Parker’s Back by Flannery O’Connor
In Parker’s Back by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of connection, dissatisfaction, change and grace. Taken from her Everything That Rises Must Converge collection the story is narrated in the third person and begins with the reader being introduced to the main protagonist, a man called O.E Parker and his wife Sarah Ruth. Parker lives with Sarah in a rented shack and very early on the reader becomes aware that Parker regrets marrying Sarah. He is only staying with her because she is pregnant. It is also noticeable that Parker and Sarah are opposites and Parker admits to the reader that he had no intention of marrying Sarah but ended up doing so. Through the use of flashbacks in the story O’Connor gives the reader some more background information on Parker. When he was fourteen he saw a man at a fair with tattoos. For the first time in his life he felt connected to something and he felt an awakening within himself. A little while later he got his first tattoo and when he reached sixteen he quit school and held down menial jobs, just so he could get enough money to get more tattoos. Concerned for her son Mrs Parker brought him to a revival meeting but Parker ran away and joined the navy. This is important because it is symbolism for Parker rejecting God.
While in the navy Parker gets more tattoos, covering most of his body apart from his back and the reader discovers that at moments of dissatisfaction with his life, Parker would get another tattoo. After being dishonourably discharged from the navy Parker rents a small shack in the country and begins to sell apples. It is while he is selling the apples that he meets Sarah. One of the more interesting things about their early encounters is that when Sarah asks Parker what his initials, O.E, stand for at first he refuses to tell her but then whispers ‘Obadiah Elihue’ into her ear, warning her never to tell anyone. Parker’s refusal and warning to Sarah is important because it may be symbolism for Parker’s refusal to accept who he is and as a result he is turning his back on the opportunity of grace. Parker’s first name is also important because again O’Connor is using symbolism. Obadiah means serving or servant of Jah or God.
Despite marrying Sarah, Parker remains dissatisfied with his life. However it is while he is on the tractor thinking about what type of tattoo to get on his back (one that will please Sarah) that he has another awakening. He crashes the tractor into a tree causing the tree and tractor to go on fire. O’Connor may be using symbolism again with the tree burning. It could represent the burning bush that Moses seen on Mount Sinai, when God appeared to him. The reader is also aware that Parker ‘if he had known how to cross himself he would have done it.’ This again is important because it is suggestive that for the first time Parker believes in God. Another important thing about when Parker falls off the tractor is the fact that his shoes are burnt; again O’Connor may be using symbolism to suggest to the reader that Parker’s old ways (or the path he previously took) are over.
After the incident with the tractor and the tree, Parker goes to the tattoo artist to get an image of God tattooed onto his back. It is while Parker is in the city getting the tattoo that the reader also becomes aware that Parker is trying to ignore that he has had a spiritual awakening. When the tattoo artist tells him to look at the tattoo in the mirror, he refuses to do so. Likewise when the tattoo artist asks him has he found religion, Parker denies that he has been saved. Also when he is in the bar, he intends to get drunk (having already drank a pint of whiskey) and he ends up getting into a fight when the men mock him because they believe he has found religion. The fight may be significant as it might suggest that Parker fears that an attachment to religion, does not strengthen a man but rather in other people’s eyes, weakens the man.
It is while Parker is driving home that he begins to realise that he is changing, ‘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.’ Another example of Parker having changed is when he arrives home to discover that Sarah has locked the door. When she asks who it is at the door he tells her that its ‘Obadiah Elihue.’ For the second time in the story Parker is admitting to Sarah who he is (open to grace). However when Sarah lets Parker into the house and he shows her the tattoo, she is furious.
Parker’s Back ends with Sarah looking at Parker’s tattoo and having to be told by Parker that it is an image of God. Sarah is displeased and starts screaming ‘Idolatry.’ She then picks up the broom and starts to beat Parker who runs out of the house towards the pecan tree. This imagery is important because again O’Connor is using symbolism, this time symbolising Jesus on the cross and it is through this comparison to Jesus that the reader realises that Parker has obtained grace.