A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Irving

John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. His stepfather taught at the Phillips Exeter Academy, where Irving would later study. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire and earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied under Kurt Vonnegut. In 1968, he published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. Ten years later he published The World According to Garp, which became an international bestseller and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980. In 1989, he published A Prayer for Owen Meany. Irving has published over a dozen novels throughout his career, including numerous bestsellers, and he continues to write today. Recurring motifs in his fiction include private boys’ academies, freak accidents, mysteries of paternity, high school wrestling, and bears.
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Historical Context of A Prayer for Owen Meany

The narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Wheelwright, was born in 1942, and he’s narrating the book in 1987 at the age of 45. The Cold War between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States started shortly after John was born and was still ongoing 40 years later. Heavy-handed American efforts to counteract or neutralize Soviet aggression led to many misguided global interventions denounced in A Prayer of Owen Meany, from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, to the Iran-Contra Affair during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1987. The Cold War–era conflict with the greatest toll on America was the Vietnam War (1955-1975), a long, ugly war waged in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. John and Owen Meany were young men of draft age during the Vietnam War, which eventually became deeply unpopular primarily due to the massive number of U.S. casualties as well as the many documented bombings, massacres, and abuses inflicted on the civilian populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Anti-war protests, both peaceful and violent, erupted across the country as millions questioned the goal of the U.S. in continuing to sacrifice its young men in an unwinnable war on the other side of the world. Men like John, Noah Eastman, Buzzy Thurston, and Harold Crosby went to great lengths to avoid the draft (John, for instance, cuts off his trigger finger to make him ineligible), although it was largely the most disadvantaged Americans who ended up going to war and dying, as Owen points out. Crossing the border into Canada was one such way to avoid the draft, but draft dodgers wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. until President Carter issued a general pardon in 1977.

Other Books Related to A Prayer for Owen Meany

Irving’s style of writing is frequently compared to that of Charles Dickens—his sprawling plots, unforgettable characters, and highly dramatic narratives are all classically Dickensian. A Prayer for Owen Meany, in particular, heavily alludes to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The two books are both set in conservative New England communities, and both concern an illegitimate child secretly conceived between a woman and a popular reverend. The female character in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Tabitha Wheelwright, rejects the stigma of her illegitimate pregnancy, but is still divinely punished by death in a freak accident. Tabitha’s niece, Hester Eastman, also recalls Hawthorne’s protagonist Hester Prynne. Hester Eastman also boldly rejects female chastity, but is belittled by the narrator. A Prayer for Owen Meany is also heavily inspired by the book The Tin Drum by the German novelist Günter Grass. Irving briefly studied under Grass in Vienna during his undergraduate years. The protagonist of The Tin Drum has the same initials as Owen Meany, and he is also an unusually precocious child of miniature size with an unnaturally high voice and a Jesus complex.
Key Facts about A Prayer for Owen Meany
  • Full Title: A Prayer for Owen Meany
  • When Written: 1987-1988
  • Where Written: Exeter, New Hampshire
  • When Published: March 1989
  • Literary Period: Postmodern
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: Gravesend, New Hampshire
  • Climax: Owen Meany sacrifices himself to save a group of nuns and Vietnamese orphans from a grenade, fulfilling the prophecy of his death.
  • Antagonist: Dick Jarvits
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for A Prayer for Owen Meany

Stranger Than Fiction. John Irving was inspired to create the character of Owen Meany based on the memory of a real boy from his past who was tiny enough to be lifted up and passed around Irving’s classroom during Sunday school.

Greatest Hit. Although multiple books by John Irving are major bestsellers, A Prayer for Owen Meany is Irving’s best-selling book of all time. It’s also the book with the author’s favorite first sentence, according to Irving.