Armlessness is a complex symbol in the book, representing both helplessness and heroic sacrifice in light of God’s will. The symbol of the armless totem takes many forms throughout the book, including Chief Watahantowet’s armless man, Tabitha’s armless mannequin, John’s declawed armadillo, the vandalized statue of Mary Magdalene, and even Owen Meany himself after a grenade explosion rips off his arms. The symbol of the armless totem is always associated with Owen, who repeatedly declares, “GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.” (Owen’s obsession with symbolism is conspicuous; John himself says, “As always, with Owen Meany, there was the necessary consideration of the symbols involved.”) Owen alternatingly feels helpless and heroic for being chosen by God. Through these different armless totems, the book highlights how people can despair at losing their arms or agency to greater forces, or they can embrace the path set before them by God and selflessly give up their arms to fulfill his plans. The symbol takes both male and female—and even animal—form, suggesting that all living creatures are subjects of God, dependent on him and capable of submitting to his will. While morbid, armlessness is also an understandable image for children to identify with, given the lack of control that young people have over their own lives. Owen is at his most fixated with armlessness when he is still subject to adults’ authority, like when he carves the arms off of the Mary Magdalene statue and leaves it on the school stage following his unjust expulsion.
Armless Totems Quotes in A Prayer for Owen Meany
“Your friend is most original,” Dan Needham said, with the greatest respect. “Don’t you see, Johnny? If he could, he would cut off his hands for you—that’s how it makes him feel, to have touched that baseball bat, to have swung that bat with those results. It’s how we all feel—you and me and Owen. We’ve lost a part of ourselves.” And Dan picked up the wrecked armadillo and began to experiment with it on my night table, trying—as I had tried—to find a position that allowed the beast to stand, or even to lie down, with any semblance of comfort or dignity; it was quite impossible…
And so Dan and I became quite emotional, while we struggled to find a way to make the armadillo’s appearance acceptable—but that was the point, Dan concluded: there was no way that any or all of this was acceptable. What had happened was unacceptable! Yet we still had to live with it.
As always, with Owen Meany, there was the necessary consideration of the symbols involved. He had removed Mary Magdalene’s arms, above the elbows, so that her gesture of beseeching the assembled audience would seem all the more an act of supplication—and all the more helpless. Dan and I both knew that Owen suffered an obsession with armlessness—this was Watahantowet’s familiar totem, this was what Owen had done to my armadillo. My mother's dressmaker’s dummy was armless, too.
But neither Dan nor I was prepared for Mary Magdalene being headless—for her head was cleanly sawed or chiseled or blasted off.
“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT SHE’S THERE?” [Owen] nagged at me.
“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.
“BUT YOU CAN’T SEE HER—YOU COULD BE WRONG,” he said.
“No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.
“YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE—EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER?” he asked me.
“Yes!” I screamed.
“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany. “I CAN’T SEE HIM—BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!”