A central theme of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is powerlessness—be it powerlessness in the face of fate, freak accidents, overpowering forces, or God’s will. The book follows two best friends, John Wheelwright and the titular Owen Meany, as they grapple with their own powerless throughout their lives. While powerlessness is typically thought of as synonymous with weakness, A Prayer for Owen Meany reveals how powerlessness can sometimes best position people to make great sacrifices.
Two images of powerlessness introduced early in the text change over the course of the book to become images of strength and salvation. The first is the singular image of the exceptionally tiny Owen Meany being unwillingly hoisted into the air by his classmates during Sunday school. He was so little and light that his classmates could lift him above their heads and pass him around the room, despite his vocal objections: “‘PUT ME DOWN!’ he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. ‘CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!’” Owen’s classmates always ignored him, and would continue to play their game whenever their teacher left the room. John Wheelwright, the book’s narrator and Owen’s best friend, remembers how Owen “grew more fatalistic about it, each time. His body was rigid; he wouldn’t struggle. Once we had him in the air, he folded his arms defiantly on his chest; he scowled at the ceiling.” Owen accepted that he was powerless to escape his predicament; he even denied himself the opportunity to stop his classmates from harassing him again, refusing to tell on them to the teacher. John claims, “As vividly as any number of the stories in the Bible, Owen Meany showed us what a martyr was,” foreshadowing Owen’s later—and much greater—act of martyrdom.
The second vivid image of powerlessness that becomes sacrifice is the armless totem of Watahantowet, a Native sagamore, or chief. When John’s ancestor, the Rev. John Wheelwright, purchased the land for the town of Gravesend from Watahantowet in 1638, town legend recalls that Watahantowet “made his mark upon the deed in the form of his totem—an armless man.” The townspeople later wondered why he had chosen that form for his totem, whether “it was how it made the sagamore feel to give up all that land” or perhaps “to indicate the sagamore’s frustration at being unable to write.” Owen Meany made the helpless, armless figure his own totem when he formally apologized to John for hitting the foul ball that struck and killed John’s mother. He removed the claws from his and John’s favorite toy, a stuffed armadillo, to create a resemblance to the Watahantowet’s tragic symbol. On a primary level, the dismemberment of the armadillo showed how horrified and helpless Owen felt after the fatal accident. On a secondary level that John would only later uncover, Owen’s declawed armadillo had another message: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.” Owen was powerless at the moment that he innocently swung at the pitch that would kill Tabitha Wheelwright. He takes from this experience the lesson that all people are powerless in the face of God’s will; it is how people receive this fact that matters. Owen decides that he will commit to God’s path and sacrifice his own arms, and his life, for God’s will.
By the end of the novel, Owen has faithfully delivered himself into God’s hands and sacrificed his life to save a group of innocent orphans and nuns. When the moment God has prepared him for arrives, Owen is the only one in the room who is not powerless to act. Helpless no more, Owen uses his rare weightlessness to propel himself and a deadly grenade out of harm’s way, and severs his arms shielding the others from the blast. John describes how Owen was content to finally become the figure whose arms no longer belonged to him: “he tried to reach out to me with his arms […] he realized that his arms were gone. He didn’t seem surprised by the discovery. ‘REMEMBER WATAHANTOWET?’” By putting all his faith in God’s power rather than his own, Owen was able to accomplish an extraordinary feat and fulfill a great purpose. At the end of the book, John returns to the memory of holding Owen helplessly aloft when they were children, and considers the divine forces that must have made him so miraculously light: “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.” Even at that age, Owen’s supposed powerlessness foreshadowed his mighty surrender to God.
John concludes his remembrance with a humble appeal to God: “O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You.” Like Owen’s armlessness, John is also damaged by the forces of bloodlust, greed, and hubris that produce so much warfare and violence during his lifetime—he loses a finger to the Vietnam War, and is traumatized by the endless bloodshed and death he witnesses firsthand and watches unfold from afar. He confesses, “What has happened to me has simply neutered me.” Unlike Owen, John is paralyzed by his powerlessness to change the violent course of the world. His anger and frustration do not have a clear outlet, but his final acceptance of humility before God’s will represents a hopeful chance to move closer to a sense of purpose in God just like Owen did.
Powerlessness 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.
Mrs. Hoyt was the first person I remember who said that to criticize a specific American president was not anti-American; that to criticize a specific American policy was not antipatriotic; and that to disapprove of our involvement in a particular war against the communists was not the same as taking the communists’ side. But these distinctions were lost on most of the citizens of Gravesend; they are lost on many of my former fellow Americans today.
Barb Wiggin looked at Owen as if she were revising her opinion of how “cute” he was, and the rector observed Owen with a detachment that was wholly out of character for an ex-pilot. The Rev. Mr. Wiggin, such a veteran of Christmas pageants, looked at Owen Meany with profound respect—as if he’d seen the Christ Child come and go, but never before had he encountered a little Lord Jesus who was so perfect for the part.
“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.
“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.
According to The New York Times, a new poll has revealed that most Americans believe that President Reagan is lying; what they should be asked is, Do they care?”
I remember the independent study that Owen Meany was conducting with the Rev. Lewis Merrill in the winter term of l962. I wonder if those cheeseburgers in the Reagan administration are familiar with Isaiah 5:20. As The Voice would say: “WOE UNTO THOSE THAT CALL EVIL GOOD AND GOOD EVIL.”
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.
What we witnessed with the death of Kennedy was the triumph of television; what we saw with his assassination, and with his funeral, was the beginning of television’s dominance of our culture—for television is at its most solemnly self-serving and at its mesmerizing best when it is depicting the untimely deaths of the chosen and the golden. It is as witness to the butchery of heroes in their prime—and of all holy-seeming innocents— that television achieves its deplorable greatness.
What has happened to me has simply neutered me.
“SINCE I DISCOVERED SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THAT I WAS LIVING IN A WORLD WHERE NOTHING BEARS OUT IN PRACTICE WHAT IT PROMISES INCIPIENTLY, I HAVE TROUBLED MYSELF VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEORIES. I AM CONTENT WITH TENTATIVENESS FROM DAY TO DAY.”
Dan Needham, occasionally, stares at me that way, too. How could he possibly think I could “forgive and forget”? There is too much forgetting. When we schoolteachers worry that our students have no sense of history, isn’t it what people forget that worries us?
Because he’d wished my mother dead, my father said, God had punished him; God had taught Pastor Merrill not to trifle with prayer. And I suppose that was why it had been so difficult for Mr. Merrill to pray for Owen Meany—and why he had invited us all to offer up our silent prayers to Owen, instead of speaking out himself. And he called Mr. and Mrs. Meany “superstitious”! Look at the world: look at how many of our peerless leaders presume to tell us that they know what God wants! It’s not God who’s fucked up, it’s the screamers who say they believe in Him and who claim to pursue their ends in His holy name!
“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.
“THAT IS WHERE THIS COUNTRY IS HEADED—IT IS HEADED TOWARD OVERSIMPLIFICATION. YOU WANT TO SEE A PRESIDENT OF THE FUTURE? TURN ON ANY TELEVISION ON ANY SUNDAY MORNING—FIND ONE OF THOSE HOLY ROLLERS: THAT’S HIM, THAT’S THE NEW MISTER PRESIDENT! AND DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE FUTURE OF ALL THOSE KIDS WHO ARE GOING TO FALL IN THE CRACKS OF THIS GREAT, BIG, SLOPPY SOCIETY OF OURS? I JUST MET HIM; HE’S A TALL, SKINNY, FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY NAMED ‘DICK.’ HE’S PRETTY SCARY. WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIM IS NOT UNLIKE WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE TV EVANGELIST—OUR FUTURE PRESIDENT. WHAT’S WRONG WITH BOTH OF THEM IS THAT THEY’RE SO SURE THEY’RE RIGHT! THAT’S PRETTY SCARY.”
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.