Parker's Back

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"Parker's Back"
Author Flannery O'Connor
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Southern Gothic
Published in Everything That Rises Must Converge
Publication type single author anthology
Publication date 1965

"Parker's Back" is a short story by Flannery O'Connor. "Parker’s Back" was published in 1965 in her final short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. O'Connor, a devout Roman Catholic, often used religious themes in her work and examined the depth of human nature. As O’Connor once revealed in an interview, "All fiction is about human nature. What kind of human nature you write about depends on the amount and kind of your talent, not on what you may consider correct behavior to be. The best forms of behavior are not more desirable than the worst for fiction if the writer sees the situation he is creating under the aspect of Truth and follows the necessities of his art."[1]

Holding this belief, O’Connor would many times use seemingly shocking methods to get her messages across, as her characters all experience brokenness and pain in various ways. "Parker’s Back" provides one of those such characters, who moves from a hedonistic, painless lifestyle to a life of true sacrifice and pain for God.

Plot summary[edit]

"Parker’s Back" is set in the early 1960’s Georgia following the life of our protagonist, a religiously estranged man, O.E. Parker. Who later on moves to developing a tenuous interest in it, motivated by the lack of shared priorities with his wife. The story starts with Parker and his Biblically-named wife, Sarah Ruth, on the front porch in of their country house. Sarah is snapping beans on the front porch and Parker, lost in thought, occasionally makes sharp comments to her. The reader is given insight into the attitude and thoughts of Parker. Parker does not think highly of Sarah Ruth and questions why he has stayed with her. Parker scorns Sarah Ruth’s fundamentalist Christian attitudes, for she disapproves of his smoking, drinking, and tattoos. The reader is shown the many differences between Parker's beliefs and Sarah Ruth's. Although their marriage seems complicated to understand, Elaine Whitaker states that it was because marriage at that time was expected, especially to those who were religious, just like Sarah Ruth was. [2]

The protagonist often contemplates his relationship with Sarah Ruth and how his life has developed. Early in life, Parker fell in with a bad crowd as a boy and began smoking and drinking, much to his mother’s chagrin. He saw a man at a fair who was covered with tattoos. For the first time in his life, Parker felt wonder and awe; he recognized a greater sense of purpose. He desired that wonder and awe in his life. On one occasion, his mother dragged him to a Protestant revival and upon arrival, Parker runs away.

Throughout the story he rejects Christianity, and instead finds his purpose in tattoos. He lies about his age and joins the Navy. As he comes into the ports during his Naval service, Parker begins to acquire more tattoos. He obtains an eagle, several other animals, royalty, and even some obscenities in places that are not visible. Parker departs from the Navy without official leave, but they chase him down and give him a dishonorable discharge. Parker continues to thrust his whole life into gaining more tattoos. He picks up odd jobs and uses the money to get more tattoos. He sees tattoos as his sole purpose in life.

One day, as Parker is selling apples in the countryside, his truck breaks down. He senses that someone is watching him; he loudly curses and pretends to hurt himself. The next thing he knows, a young woman is hitting him with a broom. Parker meets this woman, who happens to be his future wife, Sarah Ruth. He returns over the next few days finding himself attracted to Sarah, yet he does not know why. Parker’s self-absorbed lifestyle completely contradicts Sarah Ruth’s beliefs, yet the two find themselves getting married.

When Parker finishes contemplating his relationship with Sarah Ruth, he thinks about getting a new tattoo. The only bare place on his body for a tattoo is his back; even though Parker did not wish to get a tattoo any place he could not see it, he desires to obtain one out of spite for Sarah Ruth. While at work, Parker rides a tractor in a field. He is so busy contemplating what tattoo to get that he pays no attention to where he is going and crashes into a tree. The tractor is destroyed, and Parker runs to his truck, driving the 50 miles it takes to get into town. He runs into the tattoo salon, and demands to see the book of tattoos pertaining to God. As he flips through the book of tattoos, one particular image of Christ stops Parker.

"Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK. Parker returned to the picture – the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power."[3]

With all conviction and certainty, Parker asks to have the tattoo of the Byzantine Christ put on his back. With some reluctance at first, the tattoo artist begins the procedure of putting this tattoo on Parker’s back. That night, Parker sleeps in the city homeless shelter and returns to the tattooist the next morning to have the image finished. Parker then goes to a pool hall he has frequented in the past. After the men hear that Parker has a new tattoo, they lift up his shirt, see the tattoo, and continue to mock Parker for his new-found faith. Parker is thrown out of the bar for starting a fight, and stumbles to his house out in the country.

Once he reaches his house, Parker knocks on the door, begging for Sarah Ruth to let him in. At first, Sarah Ruth refuses, but she opens the door after Parker refers to himself by his Christian name, Obadiah Elihue. Once inside, Parker shows Sarah Ruth his tattoo, hoping for a positive reaction—that she will be glad to hear that he has accepted Christ. However, Sarah Ruth does not recognize the image of God, for God doesn't have a "look" since He is a spirit, and then declares that Parker is committing idolatry. Sarah Ruth begins beating Parker with a broom, until he is bruised and left with welts on his body. Parker stumbles outside and leans up against a pecan tree in the yard, crying, while Sarah Ruth’s cold eyes watch him.

Byzantine Christ[edit]

When Parker sought a tattoo for his back, he knew that he wanted to procure a tattoo of Christ. As he flipped through the book of tattoo designs, the tattoo of Christ with piercing eyes stopped him. As Parker continued to look at the picture, the eyes of Christ looked into him, and Parker felt compelled to choose that tattoo. The tattoo that Parker obtained was one of the Byzantine Christ, the Pantocrator. The Pantocrator was glorified by the Byzantine Empire through its literal definition as "all-powerful or Almighty Christ".[4] This image is a popular icon among the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.[5]

Parker’s tattoo of the Byzantine Christ helps him to see the deeper mysteries of God. When he looks at the image of Christ, he looks through the “window” of the iconic image and sees the depth of God’s love, as he gives his life to Christ. Parker sees that his previous, hedonistic views in life are false, and that suffering—at the hands of Sarah Ruth—for Christ is the way to fulfillment.

"But Parker’s back is now Christ’s face and the welts, rising redly on one, also disfigure the other. The bond between the two is irrevocable and Parker’s only comfort now is the supreme comfort—that he has a tree, a cross, to lean on, that in his suffering he experiences only what Christ himself felt. The spirit of utter mutuality and unity, what his tattoos have always up to now lacked, descends on him and he realizes the terrible cost. The Word has become flesh on his own flesh."[6]

Literary techniques in the story[edit]

O'Connor uses a variety of literary techniques. In her stories, she is willing to use unconventional means to provide an original look at reality. As she revealed in a correspondence, "No Caroline didn’t mean the tattoos in Parker’s Back were the heresy. Sarah Ruth was the heretic—the notion that you can worship in pure spirit. Caroline gave me a lot of advice about the story but most of it I’m ignoring. She thinks every story must be built according to the pattern of the Roman arch and she would enlarge the beginning and the end, but I’m letting it lay. I did well to write it at all."[7]

This story is narrated in third person through the viewpoint of Parker. A strictly objective third person narration would not be conducive to having an intimate tie with Parker. By looking through the lens of Parker's experience, the reader is able to empathize with Parker; the reader can see the extent to which Parker is struggling. The viewpoint of this story helps to create a very strong protagonist in Parker.

The story also uses irony as an effective element. In "Parker's Back", O'Connor presents one ironic situation after another. The situational irony is effective at catching the reader by surprise, so that the story is more riveting. Irony is an element that O'Connor uses commonly in her stories. For example, Parker's marriage to Sarah Ruth is ironic. Parker, with his hedonistic lifestyle of drinking, cursing, tattoos, and apathy toward religion was the antithesis of Sarah Ruth. And yet Sarah Ruth marries Parker, and their marriage—though rocky—does not end in divorce within the story.

O'Connor continues this irony with Parker beginning a relationship with God through his experience of gaining a tattoo. The reader may expect—with the negativity surrounding Parker's tattoos—that he would not find God through them. And yet, ironically, Parker's encountering the tattoo image of Christ proves to be a profound experience. A large amount of irony also occurs at the end of the story, when Parker returns home to display his tattoo for Sarah Ruth. He expects her to approve of his new-found relationship with Christ, yet she denounces his tattoo and throws him out of the house.

Biblical connections[edit]

Flannery O’Connor used many biblical references in this story. A simple connection to be made is that the main characters, Sarah Ruth and Obadiah Elihue names are from the bible. Also, many events that occurred during the story are similar to things that happened in the bible. Events that occurred in “Parker’s Back” that similarly took place in the Bible are:

  • Parker brings a basket to Sarah Ruth's house every time he visits, comparable to how Obadiah brings prophecies
  • Parker feels unease when he looks into the eyes of God, just as Obadiah professed God's wrath. "Though you ascend as high as the eagle, and though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down." [8]
  • Parker spends all his money on tattoos. Obadiah uses his all of his pay to give sanctuary to prophets.[9]
  • When Parker got his final tattoo he felt a "calm descend[ing] on the pool hall as nerve shattering as if the long barn like room were the ship from which Jonah had been cast into the sea.” [10]In the bible when Jonah was out at sea a storm was raging and all the other sailors "were afraid and each cried out to his own god.But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep."[11]


  1. ^ Magee, Rosemary M (1987). Conversations with Flannery O’Connor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 
  2. ^ "Facing Parker's Back: Mary Flannery O'Connor Her Characters Sarah Ruth Cates". Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  3. ^ O'Connor, Flannery. Everything that Rises Must Converge. 
  4. ^ Homik, Heidi; Parsons, Mikeal (2015). "Christ Pantocrator, Alpha and Omega, surrounded by angels, the elect, and Mary, Mother of God, Dome of Paradise, by Giusto de' Menabuoi (1320-1391)". Christian Century. 132: 47. 
  5. ^ citation needed
  6. ^ Baumgaertner, Jill (1999). Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. Chicago: Cornerstone Press. 
  7. ^ O'Connor, Flannery (1979). The Habit of Being. New York: The Noonday Press. 
  8. ^ "Obadiah - Judgment Against Israel's Brother". Retrieved 2017-04-10. 
  9. ^ "The Works of the Right Reverend John England". 
  10. ^ O'Connor, Flannery (1965). Parker's Back. p. 14. 
  11. ^ "Jonah 1:5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.". Retrieved 2017-04-17.