John Irving

Diagramming the First Sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany

For reasons beyond my understanding, I have been able to recite the first sentence of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany ever since the first and only time that I read the novel.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany

I have no recollection of trying to memorize the sentence. I do remember rereading the opening passage after finishing the book, and it was at that point that I was able to recite from memory the first line. It is perhaps my only super power: the ability to recite the first sentence of this great American novel without any great effort. Who then is my arch nemesis? Dementia? Alzheimers? Apologies. I digress.

Onto the Business

I love John Irving. Reading his novels makes me feel like a real adult. They are broad and sweeping portraits of American families and American dysfunction, but not in the gothic or studiously sincere ways of writers such as Steinbeck or Faulkner. Irving’s Americana prose is jaunty: his tone is simultaneously critical, naieve, and compassionate.

A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first Irving novel that I read. I was immediately hooked.

The Opening Line…

“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.”

Talk about a spoiler alert, huh? Little Owen’s gonna kill the narrator’s Momma and somehow be redeemed by the person who loved her most. Amazing. As I sit here, remembering how this plays out, I desperately want to reread it again. The glory is in the exposition.

The Diagram

Scritch, scratch, draft, draft

Scritch, scratch, draft, draft

The Frame

The Frame

Subjects and Verbs

Subjects and Verbs

A place for everything, and everything in its place...kind of

A place for everything, and everything in its place…kind of

Artwork completed

Artwork completed

The first sentence of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY

The first sentence of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY

I feel pretty good about most of what’s going on in this diagram, but there are some questions that I don’t have answered.

Problem One

I was unsure of where to place the not in the phrase, not because of his voice. Typically, not is an adverb, so I placed it under the verbal, to remember, but that creates a problem with the direct object, a boy. Clearly, he remembers the boy. Unfortunately for me, the not is used to negate one phrase and two clauses under the verbal, to remember, but it isn’t used to negate the third and final clause:

  • not because of his voice
  • not because he was the smallest person
  • not even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death
  • but because he is the reason I believe in God

I took the safe route and stuck it under the verbal because frankly, I didn’t know what else to do with it.

Problem Two

I had no idea how to handle the connecting of the phrases and clauses under the aforementioned verbal, to remember. I couldn’t find anything online that would explain how to connect these compound clauses. In the end, I just went with a simple coordinating conjunction line. If our goal is to parse the sentence in order to better understand the relationship of each part to each part, I think the coordinating junction connnecting line does the job.

Feedback?

I’d love to hear from anyone with better ideas If you have a better diagram, let me know! Thanks for reading!

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