John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel that mixes progressive statements about women’s intelligence and fortitude with a relentless objectification and critique of women’s bodies. Through its frequent references to literary works such as The Scarlet Letter that grapple with gender (and the fact that A Prayer for Owen Meany is itself a literary work), the book highlights the role literature plays in shaping and perpetuating gender stereotypes. While the novel’s main characters, John Wheelwright and Owen Meany, admire a small handful of sharp and complex women, the book’s broader treatment of its female characters is negative and steeped in stereotype.
John’s mother, Tabitha, is on the one hand a liberated woman who refuses to be shamed for the supposed transgression of conceiving a child out of wedlock. However, her link to the adulterous protagonist of The Scarlet Letter reveals Irving’s reliance on stereotype. Tabitha initially seems like an empowered character, because she never feels compelled to apologize or atone for her affair and her pregnancy. John discovers near the end of the book that his biological father is Reverend Lewis Merrill, his mother’s pastor. Their affair pointedly recalls the affair between protagonist Hester Prynne and the minister Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, also set in a small, conservative New England town. Hester Prynne is the more revolutionary of the pair in The Scarlet Letter, arguing that their love for one another doesn’t warrant absolute condemnation from their community. Tabitha feels similarly, and refuses to be branded by the town, despite the number of unenlightened attitudes toward her that seem to have been preserved from Hester Prynne’s seventeenth-century ordeal. Tabitha’s enduring dignity and willful defiance of her town’s oppressive norms presents what initially appears to be a positive representation of women. However, Tabitha proves to be the exception, not the rule, for female dignity in A Prayer for Owen Meany—and even then, her adultery and relationship to men (the extramarital lover of Rev. Merrill and the mother to illegitimate child John Wheelwright) defines her character.
Hester Eastman’s character in A Prayer for Owen Meany appears to overcome the legacy of Hawthorne’s oppressed Hester Prynne, who bears the same first name. Hester Eastman is a brash, strong-willed woman who believes in embracing and wielding her sexuality, and eventually she becomes a world-famous rock star. However, Hester’s powerful rebellion against gender norms is generally dismissed as “an overdose of sexual aggression and family animosity.” John recognizes how Hester’s life was shaped by the rampant sexism she encountered in her family, but he discredits her principled protest as shallow personal revolt. Hester’s family has always turned her gender against her, denying her the same opportunities, liberties, and basic respect that her brothers took for granted. Her parents send her brothers away to broaden their horizons at boarding schools and colleges far from home, while she graduates from the local public high school and has to enroll at the local college. The family’s double standard for Hester and her brothers, spurning and stifling her individual potential, reflects the sexism that has defined New England society since the time of The Scarlet Letter, when women were understood to be weaker in faith and mind than men. Hester’s brothers, Noah and Simon, constantly degrade her and treat her gender as something shameful. John largely goes along with his male cousins’ attitudes, only later in life reflecting on what it must have felt like for Hester to believe “that kissing Hester was punishment, the penalty part of the game; to have to kiss Hester meant you had lost.” Even her prepubescent sexuality was a perpetual offense in her brothers’ eyes, and she was powerless to stop them from forcing her and John to kiss over and over. As soon as Hester grows into her own sexuality, she embraces it in defiance of her family’s paternalistic and sexist principles of feminine chastity. John explains, “To drive them to madness was the penalty she exacted for all of them treating her ‘like a girl.’” However, attributing all of Hester’s radical actions to a reaction against her family’s view of her undermines her own autonomy and principles, and reduces her yet again to her gender.
Furthermore, throughout the novel Owen and John never cease to comment on women’s bodies, rudely reducing women to mere objects. As young boys, Owen and John assess the breasts of the mothers they know; as schoolboys, they asses their classmates’ breasts. They dissect Hester’s sex appeal, ogle Mrs. Walker’s legs, and discuss how pregnancy affects women’s desirability. They feel somewhat ashamed for their lust, but not for their disrespect of women. The novel itself includes hardly a dignified female character. Hester is a wild, drunken wreck, unable to get over Owen Meany. The boys’ classmates, like Mary Beth Baird, are brainless objects of ridicule. The older women they meet, like Barb Wiggins and Mitzy Lish, are “whorish flirt[s]” who torment Owen and John sexually, while the Wheelwrights’ maids are all slow and stupid.
As a much older man, John has many highly respectful things to say about his friend and boss the Rev. Katherine Keeling—“she is wise and kind and witty and articulate”—yet he cannot stop thinking about how she should govern her body. He remarks, “I think Katherine is terrific; but she is too thin,” and later adds, “My only qualm with her is when she's pregnant. The Rev. Katherine Keeling is often pregnant, and I don’t think she should serve the wine when she's so pregnant.” Of course, if Rev. Keeling is so often pregnant, chances are she knows by now what she’s capable of doing during her pregnancy and doesn’t need John’s input. Ultimately, the bulk of the female characters in the novel are pigeonholed into female stereotypes, and the rare positive female character is still subjected to derogatory or heavily patriarchal remarks.
The novel’s many explicit parallels to The Scarlet Letter, as well as the numerous references to other works of literature in the text, reveal Irving’s consciousness of literary tradition. He is clearly aware of the powerful influence ideas in literature—especially surrounding the concept of gender—can have upon audiences. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving seems to be making an effort to critique harmful sexism and portray empowered women, but his respect for female dignity leaves a great deal to be desired. With a tolerant “boys will be boys” attitude, the novel indulges the casual misogyny and sexism that its male characters regularly engage in.
Gender and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Gender and Sexuality Quotes in A Prayer for Owen Meany
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.
All those same crones, as black and hunchbacked as crows gathered around some roadkill—they came to the service as if to say: We acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free.
Getting off “scot-free” was a cardinal crime in New Hampshire. And by the birdy alertness visible in the darting eyes of my grandmother’s crones, I could tell that—in their view—my mother had not escaped her just reward.
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.