Outsiders inspire fear and enchantment. What does our reaction to those who are different say about us and our beliefs?
Literature and film contain shining examples of outsiders, but I doubt there are many stories in either medium that contain as many outsiders as John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The most genuine and endearing element of the book is that every single character seems to be experiencing some form of isolation.
Irving has created a fictional town, bleakly named Gravesend, that resembles his hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. John Wheelwright, our narrator, is the dyslexic stepson of a teacher who will follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, a lonely boy who hungers desperately to know the identity of his biological father. Owen Meany and many of the more sensational parts of the novel are fiction, but the kernel of John Wheelwright as described above is John Irving himself. What is it that Irving needs to say about his experience growing up in small town America that requires the detailed and loving construction of Owen Meany?
In comparison to the secret sufferings of most of the inhabitants of Gravesend, Owen Meany’s difficulties seem far more obvious. He is small in stature and possessed with a shrill, pre-pubescent voice. His father is in the granite business, considered disreputable and dirty, and his mother is a silent invalid who spends her days sitting by the window, staring away from the outside world. By the time we meet them, a secret belief about the nature of Owen and his birth has already impacted their lives.
Owen creates strange feelings in those around him, feelings that have less to do with Owen himself than they have to do with the person reacting to him. His smallness and fragility inspire others to either become protective of him or abuse him, his “unnaturalness” speaks to those inclined to superstition (including his own parents), and his unwavering faith speaks to those who struggle with their own faith. This effect is amplified as his life plays itself out, a life in which he will be responsible for the accidental death of his best friend’s mother and for a heroic deed which he foresaw in his own dreams. Owen gives those around him a nudge toward believing that which they were inclined to believe, but never could embrace. His life is such an authentic one that it polarizes those who come in contact with it.
What is it that Owen stands for? Perhaps that depends on where you stand. He might be the spirit of an American innocence that was lost forever in the Vietnam War, a Christ like figure who took on the sins of others to protect the innocent, or a victim of the cruelty of society, of chance, or of God himself. Perhaps he is just a symbol of Irving’s own childhood, stunted and lost, or a clever tool which allows Irving to explore not only his own painful experiences, but those of the community in which he grew up. When it comes to being polarized by Owen, we are no exception. Whatever attitudes we bring to this stunning piece of literature will be strengthened by it. John Irving does not force his beliefs upon us, but he provides us with Owen Meany, a mirror in which we may find our own faces revealed. What do you see?