A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Owen has established himself as a prophet—one who knows the future, and can even orchestrate it as he wills. He is a scene-stealer in A Christmas Carol. Dan is concerned, however, by the number of small children who burst into tears when Owen comes onstage—surely not what Dickens intended. He takes some comfort from the fact that Owen seems to be coming down with a cold, which might detract from his ghostly presence onstage by humanizing him.
As Dan worried, Owen is indeed too frightening for the purpose of a family entertainment, despite the fact that he is still—in theory—a child, himself. He’s playing an infant in the Christmas pageant, after all. But in neither role is he childlike—his “baby Jesus” is more “Jesus” than “baby.”
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Mr. Morrison would surely also wish for Owen’s presence to be somewhat diminished—he is upset to hear what a terrific splash Owen has made in the part. John wonders if Owen’s parents know about his impressive performance. Dan asks Owen if he would like to invite his parents to the show, but Owen insists they wouldn’t enjoy it. “Anything you say, Owen,” Dan tells him. Like Tabitha, he understands that Owen is not shown affection at home.
Owen continues to keep his roles a secret from his parents. He doesn’t seem to long for their praise like another child might—he is remarkably self-sufficient for an eleven-year-old. But adults like Dan and Tabitha can still perceive in him an unfulfilled need for love and affection.
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Owen gets a curtain call all to himself on Saturday night, and a girl faints when he pulls back his hood. His face is whitened with baby powder and his eyes are darkened with eyeliner. But his cold is getting worse, and he’s coughing frequently. Dan tells John that he might have to play Owen’s part if Owen is too sick, but John thinks that Owen has already chosen his role for him—“just a Joseph.”
Owen’s ghostly aura terrifies girls into fainting—extreme reactions that feed the stereotype of feminine weakness and hysteria. Even John is drawn into Owen’s all-seeing air, trusting that Owen is right to deem him “a Joseph.”
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That Sunday, the day of the church Christmas pageant, Owen arrives at Harriet’s house layered in winter clothes, including a “lucky” scarf that Tabitha once gave him after she learned that he didn’t own one. He coughs horribly while he and John walk to the church. Owen is very disappointed that Harriet isn’t coming to the pageant, being too worried that she could slip and fall on the icy pavement. They run into Mr. Fish on the way there, who doesn’t normally go to church but wants to see Owen’s performance. Dan joins them, and they arrive at Christ Church.
Owen seems to care more for Tabitha and even Harriet than he cares for his own parents, whether Harriet is aware of his esteem or not. She has expressed only her objections to Owen’s voice thus far, leaving Tabitha and Dan to be the fond and affectionate ones. Her aloofness towards Owen is seemingly no worse than whatever treatment he receives at home, though.
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The Wiggins are outside the church with the Merrills. Barb hurries Owen inside to be wrapped in his swaddling clothes while the Merrills look scandalized to hear that Owen is playing the Christ Child. Owen is very picky about how Barb swaddles him—he finally insists that she wrap him in his scarf, then the cotton swaddling cloth on top.
The Merrills’ shocked reaction to Owen as the Christ Child reminds the reader that it really is an unusual role for Owen to play, despite his air of cool nonchalance about volunteering for it. He acts as if he was simply meant to play the part, but not everyone can see it.
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When Owen is finally wrapped to his satisfaction, Barb has to carry him over to the manger, since his legs are bound too tightly together. She wipes his running nose with a handkerchief, and makes him blow. Then she pinches Owen’s cheeks, which she says are too pale, and kisses him on the mouth to make him flush. Owen is furious; the last person to kiss him was Tabitha. When Barb lays him in the manger, it becomes apparent to her and John that Owen has an erection, visible through his tightly swaddled clothes. Owen is angry and humiliated, and Barb finally has her revenge.
Getting ready for his part requires Owen to make himself helpless. To prove his faith, he has to surrender to the will of someone greater than himself. Barb is surely not the person he imagined putting his faith in, and she cruelly takes advantage of his powerless position. She leaves him with an erection, an extremely inappropriate look for a newborn Christ. But the experience is humbling to Owen, perhaps reminding him that he isn’t really Jesus.
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However, Owen miraculously recovers his composure and controls his erection. As Barb mans the controls that raise and lower Harold the angel above the stage, Owen gives her such a withering glare that she freezes. Harold suffers a terribly jerky descent, and predictably forgets his lines in fear. Owen prompts him from below. Mary Beth kneels and lays her head heavily in Owen’s lap, overcome.
Owen overcomes his early adversity just as the newborn Jesus did, summoning an innate dignity that transforms the scene into his sovereign ground. He shatters the composure of a grown woman, and announces his own birth when the tongue-tied angel falters.
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In the heat of the stage lights, a donkey faints, causing a cow to butt a shepherd off the stage. Mary Beth throws herself on top of Owen, who is not strong enough to push her off—he can only prod her off by “goosing” her painfully, out of sight of the audience. He then stares out at the audience, who are in awe of his undiminished stage presence despite error, bad acting, and characters going off-script. Owen sees his riveted parents in the crowd: Mr. Meany looks afraid of his son, while Mrs. Meany is overwhelmed with uncontrollable sobbing.
The scene quickly verges on farce and chaos; only Owen maintains his air of gravity, to the audience’s amazement. His parents seem especially cowed by Owen’s commanding presence. Their fear and tears at the sight of Owen as the Christ Child are puzzling to John, who still doesn’t know what pushed them away from the Catholic Church. Later he will understand that they took Owen’s role literally.
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Owen abruptly sits up in the hay and points into the crowd, yelling, “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING HERE? YOU SHOULDN’T BE HERE!” He is talking to his parents, but the audience can’t tell who he means, so some of them get up to leave along with Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany. Owen tells John to get him out of there, so he and Mary Beth carry him down the center aisle and out of the church. They exit in a spontaneous procession with the rest of the cast following behind as the choir sings. John and Mary Beth deposit Owen in the cab of the granite truck, lying across his parents’ laps. Even the snowplow makes way for Owen as they drive home.
Owen’s reaction to seeing his parents is just as puzzling as their reaction to watching him. He breaks character—or does he?—and screams at his parents to leave. He shamelessly spurns the traditional principle of theater that “the show must go on” regardless of what happens, forcing the show to go along with him instead. John and Mary Beth end up carrying him out, after all, and leave him lying helpless in his parents’ laps in an unsettling image—a grotesque reflection of the Christ child with Mary and Joseph.
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Back in the present in Toronto, it is now February. John remarks on his church’s communion services, expressing his preference for a lightly attended communion, where people don’t have to stand in line like a herd about to feed. He wants communion to be a sacred event, not spoiled by Canon Mackie’s jokes. He manages to find fault in the two wine servers—the Rev. Katherine Keeling shouldn’t serve the wine when she’s heavily pregnant, and the Rev. Mr. Larkin pulls the cup back too quickly and doesn’t wipe the rim of the cup closely enough.
This dark image of what was supposed to be a festive religious celebration colors John’s future experience of religious customs. He is quick to perceive human flaws in sacred rites. Even pregnancy is too human for his sanctified ideas.
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Nonetheless, John expresses his admiration for Rev. Keeling, who is his favorite person to talk to in the church now that Canon Campbell is gone. The other reverends aren’t as willing to talk to him at length—one unsympathetic reverend, who is heavily involved in volunteer projects for the city’s most needy, says John’s worries are all merely in his mind. John thinks this doesn’t make them less painful to him.
Despite his objections to her pregnancies, John respects Katherine Keeling’s keen mind and kind manner. Her clerical peers have less patience for John’s spiritual conflict, being more concerned with meeting the critical material needs of the less fortunate of God’s children. John thinks that his spiritual suffering is just as agonizing.
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John is left to try and talk to Canon Mackie about his frustrations with President Reagan’s nuclear subterfuge, but Canon Mackie turns the conversation towards John’s disappointment in the recent Vestry elections. He points out that John’s strong opinions (a distinctively American trait) could be alienating him from the rest of the church, as “it’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions.” John insists he is Canadian, but Mackie points out that John talks about America more than any American he’s ever met. John’s constant anger about America isn’t very Canadian, either—nor is it very Christian.
Unsurprisingly, a Canadian reverend is less than enthused about discussing the behavior of an American president—there are enough people out there who make a living talking about the President, and the Canon’s profession is not (supposed to be) a political one. But John seems to have no real friends of his own to converse with—possibly because he only wants to talk to his fellow Canadians about American politics. His anger prevents him from finding friends or finding peace.
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Mackie believes that John lives in the past, and even John himself wonders if his fondness for Canon Campbell is part of his inability to let go of the past. He imagines that if Campbell were still alive today, he might be as frustrated with John’s stubbornness as Mackie is. Mackie points out that John’s recent speech about Christmas at the Parish Council meeting—in which he said that he found Christmas depressing—surely also hurt his candidacy. The church greatly relies on Christmas for the success of its missions and its general livelihood, but John can’t see past his own bitter history with Christmas.
John does seem to be living in the past—most of the book itself is about his memories. He’s clearly spent years thinking about his childhood and its repercussions on the rest of his life. Perhaps this written account is his attempt to put history to rest for good, so that he can make the most of what life still has to offer. He needs to move on from his own story to re-engage with the rest of the world. If he can’t even understand what Christmas means to other people, he’s very alienated.
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After the Christmas of 1953, the old idyllic vision of Christ’s birth was replaced by the memory of Owen Meany angrily banishing his parents from church, then lying stiffly swaddled across their laps like a mortally wounded patient laid out on a stretcher. “How can you like Christmas after that?” John asks. Outside the church after Owen’s departure, the rest of the children have no idea what to do—fleeing the freezing cold, they push their way back into the church. People are exiting early, confused and disturbed by what they just witnessed.
Owen gave many blessings to John, but one of the things he took from him may have been the comfort of an uplifting holiday like Christmas. Perhaps Tabitha’s death had already taken that from him, but Owen’s astonishing behavior during the Christmas pageant made John’s memories of the holiday even more harrowing.
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Mr. Fish is impressed by the drama of the Nativity—he thinks Owen’s improvisations are part of the biblical account. When John goes to gather his and Owen’s clothes, he finds Mary Beth weeping on top of Owen’s things. She is distraught to think that Owen now hates her. Her hysterics make John furious—she imagines that she has a special understanding with Owen, but John knows that what she really has is an unconscious desire to “take him home and lie on top of him.”
Mr. Fish, unfamiliar with the real Nativity story, mistakes Owen’s shocking interruption for actual events. John is rather jealously possessive of his understanding of Owen—he doesn’t want to share Owen with a girl (who is implied to be struggling with her own feelings).
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Barb grabs John as he finally leaves with Owen’s clothes and shakes him, ordering him to tell Owen that he must come see her before he’s allowed back into the church. John tells Dan everything that happened between Owen and Barb, worried that Owen will shun the Episcopalians as he has shunned the Catholics. Mr. Fish suddenly observes that Harold is still hanging in the stage’s rafters. Dan uses his theatrical expertise to lower Harold in his harness to the ground. Harold has thrown up all over himself and ruined his costume, but Dan still picks him up and carefully carries him over to Barb to confront her.
Barb is hell-bent on regaining control over their church like she use to have over her airplane. If it came to a battle of wills, though, Owen would rather leave the church forever than concede to a woman as tyrannical as Barb. John senses that there’s something wrong with Barb’s enraged attitude towards a mere child, and Dan agrees. Barb has allowed her resentment of Owen to blind her judgment and distract her from her responsibilities to the other children.
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Dan tells Barb that he doesn’t want to have to tell the Vestry members the story of how she left Harold hanging twenty feet about a concrete floor. He tells her that she will not give Owen any ultimatums—Owen is welcome in the church anytime, without her permission, and if the rector wants to talk about Owen, he can talk to Dan. Barb quickly becomes eager to please, helping Harold get into cleaner clothes just before his mother arrives.
Barb surrenders her quarrel with Owen so quickly that she appears even more contemptible. She did have a fair cause to be angry with Owen—his outrageous outburst and spontaneous exit utterly derailed the program, and he showed little regard for the success of the show he had insisted on taking over. Her fury with Owen was far too personal, but someone probably should have held Owen accountable for his rudeness.
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John wishes he was back at Sawyer Depot for Christmas Eve. This year, he and Dan are going to the final production of A Christmas Carol, then the cast party—planning to occupy them for as much time as possible, so they won’t grieve Tabitha’s absence. Harriet almost refuses to join them at the show, since Lydia is sick and she doesn’t want to leave her alone with only Germaine for company. But she finally agrees to go, and John escorts her to the performance, where she makes her usual regal entrance.
John goes to see A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, the night when the story is supposed to take place. The real world and the world of the play will collide tonight, as Owen will be visited by a vision of the future just as Scrooge is visited by the various ghosts. Harriet’s concern for Lydia nearly prevents her from going out, and her foreboding will be proven right.
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John goes backstage to see Owen, who is so feverish that he barely needs his makeup to look ghastly. On his makeup table, he has traced his name in baby powder. He refuses to explain why he evicted his parents from church the other night, only referencing the old unspeakable “RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION.”
Owen looks even worse after his recent impassioned outburst. He is juggling so many roles—Christ Child, Ghost of the Future, his parents’ son, the child he no longer is—that he perhaps writes his name down to try and remember who he is.
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From backstage, John looks out into the audience. Mr. Morrison is there, as is Rev. Merrill and his family. It occurs to John that many of the same people in the crowd must have also been watching the baseball game the day Tabitha was killed. Mr. Chickering is there, and Chief Pike. John remembers his mother had been waving to somebody in the bleachers before she died—the last person she ever saw. He imagines that she must have been waving at his father. With this idea in mind, he searches the crowd for people who were present at the game.
John observes the world from an unfamiliar perspective, looking out invisibly from behind the scenes. A powerful instinct abruptly rises in him as he takes in this new perspective—an instinct that Owen would call heaven-sent. Despite Tabitha’s account of meeting a man on the train, he suddenly suspects that his father is one of Gravesend’s familiar faces.
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The girls Maureen Early and Caroline Day were at the game. Arthur and Amanda Dowling were also there. Amanda is playing the Ghost of Christmas Past. She challenges sexual stereotypes by dressing in men’s clothing and cutting her hair short, while her husband wears an apron to the grocery store and grows his hair long. If they have a daughter, they will insist in enrolling her in baseball, to Mr. Chickering’s dismay. Amanda serves on the Town Library Board, and believes in banning books that teach children to conform to sexual stereotypes—basically all the classics. She and her husband try out for opposite-gender roles in Dan’s plays.
As John canvasses the faces that he recognizes from the baseball game, Irving expands on the idiosyncrasies of the Gravesend locals. He introduces the characters of Arthur and Amanda Dowling, a couple with strong ideas about gender equality. They’re essentially caricatures of the radical feminist and her emasculated husband. Amanda is basically right about classic literature being full of sexist characters, but her lack of nuance makes her a ridiculous figure, another one of the book’s hysterical women.
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John watches the audience until Owen comes on stage, and he sees their faces transformed by fear. Owen’s cough is not humanizing, but a death rattle. When he points to the grave engraved with Scrooge’s name, he suddenly faints. He regains consciousness by jumping to his feet and screaming, then backing off the stage. Dan and John find him sobbing over his makeup table, burning with fever. Rev. Merrill comes backstage to try and help, and Owen tells him he saw his own name on the grave. Dan hugs Owen and tells him he’s just hallucinating the same story as Scrooge’s grave. John points out that Owen wrote his name on the table earlier, making it easier to imagine.
Owen’s effect upon the audience is more terrifying than ever. However, in an ironic reversal, he gets a dose of his own medicine and tastes the overpowering fear of the future that he inspires in his audience. His “vision” of his gravestone is so clearly a parallel of the plot of the play that it’s easy to dismiss what he saw as a harmless delusion. He even had the engraving of his name in his mind before he went out on stage.
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Merrill drives Owen home and drops John off at Harriet’s house. He seems to believe that Owen had an upsetting “vision,” but not the type of prophetic vision that Owen thinks he saw. John feels upset to be missing the cast party at Dan’s apartment. Harriet’s house is silent. Then John hears Germaine whispering in the secret passageway, praying to herself. Germaine tells him that Lydia died in her bed while Germaine was reading to her. While Germaine was sitting with the body, she had grown spooked, and fled into the secret passageway.
Owen refuses to be comforted by the rational explanations offered by everyone else. He firmly believes in the truth of what he saw. Even Merrill, a man of faith who might be familiar with spiritual visions, refutes Owen’s story, but Owen doesn’t listen. John returns home to find Germaine hiding in the secret passageway and Lydia dead. The ominous mood of the night found its fated victim.
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Harriet imagines that Owen had somehow foreseen Lydia’s death and mistaken it for his own. Germaine agrees, saying that she and Lydia thought they heard a scream right before she died. Dan protests, saying that Owen was simply feverish and prone to an overactive imagination. Germaine is so beside herself that she is put to bed in John’s room. John wants to call Owen, but he has to wait for Germaine to fall asleep.
Everyone tries to rationalize the events of the night differently, believing in certain fateful connections and dismissing the rest as coincidence. Like in the case of Tabitha’s death, everyone has their own particular system of order that they want to fit the unsettling occurrences into, to make them less disturbing.
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As Germaine tosses and turns, John begins to imagine climbing into her bed and taking advantage of her distraught state. He says that he believes her about hearing Owen’s scream, and takes her hand between the beds. But she is soon asleep, and he is left with his shame. He imagines that his lust comes from his unknown father, and wants to find him even more, in order to discover in that man what sins he himself might one day be capable of.
After his secondhand experiences of condoms, passionate sex, and erections, John finally feels the stirrings of his own desires. Like Owen’s on-stage hard-on, John’s desire strikes at an inappropriate moment, and he feels deeply ashamed. John thinks he and his father must be uniquely connected by a terrible lust, but he doesn’t realize he’s far from alone.
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John goes into the kitchen to call Owen. He tells Owen everything that he realized that night about his father, and Owen agrees that John’s instincts regarding the baseball game and stirrings of lust are pointing him in the right direction. He argues that it was not Lydia’s death he saw a premonition of—it was his own gravestone, with his real name on it: Paul. He hangs up on John, who calls him back to ask if he saw a date on the gravestone. Owen hesitates—a giveaway—then says there was no date. John thinks that this is the first time Owen has ever lied to him.
John entrusts Owen with all his private intuitions about his father’s identity. Owen fails to entrust all of his secrets to John, however. He tries to keep from John the fact that he saw a date on the gravestone—the day of his death. Presumably, he lies because he believes the vision is true, and doesn’t want to burden his friend with the knowledge he now carries. Perhaps he understands that John is not meant to know what he knows.
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