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Of Mice and Meany

The Symbols of 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' and 'Of Mice and Men'

      The most inconspicuous things can have the most significant meanings. An armless totem and soft mice are symbols that give the reader foresight into the futures of Owen Meany and Lennie Small. The stories Of Mice and Men and A Prayer for Owen Meany follow the lives of the characters, Lennie Small and Owen Meany, and their closest friends, George Milton and Johnny Wheelwright. Both Steinbeck and Irving incorporate the literary devices of symbolism, attributing a deeper meaning to an object, and foreshadowing, subtly hinting to the reader what events will transpire later throughout their books ("Symbolism”, “Foreshadowing – Examples...”). In A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, and Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, the deaths of both Owen Meany and Lennie Small are foreshadowed by their unusual obsessions with very ordinary objects.

     In A Prayer for Owen Meany, one of the first symbols the reader is introduced to is the Watahantowet totem. This totem was constructed in honor of the Native American chief Watahantowet. There is a curious feature to this monument - it is armless. Owen compares himself “to this sturdy, uncompromising figure” many times (McKellar).The totem’s lack of arms is thought to represent Watahantowet’s inability to write or that he will not fight (Irving 8). For Owen, this symbol could foreshadow his daunting, inevitable fate. Another queer deed Owen did was he removed the claws from Johnny’s beloved stuffed armadillo. He took “the little animal’s front claws - the most useful...parts of its curious body” (Irving 85). The loss of the armadillo’s important appendages can be compared to the loss Owen endures on his final day. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie has an unusual fascination with anything that is soft. He loves to pet and hold little mice, but this never turns out well. George tries to keep Lennie from having mice because he knows what will happen. He says, “’I ain’t takin’ [the mouse] away jus’ for meanness...[and] you’ve broken it pettin’ it’” (Steinbeck 9). Lennie always ends up killing the mice, and the fact that he broke the mouse and did not realize it shows just how unaware he is of his uncommon strength. Later on, Lennie is graced with a small puppy to call his own (Steinbeck 38). As Lennie is playing with the puppy, it tries to bite him and he accidentally kills it (Steinbeck 87). He says, “’I didn’t bounce you hard. I di’n’t know you’d get killed so easy’”(Steinbeck 85, 86). Lennie’s naiveté will be his downfall.

     Throughout the story, Owen encounters many armless entities. After the death of Johnny’s mother, Owen acquires her double, “the shy dressmaker’s dummy in that unloved [red] dress” (Irving 142). Lennie also has his own experience with a red dress. When George and Lennie are in Weed on a job, Lennie is suspected of “rape” (Steinbeck 41). He just has the innocent desire to feel this girl’s dress. “’[Lennie] jus’ wanted to feel that girl’s dress-jus’ wanted to pet it like it was a mouse,’” says George. "‘She jerks back and [he] hold[s] on like it was a mouse’” (Steinbeck 11). He describes the ordeal to Slim a farm worker he knows saying, “’He was so scairt he couldn’t let go of that dress....he holds on ‘cause that’s the only thing he can think to do. And he’s so God damn strong, you know, [but] he’s jes’ like a kid. There ain’t no harm in him than a kid neither...’” (Steinbeck 41, 43). The paralyzing terror Lennie suffers from in this situation foreshadows how he will act in his encounter with Curley’s wife in the barn.

     As the story continues, Owen is affected more and more by the dream he has of his own demise. He takes the statue of Mary Magdalene from St. Michaels Catholic Church. Owen used his skills with granite to delicately remove her from her pedestal and into the chapel of his and Johnny’s school. When Johnny and his stepfather Dan arrive, they are surprised to see that Owen had “removed Mary Magdalene’s arms, above the elbows, so that her gesture of beseeching the assembled audience would seem all the more an act of supplication - and all the more helpless” (Irving 402-403). This image of Mary portends Owen’s own fate. The students knew there was significance behind this symbol presented to them by Owen, leading them to pray for him. Johnny says that “if [he] had known about Owen’s dream, [he] would have prayed much harder” (Irving 414-415). Mary is also headless, “with the clean-cut stump of her neck, which was slashed at her Adam’s apple, expressing so dramatically that she had much to say to us” (Irving 403). The lack of her voice is also symbolic of Owen’s own inability to speak out against his God-given fate. In Of Mice and Men, a major scene foreshadowing Lennie’s passing is the killing of Candy’s old mutt. Carlson is the one to follow through with the shooting as Candy is too afraid to do it himself. Candy later regrets not putting his dog out of its misery (“Foreshadowing”). The death of Candy’s dog is a mirror image of Lennie’s own death ("Foreshadowing – Examples...”). Carlson tells Candy that he will “’shoot him right in the back of the head...why he’d never know what hit him [and] he wouldn’t feel nothing’”(Steinbeck 45). This event foreshadows that Lennie, like Candy’s dog, will be “put down.”

     Continually throughout the story, Owen mentioned a mysterious dream, the dream, and at first was unwilling to tell Johnny the details of it. He finally opened up about the dream when Johnny questioned his need to go to Vietnam after enlisting in the army. In the dream, Owen said that he was in an explosion, and he saved some kids who did not speak English, clearly Vietnamese. There were some nuns present. One of the nuns was holding him, her clothes becoming increasingly saturated with more blood, which was his own. As the nun made the sign of the cross over him, Owen attempted to stop her but could not. Owen said that “IT’S AS IF I DON’T HAVE ANY ARMS.” Soon he was looking down at himself, surrounded by detritus and his own congealing blood, and everyone else, as if his soul was ascending to Heaven. He described the surroundings as very hot and contained many beautiful palm trees. The place where he died was evidently not in New Hampshire (Irving 473-474). When the fated day did arrive, Owen was surprised by the location of where this pivotal event occurred. The major event that secured Lennie’s execution was his accidental murder of Curley’s wife. After the incident with the puppy, Curley’s wife confronted Lennie in the barn. Lennie told her of his love of soft things, and she allowed him to pet her hair. As Lennie began stroking her more fervently, Curley’s wife started to worry that he would mess her hair up and yelled at him to stop. She raised voice and struggling led Lennie to panic. He grabbed her hair firmly and would not release his grip. She started screaming, so Lennie covered her mouth and the noise with his other hand. He became increasingly angry with her as she attempted to put up a fight. Lennie shook her “and then she was still, for [he] had broken her neck” (Steinbeck 90-91). Lennie’s ignorance in regard to his inhuman strength and his vehement infatuation with soft items resulted in his demise.

     All of these symbols and events lead up the final swan song of both A Prayer for Owen Meany and Of Mice and Men - the deaths of the two most significant characters, Owen and Lennie. On the fated day of Owen’s death, Johnny is there with him. And, contrary to Owen’s belief, this actually occurs in Arizona, not Vietnam. To save the Vietnamese children, Owen risks his own life by taking a grenade thrown by an angry man and placing it where it cannot harm them by being thrown up in the air by Johnny. The heroic jump was made perfect because of the countless number of times they had practiced their slam-dunk shot with a basketball. This explosion leads to Owen being mortally injured. Both of his “arms were missing - they were severed just below his elbows...” similar to the way that he had “removed Mary Magdalene’s arms, above the elbows...” (Irving 614, 402). Weirdly enough, the loss of his arms is the only injury that Owen sustains though they were irreparable. The dressmaker’s dummy is missing its arms, and the scarlet dress it wore could represent the blood of Owen when he loses his arms and bleeds to death. When Johnny helplessly watches his best friend’s death, he “realizes how everything in his friend’s short life—from his peculiar voice to his obsession with slam-dunking a basketball after being launched into the air by his best friend—have both foreshadowed and prepared him for his predetermined fate” (Ott). Everyone, everything, and every minuscule moment in Owen Meany’s life led him to that fated day. Lennie’s misguided actions lead to a catastrophic end to his life. A plaintive George shoots Lennie in the same way that Carlson shot Candy’s dog - in the back of the head. He even uses Carlson’s gun to do the deed. The only difference between the dog’s death and Lennie’s is that George musters the strength to shoot Lennie himself, unlike Candy. He cares very much for Lennie and “he chooses to kill Lennie himself in order to save him from being killed by a stranger” ("Foreshadowing – Examples...”). If he were to continue to live, he would continue to kill, until society put him to death. George takes pity on his friend and puts him out of both his own and society’s misery.

     Even the most insignificant objects and actions can foreshadow events shrouded by the sands of time. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, and Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, the plots are heavily laden with foreshadowing and symbolism that ultimately lead to the ends of the two main characters, Owen Meany and Lennie Small. It is evident that “Owen suffered an obsession with armlessness - this was Watahantowet’s familiar totem, this was what [he] had done to [Johnny’s] armadillo. [Johnny’s] mother’s dressmaker’s dummy was armless, too” (Irving 403). Owen also removed Mary Magdalene’s stone arms (Irving 402-403). The ripple effect of all these messages teaches Johnny that “the consequences of our past actions are always interesting; [He has] learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye” (Irving 407). Johnny also states, “If I were given the opportunity to pray for Owen Meany now, I could do a better job of it; knowing what I know now, I might be able to pray harder, [and] I am always saying prayers for Owen Meany [now].” (Irving 415, 616). These minuscule actions of the past can result in dire events unfolding later in life. Lennie’s fascination with soft objects is a chief factor in predicting his downfall. Four pivotal events sequentially lead to the denouement of Lennie’s narrative. These occurrences, such as “...the description of the “rape” in Weed, the killing of Candy’s dog,” and the accidental slaughter of Curley’s wife, all lead up to Lennie’s death (Goodman 47). These four key events all “involve[d] violence, so there [was] sure to be more violence to come” (Goodman 47). Both of these characters suffered tragic deaths begotten from violence. No matter how much Johnny and George cared for their friends, there was no stopping their deaths.

                                                         References

"Foreshadowing - Examples and Definition of Foreshadowing." Literary           Devices. Literary Devices, 02 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 May 2016.

"Foreshadowing in of Mice & Men." Foreshadowing.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 10
     May 2016.

Goodman, Michael. "John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men." Google Books.
     Barron's Educational Series, Inc., n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: William Morrow and
     Company, Inc., 1989. Print.

McKellar, Kate. "'Symbols of Suffering: Characterisations of Fate in the
     Novels of John Irving'" The Luminary. Lancaster University, n.d. Web.
     10 May 2016.

Ott, Bill. "A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving." StoryLines America.
     N.d. American Library Association. Web. 10 May 2016.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Group, 1993. Print.

"Symbolism - Examples and Definition of Symbolism." Literary Devices.
     Literary Devices, 02 July 2013. Web. 11 May 2016.

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