A Prayer for Owen Meany

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A Prayer for Owen Meany
First edition
AuthorJohn Irving
Cover artistHoni Werner
CountryUnited States
PublisherWilliam Morrow
Publication date
March 1989
Preceded byThe Cider House Rules 
Followed byA Son of the Circus 

A Prayer for Owen Meany is the seventh novel by American writer John Irving. Published in 1989, it tells the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany growing up together in a small New Hampshire town during the 1950s and 1960s. According to John's narration, Owen is a remarkable boy in many ways; he believes himself to be God's instrument and sets out to fulfill the fate he has prophesied for himself.

The novel is also an homage to Günter Grass's most famous novel, The Tin Drum. Grass was a great influence for John Irving, as well as a close friend. The main characters of both novels, Owen Meany and Oskar Matzerath, share the same initials as well as some other characteristics, and their stories show some parallels.[1] Irving has confirmed the similarities.[2] A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, follows an independent and separate plot.

Plot summary[edit]

The story is narrated by John Wheelwright, a former citizen of New Hampshire who has become a voluntary expatriate from the United States, having settled in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and taken on Canadian citizenship.

The story is narrated in two interwoven time frames. The first time frame is the perspective of John in the present day (1987). The second time frame is John's memories of the past: growing up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 1960s alongside his best friend, Owen Meany.


John Irving uses a unique style when writing A Prayer for Owen Meany. Shostak noticed Irving's "repetitive plot", visible throughout several of his novels.[3] He gave two possible reasons for this, writing about the order this brings to a plot, instead of it being chaotic and corny. This repetition is also to place emphasis on certain key events and ideas. Irving described his writing process by saying, "I have the last chapters in my mind before I see the first chapters...I usually begin with endings, a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don't know the ending first?"[3] Bernstein also notes that Irving "strives for big novels in the 19th-century manner-eventful, heavily peopled stories of the sort...that you don't see much anymore."[4] Another key feature of the novel's style is that Irving writes Owen's dialogue in all capital letters.[5]


Following motifs of faith, religion, war and friendship, John Irving discussed the backstory of A Prayer for Owen Meany before an assembly of drama students at Yale University.[6] Irving revealed the "effects of the morbid Vietnam generation" on the plot of his novel. He tried to communicate, "a victim of the war, but not the victim you see coming from Vietnam."[6] He also mentioned a small boy from his New Hampshire hometown, a boy named Russell, who inspired the character Owen Meany. This protagonist with a "rock-dust falsetto" became the kid from the granite quarry that later dies in the Vietnam War.[6] Critics also mentioned the similarities in plot between Irving's novels. Shostak recalled repetitive New Hampshire-based stories involving themes such as faith and determination.[3] Irving has also added that his "accumulated churchgoing" has influenced his writing process.[4]

John Irving's mother, Frances Winslow, was not married at the time of his conception. Irving never met his biological father. As a child, he was told nothing about his father, and he told his mother that unless she gave him some information about his biological father, in his writing he would invent the father and the circumstances of how she got pregnant. Winslow would reply, "Go ahead, dear." This theme was also used in The World According to Garp.

Publication history[edit]

A Prayer for Owen Meany was published by William Morrow and Company in March 1989. Garp Enterprises owns this copyright.[7] William and Morrow also released an e-book edition on March 13, 2012.[8]


A Prayer for Owen Meany has been both widely praised and criticized. Alfred Kazin described John Wheelwright as a "conscious and unapologetic wimp" and referred to Owen Meany as a "little squirt".[9] However, J. Denny Weaver commented on Owen's "heroic death", and remarked on the book's continuing theme that life is miraculous.[10] Overall, critics found the novel to be a different but successful addition to Irving's works. The book was on the New York Times Bestseller List.[11]

According to publisher Simon & Schuster, A Prayer for Owen Meany is Irving's "all-time bestselling novel, in every language".[12]

Novelist Frederick Buechner, a former teacher of Irving at the Phillips Exeter Academy whom Irving quoted in an epigraph to A Prayer for Owen Meany, called it simply "a really good book".[13]

Film, television and theatrical adaptations[edit]

In 1997, Book-It Repertory Theatre of Seattle, created a narrative-style theatrical adaptation of the novel's fourth chapter, "The Little Lord Jesus". The adaptation is titled "Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant" and has been produced seven times.[14]

The 1998 feature-length film Simon Birch, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, was loosely based on the novel. The film starred Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt and Jim Carrey. It omitted much of the latter half of the novel and altered the ending. The movie does not share the same title as the book or the character names at Irving's request; he felt that it would "mislead the novel's readers to see a film of that same title which was so different from the book."[15]

In 2002, the Royal National Theatre staged Simon Bent's adaptation A Prayer for Owen Meany: On Faith starring Aidan McArdle as the title character and Richard Hope as John Wheelwright.[16]

In 2009, the BBC aired Linda Marshall Griffiths' adaptation of A Prayer for Owen Meany starring Henry Goodman, Toby Jones, Charlotte Emmerson and Max Baldry as a five-part Afternoon Play on BBC Radio Four.[17]

In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of A Prayer for Owen Meany, narrated by Joe Barrett, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

There have also been numerous theatrical adaptations, including Yale University's Dramatic Association's Freshman Show.[4][6]

Cultural references[edit]

California punk rock band Lagwagon based the song "Owen Meaney" from their 1998 album Let's Talk About Feelings on the book.

The band Jimmy Eat World also based the song "Goodbye Sky Harbor" from their 1999 album Clarity on the book.

In the movie Milk Money, the school is named Owen Meany Jr. High School.

Former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson has passed out this book to his team in the past as part of his ritual of assigning readings to players.[18]


  1. ^ More precisely, the main character of The Tin Drum, Oskar Matzerath, appears split into Owen Meany and John Wheelwright in Irving's book. Many parallels between the characters Owen/John and Oscar are listed on this German website, the most obvious being
    • Body size
    • "Broken" voice
    • Both display supernatural powers (Oskar by his own choice stops growing at the age of 3/Owen foresees his future)
    • Absence of father (Oskar and John)
    • Both work as stonemasons producing gravestones
    • Oskar compares himself to Jesus, Owen impersonates him
    • Oskar and Owen are improbably intelligent and articulate, even as children
    • A war is central to both stories
    • Both stories are told in retrospection as well as in present tense
    • Oskar prevents an execution by drumming (which he trained all his life); Owen prevents the killing of Vietnamese children by applying a basketball shot (which he trained all his life)
  2. ^ See e.g., Irving's NYT article A Soldier Once about Grass' autobiography Peeling the Onion, 8 July 2007.
  3. ^ a b c Shostak, Debra (Fall 1995). "Plot as repetition: John Irving's narrative experiments". Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 37 (1): 51. doi:10.1080/00111619.1995.9936480. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Bernstein, Richard (25 April 1989). "John Irving: 19th-Century Novelist for These Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  5. ^ James, Caryn (8 March 1989). "Books of The Times: John Irving's 'Owen Meany': Life With Booby Traps". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d Jeon, Hoon Pyo, Jung, Eugena (9 April 2012). "Award winning novelist talks effects of war". Yale Daily News. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
  7. ^ Irving, John (1989). A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0688077080.
  8. ^ Ballenger, Seale (17 February 2012). "John Irving's Beloved Modern Classic A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY to Be Available in E-book Edition For the First Time". Harper Collins Publishers. Archived from the original on 17 May 2013. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. ^ Kazin, Alfred (12 March 1989). "A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  10. ^ Weaver, J. Denny (Summer 2011). "Owen Meany as atonement figure: how he saves". Christian Literature. 60 (4): 613. doi:10.1177/014833311106000408. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  11. ^ General One File (19 March 1989). "BESTSELLERS: March 19, 1989". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  12. ^ "Author page: John Irving". Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  13. ^ Dale., Brown, W. (1997). Of fiction and faith : twelve American writers talk about their vision and work. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. ISBN 0802843131. OCLC 36994237.
  14. ^ The Happy Bit. "Book-It Repertory Theatre". Archived from the original on 2012-07-12. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  15. ^ "John Irving's personal thoughts on Simon Birch". 1998-09-07. Retrieved 2009-11-06.
  16. ^ http://catalogue.nationaltheatre.org.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Performance&id=257.[citation needed]
  17. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - Afternoon Drama, A Prayer for Owen Meany". BBC. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  18. ^ "Chat: Chat with Phil Jackson - SportsNation - ESPN Los Angeles". ESPN.com. Retrieved 17 May 2015.

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