man-looking-in-mirrorO.E. Parker is constantly looking in the mirror. Vanity of vanities.

Parker is one of Flannery O’Connor’s crazy misfits. A tough dropout who was captivated by the mystique of tattoo at the age of fourteen when he saw the tattooed man at the county fair. Having a tattoo made the poor idiot feel special, so whenever he was feeling down or lonely he got himself a new tattoo. After he joined the Navy, O.E. got a new tattoo in every port and finally he had no more space for a new tattoo except on his back.

Then O.E. Parker fell in love the best he could with Sarah Ruth, the scrawny daughter of traveling preacher. The problem is, pregnant Sarah Ruth is unimpressed with O.E.’s tattoos. She’s unimpressed because she sees through them. The tattoos are Parker’s mask and the swaggering mark of his false masculinity. Sara Ruth calls the tattoos the “vanity of vanities.” Her mockery of his tattoos drives him crazy. So to impress Sarah Ruth, O.E. spends a pile of money getting a beautiful tattoo he thinks will please her. It’s a haloed Christus Victor—as grand as a mosaic in a Byzantine temple.

But when Sarah Ruth sees the tattoo she shrieks out a condemnation of idolatry and beats poor Parker with a broom.

In her usual style O’Connor uses a freak to reveal a truth about ourselves. In her essay, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction O’Connor observed,

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

maxresdefaultO.E. Parker picked up his penchant for tattoos from a circus freak and for want of a better role model took it on himself. Sarah Ruth is right. His tattoos are the vanity of vanities. Parker was created in the image of God, but as he covers himself with images, he has masked the image of God with fake bravado, cultivated cynicism, and artificial rage. Beneath it all he’s still a slack-jawed, ignorant, and innocent red neck. O’Connor’s portrait of O.E. Parker exposes the heart of vanity: it’s the worship of a false image of ourselves.

Beneath his disfigured tattooed body, Parker is a son of Adam—created in the image of the Almighty, and the irony of the story is that his final choice is to have Christ himself etched onto his back—as it were to bear the image of Christ for the sake of the wife he’s trying to win over. That she beats him and blames him for idolatry unlocks the true heart of vanity: in worshipping a false image of ourselves we are idolaters.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Poor Parker is himself Christ-haunted. As O’Connor points out, he is “very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”

As with O.E. Parker, so with all of us. Afraid that we are creatures of eternal glory, we turn away to caress our addictions and obsessions. Our false loves turn us into freaks. Some of the addictions and obsessions—like sex change, extreme cosmetic surgery, tattoos and piercings—are disfiguring and disgusting. Some like drugs, gambling and prostitution are illicit or illegal, but most of our addictions and obsessions are not only legal but laudatory.

We are addicted to prestige, power, prosperity, and pleasure, and the citizens of America praise us for our “success.” We have our idols and false gods galore but we cannot see them as such because along with our addictions and obsessions comes a kind of self-justifying insanity. Our freakish behavior we proclaim to be “the new normal.”

We need a Sarah Ruth to mock our foolishness, beat us with a broom, and light a bonfire beneath our vanities.

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12 replies to this post
  1. Father, that was an interesting post. I have been vaguely grappling with the same thoughts without conceptualising as you have, so astutely.
    You are quite correct that it all boils down to self-love and idolatry. The worry is that it is everywhere we look.
    God bless.

  2. This reading of “Parker’s Back” elides over all the sympathy we are meant to have for Parker, the revulsion we are meant to feel as Sarah Ruth whips him with a broom into the outer darkness, where he “lean[s] against the tree” and “cr[ies] like a baby.” Where’s the humor in this reading? Where’s the humanity? Father Longenecker has rather missed the point in making an argument that, I think, Flannery herself would find rather puzzling.

    There is, for one, no recognition here that Sarah Ruth is blinded by her own _amor sui_ (indeed, last we see her, her eyes have “hardened still more” against Parker as she scourges him). She is not “right” here. Parker, buffoonish and silly as he is, still has a deeper, albeit a thoroughly inarticulate, perception of grace and his status as a Child of God than Sarah Ruth does. Let’s not forget that Sarah Ruth is a heretic: she endorses a version of Docetism with plenty of iconoclasm thrown in for good measure. And she persecutes OE on the basis of that heresy. And so she’s “right” here? Give me a break. When he reveals to Sarah Ruth his “Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes,” she responds, “It ain’t anybody I know.” She’s right about that; she *doesn’t* know the Incarnate Author of all Life. She doesn’t see Him in the Icon on Parker’s Back, and she doesn’t see Him reflected mysteriously, sacramentally in Parker’s own body.

    Parker may not entirely understand what he’s doing in getting that tattoo of the Icon (indeed, he also has a Buddha on his arm), but this Christ is different from that Buddha. It calls to him, demands a recognition that he doesn’t know how to give. He muddles along as best he can, and there’s something admirable in that. When he tells his buddies down at the bar he got the tattoo merely “For laughs,” one of them replies, “Why ain’t you laughing then?” He perceives the inchoate operation of grace in his tattoo, even if he doesn’t know to name it that. Even when he first regards the Byzantine icon, we have this tremendous detail: “He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.”

    To miss that OE Parker, the buffoon and freak, becomes an unwitting vehicle for the workings of grace in this story is to miss the pattern of virtually every other one of O’Connor’s works. The Sarah Ruths of this world, the ones who believe they have it all figured out and that they know all they need to know about God, are often the ones who belie most cruelly that certainty. They also tend to be the types of characters who receive the ministrations of violent grace in Flannery’s world. The freaks are the ones for whom Flannery has a genuine sympathy. Recall the hermaphrodite in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” who explains, “God made me thisaway….This is he way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way.” The freak at the end of this story becomes superimposed in the protagonist’s mind upon the Host in the monstrance during Adoration. If there could be a more powerful reminder of the status that the freak has in O’Connor’s imagination, I don’t know what it is. On her account, we’re all freaks; some of us just have the luxury of trying to hide the fact beneath layers of social propriety.

    Father Longenecker opts to sanitize this whole story in favor of providing a moralizing gloss on contemporary culture: “Afraid that we are creatures of eternal glory, we turn away to caress our addictions and obsessions. Our false loves turn us into freaks. Some of the addictions and obsessions—like sex change, extreme cosmetic surgery, tattoos and piercings—are disfiguring and disgusting. Some like drugs, gambling and prostitution are illicit or illegal, but most of our addictions and obsessions are not only legal but laudatory.” He’s not wrong about that in many respects, but he’s wrong to use Flannery to illustrate his point. We’re all freaks by nature: fallen and yet made in the Image of God, capable of being engrafted into the Body of Christ and yet capable of sinning grievously against the loving heart of our Lord. That’s the essence of our existential freakishness, and it’s a freakishness that will afflict us as long as we are temporal sojourners on this earth. Flannery’s point is that we can’t look at the “real” freaks and think to ourselves, “God, I thank thee that I am not as these other freaks are.”

    And potentially out of the wreckage of that freakishness grace can work on us, violently perhaps, but in a way that brings us toward redemption if we’re willing to accept that we are all freaks. The irony here is that Sarah Ruth isn’t right, but she is a manifestation of grace: she helps to teach Parker that if he is going to bear the Image of Christ on his body, he’d better be prepared to suffer the buffeting scourges that Our Lord did, to walk the Via Crucis. His abjection at the end of this story, his being reduced from the swaggering strong-man to crying like a baby, reflects something of this acceptance.

  3. “So to impress Sarah Ruth, O.E. spends a pile of money getting a beautiful tattoo he thinks will please her. It’s a haloed Christus Victor—as grand as a mosaic in a Byzantine temple.”

    For the iconic source of the tattoo, I think you mean “Christ Pantocrator,” not “Christus Victor.” I don’t mean to be pedantic; I’m adding this just in case any of your readers want to see the image from which O’Connor was working. I think the Christus Victor icon Byzantine style would most likely be Christ’s Harrowing of Hades, with the reception of Adam and Eve on their release.

    Christ Pantocrator contains the image of both judgment and mercy–the two sides of his face representing each (serenity and sternness), the blessing and the Gospel book doing the same.

    I don’t know if this changes your reading at all, or if it’s even relevant. Perhaps you meant Pantocrator when you wrote Victor.

  4. Father, I love reading your articles, but I have to say I don’t see how you interpreted “Parker’s Back” the way you did.The story is one of my favorites; it turned me towards the Catholic Church many years ago.

    Sarah is a true iconoclast — her mean spirited version of Christianity is more about belonging to an abstract clique of “saved people” than about God Himself. She actually relishes her husband’s bad boy persona, all the while feeling superior to him. In one of her correspondences Flannery wrote of this story:

    “Sarah Ruth was the heretic—the notion that you can worship in pure spirit.”

    I was born in a part of the US where I met many Sarahs; and experienced firsthand their disdain of religious statues, paintings and all things “Catholic”. Flannery opened my eyes; her story is truly iconic.

    Pax Christi

  5. I agree with cbfrench & Marilyn, but would like to add something else as well. As a cradle Catholic that drifted away from the Church in my teens and twenties, I went down many wrong paths. I have since received the Grace of the Holy Spirit. I have repented of my sins, but not all of my scars are spiritual – some are physical. I still bare tattoos from that era (error) of my life. I can’t afford to have them removed and I do my best to cover them (but that can be difficult on especially hot, humid days). We Christians are going to have to be ready for some of those “physically disabled” people that may come looking for much needed grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I try to take the occasional dirty looks I receive from my Christian brethren as my further penance, but others may not and it may send them away from Christ. If we are to be his instruments, his hands and feet, we need to be ready to bandage the wounded – even the freaks.

  6. Thanks Marilyn and cb for commenting. Your understandings of the story are also interesting and valid. This is the fascination of good fiction: that it can be understood from many different angles.

  7. Whenever I see anything on Flannery O’Connor’s life or literary works, I read up!

    WHO are some of her most faithfilled followers and reading audience? You’ll never guess, so read on. 10 years ago, I lived in a 250 yr. old galley kitchens on the E. Jones St. Square, half a block from Flannery’s modest, dark and narrow 2 story childhood home in Savannah. I called it ‘my historical dungeon.’

    The FOC Foundation was looking for a suitable person to Docent, give tours and info-lectures on weekends, and I eagerly applied. I was given the keys to FOC’s childhood home. It was there that I learned much more about how many non-christian tourists experienced her life and works for themselves, from within their own cutlures.

    Over a year, the vast majority of FOC devotees consisted of busloads of mostly Japanese tourists, not Japanese-Americans. Each bus brought its own flawless translator as they thought their sufficiently fluent English, inadequate.

    While showing the house, the long narrow backyard gardens, running slide shows and answering questions, every one of these Japanese tourists acted spell-bound in FOC’s home.They hung on every word I said about her, scrutinizing every expression and gesture I made. Later in the house’s history, there was a public bathroom added off the kitchen and not one Japanese tourist would use it as it was to be enshrined and not to be tourist-touched.

    As history shows, Japan and it’s islands- insulated sho-gun military history has resisted and remained the most un-missionized and un-christianized country in all of East Asia–to this day.

    So, I was most baffled at these Japanese tourists cultish-like devotion to a mid-20th century short story southern Catholic American writer, and wondered how and why?

    I decided to privately ask some of the translators to give me an individual and yet became a collective pattern of mindset responses over a period of time. “What is so alluring to you about Flanner O’Connor?”

    First, each translator relayed that there has been a quarterly FOC newsletter in circulation all over Japan. (I can’t recall the year it was started). It has a very sizable subscription base of funds to keep it in publication. In its contents are highlighted ‘mystery and manner’ themes of FOC’s work, her delightfully drawn caricatures of mostly her farm yard creature pets and, yes some very strange looking human-folk characters who are recognizably turning up somewhere in her stories.

    What were the Japanese so drawn to and in love with?

    FOC’s caricatures of what we smugly call genuine character itself, (Kierkegaard’s ‘The Lie of Character’), her penetrating transparancy into human reality (unreality) and the un-explained ridiculous lurking on every human goal and endeavor, of her capacity for showing the truth of human nature as something that is more than ludicrous and bizarre…when too securely settled in its own self-bound character-lie setting.

    Most alluringly, that these very freak-circus wonton, misfit wanna-be’s…actually had received visisons and acted on THEIR OWN bizarre messages and revelations, which were either from above or below—and these seers had the unfiltered audacity to announce it to others, even calling it Good News! It is FOC’s “to the blind I write in huge letters, and to the deaf, I shout!”

    This processional of caricatured souls and the glaringly descriptive disruptions of chaos, craziness and crisis, (where many live for much of the time), is what completely captured the Japanese character in FOC’s characters. I saw her words, message and myself anew, through these Japanese tourist’s eyes!

    Coming out of very insulated Shinto culture, they found an intensely liberating and self-delivering sanctuary of religious and literary imagination, a refreshingly unfamiliar sea of floundering humanity, one without any protocols of order or organization or heirarchy or a modicum of control, but always in keeping with the many reflective bows to the sacredness of mystery and manners itself…the best of all worlds!

  8. cbfrench, you really did a good job at this. The only thing I would add is that it is the face of Christ that actually unifies the disparate tattoos on his body, what makes them explode into a unified thing of glory and beauty (an arabesque of color if memory serves me). Moreover, Flannery more than once alludes to Parker’s ‘theosis’ as he is steadily being transformed by grace from “common bread” into the “eucharist” he becomes at the end.

  9. Father, isnt it the opposite of idolatry when when hides behind bodily modification because one is ashamed of oneself? One is still not accepting God’s love but for wholly different reasons?

  10. This is one of my favorite of O’Connor’s stories. I appreciate your work in general, Fr. Longenecker, but I agree with cbfrench that you’ve missed the real point here. Marilyn’s quotation from O’Connor–which I had forgotten–really brings this home. Parker, for all his confusion and failings, stumbles upon something about the Incarnational Christ that Sarah Ruth never learned in her fundamentalist sect of Christianity. She is even more confused than Parker and represents, in the story, the early heretical iconoclasts or the iconoclasm of Islam. Face to face with the Byzantine Christ on Parker’s back her skewed religious sensibilities are outraged: “God don’t look like that! . . .He don’t LOOK. . .He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” But we have seen his face, dear. That’s the whole point. We have seen his face and now everything is different. This was the foundation upon which the iconoclasts were resisted and ultimately overcome by the Church. Sarah Ruth goes on to falsely accuse Parker of idolatry (falsely, Fr. Longenecker) and begins to thrash him until the welts form on his back and cover with stripes the face of Christ. Sarah Ruth, despite her Bible-believin’ upbringing, is a confused iconoclast. Parker, lacking any upbringing at all, is an alter Christus.

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