John spends the Christmas after Tabitha’s death at home. Harriet argues that if the whole family is together at Sawyer Depot without Tabitha, her loss will be too painfully apparent. John and Owen occupy themselves over break by using Dan’s master dorm key to infiltrate the students’ rooms at the school.
Tabitha’s loss leads to the loss of other happy traditions. Cut off from the past, Owen and John look for the clues to their future.
Dan is busy rehearsing with the Gravesend Players for their annual production of A Christmas Carol. Dan wanted Owen to play Tiny Tim, but Owen refused to play another “cute” part—he is already forced to play the Announcing Angel in the Wiggins’ Christmas pageant every year, havng the perfect size and delicate appearance to be suspended in the air above the stage to declare Jesus’s birth.
Owen resented the limited roles that he was sorted into based on his unusual appearance. Ironically, his new part in the Christmas pageant will be more dependent on his size than ever.
Owen also complains that whoever plays Joseph, Jesus’s father, always smirks obnoxiously throughout the show, while Mary, Jesus’s mother, is always played by the prettiest girl in the church: “WHAT DOES PRETTY HAVE TO DO WITH IT?” He also hates the Wiggins’ insistence that the Baby Jesus should never cry, requiring an assembly line of adults to swap out fussy babies for calm ones throughout the show. Owen believes in taking things seriously, and hates that his voice always wins laughter rather than respect when he plays the Announcing Angel.
Owen has a long list of complaints about the Wiggins’ annual Christmas pageant. His faith is so strong that he thinks he knows better than the pastor what the scene of the Nativity should look like.
Harriet tends to get cranky when Owen and John play at her house, so they would rather spend their days at Dan’s dorm. The students are all gone, as are most of the faculty occupants. Only Mr. Brinker-Smith and his wife, Ginger, are around, and the couple is very busy with their newborn twins. Ginger is a freckled, voluptuous, strawberry-blonde beauty, and the sex-obsessed boys at the academy lust over her even during her pregnancy with the twins. John remarks that her appearance was hardly alluring during that Christmas break he and Owen spend at the dorms—she wears only loose, slept-in clothes due to her exhausting nursing schedule.
Owen and John have the whole dorm building to themselves, and they have no inhibitions on how they act. They can freely violate people’s privacy and indulge in fantasies about Ginger Brinker-Smith. The boys’ appraisal of her sexual appeal as a nursing mother is rather disturbing. They haven’t even hit puberty yet, so their preoccupation with her figure is not based in real desire—yet they have been conditioned to think of women’s bodies as objects for male appreciation.
Once, Mr. Brinker-Smith brought Ginger into his biology class to demonstrate nursing in mammals—an “eye-opening” illustration that Owen and John are extremely sad to have missed. During Christmas break, they often linger around the Brinker-Smiths’ apartment in the hopes of being invited in for a similar “scientific demonstration.” They even volunteer to help Ginger on a trip to the grocery store, but after all their work pushing the stroller and carrying the groceries, Ginger does not reward them with a glimpse of her breasts.
Nursing a child is not a seductive act—it’s the primary biological function of a woman’s breasts—but many men cannot separate their lust from an innocent action. If they’re not shaming women into hiding themselves away when they have to nurse, they’re lining up for a view. Owen, who hates that his body makes him the target of unwanted attention and physical exploitation, should understand how a woman in that position would feel.
Owen and John let themselves into the students’ rooms and go through all their belongings. Owen looks through each boy’s things methodically and lies on each bed to try and get an idea of what each boy is like. John and Owen learn where the students keep their dirty magazines or pictures, and are dissatisfied to find that most of the pictures are either “disturbingly unclear” or “disappointingly wholesome.” The truly nude photos are usually creepy-looking, featuring grim-faced women with censored nipples.
Again, Owen and John feel entitled to ogle the female body at will. If they can’t see enough of the body to please them, the picture is too “wholesome.” They feel ashamed if the pictures aren’t clear or well-staged, suggesting that the woman isn’t pleased to be photographed. They dream of women happily willing to expose themselves for the sake of fulfilling male lust.
Owen is preoccupied with determining whether or not an occupant is “happy.” He imagines that the presence of any kind of hard-core pictures proves that the boy must be unhappy—“HOW CAN YOU BE HAPPY IF YOU SPEND ALL YOUR TIME THINKING ABOUT DOING IT?” John thinks that the rooms are probably less illuminating than Owen believes them to be, given that they are only the boys’ temporary homes. The same sports and movie stars are found in every room, as are the same tokens of home. Owen thinks that the transitory nature and homesickness evident in the boarders’ rooms proves the boarding system “EVIL.”
Owen wants to understand what other, older boys are like. He wants to understand how people think out of a general curiosity, but he also wants to understand who he could one day become. He’s searching for reasons to attend Gravesend or not, his family’s prejudices warring with John’s family’s admiration for the school. He wouldn’t have a dorm room himself, but perhaps he wants to know who he’ll be studying with.
The older boys’ rooms show John and Owen what awaits them in adolescence—secrets, messiness, lust. In one room, they find condoms, also known as “rubbers” or “beetleskins,” in a sock drawer. They unwrap one and take turns awkwardly putting it on. Owen says that the Catholics forbid condoms, which John doesn’t understand. The two boys are only eleven, and they treat the condom more like a scientific experiment than a sexual object. To Owen, putting on the condom is an act of religious rebellion.
The boys are too young to have real sexual desires, but they are curious about condoms, and about teenage rebellion. They take this opportunity to practice both, trying to forestall the powerlessness they feel about growing up.
At the first rehearsal for the Christmas pageant, Owen instigates another religious rebellion. He begins by refusing to play the Announcing Angel anymore, and proceeds to cast the play himself. He chooses John to play Joseph, which John isn’t happy about—he considers Joseph to be an “uninspiring” part, being merely “that guy along for the ride.” As Joseph, John is told to pick the girl to play Mary, a choice he is extremely reluctant to make. Owen saves John by suggesting that Mary Beth Baird play Mary because of her name. Mary Beth is far from the prettiest—she is timid and gawky, a “lump of a girl”—but no one can rudely deny her the role once she is offered it.
After exerting his influence on John’s family, Owen starts to take charge of larger affairs. He turns the Christmas pageant completely upside down, giving new directions left and right. As soon as he gets on a roll, everyone has to go along with what he’s already set in motion.
Barb Wiggin is quite angry that Owen is upending all of her plans for the pageant. He doesn’t make it easy for her to find a new Announcing Angel—he warns the rest of the class that the harness can turn you to face the wrong way and cut into your skin, and you have to wait a long time in the dark above the stage and memorize a long speech. Poor overweight Harold Crosby falls over in his chair from dread, which Rev. Wiggin mistakes for eagerness to volunteer. He names him to be the new angel.
Taking his revenge for always being conscripted into playing the Announcing Angel, Owen tells the rest of the children exactly why they shouldn’t want to play the crucial part. The boy who has the opposite of the Wiggins’ idea of a perfect body for the role become Owen’s replacement.
Finally, Owen brings up the Christ Child and the ridiculous spectacle of the adults handing the babies on and off the stage. He offers to take the place of the baby in the manger, since he can fit in the crib. The rest of the children love this idea—Mary Beth wants to lift him up onstage like they do in class. Barb reevaluates how “cute” she used to find Owen, while Rev. Wiggin appears to recognize in the masterful Owen “a little Lord Jesus.”
One would have thought that Owen would hate nothing more than to play an infant because of his exceptionally small size. However, the chance to play Jesus Christ himself evidently outweighs the humiliation of calling more attention to his childlike body.
Owen continues to get his way in subsequent rehearsals for the pageant, scrapping the confining crib for a bed of hay, where he will be more comfortable—and more visible. He even rearranges the order of the music. Mary Beth wants to caress Owen like a loving mother, but he refuses.
Owen’s resemblance to Jesus Christ is not just physical, but behavioral. He leads the other children and even the adults in his design for the show. He seems to want to be worshipped, while also being set apart from the others.
Harold continues to dread his role as Announcing Angel; scared of heights, he can’t concentrate and always forgets his lines. Owen objects to having his arms trapped in the “swaddling clothes,” so only his torso, chest, shoulders, and neck are swaddled. Covering his Adam’s apple is necessary to preserve the illusion that he could be an infant, but his face isn’t babylike, either. The swaddling clothes just look like bandages on some horrible burn victim. Mary Beth is still determined to perform some gesture on Owen—she suggests kissing him on the forehead, which he refuses. Barb teases him about it, but he convinces Mary Beth to bow over him instead.
Despite Owen’s modifications, the pageant still promises to be a farce, with a tongue-tied angel, a mummified newborn, and an incestuous Holy Mother and Son. Owen’s vision doesn’t appear to be working out in practice.
When Mary Beth bows over Owen, he raises his hand over her head in a blessing. The image they make is so holy that the whole stage freezes in awe for a long moment before the choir begins to sing the final carol. Barb wants to rehearse one more time, but the “Prince of Peace” declares, “I THINK WE’VE GOT IT RIGHT.”
Just when the whole scene is looking its most ridiculous, Owen pulls off a miracle: a truly holy Nativity. Without saying a word, he leaves everyone stunned and speechless. John starts referring to him in the text using names for Jesus, like the “Prince of Peace.”
Back in the present in Toronto, John reflects on how he prefers attending weekday services to Sunday worship. On weekdays, he has the church practically all to himself, and doesn’t have to listen to the sermons delivered on Sundays. John finds people who attend Sunday services reluctantly to be a great distraction. How can one pray while surrounded by so many petulant, unhappy people? The crowded, miserable atmosphere of the church on Sundays invites cynical, ungenerous thoughts. In contrast, the weekday services are peaceful.
John has become a very solitary man, who prefers his own inner thoughts and reflections to the words and presence of others. His negative attitude towards most people makes the reader question: to whom is he really telling this story?
Back in the Christmas season of 1953, the evenings seem very long without Tabitha. Dan complains bitterly about how his amateurs are making a mess of A Christmas Carol. Harriet’s neighbor Mr. Fish, who plays Scrooge, always complains about the ghosts. The worst is the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by the mailman, Mr. Morrison. He is insulted to be cast as a character without any speaking lines, and doesn’t take the role seriously. None of the ghosts are scary, which undermines the effect of the story.
With both Owen and Dan, John is surrounded by theater directors. He has no interest in running the show himself. Between all the rehearsals for the two Christmas plays, it’s impossible to forget the looming holiday without Tabitha, which surely doesn’t help everyone’s attitudes. The two plays are supposed to be hopeful stories—Christ is born and Scrooge embraces the generous Christmas spirit—but the mood evoked is bleak.
Years ago, Mr. Fish had a dog named Sagamore. One September day, he convinced Owen and John to play football with him. The boys only liked to see Sagamore lunge after the football and try to fit it in his mouth, so they always dropped Mr. Fish’s passes. A young couple with a new baby who lived on the street would always complain about the noisy game, which the boys and Mr. Fish always ignored.
In this book, a harmless game is never just a harmless game, especially when Owen is involved. The football incident foreshadows the baseball incident to come.
That day, Owen managed to punt the ball high out of the yard and into the street. Chasing it, Sagamore was struck and killed by the diaper truck, headed for the young couple’s house. Mr. Fish decided to bury his dog in Harriet’s rose garden. The young couple with the baby attended Sagamore’s burial, along with the neighborhood children, Tabitha, and even Harriet. Owen wanted the mourners to hold candles, and Rev. Merrill and his wife noticed the candles when they walked by. Mr. Fish asked Merrill to say a few words for Sagamore, but he could only stutter.
Ironically, the dog named after an Indian chief left this earth in one of the least heroic ways go. John would say it was karma for having such an ignorant name. The dog’s burial is dignified, however, thanks to Owen’s vision. Merrill appears less at ease with such spontaneous, untraditional ceremonies. His faith is more formal.
Owen was the one who found the words: “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE […] WHOSOEVER LIVETH AND BELIEVETH IN ME SHALL NEVER DIE.” Owen would preside over all the town’s rituals.
Owen speaks over Sagamore’s grave with a tone of considerable gravity. Given that the deceased dog was probably not a “believer”—his owner certainly wasn’t—Owen’s words are not particularly relevant, but he is compelling nonetheless. He speaks as if he is Jesus: “I am the Resurrection…”
In the Christmas of 1953, John says he was mostly unaware of Owen’s orchestrations. He couldn’t tell if the Meanys celebrated Christmas—they had no decorations except for a battered wooden crèche, where Mary’s eyes and one of Joseph’s hands were missing, and the baby Jesus himself was nowhere to be found. In Owen’s room, the dummy stands at the head of his bed, close enough for him to touch. John imagines that Owen must be keeping other things out of sight—his baseball cards, the fatal baseball, the armadillo’s claws, and the missing baby Jesus.
Most of Owen’s designs only become apparent to John in hindsight, sometimes many years later. That Christmas, John notes the Meanys’ battered crèche. In retrospect, one could say that the blind Mary represents the blindness of most Americans, Joseph and his missing hand represent John and his future loss (both physical and psychological), and the absent Jesus represents the loss of Owen Meany.
Mr. Meany is pleasant whenever John stops by with Owen, but Mrs. Meany only stares into the distance, or into the fireplace. When John mentions that Owen is playing Jesus in the pageant, Owen hits him—his parents don’t know about his role. John says that Owen is both the star and the director of the show, making Owen hit him again. Mrs. Meany stares at Owen with a strange, confused look of shock and resentment. Outside, John asks Owen if he said anything wrong, but Owen doesn’t explain.
Owen’s parents, especially his mother, continue to act cryptically around their son. Owen hasn’t told them about what he’s doing in the Christmas pageant, and they seem especially shocked to hear that he’s playing the Baby Jesus—even when one takes into account the fact that it’s an unusual role for just about any child Owen’s age.
John goes back inside to get his hat. In Owen’s room, he finds Mrs. Meany sitting on Owen’s bed, staring at Tabitha’s dummy. Without looking at John, she says, “I’m sorry about your poor mother.” Walking down the hill later, Owen and John pass under the railroad trestle bridge just as The Flying Yankee, the express train from Portland, Maine, to Boston, thunders overhead. The boys are thrilled to watch the speeding train cross over their heads for the first time. John believes it is a great coincidence of timing, but Owen doesn’t believe in coincidences—he believes that everything happens by design.
Evidently, Mrs. Meany can move from her perch by the window, and she can speak. She can’t look at John, however. The experience of crossing under a bridge as a rare express train is going over provides another example of John and Owen’s separate ways of thinking: John believes—or used to believe—in chance, while Owen believes in holy design.
The maid who replaces Lydia is named Ethel. Ethel is a robust, strong worker, but she in’t very bright or self-assured. Unlike Lydia, she is no fun for John and Owen to scare. The second maid is named Germaine, and she is young, extremely timid, and incredibly clumsy. In a generous and practical gesture, Harriet donates all of Tabitha’s clothes to Germaine after Tabitha dies, but she didn’t realize how upsetting it would be to see someone else wearing her daughter’s familiar clothing.
For someone who takes pride in running her own household “grandly,” Harriet manages to hire the most inept pair of maids to replace Lydia. Perhaps after losing Lydia’s expert help around the house, her heart wasn’t in it. John mostly thinks of the maids in terms of how they can amuse him—are they pretty? Are they fun to frighten?
Unlike Ethel, Germaine makes a great target for John and Owen to scare, and they frequently do. She is superstitious, and Owen’s size and voice disturbs her. Once, Harriet asks whether the Meanys have ever tried to fix Owen’s voice. John says that Tabitha suggested Owen visit her voice teacher for a consultation, but Owen would never go. He thinks his voice has a purpose, or a reason for being the way it is—he thinks it comes from God.
If Owen and John take pleasure in terrorizing Germaine, one would sympathize with her hostility towards the boy whom she doesn’t work for. Owen doesn’t believe that his voice should be treated; it should be left as God gave it.
Germaine, overhearing, counters that Owen’s voice comes from the Devil. Harriet says both ideas are nonsense—Owen’s voice surely comes from the granite dust. She then asks whether Owen ever kept the information about Tabitha’s voice teacher. John lies and says no, wanting to explore this information privately.
Germaine claims that Owen’s voice has a more diabolical origin. It frightens her—but the voice of God is often frightening to people in religious stories. Tabitha trusted Owen enough to give him the name of her voice teacher, which she kept from her family.
One afternoon when John and Owen are exploring a room on the second floor of the dorm, they hear another master key unlocking the door. John rushes into the closet while Owen hides under the bed. Mr. Brinker-Smith and Mrs. Brinker-Smith enter, laughing that it is finally “Nap time!” They live on the first floor, making their visit to the second floor unexpected, and the boys realize that the couple is following the same mission that they are—to stop in every room. They would have sex in every bed in the building.
The young voyeurs finally see more than they were looking for. Apparently the temptation of an entirely empty residence hall is irresistible to everyone. The couple seem to be trying to recapture their youth and escape the responsibilities of their children for a while.
After that afternoon, the boys decide to return to playing at Harriet’s house. They’re there on the day when Mr. Morrison, the mailman, tells Harriet to tell Dan that he’s quitting the show. Owen tries to talk him into staying on, explaining why the Ghost of Christmas Future is such an important part even with no lines. But Mr. Morrison isn’t convinced that simply acting like he knows the future is scary.
Surprisingly, Owen and John, once so eager to see a woman in the nude, make no effort to stake out the next room and witness the couple in action again. They really were too young to see sex firsthand. They have glimpsed the future, however, and it was rather frightening.
Standing behind Owen, Harriet thinks that nothing is scarier than the future, or someone who knows it. The rest of the household stands behind her, rapt. Mr. Morrison finally leaves, and Owen calls Dan to tell him what happened. He volunteers himself as Morrison’s replacement. Owen couldn’t be happier to have a nonspeaking part, so he won’t have to use his laughable voice. Like the Christ Child, he has to project a staggering presence—to convey his knowledge of the future without uttering a word.
Harriet has the experience to know that Owen is right—the future is frightening—but Mr. Morrison can’t see it. Owen takes the opportunity to nominate himself for the vacant role after realizing how important a part it is. He has already shown himself to be capable of silencing a crowd without saying anything.
Dan is initially skeptical, but Owen convinces him to let him rehearse that afternoon and test the reactions of the cast. John already knows what Owen’s test will prove—he can see how unsettled Owen has made Harriet and the maids. Indeed, Dan reports that night that Owen was a stunning success, striking terror into everyone, even Mr. Fish as Scrooge, who screamed when he saw Owen’s face under the ghostly hood. Dan even heard that Mr. Early’s daughter wet her pants. Mr. Fish comes by the house after dinner, and they worry that Owen might be too scary.
Owen naturally has a very unsettling presence due to his extraordinary maturity for his age and his size. When he purposefully plays up his disconcerting aura, he is terrifying. He is like the angels of God who people find frightening, like Tabitha’s supposed angel.
Mr. Fish is leaving just as Owen arrives at the door, and he steps out just as Owen is reaching to ring the bell. The unexpected sight of Owen sends him jumping backward into the hall. “Speak of the Devil,” Dan says. Mr. Fish starts humming a Christmas carol to himself “as the little Lord Jesus stepped inside.”
In this one brief scene, Owen is called both “the Devil” and “the little Lord Jesus.” To outsiders, his true nature is somewhat ambiguous, but John never doubts Owen’s humanity and friendship.