Many civilized readers just don’t know what to do with Flannery O’Connor—and for good reason. If you mashed together the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Quentin Tarantino, I think you would get something very like a Flannery O’Connor story, full of theological brilliance and significance, but also earthy, violent, aggressive, and even ugly. O’Connor’s stories somehow exist simultaneously as tragedies and comedies; they are part morality play and part carnival sideshow; part Gothic fiction and part Biblical exegesis. It is no wonder that many people throw up their hands in despair after reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People.” They find it too confusing, too depressing, or just too vulgar.
This essay is an attempt to help those who have experienced this confusion or frustration when reading Flannery O’Connor. I will attempt to uncover some of the meaning hidden within the pages of the short story “Parker’s Back.” I certainly do not claim to have plumbed the depths of this story, or any of her other stories, but I do hope to provide some clarity and understanding of how O’Connor writes. She is something of an acquired taste, but she unfolds like a fine wine for those who understand how she approaches the art of writing and how she expresses her profound insights into human nature, the Divine, and the bridge between them: grace.
For those who have not read “Parker’s Back,” the story on its surface is strange and, like several O’Connor stories, seems unresolved at the end. O.E. Parker, after a bizarre courtship, is married to Sarah Ruth but he no longer finds her attractive. Throughout his life, Parker has been fascinated with tattoos and his haphazardly colorful body bears witness to this passion. After an accident at work, where Parker drives a tractor into a tree, he runs off to town and commissions a new and large tattoo for his back. The image is of a stern and demanding Christ and everything in his life begins to change. The story ends with his wife rejecting the image as idolatrous and Parker weeping by a tree in his yard.
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O’Connor loves imagery—sometimes subtle, sometimes not. It is not long into the story before the careful reader notices all of the Old Testament names and references in “Parker’s Back.” Sarah and Ruth are both prominent women in the Old Testament and are, importantly, direct ancestors of Christ. O.E. Parker’s names are more obscure but nonetheless significant. Obadiah is a minor prophet who wrote a book chronicling the destruction of Edom, an enemy of the chosen people, and frequently mentioning the “Day of the Lord” and the ultimate restoration of Israel. Obadiah writes about the Lord’s vengeance, affirming that He will avenge His people and punish the wicked. Parker’s second name is even more obscure. Elihu is the mysterious fourth friend of Job who almost corners him. God steps in before Job has the chance to answer the young and pushy Elihu, prompting some to suggest that Elihu is, in fact, Satan himself moving in for the kill. So besides the Old Testament significance, there is a dualism and a struggle between good and evil suggested within Parker’s very name.
But names are not the only way that O’Connor recalls the Old Testament to the minds of her readers. The humorous courtship between Parker and Sarah Ruth begins with apples, reminding us of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Parker hits the lone tree in the field with the tractor, O’Connor describes a scene that parodies the memorable one between Moses and God in the burning bush, down to the detail of the removal of shoes. The calm in the bar after Parker is thrown out is explicitly likened to the calm on the sea once Jonah was thrown overboard.
Parker, the man with the two Old Testament names, is likened to Adam, Moses, and Jonah. All three of these Old Testament characters foreshadow Christ in a profound way. Christ is called the New Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and the Prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15). His resurrection is frequently symbolized by Jonah emerging from the belly of the fish in which he stayed for three days. Although we find no lack of Old Testament imagery, much of it points to the New Testament and Christ. This significant turning from the Old Law to the New Law is ultimately what “Parker’s Back” is all about.
This is further illustrated in Sarah Ruth, who ultimately does not recognize the Christ on Parker’s back, thus representing the Jews in their failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Sarah Ruth, “forever sniffing up sin,” is like the Pharisees who were so concerned with the particulars of the Law that they missed the truth to which it pointed. “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11). While it is certainly true that O’Connor is using this story to illustrate the story of the chosen people, she is also—and perhaps more to the point—presenting this turning to the truth on the level of the individual. The journey of Parker is the same one experienced by all who acknowledge Christ as Lord: a turning from sin to grace, from the world to God, from death to life, and from the outer man to the inner man.
O’Connor uses the curious motif of Parker’s tattoos to consider the nature of the change from the Old to the New, and just how significant it is. Man is the lord of material creation, both through his intellect and God’s order to be stewards of the earth. Man is, in a profound way, above all of the things with which he is surrounded: he is made for more than this world. Parker covers himself with the stuff of this world but still remains dissatisfied. Man can never find true happiness through material things, however good they might be. But when Parker receives the image of Christ on his back, everything changes. Christ is not just another tattoo; nor just another thing. Christ is the New Thing and the Incarnation fundamentally changes all of creation and mankind especially.
The story of Parker is also one of self-discovery. He begins to wonder about himself and his place in the world when he sees the tattooed man at the fair, inspiring his life-long passion. Parker’s whole relationship with Sarah Ruth see-saws between attraction and repugnance so that Parker hardly understands his own motivations. After his inspiration at the burning tree, he relentlessly and purposely has the image of Christ put on his back and the confusion he has always felt about himself begins to give way to clarity. “It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him, even at night.”
This is a beautiful description of the man who discovers God and realizes the enormity of his discovery. It is not, to paraphrase Frank Sheed, that God becomes just another object in our life—just another tattoo for Parker. It is that everything becomes “God-bathed” as the light from the sun illuminates and reveals everything in a landscape. And indeed, Sarah Ruth does not know him at first and will not admit him into the house, so changed is Parker. But, at this moment before the locked door, Parker is “pinned … by a lance” as the sun bursts over the skyline, revealing a “tree of light.” The crucifixion imagery is obvious. In the presence of this life-giving light, Parker’s soul is transformed from a tangled spider web “into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.” He finally receives on the inside what he failed to realize on the outside, despite his lifelong efforts. It is then that Parker voluntarily identifies himself with his baptismal name, and the door opens. Parker, obeying the stern eyes of Christ, is back.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Thus writes Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3:27). The whole story of “Parker’s Back” can be read as a meditation on this verse. Parker’s baptism is pointedly mentioned in the story and it is only after Parker literally puts on Christ and acknowledges his baptismal name—and thus his baptism—that Sarah Ruth admits him into the house. And it is not long after becoming a true follower of Christ that Parker takes up his cross and shares in the sufferings of his Lord as Sarah scourges him with the broom. We ultimately leave Obadiah Elihu Parker in tears and embracing a pecan tree, symbolizing the wood of the cross.