In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving explores the concept of fate and predestination in the lives of his characters. The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, describes the unusual history of his friend Owen Meany, who has a very detailed vision of his own death at a young age. Later, Owen dies exactly as he once foresaw. This incredible story raises the question of whether or not Owen’s death was truly “fated,” or if he had any free will about the matter. If he truly lacked control over his destiny, does that mean that all of humanity is also powerless to choose the course of their own lives? Irving does not explicitly answer this question in the novel, instead leaving readers to contemplate the issue for themselves—a push towards individual judgment that is suggestive in itself. However, the novel implies that while Owen may have known his destiny, he had to actively choose to fulfill it, and so retained his free will in his life.
Both the extremely specific and unusual nature of Owen’s death and his accurate prediction of it suggest that he was always linked to a particular destiny, thereby emphasizing the power of fate. However, this situation also points to the power of free will—glimpsing such a specific vision of his own possible death presents Owen with the opportunity, if he so chooses, to avoid ever putting himself in such a situation. Owen’s idea of his own death comes from a recurring dream where he sacrifices himself to save a group of Vietnamese children and nuns from an explosion somewhere in a warm place with palm trees. At the end of the book, he dies in exactly that way: at an airport in Arizona, he runs into a group of Vietnamese orphans being escorted to new homes in America by nuns, and he dies from the injuries he receives when he shields them from a grenade. Owen even knew the exact date of his death and the exact way in which he would manage to save the orphans: by pulling off a perfect “slam dunk” shot with John to thrust the grenade out of harm’s way.
While this fulfilled prophesy points to the power of fate, Owen’s foresight regarding his own death also emphasizes the equal power of free will: if Owen had wanted to reject his fate, he simply could have planned to spend the day of his supposed death at home in New Hampshire, where he was unlikely to come across Vietnamese orphans, nuns, or grenades. As a child, Owen never once left the town where he was born—it would have been perfectly natural for him to never travel to a new climate, or at least not until the day of his premature “death” passed. Yet instead of thinking about how to preserve his own safety, or passively following the course of the provincial life he was born into, Owen actively pursues his fateful vision—that is, he uses free will to prepare for and bring about his fate—determined to save the innocent lives he saw in danger. For years, he tirelessly rehearses the slam-dunk shot with John. He voluntarily enlists in the Reserve Officer Training Corps to become a soldier and fight overseas in Vietnam. He even studies Vietnamese to be able to communicate with the children he saw his dream. Rather than use free will to escape his fate, or have no choice in the matter whatsoever, Owen does everything he can think of to position himself for his fated martyrdom.
As the day of his imminent death draws closer, Owen continues to carry out the final preparations for his sacrifice, even when the hardest choice he has to make is about putting his best friend at risk. In his recurring dream, Owen always saw John with him at the moment of his death, which frightened Owen because he was more concerned for his friend’s life than his own. At first, he seeks to prevent John from being drafted into the war so that John can’t join him in Vietnam, where Owen logically expects to die. Yet as time goes by and the military continues to employ Owen in roles on American soil rather than deploying him overseas, Owen begins to have doubts about when or where he is supposed to die—or if he’s even supposed to die, after all. However, when he is assigned to a body escort mission in Arizona the week of his death, he realizes that Arizona could be the warm place of his dream, and he could still have the opportunity to save people. Focusing on the innocent lives he has the potential to save buoys Owen and strengthens his resolve to use free will to bring about his fate. In order to move everything into place, Owen invites John to spontaneously come to Arizona with him, knowing John is instrumental to the slam-dunk from his vision. John would not have been on the scene if Owen had not brought him there; Owen had to make the difficult choice of exposing his friend to trauma and violence (that is, exercise free will) in order to save many other lives and allow his fate to play out.
Even if Owen could not have predicted from the start that he would die at the hands of a deranged teenager named Dick in an airport restroom in Arizona, he was always willing to become a martyr, and repeatedly chose the path he believed would take him there. In other words, Owen was always an active participant in his fate, not a passive victim. Throughout the novel, Irving emphasizes Owen’s firm will and conscious decisions to try and carry out his “destiny.” He could have stepped back or turned away, but he chose not to. A significant quote in the book from the theologian Søren Kierkegaard reinforces Irving’s idea that following one’s faith into a designated fate is a formidable act of will and selflessness rather than a passively divine outcome: “What no person has a right to is to delude others into the belief that faith is something of no great significance, or that it is an easy matter, whereas it is the greatest and most difficult of all things.” Owen’s precise foreknowledge of his fate made the circumstances of his choice more extraordinary, but the basic principle of his experience—coupled with his Christian faith—suggests that even those believers who have not seen God’s exact plan for them can actively work to bring about their destiny.
Fate and Predestination ThemeTracker
Fate and Predestination Quotes in A Prayer for Owen Meany
Owen was so tiny, we loved to pick him up; in truth, we couldn’t resist picking him up. We thought it was a miracle: how little he weighed.
I think [Hester] was up against a stacked deck from the start, and that everything she would become began for her when Noah and Simon made me kiss her—because they made it clear that kissing Hester was punishment, the penalty part of the game; to have to kiss Hester meant you had lost.
“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.
It made [Owen] furious when I suggested that anything was an “accident”—especially anything that had happened to him; on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith. There were no accidents; there was a reason for that baseball—just as there was a reason for Owen being small, and a reason for his voice. In Owen’s opinion, he had INTERRUPTED AN ANGEL, he had DISTURBED AN ANGEL AT WORK, he had UPSET THE SCHEME OF THINGS.
“He sounds a little sicker than I had in mind,” Dan told me on our way back to town. “I may have to play the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come myself. Or maybe—if Owen’s too sick—maybe you can take the part.”
But I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play.
Sexual stereotypes did not fall, [Amanda] liked to say, from the clear blue sky; books were the major influences upon children—and books that had boys being boys, and girls being girls, were among the worst offenders! Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for example; they were an education in condescension to women—all by themselves, they created sexual stereotypes! Wuthering Heights, for example: how that book taught a woman to submit to a man made Amanda Dowling “see red,” as she would say.
“IF WE CAN DO IT IN UNDER FOUR SECONDS, WE CAN DO IT IN UNDER THREE,” he said. “IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE FAITH.”
“It takes more practice,” I told him irritably.
“FAITH TAKES PRACTICE,” said Owen Meany.
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’RE MY BEST FRIEND,” said Owen Meany—his voice breaking a little. I assumed it was the telephone; I thought we had a bad connection.
When we held Owen Meany above our heads, when we passed him back and forth—so effortlessly—we believed that Owen weighed nothing at all. We did not realize that there were forces beyond our play. Now I know they were the forces that contributed to our illusion of Owen's weightlessness; they were the forces we didn’t have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in—and they were also lifting up Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands.
O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You.