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Literature / A Prayer for Owen Meany

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There are three things about Owen Meany that are unusual. The first is that even when he reaches adulthood he is under five feet tall. The second is his damaged voicebox, trapped in a permanent scream that alternately amuses and scares those around him. The third? He calls himself GOD'S INSTRUMENT, and he might be right.

Written by John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989) is best described as intentional Glurge with an undercurrent of despairing Postmodernism. In 1998, it was loosely adapted as the film Simon Birch.


  • All Part of the Show: During the Nativity play, Owen (playing Jesus) stands up and addresses the audience, telling them they are not worthy and should be ashamed of themselves for even setting foot in a church. The audience sitting in the church assumes this is a sermon to them and part of the play; the reader knows that Owen was talking to his sacrilegious parents.
  • Anachronic Order: A few scenes, the scenes in the present day non-withstanding, take place years after the main parts of the novel, but are tied in with it.
  • Anti-Climax: Deliberately on multiple occasions.
  • Award-Bait Song: You Were There by Babyface.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Rev. Merill wished that Tabitha would drop dead when he saw her waving hi in his direction at the fateful baseball game. She does.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Owen, according to Hester. Owen of course, is too modest to confirm this, and only mildly scolds Hester for being crude.
  • Boarding School: Owen and Johnny go to one, though Owen is a day student and Johnny lives in a faculty apartment with his stepfather, and watch as a new headmaster begins to turn it into a Boarding School of Horrors. Owen gets expelled for his resistance, but in the process he gets the headmaster fired.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: Downplayed. Owen purposely makes jabs at Hester and picks fights with her in his letters to "help her fall out of love with him before he died". Unfortunately, seeing what Hester become after his death, he wasn't successful.
  • Broken Bird: Hester becomes this after Owen's death.
  • Catchphrase: Oh, lots.
    • Johnny: (in narration) "Remember that?" or "Remember him?" When talking about famous people/events from the past.
    • Owen: "THERE'S NO NEED TO BE CRUDE." Usually talking to Hester, and sometimes Johnny. And "I KNOW __ THINGS." Used in his diary. First he knows 3 things about himself (his voice never changes, when he's going to die, and that he's God's instrument), then 2 things in his dream about his own death, and then 4 things about himself (expand the above list to include how he's going to die).
    • Johnny and Owen both use "give me the shivers" often enough to be a catch phrase as well, though Owen first and Johnny more.
    • Harriet Wheelwright: "I would rather be murdered by a maniac/madman."
  • Character Development: Owen starts the novel vehemently prejudiced against Catholics. By the end of the novel he's eased up considerably and even dies in the arms of a nun. This is in stark contrast to Johnny, who is lost without Owen and changes little by the end of the book.
  • Chaste Hero: Johnny actively tries to lose his virginity for years, but is never able to find a girl interested in taking it from him. Fuel for some comic moments when he's older: A colleague's husband refers to him as a "non-practicing homosexual" (which is a term the man apparently made up). Hester tells Johnny's students that he's still a virgin (in his forties), and the girls think it's a joke. Word of God suggests that Johnny may have been in love with Owen, either platonically or not-so-platonically, and his death pretty much put the stop to any chance of him finding love of any sort.
  • Chekhov's Armory: Owen's height, voice, and strange complexion are all necessary attributes for him to have in order to save the Vietnamese children.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Owen is too short to dunk a basketball, but he's developed a trick where he jumps into Johnny's arms and Johnny helps him dunk. He insists that "it's not for a game," and that what matters is getting it done in under three seconds. As mentioned below, he knows a bit of the future...
  • Conversational Troping: Owen discusses Film Tropes several times, generally mocking them. ("FIGHTING WITH SWORDS, IT'S STUPID TO WEAR LOOSE, BAGGY SHIRTS—OF COURSE YOUR SHIRTS ARE GOING TO GET ALL SLASHED TO PIECES!")
  • Creepy Child: Owen can activate this at will. Being small, he always looks several years younger than he actually is; for example, he can pass for a swaddled Baby Jesus in a Christmas play when he's actually in grade school, which freaks out the audience when the "newborn" suddenly stands up and rebukes them.
  • Crisis of Faith: Both Johnny and Rev. Merrill. Johnny claims that the events of the novel are responsible for his faith in God. And apparently, Johnny's doubt in God might be inherited from his father, Rev. Merrill.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: All of the events that lead Owen to his conclusions are pretty much just experienced by him, and everyone around him is pretty sure he is just fooling himself. Until he is proven right.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Guess who.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Owen sees his impending death over and over.
  • Easy Evangelism: Subverted, with multiple Author Filibusters on what it takes to get someone to believe in miracles.
  • Evil Is Bigger: Dick Javits is only fifteen, but is absolute massive for his age.
  • The Fatalist: Owen, big-time.
  • The Film of the Book: Simon Birch. An interesting comparison, as it starts out word-perfect to the source material and diverges further and further as the stories progress. It's as though the film was shot in sequence and the Executive Meddling was going on in real time. It is also Lighter and Softer than the book. Joe, Johnny's counterpart in the movie, is happy and adjusted in the present day, whereas Johnny in the novel is a broken shell.
    • The changes were enforced by Irving though, as he believed that the book could not be accurately portrayed in a film.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Johnny.
  • Fingore: Johnny is desperate to avoid the draft. The army won't draft people who're missing their trigger finger. Owen has access to a diamond saw.
  • The Fundamentalist: Dudley Wiggin, the Episcopalian minister.
  • Framing Device: The story is being told by Johnny in the present day (a few years before the book was published, 1987), but the majority of it takes place in his youth. It sometimes dips back into the present day to highlight how much Johnny hasn't grown since Owen's death, or at all really.
  • God Is Evil: Johnny speculates on this, concluding that at the very least no good god would let Owen Meany die young. Interestingly, the events of the book actually increase his faith.
  • Hate Sink: Dick Javits, Owen's murderer; racist, child-hating, and eager to go to Vietnam not out of misguided patriotism, but to kill whoever he wants to with impunity. The book even implies that Dick is molesting his sister.
  • Hot for Preacher: Tabitha slept with Rev. Merrill, which resulted in Johnny.
  • Hope Spot: On the date Owen predicted he would lose his life, it almost seems to all of the characters that his dreams of his death were just that, dreams. Then Dick arrives with a grenade in his hand...
  • How We Got Here: Several decades after the fact as Johnny looks back on his friendship with Owen.
  • Innocent Prodigy: Owen.
  • Immodest Orgasm: The Brinker-Smiths fit this trope to a T. Owen and Johnny can not help but hear them have sex in every room in a building they are in.
  • Jumping on a Grenade: How Owen dies, saving a group of Vietnamese refugee children.
  • Kids Are Cruel
  • Kissing Cousins: Johnny and Hester consider this.
  • Lady in Red: Evoked by name. Johnny's mother Tabitha has a secret life as an out-of-town jazz singer known only as "the lady in red" due to the red dress she always wears.
  • Locked into Strangeness: Happens to older/narrating Johnny; his hair (which is already starting to go grey at the edges by this time) goes completely white after a shocking apparent beyond-the-grave encounter with Owen Meany.
  • Loveable Sex Maniac: Hester "the Molester" Eastman.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Owen's apparent ability to see the future and Johnny's encounter with him after his death. are all told through the perspective of Johnny, and are never completely explored; just accepted for what they are. If they were magical or just part of reality is never confirmed which way or the other.
  • Meaningful Name: Dick.
  • Messianic Archetype: See above. The narrator is convinced that Owen is this.
  • Motif: Armlessness. The Indian chief's totem, Tabby's dressmaker's dummy, the clawless armadillo, Owen wrapped up in swaddling as baby Jesus, the vandalized statue of Mary Magdalene. During Owen's death scene, his arms are blown off by the grenade.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: Owen's parents claimed his pregnancy was a virgin birth. Never confirmed in the story however.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: When the movie was available on Pay Per View television, the service decided to advertise it by showing the scene of Simon successfully hitting a baseball, with a shot of his face clearly meant to imply this was an inspirational moment. Anyone who watched the movie after seeing this ad might be shocked to realize that the same baseball hits and kills Tabitha.

  • Oh, and X Dies: We're told on the very first page that Owen is going to kill Tabitha.
  • Older Than They Look: People tend to assume Owen's a kid because of his size. Some women consider it a turn-on.
  • Painting the Medium: Owen's voice is represented in ALL CAPS. No Indoor Voice indeed.
  • Parental Neglect: Owen with his parents.
  • Parental Substitute: Tabitha is pretty much Owen's mother, since his real one isn't much of a mother. It makes Tabitha's accidental death at Owen's hands more heartbreaking.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Along with many parts of the book, Owen Meany tends to operate on this.
  • Scholarship Student: Johnny, Owen and many nameless others. The town never built a public high school, having a standing arrangement with the Academy.
  • School Play: Acting in A Christmas Carol, Owen is a little too convincing as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Things go even worse when his small size gets him cast as Jesus in a Nativity play—midway through he sits up and calls out two audience members for alleged sacrilege.
  • Stacy's Mom: Tabitha to Owen Meany.