“Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor

Posted by @ 10:53 am on March 13th, 2009

(New! Femme Friday: Every Friday I’ll write a review, post an interview, or discuss in some way, a female writer or editor that rocks my world. I’ll alternate between Indie scene people and more well known or established women, living and dead. Next friday, look out for a review of Jackie Corley’s book, The Suburban Swindle (from So New Media, click here so you can buy it and read it before my review). And- Spoiler Alert! “Parker’s Back” is discussed in full here.)


“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” Exodus 3, 2


In the short story “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor, as in all of her work, there is an absence of overt moralizing and yet nearly every moment of the story, every action depicted, expresses the human soul’s struggle against, and toward, the power of God. O’Connor is radical in her de-emphasis on belief: many of her truly saved characters and prophets don’t properly believe in God, but it is God that takes them anyway. O’Connor’s vision of God is more or less that God is something that happens to us.


O.E. Parker is not a very bright or successful man; in fact, he might be even thought of as an idiot. He also is an unhappily married man. His wife Sarah Ruth is part of the mystery that soaks this story, as she is ugly and mean and now pregnant and for the life of him, Parker cannot understand why he cares about her at all. Like much of O’Connor’s work, humor has its place and Parker is so ridiculously inept at his work and at living in this world- he is manual laborer and ex- navy man—that one can’t help but be amused.


When he first sees his future wife, he pretends to hurt his hand to get her attention:


Suddenly Parker began to jump up and down and fling his hand about as if he had mashed it in the machinery. He doubled over and held his hand close to his chest. “God Dammit!” He hollered, “Jesus Christ in hell!”


Sarah Ruth slaps him hard in response to his taking the Lord’s name in vain. He insists he hurt his hand, forgetting that he didn’t.


Parker stuck out his hand and she came closer and looked at it. There was no mark on the palm, and she took the hand and turned it over. Her own hand was dry and hot and rough and Parker felt himself jolted back to life by her touch. He looked more closely at her. I don’t want nothing to do with this one, he thought.


Parker, here in the beginning of the story, is not yet truly marked, there is “no mark” on his hand. And the power Sarah Ruth has is something that Parker literally feels and wants to escape. It is the literalness in this story that gets me so. O’Connor’s God communicates in concrete, real ways, in something so simple as faking a hurt hand for attention.


Parker then starts showing her all of his tattoos. She claims not to like them. Parker is covered in tattoos, all over his body; cards, serpents, a heart and an eagle and so forth. The only place Parker doesn’t have a tattoo is on his back. (As a digression, I have to point that Parker asks her which one she likes best and O’Connor lets Sarah Ruth say; “None of them…but the chicken is not as bad as the rest” in regard to his eagle tattoo. This is just O’Connor being obsessed with chickens- she raised them, loved them and writes about it in her non-fiction. It’s a joke, in my mind and also a somewhat rare moment where O’Connor actually puts herself in a story. Auto-biographical moments are a real treat in her fiction.)  Parker remembers when he first got in mind the idea of getting tattooed. He had been at a fair and seen a man covered in tattoos and knew that was what he wanted for himself.


Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.


This is, in short, the pull of God. This is the first sign of a murky prescience in his life. What is so extraordinary, is how Parker listens to these signs and inadvertently, and painfully, follows his destiny.


While getting to know Sarah Ruth, before they married, she asks him what his name is:


“O.E. Parker”, he said.

“What does the O.E. stand for?”


Parker doesn’t want to tell her.


“I’ll swear I’ll never tell nobody,” she said. “On God’s holy word I swear it.”


Parker sat for a few minutes in silence. Then he reached for the girl’s neck, drew her ear close to his mouth and revealed the name in low voice.


“Obadiah,” she whispered. Her face slowly brightened as if the name came as a sign to her. “Obadiah,” she said.


The name still stank in Parker’s estimation.


“Obadiah Elihue,” she said in a reverent tone.


“If you call me that aloud, I’ll bust your head open,” Parker said.


Throughout the story, even though Parker follows the signs toward his destiny, he also fights it. O’Connor herself, a true believer, wrote in her non-fiction that she had “angel aggression”, that she felt backed into the corners of her house, fighting off angels. This interests me in that we might assume Christians are always fighting off the Devil, but in O’Connor’s view, it’s much more complex than that. To go the way of God is something we fight, too. And it makes sense to me, very much. Because once you acknowledge you have a soul at stake, you have a lot to lose.


After Parker and Sarah marry and she becomes pregnant, Parker becomes even more miserable.


Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be on his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist—a religious subject….He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep…Not knowing for certain why he stayed with a woman who was both ugly and pregnant and no cook made him generally nervous and irritable, and he developed a little tic in the side of his face.


Parker’s sufferning is a acute. He is out of sorts, confused, and genuinely at a loss as to how he got into this mess and how to get out of it. A few days later, Parker is bailing hay in the hot blinding sun when he accidentally drives into a tree.

All at once he saw the tree reaching out to grasp him. A ferocious thud propelled him into the air, and he heard himself yelling in an unbelievably loud voice, “GOD ABOVE!”

He landed on his back while the tractor crashed upside down into the tree and burst into flame…He scrambled backwards, still sitting, his eyes cavernous, and if he knew how to cross himself he would have done it.


Here is O’Connor at her most sublime. She chooses to show us God in people who don’t really believe in God. Miracles happen in the everyday, in a tractor accident, in a bad marriage, in seeing a man with tattoos and wanting to be like him.Parker is stunned from his accident and goes straight to the City to get a tattoo. He looks through the artist’s book of images, seeing:


“The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus The Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring….On one of the pages a pair of eyes glances at him swiftly…Parker returned to the picture—the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ will all-demanding eyes.


This is the Christ Parker chooses to have inked on his back, even though the artist tries to dissuade him.  It’s not a lovely or comforting image of Christ and that is typical of O’Connor’s presentation of Him. But his eyes, his eyes demand Parker. It’s a two day job, the tattoo, and Parker spends the night in the City between inking, staying on a cot for destitute men at a place called Haven of Light Christian Mission.


He longed miserably for Sarah Ruth. Her sharp tongue and icepick eyes were the only comfort he could bring to mind. He decided he was losing it. Her eyes appeared soft and dilatory compared with the eyes in the book, for even though he could not summon up the exact look of those eyes, he could still feel their penetration. He felt as though, under their gaze, he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.


The next day, after the tattoo is finally completed, Parker goes and gets drunk at a bar where people know him, know him from coming in after getting tattooed. A brawl ensues and Parker ends up getting thrown out in the alley.


Parker sat for a long time in the ground in the alley behind the pool hall, examining his soul. He saw it as a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion…Throughout his life, grumbling and sometimes cursing, often afraid, once in rapture, Parker had obeyed whatever instinct of this kind had come to him—in a rapture when his spirit had lifted at the sight of the tattooed man at the fair, afraid when he had joined the navy, grumbling when he had married Sarah Ruth.


The thought of her brought him slowly to his feet. She would know what he had to do. She would clear up the rest of it, and she would at least be pleased. It seemed to him that, all along, that was what he wanted, to please her.

Parker heads back, but Sarah Ruth has the door locked. She forces him to say his name out loud through the locked door, the name he despises. He whispers it at the close door, so she can hear him. She lets him in. The actual saying of his name is what admits him to his home. And then, to Parker’s great astonishment, Sarah Ruth does not like his new tattoo at all, screaming;


“Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolator in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it. Parker was too stunned to resist…Then he staggered up and made for the door….(Sarah Ruth) looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was—who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.



Everything that actually happens in this story is something that could happen. And yet, Parker’s life is undoubtedly filled with the communication and miracles of God.


Parker is marked and saved. God is, again-literally, upon him. There are no symbols, there is only the miracle. That what he cannot see on his back, now sees through him, bores through his very soul and Parker can never escape again. This is permanent, his salvation, as permanent as the tattoo on Parker’s back is on his earthly body. That what he can’t see, what is invisible is all that really matters.  In the beginning of the story, Parker thinks, in regard to Sarah Ruth, “Sometimes he supposed that she had married him because she meant to save him.” And save him she does, but not by bending him toward her Protestant ethics, but by inadvertently guiding him to his true salvation, the literal Christ, his body now marked with, melded with, the only true God, the Catholic God. He is born again in Christ, “crying like a baby” against the tree, the tree enflamed or not, being God as well, and finally has been named.


O’Connor’s world IS the expression of Catholicism. Belief is not even applicable. And regardless of how good God is, He is first and foremost, mysterious. O’Connor writes how that mystery expresses in our daily lives and her writing, inseparable from her belief, is the hot sting of that very mystery itself.

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