A Prayer for Owen Meany

Armless Totems Symbol Analysis

Armless Totems Symbol Icon

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

The A Prayer for Owen Meany quotes below all refer to the symbol of Armless Totems. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of A Prayer for Owen Meany published in 1989.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: John Wheelwright (speaker), John’s Stepfather / Dan Needham (speaker), Owen Meany
Related Symbols: The Baseball, Armless Totems
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Armless Totems
Page Number: 409
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 8 Quotes

“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!”

Related Characters: John Wheelwright (speaker), Owen Meany (speaker)
Related Symbols: Armless Totems
Page Number: 458
Explanation and Analysis:
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Armless Totems Symbol Timeline in A Prayer for Owen Meany

The timeline below shows where the symbol Armless Totems appears in A Prayer for Owen Meany. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Foul Ball
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...a local sagamore named Watahantowet. Watahantowet signed the deed with his totem, which was an armless man. No one knew why he chose an armless man for his totem—whether he was... (full context)
Chapter 2: The Armadillo
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...skylight strikes him from above and illuminates him like a descending angel, posed with his arms clasped behind his back like an armless Watahantowet. His face is blood red from his... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...off his hands to bring her back. John realizes that the armadillo also resembles Watahantowet’s armless totem. Owen told him that Watanhantowet believed that animals had souls, along with rivers, rocks,... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
Later, Owen would tell John what else he meant to communicate through the armless armadillo: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Angel
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Tabitha kept a dressmaker’s dummy next to her bed. She was a talented seamstress who made her own clothes. She... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
John and Owen liked to play dress-up with the dummy and Tabitha’s clothes. She was practical, and only made clothes in black and white, easy... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...him he saw an angel by Tabitha’s bed. John thought Owen must have seen the dummy, but Owen insisted it was on the other side of the bed. Tabitha gave him... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...dormitory for the night, Owen declares that Dan shouldn’t be left alone with Tabitha’s dressmaking dummy, her double. Mr. Meany drives them over to the dormitory and Owen leaves his flashlight... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
Owen says he’ll keep the dummy with him, since Dan, John, and Harriet shouldn’t have it around to look at. Hester... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Little Lord Jesus 
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...missing, and the baby Jesus himself was nowhere to be found. In Owen’s room, the dummy stands at the head of his bed, close enough for him to touch. John imagines... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...hat. In Owen’s room, he finds Mrs. Meany sitting on Owen’s bed, staring at Tabitha’s dummy. Without looking at John, she says, “I’m sorry about your poor mother.” Walking down the... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Dream 
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...but can’t find him. Finally they drive past St. Michael’s School and realize that the statue of Mary Magdalene is missing. They go to The Great Hall and find the statue... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...Great Hall, he is struck with horror at the sight of the decapitated and amputated statue. When White arrives, he is perfectly oblivious to the unusual crowd or the figure onstage,... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Finger 
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
Owen says he’s been talking to Father Findley and working on replacing the statue of Mary Magdalene that he vandalized. He wants Findley to get rid of the archway... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
That summer, a new statue of Mary Magdalene is finally installed at St. Michaels. Owen successfully got rid of the... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...other, to John’s shock, although Owen says the nuns still give him the shivers. The statue of Mary Magdalene watches over them. When they practice in the fall, Owen brushes snow... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
In the fall, the darker gray color of the statue disappears in the shadows. John once asked Owen if the statue resembled the angel Owen... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...describing his vision, saying that nuns appear and one of them takes him into her arms. Blood spurts onto her wimple and her face, but she isn’t afraid. The blood is... (full context)
Chapter 9: The Shot
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
Merrill comes outside, spots Tabitha’s dummy, and falls to his knees, clutching the baseball to his heart. He drops the ball... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...a fraud for ignoring the real miracle of Owen Meany and finding God in a dummy. Owen would say, “GOD WORKS IN STRANGE WAYS!” (full context)
Fate and Predestination Theme Icon
Christianity and Faith Theme Icon
Powerlessness Theme Icon
...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... (full context)