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In the first chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving displays an expansive, articulate style that relies heavily on rich descriptions to create detailed portraits of the New England of his youth, especially the title character who inspires him to believe in God and Christ. Irving’s language throughout the chapter is articulate and his sentences long, perhaps to accommodate his rather abundant, detailed descriptions; it is almost oratorical without being florid or long-winded, reflecting the fact that the narrator is descended from a prominent New England family (including the Puritan minister for whom he is named).
He also relies heavily on memories, moving from his recollections of Owen to broader discussions of his own family and hometown, creating a context for the subsequent action and thus giving his memories a deeper meaning. In addition, Irving uses Owen as a symbol of Christ-like divinity – the boy is something of a martyr for his suffering (indeed, he never tells on his peers for their abuses), and yet he takes away the narrator’s mother, however unintentionally, by hitting the foul ball that kills the narrator’s mother (hence the chapter’s title, “The Foul Ball”).
Irving avoids sounding childish by using articulate adult language, but he conveys a child’s point of view by speaking in a matter-of-fact way about how he and his peers picked on the frail, undersized Owen. He conveys no immediate judgments or apologies for his actions (indeed, as a child he feels no shame for it), and he does not analyze his motivations.
For example, when Owen offers a surprisingly mature complaint about church services, the narrator says, “To these complaints, and others like them, I could respond only by picking up Owen Meany and holding him above my head” (Irving 23), showing how other children are unable to comprehend Owen. He also implies adults’ stupidity by mentioning his oblivious Sunday school teacher and how the police chief and coach quarrel over the ball after his mother’s death.
The author wants the reader to understand his world (hence the detailed discussions of his town, family, and relationship with Owen) and especially Owen’s complex role in it. Though he mentions his Christianity at the very start, the narrator does not preach or scold the reader, admitting that he is a rather lazy Christian but also making clear that he feels deeply indebted to him (despite Owen’s role in his mother’s death) and makes the reader feel sympathy for the victimized Owen.
Irving’s language is richly descriptive without becoming tedious, and he recalls Owen’s characteristics humorously, especially his diminutive size and high-strangled voice (Owen’s words always appear in capitals). Irving communicates respect for Christianity, but not for the ritual or doctrine – he admits his laziness and calls his approach “a church-rummage faith” (Irving 2). Instead, he believes in the divine power channeled through Owen, whose intelligence and deep understanding of God set him apart from his peers.
Irving implies that both the narrator and New England, despite their Puritan past, find religion uninspiring until Owen appears, and that Owen has vastly more potential to influence events than is shown in the first chapter. More explicitly, he evokes New England’s provincial values, especially the split between insiders (the descendants of Puritans, like the narrator) and outsiders (later arrivals, like Owen’s Irish-Catholic family), and Irving contrasts the region’s harsh religious past with the narrator’s spiritual barrenness, for which Owen ultimately becomes a remedy.
In the book’s first chapter, Irving shows the reader a rich picture of his characters’ world, creating the context in which the narrator’s transition from nonbeliever to Christian occurs. He presents Owen in a sympathetic light, as a wise yet victimized figure whose suffering and kindness bring enlightenment into a milieu that needs it. Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: Ballantine, 1989.