John feels sick whenever anyone today reminisces positively about the sixties. He thinks that there was practically no irony in those days—everyone was so self-righteous, even in their muddled thinking. Hester failed as a folksinger and songwriter because no one appreciated her irony. When she was just Hester Eastman, an earnest nobody, she flopped. But when she transformed herself into a hard-rock star, a queen of the grittiest and coarsest style of rock ’n’ roll, she became a household name: Hester the Molester.
John hates to hear people recall the sixties with nostalgia. The sixties were a time of stubborn, frequently misguided convictions at odds with one another. Hester eventually learned to harness everyone’s anger and express it in music, and her career took off.
John’s students are impressed that he’s related to Hester, and they always ask him for tickets to her Toronto shows. He goes with them and brings them backstage to meet Hester, where she tells the girls to sleep with him if they want safe sex, because he’s a virgin. The girls giggle at her joke, never imagining that it’s the truth. John is a virgin, and Hester knows it. He no longer has any interest in losing his virginity; what has happened to him has “simply neutered” him, he thinks. Katherine’s husband is partially correct in that John just doesn’t feel like “practicing” anything.
Hester is famous even in Canada. She is eternally blunt about sex, and never lets John forget that she knows he’s a virgin. In Freudian imagery, having his finger cut off was like losing his “doink,” and he says outright that he feels himself to be “neutered” by his past. The lust that once haunted him seems to have been extinguished by the accumulated trauma of so much loss—his mother, his best friend, his home.
Hester has stayed virginal to the memory of Owen Meany—he was the love of her life, and she never became as seriously involved with anyone else. She only sleeps with younger guys who don’t expect anything from her. John thinks that Hester’s music videos are quite ugly, with electric bass distorting her voice and shots of her liaisons with young men intermixed with shots of Vietnam War footage. John’s students’ generation find Hester and her commentary “profound and humane,” which makes John sick. He believes that they were both damaged by what happened by Owen, but Hester has channeled her damage into incredible fame and fortune. She has created “a mindless muddle of sex and protest” out of her and Owen’s suffering. What an irony, John thinks.
Hester herself has been partially neutered by Owen’s loss—she will never share her life with anyone else the way she once did with him. She won’t be perfectly celibate, like John, but she will never have another long-term relationship. As famous as she is, such a life must be as lonely as John’s. Hester doesn’t even have her family to return home to—she has nobody. John looks down on her for misappropriating the pain of the war for sensational songs and music videos, but his female students don’t see it that way.
John thinks Owen would have scoffed at Hester’s music videos. Hester wears lots of crucifixes—she likes them or she likes to mock them. John appreciates her song titles, at least, and he believes that she has an equal right to interpret the silence that Owen left behind. Owen hasn’t left perfect silence behind him, however. John heard from him one night at Harriet’s old house, where John was staying with Dan. They were drinking and talking about Harriet’s last years in the house. They kept her at home as long as they could, even convincing the grocery store to make special deliveries for her. But she was going senile, and she wouldn’t recognize the delivery boys.
John thinks he knows what Owen would say of Hester’s career, but even Owen had a weakness for popular music once. John doesn’t consider that Hester could be writing the music she does in full awareness of Owen’s distaste—she has no obligation to honor the preferences of a man who couldn’t put her first. She could also very well have chosen her career to spite him, as she chose to spite her parents.
Harriet also lost her hair and had to resort to wigs, which she would hide from her maids. Eventually she had to go into the seniors’ home. Dan says that her preserved jellies are still in the secret passageway, and John goes to see them for himself. He can’t find the light switch, and then Dan shuts the door on him. He gropes for the light, and feels something awful to the touch—one of Harriet’s old wigs. He steps backward, yelling, and begins to lose his balance on top of the stairs.
Harriet ended up going into the nursing home that she swore she would never move into, just like she bought the TV that she swore she would never get. In further irony, her unintentional legacy was to leave a scare waiting for someone in the secret passageway, where she always hated to hear Owen screaming.
John is saved from falling to his death by “a small, strong hand” that guides his hand to the light switch and pulls him forward. He hears Owen’s voice saying, “DON’T BE AFRAID. NOTHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU.” When Dan opens the door, he sees that the roots of John’s hair have turned white. The next morning, Dan is somewhat skeptical of John’s claim to have felt and heard Owen. John points out that Owen’s voice is unmistakable, but Dan only says that they were very drunk.
Owen comes to rescue John from the place where John used to scare him (and where both of them would frighten the maids). Once again, Owen assures him that he has nothing to fear. John’s drunken state is a rational explanation for why he could have imagined Owen’s presence, but he has faith in what he witnessed.
The summer of 1967, John’s finger was healing. Owen was promoted to first lieutenant. He helped John start his Master’s thesis on Thomas Hardy, explaining his view that Hardy was almost religious—he came so close to believing that his eventual rejection of religion made him very bitter. He tells John about a line from Hardy’s diary that Hardy wrote to explain his disinterest in theories like religion: “Nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently.”
After John’s amputation, he was free from worries about the war and could focus on finishing his Master’s degree. Owen helps him with his studies one last time, giving him a topic to write about. Hardy represents one possibility for John’s future: a man who just can’t believe because of how meaningless life’s promises seem to be.
Back in the present, it’s August and John is visiting Dan in Gravesend. Harriet left her house to Dan and John when she died, and Dan wants John to move back. John thinks of August as their month to talk about teaching together, and he doesn’t want to talk about moving back to America. He complains to Dan that his students fail to recognize wit in the works they read; he believes they would see more of it if they could see the work performed, like Dan does. Meanwhile, Dan tries to convince him to forgive and forget, and come home already. Even Owen wouldn’t blame the whole country for what happened to him.
A new school year looms, and John is happy to have his teaching to occupy him again. Dan wants John to finally let his decades-old wound heal and return home to America, to Gravesend. But on this question, John has refused to take Dan’s advice for once. He can’t forget what happened to Owen in this country.
“There is too much forgetting,” John thinks. He tried to forget who his father could be, only once calling Mr. McSwiney, who also told him to forget about it. McSwiney told him again that Owen should go see a doctor—there wasn’t any good reason not to fix his voice. In Owen’s case, there really was a reason. John tried to tell Dan and Rev. Merrill about that reason, but they didn’t fully believe him. “I believe you,” Dan said neutrally. Merrill says that to believe the whole story “calls upon more faith than I have.”
John feels like he is the only person who truly remembers what happened to Owen. If he forgets, what Owen did will lose most of its meaning. John doesn’t take many stands, but he takes a stand on the miracle of Owen Meany. Even Merrill can’t bring himself to believe everything John describes.
Merrill insists that it’s harder for him to believe in a supposed miracle as someone who has been both filled with faith and filled with doubt, as compared to John who hasn’t lost his newfound faith yet. He also says that miracles shouldn’t cause faith; one has to already have faith to believe in true miracles. He agrees that Owen was very gifted, and very emotional. He believes that Owen experienced some disturbing visions, but doesn’t believe that every instance of precognition can be ascribed to God.
Merrill has always preached that faith should not depend on miracles—it should be independent of earthly proof. Faith that needs miracles is not true faith. But John and Owen might say in return that believing in God’s influence on earth makes it natural to believe in the possibility of witnessing or experiencing a miracle.
One day in the present August vacation, John lies down on the couch where Hester once laid down while John, Noah and Simon searched the house for Owen. He finds a baseball card under the couch cushions and realizes that Owen had been lying under the couch cushions—under Hester—the whole time they looked for him.
Owen is never gone from John’s life—he continues to appear in the most unexpected of places. He has been there all along, just waiting for the moment to reveal himself.
Harriet’s decline at the seniors’ home was quick and painless; she died in her sleep two weeks before she would have turned one hundred. Her birthday was on Halloween, which she hated. She also would have hated a big celebration that called attention to her age. She died in front of the TV, the remote clutched in her hand, stuck on the button to change the channel.
Thankfully, Harriet did not endure the drawn-out death she feared. The TV that was her primary companion in the last years of her life saw her out of the world. Ironically, she did not die while listening to someone read, like Lydia, even though she always claimed that reading was superior to TV.
In the present, it’s September—time to go back to school. At a staff meeting, John again requested to teach Günter Grass’s book Cat and Mouse to his Grade 13 girls, but another English teacher called the book “nasty,” saying, “The masturbation scene alone is offensive to women.” He finds this female teacher very disagreeable, and is looking forward to catching her off guard with his missing index finger. It’s not grotesque-looking, since Owen made the cleanest cut possible. The only thing wrong with the hand, and the only thing wrong with John, is what’s missing: “Owen Meany is missing.”
John refuses to consider the female teacher’s point of view on the book he wants to teach. To him, she is just an Amanda Dowling type, opposed to any book with a whiff of sexism, regardless of cultural value or artistic merit. Literary censorship is a slippery slope, but John could at least give greater consideration to a woman’s perspective on the harms of misogynistic literature on his young female students. Instead he waits to upset her with his finger, just as he and Owen have always enjoyed upsetting girls.
At the end of the summer of 1967, Hester tells Owen she won’t go to his funeral. She says she’ll do anything—get married, move to Arizona, have his children—except go to his funeral. And she sticks to her word; she doesn’t go to his funeral. Owen never asked her to marry him or move for him, saying it wouldn’t be fair to her. Owen strikes a deal with a Major General at Fort Huachuca who is impressed with his body escort service: if he stays as a body escort for eighteen more months, the Major General will get him “a good job in Vietnam.” Hester questions how Owen could possibly believe in such a thing as “a good job in Vietnam.”
Hester will do whatever it takes when it comes to making a life with Owen Meany, but she wants nothing to do with his death. If he doesn’t love her enough to stay alive with her, she won’t eulogize him. But Owen won’t give up on his mission for her sake, and he won’t give her false hope. They don’t marry, and he continues arranging to go overseas.
Hester and John attend an anti-war march in Washington fifty-thousand people strong. She questions why Owen didn’t also cut off his own finger and save himself, if he’s so smart. John leaves the march, and Hester stays and gets arrested. John thinks that the protestors’ righteousness simply hardened the attitudes of those who supported the war. Rather than “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” as Reagan later claimed the protestors did, they gave fuel to the pro-war Americans.
John is critical of the protestors’ attitudes, but it’s not clear how else they were supposed to voice their opposition to a war they hated. Most young draftees and their peers weren’t even old enough to vote. Powerless to change the government through the ballot, there weren’t many other ways to get the attention of their leaders without being loud and impassioned.
Perhaps the protests worked against the protestors, helping to extend rather than end the war. Either way, it did not end soon enough to save Owen. He was placed in a closed casket, draped with a U.S. flag with his medal pinned to it. He was given a full military funeral with honors, and Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany asked that he be buried in Gravesend rather than Arlington. Rev. Wiggin, a supporter of the war, wanted to hold the funeral in his church, but John convinced the Meanys to hold the service in Hurd’s Church, with Rev. Merrill. Mr. Meany was still mad at Gravesend Academy for kicking Owen out, but John said Owen would be more upset if Wiggin performed his service rather than Merrill.
If the pro-war people in power decided to double down on their support of the war in light of the highly vocal opposition of the youths being sent to die, that’s a separate problem in itself. Owen went to war willingly, and he would die willingly, but the war consumed so many willing and unwilling lives alike, needlessly. John ensures that a pro-war preacher does not preside over Owen’s funeral.
Owen’s funeral was held in the summer of 1968, not long after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and Hair had opened on Broadway within the same month. John is sick of people who pretend to be radical but stand by as tragedy and violence run riot. At the Meanys’ house, Mrs. Meany stares into the dead ashes of the fireplace while Mr. Meany talks with John. He believes that the government has given them $50,000, while John knows that the money came from Harriet. John goes into Owen’s bedroom and sees that Owen attached the severed arms from the statue of Mary Magdalene to Tabitha’s armless dummy. He sees that Owen never unpacked his baseball cards after John gave them back to him. He sees how withered the armadillo’s claws became. He doesn’t see the fatal baseball.
It’s unclear what John wants from his country—he can’t stand the protestors, but can’t specify what opposition he would rather see. He’s certainly not an example of principled advocacy himself. Perhaps he belittles the protestors to ease his own guilt and self-loathing for not getting more involved in stopping the war before it was too late. Harriet has anonymously given the Meanys money to make up for the loss of Owen as a provider. In Owen’s room, John reviews the symbols of Owen’s life. The missing arms of the statue have been fitted onto the dummy—perhaps even Owen found the armless torso too bleak, relentlessly reminding him of his fate.
Mr. Meany says the baseball was never there—he looked for it in Owen’s room for years, and never found it. John unpacks Owen’s duffel bag for his family. Inside is Owen’s diary, his copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings, and his Bible. Mr. Meany sits down with John and tells him that Owen wasn’t born naturally. Mrs. Meany shouts at him to stop talking. Mr. Meany explains that Owen had been a virgin birth, since he and Mrs. Meany never had sex. Nobody ever believed them.
Shockingly, Owen never had the baseball, all along. The ball itself was never symbolic to him—neither was the bat he hit it with. His own hands, guided by God, were always all that he held responsible for Tabitha’s death. At this very moment, John discovers just why Owen so firmly believed himself bound to God’s will.
Mrs. Meany continues to order Mr. Meany to stop talking, and John thinks that she’s perfectly crazy—possibly even mentally disabled. She might not have known what sex was, or might have been lying all these years, or might have repressed or forgotten the experience due to trauma or mental disability. Mr. Meany believed his wife had conceived Owen as a virgin, like Jesus’s mother Mary, but none of the Catholic priests believed him. Wherever he went, they accused him of blasphemy. His parents told Owen when he was ten or eleven, around when he hit the fatal baseball.
Mrs. Meany can’t stand to hear Mr. Meany telling their story to anybody else, after how badly it was always received in the past. John doesn’t react outwardly, but inwardly he fiercely scorns the Meanys. He certainly doesn’t believe them. He thinks that Mrs. Meany must be mentally handicapped, a plausible explanation for her highly abnormal behavior. But John only sees her after “THE UNSPEAKABLE OFFENSE,” which could have triggered this state. He can believe that her husband never slept with her if he says so, but he can’t believe she never had intercourse to conceive Owen. A woman’s word is always doubted.
John thinks that he could kill Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany for their ignorance. He thinks of them as “monsters of superstition,” and “dupes.” He feels that Owen has been used cruelly both by ignorance and by design, and that Mrs. Meany should have been sterilized. Mr. Meany tells John to come to the monument shop; Mrs. Meany again tells him to “Stop!” John hadn’t been to the workshop since his amputation. Owen spent a lot of time in the shop over the Christmas holidays in 1967, and also spent a lot of time practicing the shot with John, as usual. Losing his finger didn’t stop John from doing the shot, although it gave him difficulty with writing, eating, and typing.
No matter how the Meanys came to believe what they did, John thinks that they did great harm to their son by telling him that he was born of immaculate conception. His outrage on Owen’s behalf is great; he even thinks viciously that Mrs. Meany should have been forcibly sterilized. On the last Christmas Owen and John have together, they practice the shot, minus one finger.
Owen didn’t see much of Hester that Christmas. Her refusal to attend his funeral seemed to have hurt him. She became more and more radically opposed to the war in 1968, and Owen didn’t try very hard to reconcile with her. John believes Owen wanted Hester to fall out of love with him before he died. In the monument shop, Mr. Meany shows John Owen’s gravestone, with his full name, dates of birth and death, and Latin inscription for “forever.” John is surprised to see how well-carved the headstone is, given Mr. Meany’s lack of carving skill. Mr. Meany says it’s all Owen’s work—he even inscribed the exact date of death, six months before he died.
Hester finally seems to have sent a message to Owen that he couldn’t simply ignore or shake off. Her great pain at his choice to die is valid, and at last he appears to understand the limits of what she is willing to suffer for him. Perhaps Hester could never understand that his love for God would always come before his love for her; perhaps she did, but needed to protect her heart. Owen wouldn’t have wanted her to go through worse pain, but he does seem unrealistically disappointed that her devotion isn’t absolute. Owen’s headstone is proof that he always knew when he would die.
Rev. Merrill agrees with John that Mr. Meany is a “monster of superstition” and Mrs. Meany is likely mentally disabled, and he shares John’s horror that they told Owen their belief when he was still so young and impressionable. He says that Owen talked to him and Father Findley about his parents’ ideas, causing them both to pity him. Owen didn’t believe he was Jesus, but he did challenge Merrill by asking him why he couldn’t believe in another virgin birth.
Before Owen’s funeral, John talks with Merrill about everything he learned from the Meanys. Merrill already knew most of the story from Owen, who could never bring himself to tell John about his parents’ belief, perhaps out of fear of John’s scorn. Those who knew pitied Owen and the burden his parents had unreasonably placed upon him. Owen doesn’t necessarily agree with his parents, but he does believe in miracles, and doesn’t think another virgin birth is impossible.
Owen did believe that everything that happened to him had a purpose, that he was picked by God. Merrill only believes that Owen was gifted with some “precognitive powers.” John is angry that Merrill would treat Owen like an intellectual problem rather than acknowledging that his life was miraculous or extraordinary. Merrill warns him not to confuse his grief for Owen with real religious belief. John says that Merrill’s doubt has overwhelmed him, as Owen suspected. They sit without speaking until John asks what Merrill will say about Owen at his funeral. Merrill doesn’t reply, and John remembers his silence in The Great Hall.
Merrill, a man of faith by trade, has very little faith outside of the set teachings of the Bible. He doesn’t have the strength of belief to accept a new miracle that the Gospel hasn’t already blessed. A lot of Owen’s story can be intellectually rationalized, but the most incredible parts seem like they could only be what Owen always believed them to be: God’s work. Merrill’s stubborn refusal to admit any potential of divine intervention is startling given his profession.
John thinks that Merrill treats religion like a career, preaching without believing or opening his heart to a new manifestation of God’s will. In Merrill’s vestry office, John suddenly feels Owen near. Merrill turns on the lamp and opens his mouth without speaking, choking on his words. Finally he speaks in Owen’s voice: “LOOK IN THE THIRD DRAWER, RIGHT-HAND SIDE.” Merrill opens the desk drawer and out falls a baseball, undoubtedly the fatal ball that killed Tabitha. “Forgive me, my s-s-s-son!” Merrill stutters.
Merrill has never been able to pray for Owen Meany. How could he believe, as a man of God, that God would answer the prayers of humankind if he can’t believe that God could actually intervene in human lives like Owen’s? Finally Merrill experiences his own likely miracle: channeling the spirit of Owen Meany. Owen, who looked inside Merrill’s desk drawers after mutilating the statue of Mary Magdalene, has known since that day who John’s father was, for only his father would have kept the ball that killed his mother.
This was the first time Owen spoke to John from the beyond, the second being when he saved John in the secret passageway this August. John thinks that Owen should understand by now that John knows he is there—even without seeing or hearing him. Owen promised John that God would tell him who his father was, and John isn’t surprised that God spoke to him in Owen’s voice. Merrill denies that God was working through him; he suggests that he had finally found the courage to reveal himself to John by using a voice not his own. He would rather blame his subconscious than believe in divine intervention. John asks if he’s a pastor or a psychologist.
John’s faith in Owen is secure enough that he does not need Owen to speak to him to know that he is there. Owen never told John who his father was when he was alive, for his faith was so strong that he knew John would find out at exactly the right moment. Still Merrill rejects the idea that God has anything to do with the miracle they just experienced.
Merrill then confesses that he has no faith at all—he lost it when Tabitha died. He had been at the game, Tabitha had waved to him, and he had prayed for her to drop dead. Seeing her always filled him with guilt and self-disgust after their affair. He believes that God listened to him when he asked for Tabitha to die, and has not listened to him since. John thinks that Merrill is no different from Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany—they all used self-centered religion for their own ends.
John was right all along—his father was at the baseball game, and his mother had been waving to him when she died. Like Owen, Merrill believes that he is the reason why Tabitha is dead. But while Owen humbly believes that God fulfilled His unknowable, divine will through his hands, Merrill believes that God fulfilled his mortal wish.
Tabitha and Merrill had an affair after she asked him to come to The Orange Grove and confirm that she was not doing anything dishonorable by singing at the supper club. John says it was a sincere affair—Merrill sincerely believed he was in love with Tabitha, who was sincerely innocent. But Merrill never intended to leave his wife and children, and quickly felt ashamed. Tabitha soon got over him, and didn’t trouble herself with guilt or anguish over their affair. But Merrill wallowed in guilt and remorse after being forced to accept that he would never find the courage to abandon his miserable family for Tabitha.
Tabitha did lie about how she met John’s father, and it was just a sad story all along, a vulnerable young woman led off the moral path by the man she had trusted to keep her on it. But she didn’t allow herself to be ruined by their affair, refusing to become a tragic Hester Prynne or Tess D’Urberville. Merrill would have preferred a heartbroken, pining young woman to match his own misery.
John finds his father to be an utter failure. He says sarcastically to Merrill, “How I wish I could help you restore your faith.” He feels “moved to do evil,” and he recalls how Owen warned him that his father would disappoint him.
John is furiously disappointed in his father and angry for his mother’s sake that her lover was such a coward. Merrill’s faith is hollow, and he does not deserve to eulogize Owen.
Back in Toronto in September, John thinks about how Katherine says the most un-Christian thing about him is his unwillingness to forgive. He is sitting in Grace Church, reflecting again on the Thirty-seventh psalm: “Leave off from wrath…else shalt thou be moved to do evil.” He is again upset at his students, resenting their disengagement from literature and their infatuation with rock music.
John recognizes that his resentment is a flaw. The Bible instructs against the evils of wrath, and he sees how it poisons his life with needless pain. He becomes easily vexed with his students and thinks the worst of everyone, instead of having faith in God’s ability to make things right.
After John learns about Merrill, he doesn’t know what to tell Dan. He asks Dan why he insisted that Tabitha change churches before getting married. Dan says he thought that John had insisted on changing churches to be with Owen. Dan’s actually a Presbyterian. Tabitha lied to them. John asks Dan why he and Tabitha waited so long to get married. Dan says John’s father made Tabitha wait; he wanted her to be sure about marrying Dan. Tabitha wanted John’s father never to identify himself to John, and he wouldn’t promise her anything if she didn’t wait to marry Dan. It took four years for him to promise never to tell John the truth. Tabitha never wanted John, or Dan, to know who John’s father was.
The mystery of why Tabitha and John switched churches is finally solved: it was to get away from Merrill. Perhaps Tabitha couldn’t leave Merrill’s church earlier without raising suspicions, or maybe she didn’t mind still seeing him until meeting Dan made her ready for a clean break. Maybe Merrill’s interference in her engagement was the last straw that made her leave his church for good.
Dan says he doesn’t believe that John’s father was jealously trying to derail their marriage—he truly wanted Tabitha to be sure about her husband, and truly wanted his son to know who he was one day. John asks him if he knew about The Orange Club, and “The Lady in Red,” and Buster Freebody. Dan says he knew about all that, and went with Tabitha to Buster’s funeral. John decides that Dan doesn’t need to know about Merrill being John’s real father. He also thinks of a plan to restore Merrill’s faith with a “miracle.”
It seems cruel of Merrill to have forced Tabitha to delay her marriage, but also unfair of Tabitha to prevent her son from ever knowing his biological father. John has a right to know who his father is, and Merrill has some paternal rights. Completely disappointing dad or not, to decide that John should never know the truth about Merrill doesn’t seem right.
John drives to Owen’s house and picks up his mother’s dummy, still wearing her red dress. He places the dummy in the flower beds under the stained-glass windows of the church. In the dusk, it looks like Tabitha is hovering above the flowers, her missing head and feet consumed by shadows. He takes the baseball and throws it through the stained-glass window, then hides behind a tree.
John goes back for the dummy, which the farsighted Owen may have kept exactly for a reason like this. He creates the illusion of Tabitha standing outside the church.
Merrill comes outside, spots Tabitha’s dummy, and falls to his knees, clutching the baseball to his heart. He drops the ball and prays: “God—forgive me!...Tabby—forgive me, please!” He covers his eyes with his hands and slumps to the ground, babbling to himself. John retrieves the dummy and the baseball and drives to Rye Harbor, where he used to sit with Owen. He throws the baseball into the harbor, along with Mary Magdalene’s arms. He climbs out along the breakwater to throw the dummy as far out into the ocean as he can, into the deepest water. He hugs it for a moment, then throws it in the sea.
Merrill falls for the illusion completely, begging forgiveness for breaking his promise to Tabitha and “telling” John that he is his father. Merrill claims responsibility, refusing to attribute his outburst to Owen’s intervention, but perhaps he always believed unconsciously, for he certainly seemed primed to accept another miraculous visitation. John finally puts the symbols of Tabitha’s death to rest.
John watches the sun rise over the harbor, and then returns to Hester’s apartment to shower and dress for Owen’s funeral. He hasn’t seen Hester since they watched Bobby Kennedy’s assassination together on Harriet’s television: “Television gives good disaster.” Owen didn’t have anything to say about it, for once; he was too concerned with his own impending death. John packs up his belongings and reads Owen’s diary. Owen had written down Vietnamese vocabulary and expressions, especially “COMMAND FORMS OF VERBS,” like “LIE DOWN” and “DON’T BE AFRAID.”
Bobby Kennedy died almost exactly a month before Owen did. Both men died during the summer, when the rising heat seemed to enflame America’s worst passions. Owen always knew he would die then—perhaps another reason he dreaded the warming weather every year. He knew what he needed to say to the children he would save, preparing thoroughly to make sure they weren’t afraid.
In the margin of one page, Owen wrote, “THIRD DRAWER, RIGHT-HAND SIDE.” He must have seen the baseball the day that he mounted the statue on the stage of The Great Hall, and sat behind Merrill’s desk. He knew then who John’s father was, but he knew that God would tell John himself—and he knew that John would be let down. He wrote about John in the diary, saying that cutting off his “BEST FRIEND’S FINGER” was “THE HARDEST THING I EVER HAD TO DO.” He says that after he dies, John should “MAKE A CLEAN BREAK FROM THE PAST” and go to Canada.
Owen found where Merrill kept the ball in his desk, although it’s not clear if he knew where it would be before he started opening drawers—a divine intuition—or if it’s something he wrote down to remember after he happened to see it. He and John had already ruled Merrill out from being part of the ballgame’s audience, so it seems more likely to be an “accidental” fated discovery than a directed one. He tells John to go to Canada and break from the past, although John really only accomplishes one of these things.
John packs the diary with the rest of his things and heads to Harriet’s house to pick up some photographs and clothes. He has breakfast in the rose garden with Harriet, and tells her where he plans to go next. Then he goes to Dan’s apartment to get the granite doorstep Owen carved as a wedding gift for him and Tabitha. He also tells Dan his plans, and says to him, “You’re the best father a boy ever had—and the only father I ever needed.” Then they go to Owen’s funeral.
John prepares to follow Owen’s instructions immediately and head to Canada after the funeral. He wants to take Owen’s wedding gift with him, a connection to the memory of both his best friend and his mother. His words to Dan make it clear that he has no intention of pursing a closer relationship with Merrill. The truth is finally out in the open, despite all that Tabitha did to hide it from him, but he still decides not to make Merrill a part of his life, agreeing with her judgement.
Chief Pike stands at the door of the church as if he’s going to frisk the mourners for the missing baseball. Coach Chickering is there, and Buzzy Thurston’s parents, who recently buried their own son. Father Findley and Mrs. Hoyt are there; the Wiggins are not. A unit of the New Hampshire National Guard serves as Owen’s honor guard. Owen’s favorite professor of Military Science from the University of New Hampshire is there; he tells John that they were clearly wrong about Owen’s suitability for combat.
The residents of Gravesend assemble one last time to mourn the loss of the singular Owen Meany. Everyone there has seen their lives transformed by the war, and many of their lives were also transformed by Owen.
Sunlight shines through the new hole in the stained-glass windows made by John’s baseball, reflecting against the medal pinned to the flag on Owen’s casket. Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany stare at the medal and the casket as if they expect Owen to rise and condemn them for coming to his funeral. Mr. Fish and Harriet sit behind them, with Alfred, Martha, and Simon. Noah is still abroad with the Peace Corps and Hester is nowhere to be found. Harold Crosby is sitting across the aisle from John. John recalls hearing that Harold was coached by Mrs. Hoyt into securing a psychological deferment.
Light hits Owen’s medal, the sign of his courage and sacrifice. The medal is only an earthly salute to his heroism, a trophy from a war that Owen didn’t really believe in, but Owen seemed to value it highly, as he demonstrates later. Perhaps he wanted it for his parents to take some pride and comfort from it, or perhaps it was just another of the symbols that he so loved to collect.
Mrs. Walker is there, and Arthur and Amanda Downing. Larry O’Day and his daughter Caroline, John’s former girlfriend, are there, with Maureen Early. Mr. Morrison is there. Randy White’s replacement as headmaster is there. The Brinker-Smiths returned to England in opposition to the war, not wanting their twins to be Americans. Even the Gravesend Academy janitor is there.
The town comes together to mourn one of their own. Even the Sunday school teacher who thought Owen was a disturbance to the classroom by putting himself into the air, even the girls whom he frightened to the point of fainting and wetting their pants, and even the mailman whom he upstaged so memorably are there.
Rev. Merrill starts to speak with a newly firm and forceful voice; now that he has regained his faith, he preaches with “absolute belief in every word he uttered.” He reads multiple moving passages from the Bible, and says, “Compared to Owen Meany, I am an amateur—in my faith.” He admits that he wonders at times if God’s existence makes any difference to the world, and when he feels most faithful, he is also full of hard questions to ask God: “For example, I would like to ask God to give us back Owen Meany…O God—I shall keep asking You!” Harriet cries at this.
John’s trick worked; Merrill is now more confident in his faith than he ever was before. He speaks movingly in Owen’s eulogy, expressing his grief and his faith in such poignant words that John himself will later repeat them, despite his disdain for his father’s weakness.
When Merrill is done, the honor guard folds Owen’s flag and hands it to Mr. Meany and Mrs. Meany. The recessional hymn is the same one played at Tabitha’s funeral. It’s another summer funeral, and they can still hear the children nearby playing baseball. Merrill prays over Owen’s grave, and John listens with careful attention, knowing that he is listening to his father for the last time. What will they need of each other after this, when Merrill has his faith once more and John has Dan? John thinks that Merrill is a fraud for ignoring the real miracle of Owen Meany and finding God in a dummy. Owen would say, “GOD WORKS IN STRANGE WAYS!”
The story has come full circle, with Owen’s funeral mirroring Tabitha’s, the life that was taken by Owen’s own hands and that always haunted him. Once again, the world does not stop to grieve. Children continue playing baseball, safe in their innocence for another game, which is surely what Owen would have wanted. John prepares to take leave of his father, disgusted with Merrill’s hypocrisy in denying a true miracle and embracing a fake one.
As John is leaving the cemetery, a woman with three children approaches him. At first he doesn’t recognize her, until she asks him if he remembers how they used to lift Owen up. It’s Mary Beth Baird, who got pregnant in high school and dropped out to marry the father, a dairy farmer. She asks John, “How could he have been so light?” John can’t speak—he doesn’t want to hear his own voice, only Owen’s. When Mary Beth speaks to him, he knows Owen is gone.
Mary Beth Baird, who loved Owen once, is the one who makes Owen’s loss real to John. Owen cast her and John as his “mother” and “father” in the Christmas pageant, acting as the miraculous child who chose his parents. Like Mary, Mary Beth’s life was changed by an unexpected pregnancy, and John is still a meek, celibate “Joseph.”
John crosses the border to Canada, showing his missing finger when he’s asked if he’s a draft dodger. He lands in Toronto purely by chance. He thinks that Owen must have been so let down to learn that John’s mysterious father was merely “an insipid soup of a man.” Merrill was so forgettable that John and Owen never remembered seeing him at their baseball game, even though they saw him in the audience of all of Dan’s plays. John was let down to learn that his father was “just another Joseph…just another man like me.” He believes like his father used to, swinging back and forth between faith and doubt.
John still doesn’t travel with purpose, simply ending up in Toronto after driving aimlessly. He seems to share this lack of foresight with his father, who found himself trapped in an unsuitable marriage and then stuck with the consequences of a short-sighted affair. He must have been at the baseball game to watch John play, which John himself never acknowledged as part of his suspicion that his father was at the game.
John doesn’t hate Merrill, but he doesn’t care about him much. He hasn’t seen him since Owen’s funeral. Dan says he’s a great preacher now, without a trace of his former stutter. John sometimes feels jealous of his father’s “absolute and unshakeable faith”; he wants to be tricked into forgetting his doubt, too. John knows what real miracles are, but he despairs at the many unanswerable questions his faith poses. How could Owen have known what he did? If God was behind Owen’s knowledge, that poses the terrible question: how could God have let this happen to him?
Merrill has shed all of his doubts in the wake of his “vision” of Tabitha. Even though he always claimed that Owen’s visions couldn’t have possibly come from God, he readily believes that he could be sent such a divine message. John has seen such messages for himself, but he struggles with doubt over God’s role in people’s lives. How can God love humanity, but make his most loyal supporter suffer so?
Owen taught John to keep a diary, which is much less interesting than Owen’s own. One highlight is when a rock-music journalist stopped him for an interview about Hester’s early years. John tells him to look up Owen Meany if he wants to know who first influenced Hester. He also wrote about returning to Gravesend for Harriet’s funeral at the Congregational Church, performed by Merrill’s replacement. At Harriet’s old house, he was shocked to see Mr. Meany in the garden, reading the electric meter. His granite company was gone, and this was his new part-time job. Mrs. Meany had died not long after her son; she died of complications from burns. She had been sitting by the fireplace when a spark ignited the American flag she wore like a shawl.
Without many new relationships or endeavors to fill his life, John’s diary revolves around the same people who influenced his early years. He continues to talk about what happened after Owen died, delaying the moment when he will finally have to recount the difficult story of Owen’s death. Owen’s parents have since lost everything: Mrs. Meany is dead, and Mr. Meany’s company is finished. Mrs. Meany’s death by immolation makes her another symbolic victim of the Vietnam War, where people sacrificed themselves in protest or died from bombs or napalm burns. It’s also an example of tragic irony, as people would burn the American flag to protest the war.
John sees Mr. Meany still wearing Owen’s medal, which survived when the flag burned. He thinks of Hardy’s quote about “living in a world where nothing bears out in practice what it promises incipiently.” He thinks that he will never forget how Owen died.
Owen’s medal evidently means a great deal to Owen’s father, if he can wear it even after everything the military took from his family. The promised “American dream” fails to materialize for so many.
On the 4th of July in 1968, John sits on the porch of Harriet’s house, waiting for the parade. He will go to the University of Massachusetts for his Ph.D. in the fall. Without work to do or teaching to plan—he’s not even teaching in the fall—he feels worthless. He watches the fireworks with Hester later, and she says she won’t marry or start a family with anyone if she can’t do so with Owen. Late that night, Owen calls, saying there’s an emergency with a missing body they just recovered. He wants John to meet him in Phoenix, where he can get a few days free to hang out after delivering the body.
Although John won’t know it at the time, Owen’s death is set in motion on the 4th of July. John is still planning to get his Ph.D., which he will soon abandon when he leaves the country after Owen’s funeral. He and Hester will both abandon major plans for the future when Owen dies, as Hester stays true to her word and never has a family without Owen. Owen surely wouldn’t have wanted them to give up on certain dreams because of him, but they are too broken when he’s gone.
John thinks it’s a long way to go for a few days, but he agrees to join Owen, who sounds agitated. He thinks Owen needs the company, since they haven’t seen each other since Christmas. “YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND,” Owen tells him, and his voice breaks a bit. When John lands in Phoenix, he notices the tall palm trees at the airport. The only bathroom he can find is a temporary restroom set up while the other one is out of order. It’s a dark, high-ceilinged room, an old storage closet of some kind, with a large industrial sink and a small, high window.
Owen’s invitation for John to join him on a body escort mission is a bit unusual, but John is feeling useless where he is, and he can tell that it would mean a lot to Owen if he came, even if he doesn’t know why. Later he’ll know that Owen was secretly asking him to come join him on his heroic mission, even though he had wanted to keep John out if it in the past. Owen realized he couldn’t do it without John, and changed his mind.
John waits for Owen’s plane with the family of the fallen soldier. An Army officer is standing with them, a local ROTC professor. The family is angry—they have been waiting for their son’s body for three days. The dead soldier’s sister is pregnant, and very young. Her other brother is even younger than her—not more than fourteen or fifteen, very thin but so tall that he looks like he could morph into a monster if he gained weight. His anger already seems monstrous.
At the airport, John observes the fallen soldier’s family, who eventually show themselves to be greatly dysfunctional. Although their son is dead along with so many other tragically young soldiers, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for these people, who are so angry and unpleasant.
Owen writes in his diary on the plane to Phoenix. He thought he would die in Vietnam, but there’s no time left to get there. He’s wrong either about where or when he dies. He says that he didn’t like knowing about his death at first, but now he doesn’t like not knowing: “GOD IS TESTING ME.” He doesn’t understand why John is still in his dream after Owen kept him out of the war. He wanted to save John’s life by cutting off his finger, so bringing him to Arizona before the date of his death seems hypocritical. Owen can only have faith in God, who has promised him that nothing bad would happen to John.
Owen knows that the date of his death is imminent, but he doesn’t understand what’s going to happen anymore since he isn’t in Vietnam and isn’t seemingly facing any threat of violence. He is troubled by the fact that John hasn’t disappeared from his dream like he wanted him to. Apparently, Owen doesn’t get to choose how he dies—John is going to be there when he dies whether Owen wants him there or not. Owen can only choose to go ahead with the mission or back out, and bringing John to Arizona represents his commitment.
Owen wonders if the date—and everything else—was just a figment of his imagination. He wonders how there could possibly be Vietnamese children in Arizona. He even asks God how, if he doesn’t actually save any children, He could have put him through everything. He finally sees the palm trees as his plane descends.
Briefly, Owen doubts that the mission he’s spent years preparing for is ever really going to happen—but then he sees the palm trees that haunt his dreams. He needs some visual proof, too.
On the runway, Owen formally covers the casket with a flag. A hearse takes the coffin away. The family approaches Owen, and John sees that the teenage boy is dressed in jungle fatigues and wearing a cartridge belt loaded with ammo and other Army equipment, including a machete and a bayonet. His sister, who looks sixteen or seventeen, begins to cry. The boy spits tobacco, and she asks him to stop. “Fuck you,” he replies. The father punches him in the face and he falls to the tarmac. The boy says the girl is not his sister but his half-sister, and the man is not his father. He pulls the machete and the bayonet on the man.
Owen does his duties for the body, then prepares to do his duties for the family. The family is very on edge and short-tempered after spending three days waiting to lay the body to rest. The teenage boy acts violent and psychotic, but his step-father seems to be equally abusive. On this solemn ceremonial occasion, they’re about to start trying to kill each other on the tarmac.
Owen interrupts, telling the boy he likes his bayonet sheath. The family is frozen by Owen’s voice. The boy calls Owen a twit and asks him what’s wrong with his voice. Owen asks the boy what’s wrong with him—if he wants to dress up and play soldier, he should know how to talk to an officer. The bully respects being bullied.
Owen defuses the tension with his usual interpersonal expertise. He knows just what to say to put the boy in his place and take command of the situation. His startling voice works in his favor in such circumstances.
In the major’s car, John and Owen can finally greet each other. The major, whose name is Rawls, explains that the family of the dead soldier is a mess. Rawls had earned a battlefield commission in Korea; he’d served the army for nineteen years, after enlisting at eighteen. He is very cynical, and predicts that the soldier’s family is full of incest. The teen boy hangs around the airport all day, watching the planes and talking to the soldiers. He wants to fight like his brother, who was on his third tour.
Rawls, a dignified and capable veteran of the military who signed up to do his duty for his country as soon as he was old enough, is the foil to this teenage boy who is bloodthirsty and unhinged. The boy doesn’t want to serve for any particular values—he just wants to start fighting and killing people.
Rawls offers to find John and Owen dates or show them where to buy porn while they’re in town, but Owen says they just want to hang out and relax. Rawls laughs and asks if they’re gay. “MAYBE WE ARE,” Owen says, and Rawls laughs more, calling him “the funniest little fucker in the Army.” At the funeral home, Owen introduces John as the Army’s “BODY EXPERT.” He makes John look at the dead body after he identifies it. The soldier died when he made a mistake refueling a helicopter.
Owen doesn’t seem to be as homophobic any more, or at least he doesn’t immediately get defensive like so many men would. Owen hates to give anyone the satisfaction of playing into their jokes. At the funeral home, Owen probably makes John look at the dead body to prepare him for the sight of Owen’s own dead body.
Owen, John, and Rawls head to the family’s ongoing wake, which Rawls treats like a spectacle. Unexpectedly, Owen says that in his experience, the Catholics honor death best—they have “THE PROPER SOLEMNITY, THE PROPER SORT OF RITUALS.” The family’s house is overflowing with people who are sick of waiting three days for a funeral. Rawls says there’s not a woman there he would sleep with, besides the pregnant girl. Out of the whole family, she has made the most effort to be nice to them. She looks liable to be beaten or assaulted by the rest of her murderously crazy family.
Owen’s new esteem for Catholic funerals is shocking—perhaps he’s coming to terms with the fact that he’s going to die surrounded by nuns, and he always taken comfort in rituals and symbols. Rawls’s sexism is far from shocking.
Inside the house, Owen asks the girl where her brother is and what his name is, so he can speak to him. She tells Owen his name is Dick. Rawls tells Owen that the police at the airport never take their eyes off this kid. Owen knocks on Dick’s door and gets him to let them in. His face is blackened for camouflage, and his bare chest has black circles drawn around his nipples. He clearly dreams of “butchering the Viet Cong” like his brother, Frank Jarvits. Frank smuggled home bayonets, machetes, an AK-47, and even two grenades as souvenirs for Dick.
Owen tries to talk some sense into the disturbed young man, who inspires terror in his stepsister and suspicion in the security at the airport. He’s a real menace, not just a harmless kid playing at being a soldier. He has deeply violent fantasies encouraged by his brother, who supplied him with real weaponry.
Rawls tells Dick he had better not bring the rifle or the grenades to the airport. He’s not even sure if the bayonets or machetes are legal. Dick says sometimes the police confiscate them and give them back on the same day. Rawls tells Owen that Dick is beyond saving, but Owen says, “IT’S NOT UP TO US: WHO’S BEYOND SAVING.” Rawls says Owen is too good for this world.
Despite the fact that Dick is clearly very troubled, the airport police give him back his weapons anyway. Perhaps it’s too much hassle to actually take Dick or his weapons into custody, and they would rather just walk away. Owen tries to intervene, but he has to walk away, too.
The next day, Owen writes in his diary about his fear for the future of kids like Dick who never learned real morality, who only know a simplistic, antagonistic mindset: “THEY’RE SO SURE THEY’RE RIGHT! THAT’S PRETTY SCARY.” He doesn’t tell John that he thinks he’s going to die tomorrow. When John asks what they should do all day, Owen says, “LET’S JUST HAVE A GOOD TIME.” They try to find a gym to practice the shot in, but there’s none nearby, and Owen finally says, “I’M PRETTY SURE WE’VE PRACTICED THAT DUMB SHOT ENOUGH.” They pass the day drinking beer by the pool and remembering their childhood days.
Owen wonders what the years of war have done to the development of kids like Dick, who have acquired a taste for vengeance and violence. They see the world in terms of black and white, us vs. them. Owen feels ready to die—he finally thinks they’re ready to pull off the shot, or else it’s all in God’s hands now, anyway. He wants to just enjoy his last day with John.
Rawls drives John and Owen to the airport in the morning. He waits with them for their flights, since he has nothing else to do. John tells Owen, “We have plenty of time.” When only half an hour is left until John’s flight takes off, Owen begins to think his dream might not come true after all. Just then, passengers begin disembarking a plane—nuns escorting Vietnamese children. Catholic Relief Services frequently helped relocate war orphans.
John thinks they have plenty of time left together, but Owen knows they don’t. When John is about to leave, Owen feels doubt, since he knows John is meant to be part of his death. But his doubt is gone as soon as he sees the nuns with the Vietnamese orphans—in Arizona, of all places.
One of the nuns asks Owen to help take the boys to the bathroom. He says he’d be happy to help, and John shows them to the temporary men’s room. The anxious children stop crying, captivated by the sight of a soldier nearly their size. They pass Dick Jarvits on the way to the restroom. The children use the unfamiliar bathroom, chattering to themselves. John suddenly remembers Owen describing the Vietnamese-speaking children from his dream. Owen already knows what’s about to happen.
Owen’s size puts the frightened children at ease. They’ve come to a brand-new country with a brand-new language, and normally soldiers are threatening, but Owen is so small that they think of him as one of them, not a threat. It takes John a long time to figure out why the situation seems so familiar, but Owen knows.
Dick kicks in the door, holding a grenade. A boy screams and the others begin to cry. Owen speaks to them in Vietnamese: “DOONG SA…DON’T BE AFRAID.” Hearing their own language—in the voice of a child like them—makes the children trust Owen. He tells them to lie down. He tells John they have four seconds. Dick throws the grenade at John, who catches it and passes it to Owen. Owen jumps into his hands, and John lifts him lightly.
Dick is the unforeseen threat in this improbable scenario, the monster who would deliberately throw a grenade into a room full of children. Owen tells the children just what he always told Hester and John: “DON’T BE AFRAID.” The time has finally come to use the shot they always practiced, with a live grenade in place of a basketball. Balls are symbolically deadly in the book.
A nun who was waiting outside the bathroom ran to get Rawls, who caught Dick running away from the men’s room. Dick draws his bayonet, but Rawls grabs Dick’s machete and breaks Dick’s neck with it. Meanwhile, Owen soars toward the high window. He stuffs the grenade into the windowsill and holds it in place to make sure it won’t roll back down into the room. He ducks his head beneath the windowsill before the explosion.
All of Dick’s weapons can’t save him from a real soldier who actually knows how to use them. Owen’s weightlessness propels him up high, away from the children huddling below. He crams the grenade onto the window ledge instead of into a basket, and hangs onto it instead of releasing it and dropping down.
The cement window ledge protects John and the children from the grenade fragments. Only their eardrums are hurt. Owen lands in the big industrial sink. A nun lifts him out of the sink while another kneels on the floor. Together they rest his body in their laps. The children surround them, crying, but Owen reminds them not to be afraid. His arms are amputated below his elbows. He tries to reach out to John, then realizes he has no arms. “REMEMBER WATAHANTOWET?” he asks calmly.
Thanks to Owen’s angel-like intervention, John and the other children are safe. The nuns rush in after hearing the explosion. John is so disoriented from the blast that he doesn’t even look for Owen—or he doesn’t want to look. The nuns cradle Owen, who is rapidly bleeding out even as he comforts the children around him. His arms were blown off when he held the grenade down to save the others. He has become a living embodiment of the symbolic armless totems throughout the book.
Owen tells the nun, “WHOSOEVER LIVETH AND BELIEVETH IN ME SHALL NEVER DIE.” Then he seems troubled, saying, “I’M AWFULLY COLD…CAN’T YOU DO SOMETHING?” Then Owen smiles again, and looks only at John. “YOU’RE GETTING SMALLER, BUT I CAN STILL SEE YOU!” Those are his last words.
Owen quotes the Bible to the nuns, showing that he is at peace with dying because of his faith in God. He seems for one moment to feel the agony of death, then it passes as his soul begins to leave his body, rising into the air as he dreamed it. He seems happy to have his best friend at his side, after all.
“I am always saying prayers for Owen Meany,” John says. He thinks about how he would have answered Mary Beth in the cemetery, if he hadn’t been speechless with grief. When they held Owen so lightly above their heads as children, they didn’t know that there were other forces at work, forces they didn’t have the faith to sense, that were raising Owen up, out of their reach. “O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”