In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, various symbols play a prominent role. Arm-less figures, water, and angels are a few of the more well-known symbols, but there are also subtle symbols throughout the novel. One of the most significant subtle symbols is prayer, which is an idea in itself.
However, A Prayer for Owen Meany by Irving utilizes church as a means to express various abstract ideas. According to Owen, “the trouble with church is the service” where it is conducted for a mass audience. Just as he begins to enjoy the hymn, everyone suddenly kneels to pray. Just as he begins to hear the prayer, everyone abruptly stands up to sing (23).
The passage depicts prayer as merely a component of the “hocus-pocus (21)” of church rituals. It serves as a representation of Owen’s perspective on the formality and ceremonies of the church, as well as the attitudes held by both Owen and Johnny towards certain aspects of the church and its traditions. This becomes significant when considering the larger conflict that both Johnny and Owen struggle with in relation to religious matters. Johnny explicitly expresses this point when he shares, “I was baptized in the Congregational Church, and after some years of fraternity with the Episcopalian…I became rather weak in my religion: in my teens I attended a non-denomination church. Then I became an Anglican… (1).”
These recurring internal religious conflicts highlight a strong dislike for the church ceremony, specifically prayer. Prayer also symbolizes various aspects of Owen Meany’s character. The angel’s prayer in the Christmas pageant serves as a remarkable illustration of this.
“Do not be afraid. For I have good news that will bring great joy to all people. Today in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord has been born. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (149)
The prayer that Owen is compelled to say in the pageant becomes a symbol of himself, as depicted through the various references to Christ. This becomes significant when the reader realizes that Owen is portrayed as both a savior and an individual, akin to Jesus Christ. It is worth noting that Owen is the sole character who can fit inside the figurative crib.
Johnny acknowledges the significance of prayer as a representation of Owen by stating, “I was always saying prayers for Owen Meany (616).” Through this statement, Irving emphasizes that Johnny comprehends that praying is his way of honoring Owen’s true identity.
Ultimately, the reader understands that prayer plays a significant role in A Prayer for Owen Meany. It serves as a subtle yet crucial symbol, effectively portraying various concepts like church uniformity, tradition, and the complex nature of characters like Owen Meany.