continues to pray for Owen Meany’s resurrection.

To some extent, John explains this ambiguity at the beginning of the narration: “I was baptized in the Congregational Church, and after some years of fraternity with the Episcopalian… I became rather weak in my religion: in my teens I attended a non-denomination church. Then I became an Anglican” (Irving 1). The variety of churches that John attended contributed to John’s inability to choose; this inability concerns not only his religious views, but also his political and social concepts.

John believes in God only in view of Owen’s religious belief, he criticizes political leaders and their actions through Owen’s understanding of political events. As John remembers, “The only way you can get Americans to notice anything is to tax them or draft them or kill them, Owen said” (Irving 431). John’s life appears to be closely connected with Owen’s life and ideas, and after Owen’s death, Johns finds it difficult to live.

Although John builds new life in Canada, finds an interesting job and constantly visits church, he feels that he lacks something important, the sense of life that he had while Owen was alive. In his middle age the narrator has no family and no sexual relations with women; he criticizes Iran scandal and the Vietnam War. His worship of Owen destroys John’s personality, depriving him of the possibility to create a personal life; as John admits, “I make no claims to be especially pious; I have a church-rummage faith – the kind that needs patching up every weekend.

What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It is Owen who made me a believer” (Irving 2). Throughout the narration Irving implicitly shows that such worship may be dangerous for a person, especially if it is formed in early childhood and youth; this childhood worship may destroy a person in adulthood. As John narrates of his early years and of his present life, he simultaneously reveals various psychological problems; he is a person who is unable to adjust to the existing political and social life in Canada, rejecting his status as an American citizen.

The narrator is not able to find his true self, because he chooses wrong paths and wrong ways, although, contrary to Owen, he belongs to a well-known family that lives in New Hampshire. According to John, “I was a Wheelwright – that was the family name that counted in our town: the Wheelwrights” (Irving 6). However, growing up in a rather unconventional family, John follows the faith chosen by his best friend Owen, but his belief in God is different from Owen’s belief.

John believes in a person who embodies God, but not in God, and this personification deprives John of the possibility to find true faith that will help him to overcome his inner problems. John’s criticism of Regan ruling is based on the fact of Owen’s death rather than on any specific political ideology. He does not want to accept Owen’s death and he implicitly accuses American government in his friend’s death. This oddness of the narrator is exposed to harsh satire by Irving who reveals the impact of worship on the behavior and thinking of John Wheelwright.

Other characters of the novel explain John’s psychological problems as a result of his complex childhood: “You keep doing that and you’ll make yourself sterile’, said my cousin Hester, to whom every event of our shared childhood was either sexually exhilarating or sexually damaging” (Irving 54). Thus, Irving applies to some aspects of psychoanalysis in his portrayal of John, trying to find several explanations of his unusual behavior. John’s childhood experience and especially his ambiguous religious faith transform the narrator into a cripple.

As John moves to Canada, he leads a secluded life there, working as a teacher of English, but being obsessed with his thoughts and recollections. John’s criticism of social and political life conceals his anger as to Owen’s death; although he accuses American government and God in this tragedy, he hurts himself for this death. Being a virgin in his middle age, the narrator reveals powerful emotions only when he reads some facts about crimes in the United States, as if seeking relief in the news that manage to suppress his pain.

However, nothing can give John a hope after Owen’s death; his friendship with Owen was so prolonged and so strong that John continued to feel the presence of Owen. Even after death Owen influences John and controls all his actions, although only on a spiritual level. John Wheelwright believes in Owen’s support as if Owen is God; in fact, the narrator identifies Owen with an image of God, hoping that one day they will meet again. When Owen implicitly helps him to find his father and his identity, John is convinced of Owen’s divine origin, feeling that “Owen Meany was very near” (Irving 542).

The mystery of his birth troubles the narrator, he is in search of various ways to find out the truth, because he feels that he is not able to lead a normal life without recognizing his origin. John’s faith in Owen is so powerful that he believes that Owen saves his life several times throughout the narration. Owen is John’s closest friend, despite the fact that Owen is the reason of the death of John’s mother. Creating a new life in Canada, John constantly thinks how Owen would act in various circumstances.

In this regard, Irving demonstrates that John’s faith in Owen is intensified after Owen’s death; John is unable to forget a person who accompanied and supported him for many years. Through Owen, John tries to find answers to some crucial issues of existence. In his early years John makes constant attempts to repeat everything after his friend; however, he feels that he is not able to be like Owen, although he admires him. In his adulthood John also follows Owen’s advice, moving to Canada and finding a place in the Bishop Strachan High School. Thus, it is Owen who controls John’s fate, considering that he has such a right.

Applying to a rather prosaic speech, the narrator contrasts himself to Owen and his inner power. The narrator even emphasizes Owen’s words throughout the novel, trying to prove Owen’s greatness and his impact on John’s personality. Owen’s authority is explicitly vivid, as the novel progresses, but Owen dies, failing to realize that, to some extent, his influence on John possesses some negative features. The fact is that faith inspired by Owen in the heart of John destroys the narrator, because this faith is a label that is not able to provide the character with real belief and understanding of the world around him.

John appears to depend much on Owen, being unable to lead an independent life and experiencing considerable insecurity. When John has to take a decision, he applies to Owen for advice or simply evaluates something from Owen’s point of view. After Owen’s death John starts to believe that there are no coincidences in this world, everything is predestined; the similar words are expressed by Owen when he was alive: “Owen Meany believed that ‘coincidence’ was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design” (Irving 186).

However, following Owen’s thoughts, John Wheelwright ignores the profound understanding of the occurred events; although he accepts the fact of his mother’s death from the hands of Owen, he does not want to think why God punishes him in such a way. John seems to be the only person who has such a strong belief in Owen and in miracles that are connected with him. In this regard, the narrator evokes sympathy, because his wrong worship saved him only in early years. In adulthood he experiences discomfort over many things; although John claims to believe in God, he does not really understand the essence of Christian religion.

Although he criticizes some political events, he does nothing to change the situation; for instance, he prefers to injure himself to avoid taking part in Vietnam War. The narrator is afraid of being destroyed by this War, but in reality he is destroyed by Owen. Throughout the narration John expresses contradictory viewpoints as to certain aspects of life; in particular, at the beginning of the novel he tells that faith should not be based on any miracles, but finally he accepts these miracles as an integral part of his own faith.

Despite the fact that John constantly cites some passages from the Bible, he admits that he does not really know this Holy book; he simply wants to support the ideas of Owen with these passages. Thus, the narrator does not sincerely believe in God and he does not take part in any social or political activity. John Wheelwright lives in his own secluded world, keeping other people out of this world and believing only in Owen. John’s faith is intertwined with inner doubts, and faith can not survive if these doubts are not suppressed. True faith is based on trust, but Owen expresses the contrary idea that evokes doubts in the narrator.

According to Owen, “That isn’t exactly what faith is… I don’t believe everything that pops into my head – faith is a little more selective than that” (Irving 472). In fact, John does not realize his dependence on Owen until Owen’s death, he does not realize his weakness, and he has to face the consequences of his ignorance. As the narrator writes to Owen, “What good does it do to make whatever decision you’re talking about? What good does courage do – when what happens next is up for grabs? ” (Irving 504). As a result of his dependence on Owen, John is afraid of life, he is afraid of any changes that may destroy his little world.

Growing up with Owen in New Hampshire, John feels that this friendship is the only thing that supports him throughout his life. The narrator is not able to broaden his horizons and find other interesting things; his strange worship prevents him from finding the true meaning of life. John’s life is reflected in Owen’s life, thus, despite the fact that Owen and John share the similar life principles, their ways of life are different, as John has no personal life, he simply makes an attempt to resemble Owen. Contrary to Owen who manages to find the goal in life, John is unable to understand his own predestination.

The narrator lives in the light of Owen, failing to find his own light; as a result, his life is spiritually destroyed after Owen’s death. Although John brings up some life issues, he is not able to understand what is crucial in his own life. Thus, at the end of the narration John turns to prayers, as if hoping to find solace in them, to find the meaning of his further life, but he is still full of doubts that prevent him from accepting reality. Although John Wheelwright is already an adult, to some extent, he remains a little boy who is in search of comfort and understanding and who needs another person to guide him through life.

With Owen’s death, John collides with inner conflicts, concerning his faith. Perhaps, these conflicts can be explained by the fact that absolute faith created by Owen Meany is impossible for such persons as John; he is not Owen, although he tries to resemble him. John’s upbringing and life experience are different from that of Owen’s, thus John fails to fully believe in the things believed by Owen. Due to John’s inner doubts and inability to create a personal life, John usually turns to sarcasm in his evaluation of certain events.

Instead of analyzing political or religious issues, the narrator treats them through his personal experience. Thus, John’s insight is restricted by his infirm intellect; the faith that he seems to have does not shed light on the narrator’s life; instead it transforms him into a person who experiences constant pain and obvious displeasure. Unlike Owen who finds power and inspiration in his belief, John is unable to experience the similar inspiration. He appears to be a tool in the hands of Owen who utilizes the narrator to his own liking, persuading John that he is a God’s instrument.

It is Owen who performs home tasks for John, it is Owen who makes him receive a major degree in English, it is Owen who saves him from Vietnam and who persuades him to move to Canada. John is so used to this guidance and dependence that he does not realize that Owen manipulates him, depriving John of the possibility to become a mature adult in his middle age. Influenced by Owen, John Wheelwright prefers to keep in the background of Owen’s life, implicitly challenging the issues of true faith. Works Cited Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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A character analysis of john irving’s novel ‘a prayer for owen meany. (2017, Apr 14). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-character-analysis-of-john-irvings-novel-a-prayer-for-owen-meany-essay

A character analysis of john irving’s novel ‘a prayer for owen meany essay
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