“Parker’s Back” is an account of a man who, having obsessively covered most of his body with tattoos, surrenders to an impulse to have Christ’s face inscribed on his back. The last short story that Flannery O’Connor finished, and one of her best, it constitutes a summation of persistent inclinations and preoccupations inasmuch as it adopts the conversion process as its structural paradigm, in the manner of her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor’s conversions are generally conceived in extreme, even violent terms as the transmogrification of a reluctant, resisting soul, already predisposed to eccentricity, into a “prophet freak” (O’Connor’s term), to whom God’s mysteries are disclosed under the influence of a hounding grace that intrudes upon them by way of their own idiosyncratic compulsions. This conversion is invariably a darkly comic process—which is to say, it is shaped by a sequence of incidents and actions characterized by inadvertency, habits of unconscious origin, and fixations stimulated by grotesque objects and mobilized by immoderate and/or irrational objectives. The Holy Spirit works mysteriously through ludicrous excesses of whim that drive a character beyond the pale of bourgeois religious decorum, much as Old Testament prophets often disquiet their communities with inexplicably bizarre actions.
In “Parker’s Back,” O’Connor grotesquely materializes the process of getting religion. As are other O’Connor characters, Parker is brought around to Christ by a circuitous route of ineffectual circumnavigations that cause him to back into him, in the most literal sense. The story of Parker’s back exemplifies how O’Connor adapts conventional comic strategies that literalize the metaphorical and materialize the abstract to the task of revivifying a theology of incarnation that emphasizes the mystery of the divine’s having taken human fl eshliness upon itself. O’Connor deploys the details of Parker’s acquisition of tattoos as a correlative mystery in which the spirit is materialized at the same time that the body is exalted by its violation such that glory shines out from the tawdry.
O’Connor’s story is divinely comic in a way that would satisfy both the Christian poet Dante and Henri Bergson, a modern philosopher of the comic, insofar as the neurotic mechanism producing her protagonist’s absurdly extravagant behavioral habits and tics is shown to effect the work of providence, perhaps of salvation. Typically, the obstreperous obstinacy, shallow pettiness, smug philistinism, or even malignancy of O’Connor’s idiosyncratic misfits serves to amplify a spiritual condition that neither secular psychology nor rote piety can adequately comprehend. Transgressive or outré behavior, such as Parker’s, becomes the potentially redemptive means for attaining spiritual insight, however dim, regarding the monstrously incomprehensible schemes by which grace compels the soul to function as an inadvertent agent of the holy. The experience of the divine is tinged with dread because it constitutes the return of the repressed, often by a ridiculously circuitous route—which may suggest a subliminal meaning of the title word, back. Despite repeatedly disavowing his affiliation with the Lord, despite denying that he is one of the saved witnessing for Christ, despite declaring that he has no use or sympathy for someone who cannot save himself, Parker repeatedly suffers the mockery and abuse often visited upon prophets, even reluctant ones like Jonah, to whom he is compared. The irony here is that the inescapable Hound of Heaven pursues Parker in the form of his pursuit of a sustained and sustaining source of satisfaction. Thus, Parker is his own hound and intrudes upon himself—with a spiritual consequence that is left comically ambiguous. Parker’s seemingly estranged, sniff-necked resistance to God is the very mechanism that catches him up in a mystery whose operations exceed not only rational selfinterest but also any causal chain that rationalism or a rationalistic piety could recognize or trace.
Parker’s mania for tattoos enters his life as a source of inspiration. The flexing muscles of a carnival freak combine with Parker’s rapture to produce “a subtle motion” that reflects, although the spiritually obtuse Parker cannot conceive it, the animating presence of the Holy Spirit. This leaves him “filled with emotion, lifted up,” although he had never before “felt the least motion of wonder in himself” (513). Parker’s motivations for acquiring his own markings are varied, born of a vain desire to seem extraordinary and seductive, a protoaesthetic pleasure in the capacity of color to vivify his existence, and a need to allay anxiety and relieve tension through administered pain, much as some people seek to relieve internal pressure by deliberately cutting themselves. Similarly, the pricks of the tattoo needle might be thought to make visible unacknowledged psychospiritual wounds and unconscious suffering. The stinging that accompanies his bodily reception of the iconic brand hurts “just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing” (513). It is worth noting in this regard that O’Connor testified in a letter to a recent convert to Catholicism that pain “seems a more reliable feeling than joy” (Orville 28). Yet she was also spiritually attuned enough to recognize that pain is often produced by resistance to, or even by incomplete surrender to, joy.
Parker receives his “initiation into suffering,” and “spiritually, he is henceforward a marked man” (Orville 168). But the fact remains that Parker never succeeds in understanding himself, “as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country though everything he saw was familiar to him” (O’Connor 527). For this reason, his many tattoos must be understood for the depth of implication that resides in their surface. These inscriptions appeal to Parker at an unconscious level because they are manifestations, symptomatic indexes, of an unacknowledged chronic state of turbulence. The predatory creatures that adorn him are said to live “inside him in a raging warfare” (514). However, given O’Connor’s thematic conflation of psychological and religious impulses, they might also be thought of as signatures—forms and figurations of the natural world that, according to theosophical doctrine, provide indexes to God’s attributes and will.
The restless Parker is a man who does not recognize his own impulse to be transformed. He does not recognize that the tattoos are fetish substitutes that function to prevent awareness of something lost, an existential void that he is trying to fill up—again, literally and materially: “A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and have another space filled up” (514). Thus, through a maze of perverse, addictive routine and sudden, inexplicable whim, Parker fulfills his human destiny by delivering himself to Christ, as the narrator makes clear by commenting that in seeking a tattoo Parker was taking “a leap . . . into a worse unknown . . . and that there was nothing he could do about it” because it was already “accomplished”—a word that echoes the crucified Christ’s affirmation of the divine will (521). Later, compelled, against his lifelong will, to acknowledge his first and middle names, Parker serves to affirm the destiny they, too, announce, inasmuch as Obadiah means “Jehovah’s worshipful servant” and Elihu means “whose God is he” (Orville 169).
God lures Parker and brands him as his own using Parker’s own habitual means of evasion, thereby negating any rationalistic distinction between impulse and compulsion. Parker has had intimations of a hidden order long before receiving his artful stigmata. Gazing out on a vista, Parker becomes depressed, because “look[ing] out into space like that . . . you begin to feel as is someone were after you” (O’Connor 516). More than once he he had “found himself turning around abruptly as if someone were trailing him” (519–520). The recurring trope of being chased merges with the even more frequent tropes about gazing eyes and the back side during a seizure that intimates events to come: “The sun, the size of a golf ball, began to switch regularly from in front to behind him, but he appeared to see it both places as if he had eyes in back of his head. All at once he saw the tree reaching out to grasp him” (520). As a consequence, his growing but still evaded impulse to submit and pray can only materialize as clumsiness as he “collapsed on his knees twice” while trying to run away (521).
Parker’s concern for display is transformed into what Christian mystics called a “showing,” or theophany, a revelation of the divine. He flips by sentimental, comforting images of Jesus in favor of a Byzantine icon of Christ Pantocrator, austere giver of the law. When placed upon his back, the image functions as does the poet Wallace Stevens’s “jar in Tennessee”: All the other images, once “haphazard and botched” (O’Connor 514), fall into place around its unifying presence. Later, O’Connor transforms his body into an Edenic cosmos—“the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul” of “facts and lies” into “a garden of trees and birds and beasts” (527–528). Thus, the divine gets under Parker’s skin in the most literal way. Trembling as he looks at Christ’s “all-demanding eyes” (522), Parker quickly begins to feel them “forever on his back . . . to be obeyed” (527). The ironies of spiritual destiny move into clearer view by noticing that Parker has been attracted to and married—again, against his will and common sense—the similarly demanding, absolutistic, judging, and unsatisfiable Sarah Ruth. His wife is a harpy who needles him with “sharp tongue and icepick eyes” that are yet a “comfort,” much like the tattooing needles (524). Her verbal pricking of his egotistic delusions and the sting of her disdainful eyes are a station on the way to the even more penetrating eyes of Christ. It is to her, as austere judge, that Parker thinks he is giving his sacrificial offering (“She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God,” 525). But her ambiguous role, as an instrument of God, in violently stimulating Parker’s spiritual awakening is implicit in his associating her with a “giant hawk-eyed angel” (512).
Parker and his wife can be seen to reflect two conflicting, uneasily resolved, conceptions of the human relation to the divine within the history of Christianity. One tendency, represented by Catholicism, can be designated sacramentalism, inasmuch as it validates the spiritual utility of both images that direct sensory perceptions toward the eternal and symbolic acts that mediate the divine and makes it meaningful within the terms of human life events. The contrary tendency might be designated iconoclasm, the conviction that images must be destroyed because they induce idolatry. Some scholars of theology and some O’Connor critics have linked this repudiation of images to the Gnostic heretical suspicion of the material realm, including the human body, and to a strain of Protestant fundamentalism that insists on God’s remoteness and unknowability and is scandalized by analogical thinking that would attribute human qualities and traits to his otherness. Parker, himself, displays some Gnostic attitudes toward the body: “On his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them” (514). But it is his wife who, touching a snake tattoo on his arm, responds as if she had made contact with the serpent.
Sarah Ruth implicitly repudiates the idea that God is present in nature or art. Her contempt for sacramental mediation is manifest in her refusal to be married in a church. Her position “against color,” as she puts it (510), follows the teaching of her “Straight Gospel”—preaching father. Her contempt for nature and the body might be measured by her indifferent cooking, which causes her husband’s flesh to dwindle. Hers is a religion of abnegation and prohibition. She is a born contrarian, known by her disapprovals, and she represents one of O’Connor’s recurring character types, the righteous, indignant bickerer. She is “forever sniffing up sin” (510), and she quotes Scripture only to denounce, condemn, and humiliate, as when she invokes the biblical injunction against pagan fertility worship “under every green tree” (529; cf. Deuteronomy 12:2). She scornfully beats Parker’s back and Christ’s face with a broom in an unintended domestic parody of the Passion. These acts serve to deny the dignity to the flesh bestowed upon it by the incarnation. They would also seem to disavow the resonance of her own name since, upon marrying, the biblical Ruth swore that her husband’s god would become her own (cf. Ruth 1:16). And yet for all of that, Parker’s vague impression while still courting her proves to be prophetic: Her refusal to be overawed by him has, in the convoluted way of O’Connor’s providence, contributed to his potential salvation long before he could sense that there was “anything in particular to save him from” (518). Parker’s tears of disappointment and frustration notwithstanding, “her touch,” in this case her pounding, has “jolted” him “back to life” (512)—a prospective resurrected life in Christ, to whom he now bears, and can bare, witness in a literal, materialized way.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.
Orville, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972.
Skrade, Carl. God and the Grotesque. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974.
Stevens, Wallace. “Anecdote of the Jar.” In Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.