Parker’s Back is one of Flannery O’Connor’s funniest short stories. It also happens to be one of the few that doesn’t end in tragedy. Despite this, the implications of Parker’s Back are of the utmost importance. It is the story of a man’s abrupt and overwhelming devotion to Christ, and of his inevitable (if not a little bit hilarious) confrontation with heresy. The titular Parker is ruff-n’-tuff day laborer. His name is Obadiah Elihue, but he won’t let anyone call him that. He’ll do anything you pay him to as long as he’s not out drinking, fighting, or getting a tattoo. Parker is a addicted to tattoos like some people are addicted to drugs. Once he gets a new one, he is satisfied with it for a few weeks and then he starts jonesing for a fix again. His addiction is so extreme that by the start of the story, Parker has no more places to put tattoos other than on his back. The only reason he hasn’t filled up his back is because “he had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself.”
Parker’s wife, Sarah Ruth, hates his tattoos. She considers them the work of the devil along with drinking, smoking, and using bad language. That Flannery intends her to be a Manichaen heretic there is no doubt. Sarah Ruth objects to any and all physical displays of religion and generally considers matter to be below contempt. She and Parker are married at the Justice of the Peace because “Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.” Flannery describes Sarah Ruth as “plain. The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were grey and sharp like the points of two icepicks.” Ocular imagery was a favorite of Flannery’s, and Parker’s Back is no exception. She describes Parker’s eyes as “the same pale slate-color as the ocean and reflected the immense spaces around him as if they were a microcosm.”
The more Sarah Ruth chides him about his tattoos, the more he itches for another. But he is confounded when he discovers he has run out of room – except of course on his back. After a rough day, Parker finally decides to take the plunge and have his back tattooed. But this time he wants a tattoo that Sarah Ruth can’t complain about. So he chooses the haunting image of a Byzantine Christ. This is not the typical Western European Jesus with soft skin tones and friendly eyes. This is a flat, intense Christ with what Flannery calls “all-demanding” eyes. Too often we would rather have a friendly Jesus. Too often we buy into what George Carlin called the Buddy Christ: an only semi-divine man who’ll embrace and tell us everything’s fine when we’ve had a bad day. This is in stark contrast to the Jesus of the Gospels, and the Jesus on Parker’s back, who is mysterious, Zen, and oh so challenging. The Jesus of the Gospels never gives a straight answer, and never responds to the expectations of the Apostles or the audience. He’s authoritative, distant, and intense, yet at the same time compassionate and loving.
The Jesus tattooed on Parker’s back is just this kind of Christ. A stern and unyielding figure whose eyes seem to burn through Parker’s skin and lay all his sins and deeds bare while always repeating that famous adage, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Thomas Aquinas, it was, who said the four things we desire first in this world are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. All of these are good in their proper places, but Aquinas believed that without God, even an overabundance of these desirables would fail to satisfy us. Parker’s addiction to tattoos symbolizes the human lust for honor (the tattoos being a banner of glory for Parker). Yet no matter how many tattoos he gets, Parker sinks further and further into dissatisfaction. Following Aquinas’ analogy – and Flannery was a learned student of Thomism – it is only when Parker fills himself with God (i.e. has Christ tattooed on his back) does he finally find fulfillment in this life.
To add another heresy to the growing list, Parker’s Manichaen and Puritanical wife is also an Iconoclast. When Parker shows her his new pious tattoo, she is less than pleased. Instead of responding with awe at her husband’s conversion, she banishes him from the house calling him an idolater. No doubt Sarah Ruth dislikes all religious images, since she also considers churches to be idolatrous. Parker, on the other hand, has experienced a profound conversion to orthodoxy, even if he doesn’t quite grasp that yet. When he returns home from the city with his tattoo it is the early morning and the sun is just about to rise. Sarah Ruth has propped a chair up against the door, locking him out, and it is only when he whispers his real name, those forbidden words at the rising of the sun, that she lets him in.
“He whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.” The speaking of his name is equivalent to the sinner admitting to God he is a sinner. Just as the first step to overcoming addiction is admitting the addiction, so the first step toward sanctity is confessing unworthiness. Only through confession and repentance can the Divine Life of God, his fiery grace, shine in a person. Parker’s tattoo is his commitment to seek first the Kingdom, but it is the confession of his real name that allows the light of Kingdom to shine down on him and transform his soul. This is the apotheosis, the divinization that the Church Fathers talked about when they said, “God became man so that man might become God.” Not that people can ever become God himself, but that through the redeeming work of Christ, and through the Sacraments, they might share in his Beatific Vision forever.
Most people think Parker’s Back was probably the last story Flannery wrote before her death in 1964. The fact that it does not end in tragedy or a character’s eternal reprobation is telling. How fitting that her last story was a comedy, one of hope and anticipation of the good things to come. After all those tales of violence and cruelty, one of her most profound stories is about a man with an unsightly tattoo. That’s irony for you. I think Flannery, always cynical and sardonic, would have found that very amusing indeed.