In “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor tells the story of O.E. Parker, a young man who is constantly striving for fulfillment and finds temporary pleasure from the various permanent tattoos he receives. Throughout the story, the reader comes to understand Parker as being somewhat of a lost soul, blind in terms of spirituality and his true identity. O’Connor makes consistent reference to eyes all through her short story as a way to show the reader how tattoos are the eyes into a person’s soul and identity.
In the beginning of the story, O’Connor states that Parker “could account for her [Sarah Ruth, Parker’s wife] one way or another; it was himself he could not understand” (425). Parker seems to be lacking an personal identity or at least trying to come to terms with his identity, whereas his wife is very clear cut and predictable. We see this when O’Connor describes how Parker felt after seeing the tattooed man at the fair. “Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact he existed” (427). In an effort to identify himself or make himself more identifiable with others, Parker becomes obsessed with tattoos. For him, getting a tattoo is a thrill, even though the thrill is temporary, and admits that they are effective in attracting women. Sarah, however, is the one woman who is not impressed with his tattoos. In order to connect with Sarah and make her want Parker, he decides to get a tattoo on the one place he refused to ink, his back.
Up until this point, Parker refused to mark his back with his tattoos because he could not easily see them. This logic implies Parker’s unwillingness to see or accept himself for this would require too much of an effort just as standing between two mirrors to see a back tattoo. Also, this goes along with the constant allusion to Parker being blind or not having eyes. For example, O’Connor describes the woman Parker works for as pointing out a tree to him “as if he didn’t have eyes” (434). When he is searching for a tattoo to get on his back, a picture of a Byzantine Christ with “all-demanding eyes” captivates Parker (436). Their gaze penetrates into his soul and makes him feel uncomfortable, perhaps because they force him to look at himself and who he has become as a person. This idea is reinforced when the tattooist shows Parker the completed tattoo. “The eyes in the reflected face continues to look at him—still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence” (439). The eyes and face in this sentence remain ambiguous and offer the allusion that the tattoo and person have become one. Parker, through this tattoo is finally forced to truly look at himself, a situation that makes him feel very uncomfortable.
Through the tattoo on his back, Parker is forced to finally confront the emptiness in his life. Unlike his other tattoos, this one of the Christ figure holds meaning and gives him sight. By focusing on the importance of eyes, specifically eyes within a tattoo, O’Connor reveals to the reader the power a tattoo has in terms of marking a person’s identity and marking a transition, much like the way the tattoo in Pacific cultures mark one’s various life transitions. The tattoo gives not only outsiders, but also the person who holds the tattoo, insight into their own life and identity.