Harriet always hated a lack of effort, which is ironic because she never worked in her life, never told Tabitha to work, and never gave John any chores. She thought watching television demanded too little effort. But after she sees a TV in an old folks’ home, she begins to crave one, even as she denounces them for hastening the deaths of the elderly. She finally gets a TV after Tabitha and then Lydia die. Without Lydia to take care of, Germaine soon resigns.
Television insinuates itself into even the most resistant of households. The device becomes linked to the decline of Harriet’s household.
John and Owen didn’t know what would be on TV—they were only familiar with the films shown in town, mostly Tarzan movies or biblical epics. Owen found the biblical epics “SACRILEGIOUS.” When the TV comes, Harriet watches it all day long, but her passion is born from contempt—commenting on the trashy shows on TV gives her endless energy and purpose.
The town movie theatres run either Tarzan films that indulge people’s fantasies of living an uncivilized existence, or biblical films that remind them about proper religious values. Ironically, the conservative citizens of Gravesend enjoy both types of films equally.
Harriet and Owen both appreciate one show, at least—The Liberace Show, featuring the flamboyant piano prodigy Liberace. John cannot understand their love for such a kitschy performer, whose attention to his costumes surpassed his attention to his music. Liberace is rumored to be gay, but he fiercely denies the rumors and successfully sues a newspaper for libel, much to Owen and Harriet’s delight.
Criticizing everything on TV makes Harriet feel happily superior to everybody else, and even John can’t help feeling superior to her and Owen in their love for Liberace, a campy popular pianist. Homophobia was especially strong at this time, and many of Liberace’s fans would have been horrified if he were gay.
John complains to Dan about feeling left out of this ridiculous phenomenon. Dan is a good listener, patient and devoted to children. He may not have initially planned to teach at Gravesend Academy until his retirement, but losing Tabitha led him to dedicate himself to the education of “the whole boy,” which is what Gravesend Academy sought to promote in its pupils. Unlike many of his fellow faculty members, he actually believes that it’s harder to be a teenager than an adult, and is sympathetic to the problems of the adolescents in his care. He also believes it’s hard to be elderly. He tells John to have more empathy for Harriet, who has suffered many losses.
John doesn’t understand why Harriet and Owen like Liberace. Thankfully, he has Dan for a stepfather, an understanding man who has great empathy for everyone from children to the elderly. John, who tends to be more judgmental of people, could use some of Dan’s compassion. Dan understands that Harriet has little left to take happiness from now that both her daughter and her closest companion are gone.
John still thinks it’s absurd for Owen, who thinks he’s so smart, to adore Liberace, but Dan reminds him that Owen is not worldly—he has never even left Gravesend. Dan dismisses a lot of Owen’s eccentricities to his stilted and superstitious upbringing, but John thinks this is too simplistic a theory. He thinks Dan is too simplistic in his thinking about the Academy too—Dan thinks the Academy can save any boy, and Owen just has to make it there to be rid of his family’s superstitions.
Dan explains that Owen finds Liberace so great because he’s seen so little of the world. His sheltered childhood has given him little exposure to sophisticated art. The flamboyant Liberace is the opposite of buttoned-up Gravesend sensibilities, and it’s thrilling to Owen—another rebellion, perhaps. Dan thinks Owen will see everything clearly after going to Gravesend Academy, but John is more skeptical.
Martha and Alfred Eastman also believe in the saving graces of a private education, and they have high hopes that sending Noah and Simon to Gravesend Academy will save them from the dangers of growing up in rural, uncivilized society—mainly driving drunk and having unprotected sex out of sheer boredom. Noah and Simon have wild natures, and they need the heavy workload and strict, numbing routine of Gravesend Academy to wear them down. They are less worried about civilizing Hester.
Martha and Alfred have certain fixed notions about who needs the benefits of a private school education: namely, boys. Even after watching all three of their children grow up wild, they still insist on denying what’s before their eyes and pretending that Hester is inherently different from her brothers.
While the boys all prepare to go to the academy, Hester has only the public high school to look forward to. She becomes angry that her parents won’t give her the same educational opportunities—or the same chance to be saved—as her brothers.
Hester doesn’t want the life that her parents are stubbornly raising her for—a life in which she doesn’t need a strong education because she will marry someone to support herself instead of pursuing her own goals.
Owen and Harriet bond over their love for Liberace and their disdain for everything else, and Harriet becomes a champion for Owen’s studies at the academy. When Owen protests that his parents can’t afford the kind of clothes boys have to wear to the academy, Harriet promises to take him shopping. Owen has no problem earning admission and a full scholarship with his stellar grades, but John has to repeat a year of school before the academy will admit him. Owen could have skipped a grade, but instead he faithfully decides to stay behind with John and help him with his homework—as he promised Tabitha he would. “I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU,” he tells John.
Harriet finally returns the respect that Owen has always had for her. Exchanging scornful comments on the low quality of TV shows—all except for Liberace—reveals them to have similar tastes and intellects. Like Tabitha, she wants Owen to transcend his low origin and limited means and fulfill his full potential at Gravesend Academy. Meanwhile, the rightful Wheelwright heir can’t get into the Academy without an extra year of school. Owen proves his loyalty as a friend and follows John.
Back in the present, Liberace has just died at age sixty-seven, allegedly of AIDS. He reversed his former public opposition to homosexuality before he died, but never admitted to being gay.
From the present, John reports the news of Liberace’s death. Irving perhaps interjects this fact here to show how much the world has changed since Owen and Harriet first loved the star.
Over Thanksgiving in 1954, the Eastmans come to Gravesend and see Harriet’s television. Simon likes everything, and Hester hates everything. Noah is in his first year at the academy, and is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of his classes. The Eastmans decide to take a relaxing Caribbean vacation over Christmas, leaving Owen disappointed by yet another lost opportunity to see Sawyer Depot.
Simon, who likes to lose himself in fights and other pursuits of adrenaline, loves the content on television that appeals to people’s baser instincts. Noah is struggling at Gravesend, perhaps proving to his parents that gender does not determine intellectual capability.
Owen has become disenchanted with Christmas pageantry, and religious pageantry in general, after the disastrous pageant of the year before. He denounces the Catholic adoration of “OBJECTS” that manifests in biblical films and in representations like statues. He especially hates the statue of Mary Magdalene erected near the playground of St. Michael’s parochial school, the school Owen would have attended if his parents had not switched religions. Mary Magdalene, posed in a stone archway, makes a tempting target for balls and pucks, but the nuns living nearby keep an eye out for troublemakers.
Owen once wanted to stage a perfected scene of the Nativity, complete with him at the center in his rightful place. The resulting disaster soured his feelings towards pageantry, especially Catholic representation. His animosity towards Catholicism has only worsened since his confrontation with his parents at the Christmas pageant. He identifies Catholicism with the statue of Mary Magdalene, which looms large in his mind.
Owen is afraid of nuns. Ironically for such an unusual boy, he thinks they are “UNNATURAL”—but he and John can’t resist throwing chestnuts at the statue every fall, or covering its feet with tadpoles in the spring. The nuns give chase if they see them, but Owen and John can outrun the “penguins.” In the spring of 1957, Owen is especially keen on vandalizing the statue. He and John had seen the movie The Ten Commandments just before Easter, which Owen found to be a terrible time for such a release—showing the story of Moses during the time dedicated to Jesus. Moreover, he hated seeing the parting of the Red Sea on screen: “YOU CAN’T TAKE A MIRACLE AND JUST SHOW IT.”
Owen seems to find nuns more unnatural than priests, for whatever reason. Both priests and nuns are required to be celibate, but Owen seems to find a woman’s choice to forgo a family for a closer relationship with God more unnatural than a man’s. The nuns don’t even get the authority and the respect that priests do, since only men can lead and preach in Catholicism. For someone like Owen, who loves being an authority, perhaps it’s unthinkable to make such a sacrifice without gaining anything. His objection to the material representation of miracles and saints leads him to vandalism.
Owen and John continue trying to solve the mystery of John’s father by watching the crowds at Dan’s shows and searching their memories for who was at the baseball game. They decide that Mrs. Merrill never would have gone to a game, not being a fan of baseball, and Rev. Merrill wouldn’t have gone without his wife. They agree that they would have remembered the Wiggins making a spectacle of themselves if they had been there. Owen cautions John not to forget the likelihood that if his mother had thought his father would be a good influence, she wouldn’t have kept his identity secret. He should be prepared for disappointment.
The idea that the boys could identify John’s father by remembering who was at the baseball game is fanciful, but they take their deliberations seriously. Perhaps their latest quest is yet another search for meaning in that terrible accident—they want to believe that some illuminating revelation can be born from such a random tragedy. Finding a father in the same moment John lost a mother would be apt. Or perhaps the boys just take comfort from returning to the moments before they lost their innocence.
By the Christmas of 1957, both Noah and Simon are juniors at the academy—Noah having been held back a year. At Sawyer Depot High School, Hester skipped a grade to end up in the same graduating year as her brothers. John is disappointed not to see more of Hester, whom he has un-cousinly feelings for. Owen tells him that Hester is probably too dangerous for him, but she would probably consider going out with him to drive her family crazy.
Noah, Simon, and Hester end up in the same year of school like triplets, a matched set from beginning to end, but their parents still insist on separating them by gender. John can’t shake his mildly incestuous crush on Hester, but Owen points out it’s exactly the kind of sexual taboo Hester would probably embrace for the purpose of shocking and embarrassing her family.
Hester is determined to scandalize her family to punish them for denying her the same freedoms and opportunities as her brothers. In 1957, the Eastmans stay home for Christmas instead of returning to the Caribbean after Hester became involved with a native boatman the previous year. They still don’t invite John and Owen to Sawyer Depot, to the boys’ regret. They’re both fifteen, and slightly in love with Hester.
Hester wants to act as un-ladylike as possible in protest of how gender norms have crippled her freedom. Her parents return to the tactic of keeping her at home where they can try and keep an eye on her. Perhaps they can tell that inviting boys over would be an invitation for trouble.
Back in the present year, it’s Palm Sunday. John always finds the week before Easter to be exhausting—he worries that Jesus couldn’t possibly have come back to life after all that he suffered before his death. Christmas is a much easier story to swallow, being more believable and more upbeat than the saga of Jesus’s death and rebirth. But the Resurrection is the central miracle to Christianity, and faith in it is necessary to be a Christian.
John finds the Easter holiday to be more trying than the Christmas holiday, although he seems to find the Christmas holiday trying as well lately. Owen made Christmas more like Easter, acting more like a tortured martyr than a bringer of peace and light. John’s experience should have shown him that the miracle of peace on earth—the miracle promised by Christ’s birth—is nearly as impossible to have true faith in in as the miracle of the resurrection.
After the Palm Sunday service, John heads to the dining hall of The Bishop Strachan School, where he teaches. He reflects on the clothes that the boarders—all girls—are wearing on the weekend. He thinks that the girls dress badly when they aren’t wearing their uniforms; he thinks they must prefer not having to worry about what to wear most of the time. He wonders if they dress with him in mind on Sundays, since he is frequently the only man who comes to the boarders’ lunch on Sundays.
John judges the outfits of the girls at the boarding school, thinking that they don’t know how to dress themselves. He (rather naively and self-centeredly) imagines that they must think about him as much as he thinks about them, and dress with him in mind.
Rev. Katherine Keeling, the headmistress, oversees the meal. John thinks she is fantastic, but finds her too thin. He sees her not eating at lunch, but admits that her clerical collar makes her look more underweight than she really is. He says she’s his closest friend now that Canon Campbell has died. The previous principal of Bishop Strachan, Old Teddybear Kilgour, hired John on Campbell’s recommendation twenty years ago. John teases Katherine by asking her if she would have hired him at that age—a young, single American man applying to teach at an all-girls school. Kilgour trusted John to take his faculty responsibilities seriously, and not become involved with any students.
John can’t even stop from thinking critically about Rev. Keeling, an accomplished adult woman who surely knows how to take care of herself. John’s thoughts about the girls and women he is surrounded by are not sexual in nature, but they are paternalistic and patronizing. He thinks it is his place to tell the women in his life how they should dress and eat. Kilgour trusted him not to take advantage of the young, impressionable female students he would be teaching, and he has not betrayed that trust, but he has not shed his lifelong sexist tendencies.
Katherine reminds John of Harriet in a way—they both have a gift for sarcasm and diction. He thinks Harriet and Owen would have liked Katherine. He says the Sunday boarders’ lunches are an important ritual to him, combatting loneliness. After lunch, he and Katherine sign up to pray together during an All Night Vigil. John thinks that Katherine is “wise and kind and witty and articulate; and she does not bullshit herself about what Easter means.”
John certainly admires the strong female figures in his life, putting Katherine and Harriet on a similar level as the exceptional Owen Meany, but he is still susceptible to condescending thoughts about most women.
A week later, on Easter Sunday, the weather has miraculously changed from cold and rainy to humid and summery. John compares the change in weather to walking into the bright light from inside the dark tomb where Jesus’s body once lay. John thinks of Owen when he says to Katherine, “He is risen.”
Easter dawns bright and warm, a promising sign of hope and rebirth. Though the details of Owen’s death are not yet revealed, John is still clearly associating him with Christ, and hoping for Owen’s own resurrection.
In the summer of 1958, Owen and John turn sixteen and get their drivers licenses. Owen gets his license first, because he had already learned to drive on the quarry roads in his father’s trucks. Dan teaches John to drive that summer in the mornings before his daily rehearsals for Julius Caesar.
Owen and John are officially no longer children, but well on their way to adulthood. No longer dependent on parents to drive them around, they can seize their own autonomy. Owen is also no longer the tiny, pitiable figure struggling to pedal his bicycle up a steep hill, but now a young man driving himself.
In the evenings, Owen drives Mr. Meany’s tomato-red pickup truck down to the boardwalk at Hampton Beach with John. They drive along the strip and look at girls until a cop pulls them over and tell them to look on foot. But if the girls rarely look back at Owen and John when they are driving, they stare and laugh at them when they’re walking, due to Owen’s size. Owen also gets hassled by the other guys around. So he and John leave the boardwalk and head back to Gravesend, or sit on the deserted beach or harbor.
Owen and John don’t get particularly far with their new privileges—they’re still peering out from the truck at a world out of their reach, like the children sneaking into the high schoolers’ dorm rooms and watching the adult audiences of Dan’s shows.
The boardwalk girls may have ignored them, but John notices that women find Owen attractive. He has a confidence borne from earning his way in the world, and from being in command of himself and others. Girls want to touch him, like Mary Beth all those years ago. Then he develops muscles from his hard labor in the quarries with Mr. Meany, and starts smoking a pack a day. The work and the cigarettes give his face a gaunt, adult quality. He and John still discuss breasts, but they compare their classmates’ chests now. They despair that the girls their age all want to date older boys, but await their eighteenth birthdays, when they’ll get their classmates back and the younger girls, too.
Now that he’s a teenager, Owen’s exceptional maturity is less unsettling and more compelling. His self-assured attitude is impressive to his peers, normal teenagers in the grips of adolescent uncertainties and insecurities. In the pampered town of Gravesend, few can match his rough image. Unfortunately, neither he nor John have matured past objectifying the women they know and speaking of them as if boys are entitled to their favors.
In the fall of 1958, when John and Owen finally start at Gravesend Academy, Owen looks especially sophisticated in the clothes Harriet had bought him in Boston. He isn’t scared of the bigger boys because he is used to being smaller, and he isn’t scared of the older boys because he always knoww more than them. The boys admire cynicism and rebellion above all else, and Owen had mastered sarcasm from Harriet. He is nicknamed Sarcasm Master; John never gets a nickname. Owen writes essays for the school newspaper, The Grave, under the pen name The Voice. His articles are always published in capital letters, which is part of his plan to become a school “INSTITUTION.”
After worrying for years that he wouldn’t fit in at Gravesend Academy because of his lower-class background, Owen takes the school by storm. He carries himself with more authority than any other first-year student. He even embraces the full potential of his voice, instead of allowing himself to be silenced by self-consciousness. John, meanwhile, seems too timid or self-consciousness to ever stand out and earn a nickname. Owen’s regular publications in The Grave are ironic, given how death shadows his life.
Gravesend students embrace The Voice as a new institution—Owen is their voice, speaking up for their causes, asserting their dignity in an environment where they are belittled by the adults. He can also criticize the student body, however, for failing to be open-minded or self-aware, or for bullying. He even speaks out against drinking and drugs, showing a fearlessness towards his peers’ judgment.
Owen has never hesitated to speak the blunt truth, and his newspaper editorials are no different. Believing that God had a purpose for giving him his voice, he seems to have realized that such a gift was meant to be used, not muted. He’s not interested in pandering or pleasing a crowd, but in voicing his principles.
That spring, Owen dares to invite Hester to the senior ball as a freshman. He had sent her every issue of The Grave, and she loved the irreverence. She has lost a substantial amount of weight, and mastered a subtle aura of danger and maturity for her age. She dresses well, although John thinks “her body belonged in the jungle, covered only essentially.” She wears a fitted, short, plunging black dress to the dance, and Owen wears an elegant tuxedo Harriet had bought for him. Unlike the other boys, who have to escort their dates straight to the visitors’ dorms, Owen gets to drive Hester back to Harriet’s house.
Owen steps in where John cannot—or will not—and claims Hester for himself. Hester has made herself sexier to male eyes than ever, as John notes her weight loss and thinks that her body is so naturally perfect that it should be observed bare in the wilderness. John’s hopeless preoccupation with Hester’s body seems to get in the way of a deeper understanding of her character.
Other boys brag about their sexual escapades, but Owen does not. Noah and Simon assume Hester had slept with him—“Hester fucks everybody!” Simon claims—but the couple never say how they spend their evening. After the dance, The Voice denounces both the crass bragging of boys claiming to have taken advantage of their dates, and the chaperones’ rapid policing of any forms of affection.
At last, Owen is respectful enough of a woman not to announce what he’s seen and thinks of her body. He even criticizes his peers who speak of their dates in this way. Perhaps he finds such locker-room talk acceptable in the abstract, as a boy’s harmless fantasy, but objectionable in reference to real relationships.
In the search for a new headmaster for Gravesend Academy, the candidates for the job are given subscriptions to The Grave, and they are also given private meetings with The Voice. Several of the faculty object to this, but the faculty adviser to The Grave, Mr. Early, supports Owen. The current headmaster, Archibald Thorndike, also supports Owen, calling him “a delightful little fella” and saying that he “wouldn’t miss reading The Voice—not for all the world!” “Thorny” is an old-school type who believes in “the whole boy,” and believes that well-educated men will improve society by criticizing it. Thorny is nice, but a fool when it comes to managing and modernizing a school.
Owen’s influence extends beyond his peers to the adult realm when he becomes involved in the recruitment of a new headmaster. The current headmaster reads his essays faithfully and supports his practice of intelligent dissent, but not all of the adults at the school are won over by Owen’s wit and bold opinions. They feel threatened by his sharp intellect and willingness to challenge authority. A new headmaster could easily feel the same hostility.
Over the summer, John gives tours of the school while Owen returns to the quarries. Owen doesn’t talk about Hester, but he is able to score some dates for him and John. They are able to walk the boardwalk after Owen holds his own in a few fights with the punks and earns a reputation as “a mean little fucker.” That fall, Noah and Simon start college in California, while Hester unhappily starts at the state university, where her parents can pay resident tuition. Owen’s cool reputation increases further from dating a college girl.
John gets another boost from his family connections in the form of a nice job at the school, while Owen must return to his family’s tough labor in the quarries. Dealing with the rough quarrymen, perhaps, gives him the backbone to take on much larger boys in scuffles on the boardwalk. Hester’s neglect by her parents continues, and perhaps she takes her revenge by dating the boy who took her mother’s sister from her.
Back in the present, it’s May, and former U.S. senator Gary Hart has dropped out of the running for president after being found in a hotel with a model. John thinks that Hart will surely be back—“remember Nixon?” John criticizes Americans for caring more about sexual infidelity than Constitutional violations like the Iran-Contra affair. Toronto is rejoicing in the sunshine, but John remembers that Owen hated the spring—it meant school was almost over, and he would be going back to the quarries.
John thinks that matters of sexuality are so much less important to ethical and moral standards than critical breaches that lead to true harm. However, the rabid attention Americans pay to sensational sex scandals is grossly disproportionate to their weak response to transgressions like lying to the country and violating the Constitution.
Owen had written a bunch of essays over the summer about the ongoing search for a new headmaster, urging the Search Committee to find someone committed to serving the faculty and the students rather than the alumni and the trustees, who prioritize fundraising above education. Dan argues to the faculty that Owen really loves Gravesend Academy, and his constructive critique is better than blind devotion. Owen’s petition against fish on Fridays is less defensible—he protests against only fish being served in the cafeteria on Fridays for the sake of Catholics who don’t eat meat that day. He wins his case, but it seems more frivolous—and more personal—than his other campaigns. He still calls nuns “penguins,” and often asks, “DO YOU THINK THEY’RE ALL LESBIANS?”
Owen doesn’t want a headmaster beholden to outside interests, who won’t put the best interests of his students first. For the students, the selection of a new headmaster is like the election of a new president—they’re powerless, too young to vote for the person who will rule over the next four years of their lives. Owen tries to reclaim the students’ lost power and assert their will in the decision. However, the fact that he hasn’t outgrown his bias against the Catholics doesn’t help his case to add his voice to the adults’. Again, he is more preoccupied with nuns’ sexuality than priests’.
Thorny warns Owen that he’s making enemies, and he should be careful not to give them any way to get him. Although he doesn’t play baseball anymore, once his favorite game, Owen still plays soccer, tennis, and basketball throughout the year. He makes John practice a coordinated “slam-dunk” shot with him, where John boosts him high enough into the air to stuff the ball into the basket. John finds this practice pointless and boring, but Owen says John owes him for all the times he lifted him up unwillingly in Sunday School. He can’t use the move in a game, but he insists “IT’S NOT FOR A GAME.”
Owen’s loud and divisive words could come back to haunt him. As much as he would like to believe otherwise, he cannot really see the future—at least, not all of it. He does seem to see a special future purpose in the trick shot that he insists on practicing with John—the shot that isn’t “FOR A GAME.” But Owen rarely seems to do anything just for a game.
Owen and John have plenty of time to practice over Christmas, as the Eastmans continue to not invite them up to Sawyer Depot. John thinks Martha doesn’t want to encourage Owen’s relationship with Hester—that’s what Hester says, at least, but John also thinks she could be making it up to prejudice Owen against her mother. John also has to spend his vacation writing two late term papers, with Owen’s generous aid. He struggles so much with spelling and other schoolwork that he is enrolled in a remedial course and sent to see the school psychiatrist. At the time he was in high school, learning disabilities like dyslexia weren’t widely understood, and students’ academic difficulties were thought to result from stupidity or psychological issues.
Another Christmas passes in Gravesend, exiled from Sawyer Depot. Perhaps the idea of having John and Owen over is simply too painful for Aunt Martha, still grieving her sister. Perhaps having three young adults home for the holidays is enough trouble without adding two more. Owen and John are left to be each other’s family. John’s difficulty with his high school English papers is surprising given that he becomes an English teacher in the present, but in hindsight he suspects he had undiagnosed dyslexia.
The school psychiatrist, Dr. Dolder, believes that John’s studies are hampered by his past and ongoing psychological traumas, no matter how much John insists that he loves Owen and forgives him for the accident, and loves his stepfather and grandmother and doesn’t mind living in two places. Dolder wants John to bring a baseball to his next session, and bring Owen, too, but John refuses.
Dolder hunts for evidence to support his hypothesis of trauma rather than actually listening to his patient. He has a fixed idea of what the problem must be and refuses to hear otherwise.
Back in the present, John buys a newspaper about Reagan’s illegal support for the Nicaraguan contras. He considers again that the sexual misconduct of politicians is so insignificant compared to the immorality of the president who acts above the law and runs guns to terrorists, but Americans only care enough to be outraged by sexual transgressions.
People frequently choose not to hear what they don’t want to hear. Americans cannot bear to think that their president—the man they chose to represent themselves—is truly corrupt and dishonest. They would rather believe that he is acting with the right intentions and that their country is righteous no matter what.
John is teaching his senior girls Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a nineteenth-century novel about a young woman who was seduced, or raped, and suffered a tragic end. He urges them to pay attention to the meaning of Hardy’s text, but the girls only want to know if they can have class outside tomorrow.
Of course, sexual abuses and abuses of power frequently go hand in hand. Tess’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation is symptomatic of a larger imbalance of power where the rich and aristocratic live without fear of being held accountable for their actions. People don’t like to think that they could be living in such a society.
In the winter of 1959, the minister of Gravesend Academy suffered a bad head injury on the icy steps of the church and Rev. Merrill was hired as his temporary replacement. Merrill had to teach the school’s religion classes, where he preached his “doubt-is-the-essence-of-faith-and-not-the-opposite-of-faith philosophy.” Owen is intrigued by the idea of “belief without miracles.” He protests to Merrill, “BUT EVERYONE NEEDS A LITTLE PROOF.” Merrill insists, “Faith itself is a miracle.”
Merrill, with his Ivy league English degree, is prepared to take over a teaching role. Owen, as usual, has no qualms about challenging any of the school’s teachings. Owen’s concern with proof is rather ironic given his earlier scorn for people who think they need to envision a miracle. Then again, Owen has always taken the unusual facts of his life as “proof” that God is taking an active interest in him.
The rest of the Gravesend boys, including John, are “an atheistic mob,” taken with secular writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Sartre, and Camus rather than with Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Joyce, or Dostoevski. Merrill counters the boys with Kierkegaard, who said that faith “is the greatest and most difficult of all things.” Owen defends Merrill’s ideas to the rest of the class: “JUST BECAUSE A BUNCH OF ATHEISTS ARE BETTER WRITERS THAN THE GUYS WHO WROTE THE BIBLE DOESN’T NECESSARILY MAKE THEM RIGHT!” The Voice tells the school to just hire Merrill as the new minister instead of searching for someone else, and they do.
Aside from Owen, the other students find the theories of secular writers to be more original and compelling than Christian writers, whose ideas seem more familiar on first glance. Merrill makes the case that keeping faith is not childish—it is supremely challenging. Owen accuses his classmates of being caught up by the secular writers’ style and craft rather than evaluating the merits of their conclusions. Of course, Owen is never above making a statement with his own style to counter theirs.
Back in the present, John runs into the mother of a girl in his Grade 12 English class. While he’s talking to her, he thinks of giving a pop quiz on Tess to his class, since he’s sure they haven’t been reading it very carefully. Then he remembers that he and Owen first read the book in Mr. Early’s tenth grade class, when the book shouldn’t have been assigned to them so young. John has even been trying to convince his colleagues to teach it in Grade 13 instead of Grade 12. He struggled mightily when he read it for the first time. “I can’t read this!” he screamed to Owen.
John’s memory is far from perfect, especially for a man who thinks other people forget too easily. He forgot what it was like to be a teenager reading such a difficult book for the first time, fighting to wade through the writing while also trying to endure so many other trials of growing up.
Owen was willing to even read the book aloud to him if that would help, but John refused. Owen says he can either do all of John’s homework for him, or he can teach him how to do it. He wants John to succeed “AFTER I’M GONE,” or at least after high school. He questions John on his plans for the future—work? College? What major? Owen says he’s going to study Geology, and he suggests that John study English. John protests that reading books is difficult, and he hates it, but Owen helps him see that the books are not the problem—the reading is. In the present, he feels terrible for thinking of giving his girls a nasty quiz after remembering how much help he needed.
Owen is deeply devoted to John—for the long term, not just the short term. He recognizes John’s reluctance to take charge of his own life, and tries to guide him towards a rewarding path to follow. However, by continually helping John find his way, Owen prevents him from finally becoming self-sufficient and taking control of his own future. Judging from where John finds himself today, he looks to have followed Owen’s advice exactly.
In the spring of 1960, Gravesend Academy found its new headmaster. Randolph White, or “Randy,” was the headmaster of a small private day school in Lake Forest, Illinois, which John understands to be “a super-rich and exclusively WASP community that does its utmost to pretend it is not a suburb of Chicago.” A few students who came to Gravesend from the Midwest agree that Lake Forest is one of those homogeneous suburbs that exclude black or Jewish families from moving in. White is the only candidate who wouldn’t accept an interview with Owen when he came to visit the school. Education was White’s second career, after running a Chicago meat business. He dresses like a businessman.
Randy refused to meet with Owen, showing himself to be someone who does not care about the student body he is applying to serve. His background implies that he sees his students as objects, not people but silent bodies for him to profit off of. He also doesn’t see people of minority backgrounds as human, as he refuses to live with them.
Owen predicted the trustees would pick White, also being businessmen. They like decision-makers, and don’t care about his lack of educational background. Owen even suggested that White’s admission policy in Lake Forest had excluded black and Jewish students. He tried to say all this in a column, but Mr. Early cut it for its potential for libel. Dan suggested he try to find proof of White’s school’s exclusionary policies, but Owen can only find hearsay.
The trustees in charge of the private institution choose someone who makes decisions quickly—rashly, even, as future events will show. White is not a thoughtful and open-minded leader, but a bully.
Back in the present, John continues to follow the Iran-contra affair in the Canadian newspapers. He vows not to talk about it and confirm his reputation as the obsessed American, but one of his students brings it up in class in order to distract him from the day’s lesson about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. With great self-restraint, John manages to resist her obvious attempt to get him off topic and disguise the fact that she hasn’t done the reading. To himself, he thinks that the Reagan administration is filled with the same kinds of “careless people” who destroy lives in The Great Gatsby.
Like the American president who disregards the principles of the Constitution and the wealthy Buchanans who ruin Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Randy White is “careless” and destructive. America has failed to learn its lesson from the past, allowing such people to spread their damage without restraint and even electing them to positions of greater power.
One of John’s fellow teachers also tries to prompt him into a political rant, but he restrains himself to another line from Gatsby—saying that the Reagan administration demonstrated “an urban distaste for the concrete.” He remembers when Owen taught him how to read better by showing him how to write a complete term paper, and also by making a cheat sheet for him to place over the page he was reading in order to help him keep his place on the page. Owen even encouraged John to learn how to type, since it was easier for him to notice a typewritten misspelling than one in his own handwriting.
Dishonest and ruinous people dislike the “concrete” because they prefer to make up their own rules and practice their own self-serving logic rather than face the truth of their actions. Reading books like The Great Gatsby can help people to recognize these flaws in their society. By teaching John to read and write critically, Owen helped him to see the truth and share it with others.
In the summer of 1960, John and Owen turned eighteen, and they swam in the quarry lake without a rope. They registered for the draft and practiced the slam-dunk shot in the Gravesend Academy gym. They would time themselves and try to make the shot in less than four seconds. In the fall, Owen used the new photocopier in the newspaper office to make blank draft cards as fake IDs. He sold the cards to students for $21 each.
John and Owen are legal adults, leaving some of the protections of childhood behind—like the safety rope in deep water, or the youthful exemption from military service—but Owen’s trick shot follows them into adulthood. No longer being a minor doesn’t make them full adults, however—they can die in battle, but not drink or vote.
Back in Toronto in May, Reagan cites his diary as proof he didn’t bring up aid for the contras with the King of Saudi Arabia. Harriet gave Owen a diary for Christmas in 1960—he called her his “BENEFACTOR.” That fall, Owen had been busy protesting Randy White’s first decisions as headmaster—to build himself a new house on campus, to move the morning assembly from Hurd’s Church to the Great Hall in the Main Academy Building, to abolish the Latin requirement, and to change the school’s dismissal policy from a faculty-wide vote to the vote of an Executive Committee. Many of these initial changes are popular, or neutral, in the eyes of the students and faculty. Owen protests that changing the dismissal policy created an oligarchy, but the school is more preoccupied with the upcoming national election.
Reagan tries to use his own informal record as proof against wrongdoing. The diary of an accused liar doesn’t inspire much trust, though. Owen also kept a diary, which he would never have lied in. White does away with the school traditions that don’t suit him, and the school lets him do this. Owen is the only one who speaks up and objects to measures like making student dismissal subject to the judgment of a small, select committee rather than based on a faculty vote.
Owen organizes a mock election for the student body, and he is a big JFK supporter, to John’s surprise—John F. Kennedy is Catholic. JFK wins the student election in a landslide, although most of the students are too young to vote in the real election—the voting age was still twenty-one, at the time. Randy White begins to talk back to The Voice during the morning assemblies, and he personally replaces Mr. Early as the newspaper advisor. Dan and John warn Owen to be careful.
Owen appears to have grown out of his personal prejudice against Catholics as he considers the nation’s fate—as Kennedy himself would famously say, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Owen can put his private grudge with Catholicism aside for the good of the nation. However, his grudge with White worsens.
After receiving the diary for Christmas, Owen begins to write in it every night. He writes furiously the night after President Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. He is impressed with Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, which he would go on to regularly quote to John: “ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU—ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY.” Owen wants to “BE OF USE WITHOUT BEING USED”; he believes Kennedy is “A KIND OF SAVIOR.”
Owen needs to express his feelings in writing, like John will later do though this book. A Prayer for Owen Meany is strongly yet subtly reminiscent of a diary at times, as John records the present date and the events of the day. Of course, diaries are theoretically private, while John seems to be writing for an audience. Owen’s wish to be useful “without being used” explains a great deal about his noble actions yet bitter attitude.