Whenever I read a Flannery O’Connor story, I think of a quotation by the author that I once read. Regarding her fiction, she said,
“...[in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one that is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world” (Mystery and Manners, p 112).
I believe that this is a crucial component of nearly all O’Connor stories, but especially in Parker’s Back. This story is so particularly dense with such imagery and action that the tattoo itself becomes reflective of this violence.
Considering Parker himself, we find a lost character. He has no direction and no motivation, even acknowledging at times that he feels as if he is losing his mind. His actions have no explanation, he often says that he does not know why he does things, but he is compelled to. Whether getting a tattoo or marrying Sarah Ruth, Parker moves like a ghost or a shell throughout the story. He seems to be motivated only by his own dissatisfaction and, as Sarah says, “Vanity of vanities” (429). In the first half of the story he obtains tattoos because he likes the way they look and the reaction they elicit in others. In the second half though, Parker becomes dissatisfied to a point “that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it” (433).
Following this revelation, Parker experiences a spiritual counterpart to his tattooing. While working he hits a tree and is flung from his tractor. He views the tree burst in flame and he has to run to salvation, his truck, barefoot. The episode is ripe with religious imagery and very cathartic for Parker, emblemizing the violence O’Connor speaks of. It forces Parker to consider his own mortality and in turn, his faith.
After this odd episode in the field, Parker drives into the city and gets a large Byzantine Christ tattooed on his back. The event turns into a long and painful ordeal, making Parker uncomfortable. When the piece is finished, the artist forces Parker to look at it, and the gaze of the figure on his back shocks him. There is a dual violence here, both in the form of the physical pain of his tattoo, and the psychological pain of the artist making him confront it. This tattoo is a new experience for Parker. It is the first tattoo that has meaning to him, and it is the first that hurts him. Through the act of receiving this tattoo Parker is transformed, as some may be by finding God or attending church.
Parker becomes a much different man after receiving this tattoo. He no longer finds joy in drinking and going to the pool hall, instead he finds himself soul searching. The reader finds Parker at a low, sitting behind the pool hall in an alley, “examining his soul. He saw it is a spider web of facts and lies that was not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion. The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed” (440). The permanence of his tattoo is equally important as the process by which he obtained it, he is now forever marked and forever changed.
When Parker finally returns home to show Sarah his tattoo he experiences “light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors” (441). For the first time his tattoos no longer seem random, unmatched—he experiences synthesis he has longed for ever since first seeing the man at the fair. Now that Parker has brought Christ into his life, he feels balanced. When his wife sees the tattoo and hits him, welts swell up on his back and on the image. They share the same pain, further connecting Parker to the image of Christ and humanizing him. Through various forms of violence, emotional and physical, mental and spiritual—Parker transforms. The last image we have of him is embracing his birth name and weeping—a completely different action from the character presented at the beginning of the story. It is almost as if by being scarred by Christ, Parker brings him into his life and heart. Like the characters in Figiel’s They Who Do Not Grieve and Wendts’ A Cross of Soot, the tattoo transforms the person—a reflection of spiritual and the actuality of physical change.