The Red Couch: A Prayer for Owen Meany discussion


By Shawn Smucker | Twitter: @shawnsmucker


This post may contain spoilers. To learn more about A Prayer for Owen Meany, read the introductory post.

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

Sometimes I think I could say the same thing, that I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

My freshman year in college was a difficult year for me, for many reasons. Late one November night, with only a week or two remaining in the semester, I found myself in a hall full of laughing students. They played card games and told jokes and flirted shamelessly … and I felt so outside of it all. I sat quietly in a chair in the corner, watching, as if I wasn’t even there.

I stood up. I put on my coat. I walked through the door and into the cold. I followed one of the long paths through the woods that surrounded our campus, and as one way leads into another way I came down to the small river that ran through the woods. Recent rains had caused the river to swell up to the edge of its banks, and the ground there was muddy and puddled. I splashed through to a swinging bridge, and I walked out to the middle. I sat down and watched the freezing cold water rush just beneath my dangling legs.

I sat there for a long time that night, and I thought about a lot of things.

But mostly I wondered, “Where are you, God?” 

* * * * *

The theme of absence permeates A Prayer For Owen Meany, beginning with Irving’s story of Watahantowet’s missing arms, symbols of his helplessness in the face of the encroaching white man. And it continues with the armless dummy, and the way Owen Meany removes the armadillos front legs. It’s in John’s amputated finger and in the penultimate scene, when Owen’s arms have been torn away.

But as the book progresses, from beginning to end, the absence picks up a counterbalance. The areas of nothingness begin to take form, gather shape, and we begin to see the journey that Irving is leading us on, a journey from absence to presence.

* * * * *

It was the fall of 1995, two months before that quiet night I spent staring down at an icy river, and I stumbled through weariness to the first 8am class of my collegiate career, “Intro to English,” a required class for all freshman English majors. I carried in my backpack, among other things, a thick novel with an armadillo on the blue-gray cover.

A Prayer For Owen Meany.

My professor was Dr. Downing, a blond, middle-aged Californian wearing bright pink lipstick and a wide belt around her stomach. Energy shot out of her like light, and she practically danced along the front of the class, now giggling with excitement, now serious with emotion. She was wonderful. But then again, of course I would remember her fondly: she introduced me to one of my favorite books.

There are certain books you read, and you know them the way you know someone you met once at a dinner party and then never saw again. Maybe you cross paths with someone who knows the person, and you try to remember what they were like, but only a vague recognition remains. A general profile. A sense of who they were.

Then there are the other books, the rare ones, the ones that become close friends.

* * * * *

This idea of absence evolving into presence becomes most obvious at the midway point of the book, when Owen and John are walking through a fog, discussing the statue that they cannot see (a statue from which Owen would eventually remove the arms).


“Yes!” I screamed.


In the same way, the other absences in the book begin making way for presence. The armless Watahahtowet and Owen’s removal of the armadillo’s front legs help to communicate Owen’s friendship to John. Owen’s act of amputating John’s finger saves him from the horrors of the Vietnam War. Even the armless dressmaker’s dummy becomes a tool used to help John identify his father.

* * * * *

Is there any other book where the reader can almost completely understand the book’s premise, plot, and major themes so precisely by only reading the first and the last sentence?

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

And then, the desperate plea at the end.

“Oh God—please give him back! I shall keep asking you.”

This is it—this presence in absence. This is what makes A Prayer For Owen Meany such a beautiful, poignant, memorable read. This is what makes the ending so powerful: there is the absence of Owen Meany, but it is precisely that absence that has led John to a place of continued presence.


Meet Shawn:

1464601_10152048305393290_1082240186_nShawn Smucker lives in Lancaster, PA with his wife Maile and their five children. He is the author of “Building a Life Out of Words,” the story of his journey into writing full time. He and his wife also wrote, “How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp,” a book about their family’s 10,000-mile journey around the United States in an old blue bus named Willie. He blogs at



Questions to Consider:

  • In what way did the themes of absence and presence resonate with you?
  • Owen speaks and writes in capital letters, emphasizing the potency of his strange voice. At the academy, he is even referred to as the Voice. Why is Owen’s voice so important? What other occasions can you think of in which Owen’s voice played an especially meaningful role?
  • Reverend Merrill always speaks of faith in tandem with doubt. Do you believe that one can exist without the other or that one strengthens the other?
  • Do you think Owen considers himself Christ-like?
  • What clues did Irving give about Owen’s final heroic scene?
  • John assists Owen in rescuing the children, but John always plays the supporting part in Owen’s adventures. Based on the scenes in Toronto in the 1980s, do you think John ever escaped his support-ing role?
  • What parts resonated with you and what parts challenged you?

*Some questions suggested by or adapted from this discussion guide.


Our September book is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline, just in time for fall fashion. Come back Wednesday, September 3  for the introduction to the book. The discussion post will be Wednesday, September 24. For on-going discussion each month, join The Red Couch Facebook group.

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