A Prayer for Owen Meany Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: 1952-1968 and 1987

Locale: Gravesend, New Hampshire, and Toronto, Canada

Characters DiscussedOwen Meany

Owen Prayer for Owen Meany, AMeany, a midget with a high, squeaky voice who always sees a clear destiny for himself. Because of his size, Owen is always lifted overhead by other children in his Sunday school. He is a bright young man with leadership qualities. He believes that all actions and objects have meaning. He processes all information, forgets nothing, and saves everything. Owen believes that he is God’s instrument. Although he usually is unable to hit a ball, at one little league baseball game Owen hits a foul ball that strikes and kills Tabitha Wheelwright. Owen thinks that he warded off the Angel of Death from Tabitha’s room and thus later became the agent of her death. In high school, Owen, as editor of the school newspaper, becomes the voice of moral authority. As a young man living through the Vietnam era, he criticizes his country’s flawed leadership. Owen sees his life as fated. As a child, he sees the date of his death on his tombstone and later has a dream vision that he will die saving Vietnamese children. While in a Phoenix airport, he indeed saves several children by hurling himself on a grenade. Owen’s sacrificial death, his part as the Christ child in the Christmas pageant, and his mother’s belief that his was a virgin birth mark him symbolically as a Christ figure, a hero in an age that has lost its belief in heroes.

John Wheelwright

John Wheelwright, an alienated man who holds onto his faith in God and cynically criticizes the moral laxity of the United States. As a young man, John is slow in school and depends on Owen for leadership and direction. John’s mother has him out of wedlock and does not tell him who his father is. Owen’s voice from beyond the grave reveals the identity of John’s father to him, but his father is a disappointment. John dodges the draft during the Vietnam War by having Owen cut off his trigger finger for him. After Owen’s death, John moves to Canada, where he teaches English at a girls’ school. Unable to assimilate into Canadian life, John finds himself detached from his own generation, an isolated man clinging to the margins of his faith, a man never able to have sexual contact with a woman. John knows of Owen’s vision and witnesses his miraculous death. This memory has haunted him; he lives in the past and wishes he had Owen back again. Symbolically, John is Owen’s disciple, writing the story of Owen as Christ figure.

Hester Eastman

Hester Eastman, John’s sexually precocious cousin, labeled Hester the Molester. She becomes a part of the rebellious youth movement of the Vietnam era engaged in violent protest. In love with Owen, after his death she remains attached to his memory. Later, she becomes a famous rock singer and makes music videos that are an odd mixture of sex and political protest. Her songs, which evoke the memory of Owen, appeal to a generation of young girls who have never known suffering.

Tabitha Wheelwright

Tabitha Wheelwright, John’s free-spirited mother, who had a brief fling that resulted in John’s birth. Tabby loves both John and Owen, and she nurtures and protects them. She marries Dan Needham and shortly afterward is killed by a baseball hit by Owen.

Dan Needham

Dan Needham, a Harvard graduate who teaches history at Gravesend Academy and works in amateur theatricals. He marries Tabby and becomes a father to John, teaching him the meaning of friendship. He also guides and protects Owen.

The Reverend Lewis Merrill

The Reverend Lewis Merrill, John’s father. He is a guilt-ridden minister who had a brief affair with Tabby. As she waves at him at the fatal baseball game, he wishes her dead. Haunted by the guilt of her death, he loses his faith, but he regains it when John uses Tabby’s dressmaker’s dummy to fake a ghostly apparition of Tabby.

Sources for Further StudyCampbell, Josie P. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Campbell looks at all of Irving’s novels written prior to 1998 and examines their themes and the critical response to the books.Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womak. The Critical Response to John Irving. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A scholarly treatment of Irving’s work, including book reviews, essays on the novels, and the critical response.Kazin, Alfred. “God’s Own Little Squirt.” The New York Times Book Review 94 (March 12, 1989): 1, 30-31. Gives a detailed summary of the novel. Focuses on the political commentary. Praises Irving’s craftsmanship but finds the book devoid of irony and sees its religious message as somewhat juvenile.Page, Philip. “Hero Worship and Hermeneutic Dialectics: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Mosaic 28 (September, 1995): 137-146. Page demonstrates how Irving’s novel plays with differing hermeneutical dialectic of William James and Paul Ricouer. He analyzes the novel’s central character, John Wheelwright, and shows how Irving offers an alternative way of knowing: the use of common sense.Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Colombia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Examines the life and works of John Irving, including themes, symbols, and motifs used in his novels.Shostak, Debra. “Plot as Repetition: John Irving’s Narrative Experiments.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37 (Fall, 1995): 51-69. Shostak’s examination of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany focuses on Irving’s use of repetitive phrases and images that become motifs within and across his novels. She sees the narrative as a “psychic entity” and argues that Irving’s repetitions can be read as “plot determinism.”Wall, James M. “Owen Meany and the Presence of God.” The Christian Century 106, no. 10 (March 22, 1989): 299-300. Sees the novel as focused on the problem of evil and Owen as “the vehicle of Irving’s vision that promises . . . ’Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.’”
Categories: Characters