John Wheelwright believes he is “doomed” never to forget Owen Meany, an extremely small boy with a broken voice who killed John’s mother and is the reason John believes in God. He admits that he is not zealously religious—he reads The Book of Common Prayer much more frequently than he reads the actual Bible. However, he has always attended church regularly, even if he has changed denominations multiple times.
The opening section of the book immediately grabs the reader’s attention by dropping the bombshell that John’s best friend killed John’s mother. Irving doesn’t hold back this part of the story, but shares this shocking fact upfront. It also sets up the book’s major ideas of fate, religion, and forgiveness.
John was baptized into the Congregational Church, confirmed in the Episcopalian Church, attended nondenominational church as a teenager, and then joined the Anglican Church after moving from the United States to Canada twenty years ago. When he dies, he would like to be buried in America, in his home state of New Hampshire, but he wants his services performed in the Anglican Church before his body is taken back to the United States.
John switched churches frequently throughout his life. The numerous changes from one church to another suggest that John did not have a strong individual will, and was content to go where others took him. He seems to have found a stubbornness later in life, or perhaps he’s just clinging to the last place Owen pointed him, as Irving later reveals that Owen told John to go to Canada.
However, despite John’s strong personal ties to the Anglican Church, he acknowledges that he sometimes skips Sunday services, and is far from being especially pious. He says he has a “church-rummage faith—the kind that needs patching up every weekend.” His limited faith only exists because of Owen Meany.
John’s faith is more flawed than many other believers’. Calling it a “church-rummage faith” suggests that it is worn and battered rather than polished and pristine, like old furniture donated to raise money at a church rummage sale. It is not perfect—but it can still be put to good use.
John recalls how as children, he and his peers would take advantage of Owen’s miniature size to entertain themselves during Sunday school. Owen was such a small child that his legs didn’t hang over the edge of his chair, but stuck straight out. John and the rest of the class “couldn’t resist” lifting up the tiny Owen like an infant and passing him over their heads. They thought his weightlessness was miraculous.
Irving shows the natural cruelty of humans through the actions of uninhibited children. They amuse themselves with Owen’s body against his will. The notion of children easily lifting one of their own above their heads seems surreal, introducing the idea that Owen is somehow holy or separate from others.
Owen’s unusually slight stature was a great contrast to his family’s business, which was mining granite in the local quarry. It seemed absurd that he could come from a family who ran such a rough and dangerous operation as granite mining. He looked very pale and fragile—“the color of a gravestone” or “a pearl,” with nearly translucent skin and visible blue veins. His stunted size and apparent fragility, among other things, suggested that he was born prematurely.
Owen’s survival as such a frail and delicate-looking child born to such a rough livelihood was always rather miraculous. He was always so fundamentally ill-suited to the life he lived, first in the quarry and later in the army, that his premature death seemed almost inevitable. After all, he was born “the color of a gravestone.”
Owen also had an underdeveloped or damaged voice, perhaps a side effect of breathing in so much quarry dust since birth. He had to shout through his nose to be heard. But the children all loved him, and loved treating him like “a little doll.”
Owen’s unmistakable high-pitched voice captivates everyone he encounters throughout the book. It is described as both terrible and endearing, a source of tension always existing between the two extremes.
The children’s Sunday school teacher was named Mrs. Walker, and she frequently left the classroom while ordering the class to think silently about the Bible in her absence. John thinks she was probably addicted to smoking, and had to take smoke breaks. While she was gone, the class would grab Owen and pass him overhead around the room, never dropping him.
The opportunity for silent spiritual contemplation was valuable, but the children were too young to appreciate it. Perhaps the only one who would have enjoyed it would have been Owen, but the others prevented him from doing so.
Owen’s tie would often become untucked from his trousers, and his loose change and baseball cards sometimes fell out of his pockets, but he wasn’t injured or stolen from, only subject to his classmates’ manhandling. He was annoyed by this treatment, especially when his baseball cards became disorganized—he was a baseball fanatic, and kept his cards in a specific order.
The children justified their harassment of Owen by arguing that they never dropped him or abused their power for profit—only inconvenienced him for their amusement.
While Owen loved baseball, he was not a good player. He was too small to swing at a ball without falling down, but he was frequently inserted into games as a pinch hitter because he could always gain a base on balls. His strike zone was so small that the pitchers rarely managed to aim any strikes there, so he always walked. The coach told him not to swing, which Owen hated, but which was somewhat less humiliating than falling down on his own feet whenever he tried to hit. Pitchers hated missing his strike zone every time, so they would sometimes hit him with the ball when he refused to swing.
Owen’s love of baseball is rather tragic, given his physical handicaps. However, the game is not wholly rigged against him, and he is still able to help his team in many instances. Like most young athletes who dream of individual heroics, Owen is not a selfless team player—he has his pride, and he won’t relinquish his dream of making a big hit, even when he can help his team more by standing still.
Owen was fast, so he was inserted as a pinch runner, too. But he was afraid of the baseball, and rarely caught it, and his hand was too small to throw it. However, his unique voice made his complaints entertaining to listen to. John now believes Owen’s voice motivated the Sunday school class to mess with him—they liked to listen to him protest. John also now believes that Owen’s voice was “not entirely of this world.”
Owen was also not one to stay silent about his grievances and injustices. His voice makes his passionate complaints ring out so curiously that his peers are tempted to egg him on. The fact that his voice sounds like it was made to perfectly captivate children will later seem to be divine design.
“PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!” Owen would shout in his falsetto voice. But the class ignored him, and would resort to tickling him to pry him away from his chair. Whenever Mrs. Walker came back into the room and found Owen up in the air, she would scold him for leaving his seat. John found this extremely stupid of her, to imagine that Owen could possibly have lifted himself up. But Owen never blamed his classmates or told the teacher what was going on, only stoically endured the teacher’s scolding. He wasn’t a snitch, but a juvenile martyr.
Owen was willing to protest as forcefully as his voice would allow, but his body always betrayed him. He is only one small figure against the will of many, a powerless position that he and John later find themselves in when they are in the minority of the country opposed to the Vietnam War and other governmental failures. Owen forgave his classmates their faults, however.
Owen was also lifted up and hung by his collar on coatracks and in his gym locker, but he never struggled or made a commotion, only waited for someone to put him back down. John didn’t imagine at the time that Owen was really a hero.
Even when Owen was subjected to pranks that were more mean-spirited than being handed around for fun, he kept his composure. His vulnerability to being put in such humiliating situations didn’t make him seem heroic, and his lack of vengeance wasn’t outwardly tough, but he had a quietly heroic self-discipline.
John identifies himself as a Wheelwright, one of the local families whose names still carried weight at the time. His type of family was not typically sympathetic to Owen’s type of family, the Meanys. John’s family was matriarchal because his grandfather died young, leaving his grandmother to run the family. John’s grandmother rose to the challenge “grandly,” he recalls. She was descended from John Adams, and she was born a Bates; her family came over on the Mayflower. She always carried herself with the gravity of her three extremely dignified names. Her first name was Harriet, but everyone called her Mrs. Wheelwright. She wrongly associated the Meany family with George Meany, an influential labor union leader whom she frowned upon.
John is descended from a prestigious and wealthy line of New Englanders, the closest thing to an aristocratic legacy in America. His proud grandmother looked down on the working-class Meany family. Ancestry and money meant a great deal to her, and she viewed the poor Irish-Catholic Meanys as her inferiors. However, she would later come to care for Owen and support his ambition to improve himself.
The Wheelwright family lived in Gravesend, New Hampshire, a town bought by John’s namesake, Rev. John Wheelwright, from an Indian sagamore in 1638. A sagamore was the name for an Indian chief, although in John’s lifetime the word had lost its history, and was merely the name for a lake and his neighbor’s dog. Ignorantly naming the pet Sagamore was a sign of disrespect—as karma, the innocent dog was eventually struck and killed by a diaper truck.
The Wheelwrights and families like them were not the first men and women to inhabit the land of Gravesend, despite their haughty attitudes. The land belonged to the Native tribes of New England first, but the settlers who followed them did not even give them the dignity of remembering the term for their most powerful warrior and leader.
The Rev. John Wheelwright presumably named his town after the Gravesend in England. He graduated from Cambridge, where he earned a reputation as a vicious soccer player who tripped his competitors and played dirty. He bought the land for Gravesend from a local sagamore named Watahantowet. Watahantowet signed the deed with his totem, which was an armless man. No one knew why he chose an armless man for his totem—whether he was indicating the loss he felt in giving up all his land, his frustration at not being able to write, or his wish for peace.
John’s ancestor and namesake was an ambitious and unscrupulous man, not a leader with a strong ethical code. He wouldn’t have felt any shame or remorse for extorting as much as he could from a tribe of people who were outgunned and powerless to stop him from making his own rules. Watahantowet couldn’t stop Wheelwright from taking his land, but he could make the loss into a powerful statement.
Among the eminent names of Gravesend’s founding families, “Meany” is nowhere to be found, but Wheelwright is foremost. Wheelwright was John’s mother’s name, and she never gave it up. John kept her name as well, since he never knew who his father was. His mother had been waiting until he was the right age to tell him who his father was, but she unexpectedly died before he was old enough.
The prestige of John’s family name would be theoretically lessened by his illegitimate birth, but his mother doesn’t allow anyone to slander him for being born out of wedlock. She carries off her pregnancy by an unknown man with unimpeachable dignity.
After John’s mother died, Owen and John talked about the unsolved mystery of his father. They skipped rocks while they talked. Owen told John that his father would know what had happened to his mother, and he would approach John when he was older. John isn’t sure if his father is alive or aware that he’s John’s father, but Owen insists that he’s certain that John’s father isn’t dead or clueless. Owen also believes that God knows who John’s father is, and will show John the truth even if his father never introduces himself. As Owen says this, he throws a stone all the way to the water for the first time.
John flashes back to a time when he and Owen discussed his unknown father. Owen is firmly positive that John’s father is alive and will be revealed to John by God. His confident words are accompanied by a rock that flies beyond his normal means. God seems to be with him as he divines John’s future.
While New Hampshire is known as the Granite State, its biggest business was originally lumber. John’s uncle, Alfred Eastman, was in the lumber business. He married John’s aunt, Martha. Owen Meany’s family was in the granite business. Harriet Wheelwright believed that lumber was a clean business and granite was dirty. Lumber was certainly more lucrative than granite. The granite quarry in Gravesend was mostly out of good granite when the Meanys took it over, and it was extremely difficult to get any remaining good granite out of the ground without cracking it.
The Meanys are contending with a doomed enterprise, forced to expend a great deal of effort for rarely valuable returns. The granite industry has less history and dignity than the lumber industry, which Martha Wheelwright happily marries into.
Owen read the book History of Gravesend when he was very young, and told John that it was full of Wheelwrights. John was born in the Wheelwright house after his mother became pregnant with a man she met on the Boston & Maine Railroad. Other than this fact, his mother never spoke a word of the baby’s father, not even to her family. As a young woman, she decided not to go to college, but to stay home and care for her dying father while taking weekly singing lessons in Boston. Her mother was distracted by her father’s illness, and the leader of her church choir, the Rev. Lewis Merrill, vouched for her talent, so she was allowed to skip the college degree her older sister, Martha, had earned.
Owen has more historical consciousness that John does. John doesn’t initially feel the need to understand his place in history, taking a comfortable and sheltered existence for granted. John’s mother never had to worry about how to support herself or her son, and had the freedom to pursue her hobby of singing rather than going to school, finding a job, or getting married for the sake of financial security. Her lack of ambition was frowned upon in her family, but they never withheld their support.
John’s mother took the train to Boston once a week and stayed overnight for an early morning singing lesson with a teacher who normally only saw professionals. Martha disapproved of her sister’s frivolous path in life, although she was jealous of her natural gift for singing and her beauty. At the time, going to Boston meant visiting a “city of sin,” and John’s mother had to stay in a chaperoned women’s hotel while she was there. But she still managed to have an affair on the train there.
John’s mother was apparently gifted with real talent, but her idea of following her calling is merely taking once-weekly lessons on top of her normal performances in the church choir. She doesn’t seem especially interested in launching a real career, and doesn’t wish to leave behind her small-town life for a full-time artistic pursuit in the city.
Although Martha and others frowned on John’s mother’s conduct, she was never bothered by their disapproval. She happily called her son her “little fling.” Martha later told her children that her sister had been “a little simple.” She was always slightly resentful of how talented her sister was, and how she was spoiled by their parents for her sweet disposition that made staying mad at her impossible. Not only did John’s mother manage to make her illegitimate pregnancy acceptable to her family, her conservative town, and her church, but she also got away with continuing her weekly singing lessons and trips to Boston after giving birth to John.
John’s mother was able to live a very happy life by blithely deflecting the judgment of others, ignoring disapproval, and charmingly endearing herself to all. Despite scandalizing conservative sensibilities with her illegitimate pregnancy, she doesn’t lose her social standing or her place in the church choir. She even returns to the same routine where she got into such trouble to begin with.
John occasionally resented his mother’s weekly absences. John’s mother only canceled her trips when he was seriously ill or injured, until she stopped going altogether when he was ten and she married John’s stepfather.
As a young child, John naturally wanted to be the constant center of his mother’s attention, but she kept this one personal pilgrimage for herself. Finding a partner perhaps gave her enough adult companionship and happiness that she didn’t need to take time away to herself.
John was born in his grandmother Harriet’s grand old brick house. The house included a secret passageway to a separate basement. John purposefully scared Owen down there, and Owen’s peculiar voice made his fear very memorable. Harriet was very disturbed by Owen’s shrieks from the passageway—she told John his singular voice could have raised the dead.
John enjoys antagonizing Owen to elicit his cries of protest, but his grandmother finds the sound of Owen’s distress terrifying and unnatural rather than amusing. His voice has an ominous side to it.
John explains that Harriet, while snobbish, was also generous and noble. When her longtime maid, Lydia, had to have her leg amputated for a tumor, Harriet replaced her with two maids—one for herself and one for Lydia. Lydia joined her former mistress for tea every afternoon and played cards with the guests she used to serve; she even began to talk like Harriet, and was mistaken for her by visitors. When Harriet grew older and began losing her memory, she never forgot the disturbing sound of Owen’s piercing voice.
John’s grandmother was a large figure in his life, being a more enduring presence than his own mother. While she had certain class prejudices, she had a good heart and was generous to all who needed it, from her former maid, Lydia, to her grandson’s poor friend, Owen.
Owen’s working-class Irish family came to New Hampshire from Boston. The local kids could swim in one of the Meanys’ granite quarries if they went in the water one at a time, with a thick rope around their waists. It was very deep, cold water, and not safe to swim in freely. Once Owen untied himself and swam away to give his friends at the end of the rope a scare. They were too frozen with terror to jump in and look for him, and he accused them of being uncaring: “YOU LET ME DIE.”
The Meanys were outsiders in Gravesend, especially compared to the Wheelwrights, who are descended from the town’s founder. The local children at least didn’t seem to care where their playmates came from, and enjoyed the thrill of swimming in deeper water that was not the tame, familiar beach or pool. They only like the thrill when there’s no real danger, however—they’re not brave enough to risk their lives to try and save their friend.
John and Owen both joined the Episcopal Church after leaving the Congregational Church and the Catholic Church, respectively. John’s mother insisted on switching churches after she married an Episcopalian, John’s stepfather—whom she also met on the train. The Congregational pastor, the Rev. Lewis Merrill, was unhappy to lose John’s mother, who sang so beautifully in his choir and whom he’d supported when she insisted on her maintaining her privacy after becoming pregnant. Owen’s family turned away from the Catholic Church for darker, more mysterious reasons—“an UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” against Owen’s parents that Owen never explained to John.
John and Owen both have mixed religious histories. Owen has a lot of antagonism towards the Catholic Church, while John seems to miss the Congregational Church. By the end of the book, both of them eventually appear to have found peace with the religious institutions that divided them. Most of the time, they speak generally about God and faith, not any particular organization.
John reflects that he partially took pleasure from manhandling Owen during Sunday school because he was resentful that Owen had a much stronger religious faith than he did. Owen disliked dogmatic, ritualized worship, but he strongly believed in God’s will and in personally communicating with God.
From a young age, Owen had a strong sense of spirituality. His dislike for religion’s sacred objects and rituals is ironic given his own passion for symbolic objects and rituals like writing in his diary and practicing his and John’s basketball shot.
Owen took everything very seriously, and was insulted by jokes. He read the whole Bible, and was a brilliant student. John was not a strong student, and he wouldn’t have been admitted to the town’s private school, Gravesend Academy, if his mother hadn’t married a man on the faculty. Owen was a natural candidate for admission, and would have gotten a full scholarship for tuition, but he was worried about paying for things like the expensive formal uniforms and supplies. He came from a working-class family, and was wary of going to school with the rich. John’s mother promises to take care of everything for him, but Owen worries about how he will get to school, because his parents can’t drive him.
Owen later develops a strong sense of sarcasm, but he does not kid around. He has a maturity and an intellect beyond his years. He is conscious of the gulf between his background and means and the pedigree of most of the students who attend Gravesend Academy. The best education doesn’t always go to those who most deserve it, but to those who can afford to pay for it.
Mrs. Meany can’t take Owen to school because she never goes outdoors, and never even opens the windows; Owen says she’s allergic to dust. She also wears headphones to muffle the noise from the quarry. Mr. Meany runs the family’s errands and drives Owen to Sunday school. He doesn’t want Owen to go to the academy.
Owen’s mother is quite a sad case—she won’t leave her house or even let any air inside. Presumably she was once more capable of engaging with the outside world, to have met a husband and started a family, but something seems to have deeply traumatized her.
Gravesend Academy was an extremely old institution, founded in 1781. John’s mother secretly visited Owen’s parents to convince them to allow Owen to go there—Owen could smell her perfume after she left. His mother doesn’t wear perfume, or even look out the window at the world. John suspects that her withdrawal is related to the Catholics’ “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” that Owen won’t tell him about.
Gravesend Academy is nearly as old as the country itself. John’s mother wants the best for Owen just like she does for her own son, so she uses her position as a Gravesend native to explain to Owen’s parents, newcomers to the area, why the school would be so beneficial for their son.
Owen had a crush on John’s mother, who couldn’t resist touching Owen. Owen tells John that she has the best breasts out of all their peers’ mothers, and John lets him get away with it because he trusts that Owen never jokes around. John’s mother drives the boys back and forth between their houses to play, since Owen’s house is too steep to easily ride a bike to.
Owen is very close to John’s mother, who is technically also a stay-at-home mother but in a much more active and present sense than the detached Mrs. Meany. Owen’s affection is not entirely innocent, but his obsession with the bosoms of his peers’ mothers could stem from the lack of physical intimacy he wishes to share with his own mother.
Owen and John were eleven when John’s mother died. It was summer, and they were growing bored with baseball. Their team was badly losing the game, and the coach, Mr. Chickering, was bored, too. The game was almost over, and he told Owen he could bat for John if John came to bat. John’s mother had just arrived to pick them up. She was looking off at the stands to see who else was sitting there. There were two outs in the inning when Harry Hoyt walked and Buzzy Thurston hit a grounder that should have been an out. Owen came up and the coach told him to swing away and end the game.
On the day of the fateful baseball game, nothing seemed amiss. It was such an unremarkable game that the whole team—even the coach—felt bored and wished for it to end. For once in this story, there were no omens to hint at the tragedy to come. Death came from out of nowhere, on a beautiful day, during a children’s game of “America’s pastime.” The innocence of the children involved was brutally shattered.
After letting the first two pitches go, Owen hit the third ball foul, and it struck John’s mother in the head, killing her almost instantly. Mr. Chickering reached her first; he closed her eyes and rearranged her splayed legs to preserve her dignity. He took off his jacket and threw it over John’s face before John could see his mother’s face. John was initially angry, but he quickly changed his mind and didn’t want to take the jacket off—he stayed under it, hiding, in Mr. Chickering’s lap, while the Chief of Police looked for the baseball that had killed his mother. Chief Ben Pike was obsessed with taking the “instrument of death” into police custody.
John saw his mother die, but he did not have to see her gruesome wound or her final expression. The kind and empathetic coach protected the remaining innocence of mother and son by shielding the body from indecent exposure and the boy from a worse sight. The police chief can’t seem to accept that the death was an unpreventable freak accident, as if he is unable to believe that such a horror could happen in the town he is supposed to keep safe.
Owen fled the game after apologizing to John for hitting the ball, and everyone later assumed he took the fatal ball from the scene. He was a big collector of things like his baseball cards. But John ominously says that he had no idea, at the time, who else had been there and could have taken the ball.
After hitting the ball that killed John’s mother, Owen has to go home and face what he’s done. People assume he took the ball because he collected special objects and because they couldn’t imagine anyone else taking it. But someone else there would have also had a personal reason for keeping the ball—John’s real father.