Sunday, March 25th marks the would-be 93rd birthday of Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Catholic author whose works were greatly influenced by the literary genre called “grotesque.” When readers first encounter O’Connor’s writings, they are generally surprised and a little bit shocked, because the stories not only concern hard realities but often in a gruesome way. How could a Catholic writer compose and publish such things?
In honor of her birthday, I propose to offer some of Flannery’s own thoughts on the vocation of a Catholic writer and then offer a brief study of her story, called “Parker’s Back”, which is particularly fitting for this season of Lent, especially as we approach the Holy Triduum.
Flannery O’Connor on being a Catholic Author
Of her focus on the grotesque, O’Connor writes, “Our present grotesque heroes are not comic, or at least not primarily so. They seem to carry an invisible burden and to fix with eyes that remind us that we all bear some heavy responsibility whose nature we have forgotten.” O’Connor’s characters remind us of our own fallen humanity, and that we all bear heavy burdens and crosses, including the reality that we will die someday. Especially in our times, we try to distract ourselves from the reality of our own suffering and death, but O’Connor brings these to the forefront in her writings. As she explains, “They are prophetic figures” (860), because “the prophet is a realist of distances, distances in a qualitative sense” (860-61). By this she means that the prophet stands alone and announces uncomfortable truths from a distance—if we think of the Old Testament prophets, they were not always liked for what they said. Thus, O’Connor sees her characters as announcing difficult truths to a people that has become soft.
But she does not remain in a place of gloom—rather, as she further explains in the same essay,
There is something in us as story-tellers, and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth in fiction (863).
In O’Connor’s stories, there is the suggestion of redemption for the characters, because she finds that many people in society have forgotten the price of evil, which means that they have forgotten the price of redemption and restoration. In such a way, she shocks her readers through sometimes horrible situations before subtlety revealing the redemption offered to the characters. As she further explains, “We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to accept if we want to realize a Catholic literature” (864). Without entering into the suffering of Christ, and being touched by that suffering, we will not be able to experience a true vision of Christ—this is at the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic literature.
The story “Parker’s Back” is a fitting example to elaborate the above principles. It is told from the perspective of a man named Parker, who has married a very plain, religious woman after a rambunctious early life. The discontent he feels in the marriage is obvious:
Parker’s wife was sitting on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly. She was plain, plain…. Parker understood why he had married her—he couldn’t have got her any other way—but he couldn’t understand why he stayed with her now. She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind (655).
This woman he married, Sarah Ruth, is overly scrupulous and spiritual—and she despises the one thing that he loves about himself.
When Parker was fourteen years old, he encountered a man covered in tattoos at a fair. He was enchanted, and soon after got his own tattoo. He did not stop there, however. He would be content with his new tattoo for about a month, before he was itching to get another. He got so many to the point that his entire front “was almost covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself” (659). Parker loved to look at his tattoos and admire him—they were the source of his pride. His wife, however, saw the tattoos as “a heap of vanity” (660), coming from a family with a father who was a “Straight Gospel preacher” (662). Nevertheless, Parker eventually saw that she was in love with him, despite his tattoos, and they were eventually married.
Married life, however, did not prove to change very much between him and his wife. On the contrary, Sarah Ruth constantly bantered him about being saved, “‘At the judgement seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all of you?’” (664). As time went by, Parker became increasingly irritable and nervous, not having any other space to place a tattoo. One day while he was out working in the field, a terrible accident almost occurred: he was almost crushed under a burning tractor and fallen down tree. At that moment, “He only knew that there had been a great change in life, a leap forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it. It was for all intents accomplished” (666).
Parker ran—and when he went to the tattoo artist, all he could say was that he wanted “God” on his back (666). He looked through the pages of smiling and happy Jesus pictures, until suddenly he stopped at one. “His heart too 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” (667). This was the image that he had tattooed on his back. When the artist was done, he looked in the mirror, “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him—still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence” (670). Parker is faced with the reality of Christ—the beautiful, haunting reality of the Eternal staring at him, staring into his soul. And now that he has encountered Him, he cannot escape the glance.
When he finally returns home to Sarah Ruth after a lengthy time away, she will not let him in at first. And when she does, she almost refuses to let him take off his shirt. She is angry—she knows that he has gotten another tattoo. But Parker exclaims, “‘Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!’” (674). She replies, “‘I done looked’” (674). But he does not believe her, and he asks her if she knows who it is. She denies that she knows the face. He replies, “‘It’s him… God!’” (674). She is angry, and she accuses him of idolatry. She began to thrash him about the shoulders, and as Flannery writes, “Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ” (674). He staggers out of the house and fell against a tree, weeping (675). The one who claimed to be “religious” and “saved” could not recognize the face of Christ. While Parker, the one who did not have “external religion” had come to see, to know, and to believe the Person of Christ, his wife did not have the faith to see.
In this story is revealed suffering and redemption. Parker must undergo a conversion, a metanoia, before he is able to recognize the Person of Christ. And when his wife denies Christ, he endures the pain of not being able to share his new-found love. He endures a beating—indeed, Christ endures the beating, like the scourging during his Passion—and then weeps, for the woman he loves cannot recognize God. Even though Parker began the story as the wild, crazy man, who had no need of God, he ends the story having been redeemed after an encounter with Christ.
 Flannery O’Connor, “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” in Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988), 860. All further references will be intra-textual.