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“Parker’s Back”: Marriage in Literature Series

“Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor (published 1965 in Everything that Rises Must Converge)

This short story by Flannery O’Connor revolves around the character of Parker who is constantly in search of something, and often fills this search by getting a new tattoo.  He has so many tattoos, at a certain point, that the only “blank space” left is his back. It is there that he gets a tattoo of Christ’s eyes, copied from an icon he finds. But all this wandering and searching for Parker eventually comes back to his marriage. Let’s look at some of the elements of “Parker’s Back” that have to do with marriage:

  1. There is always some mystery in a man and woman’s choice of each other.

“Parker’s Back” opens with Parker looking at his pregnant wife, Sarah Ruth, who is sitting on the porch snapping beans. He is thinking about how plain she is, “puzzled and ashamed at himself” for staying with her. He is also confused by her marrying him: “Sometimes he supposed that she had married him because she meant to save him. At other times he had a suspicion that she actually liked everything she said she didn’t.”  When they first meet, Sarah Ruth hits Parker in the face with a broom for swearing. Later, when he makes a move on her, she “thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.” The next line has them married. It can be easy to wonder why you chose your husband or wife, especially when things are hard. Sometimes it seems like they would be more compatible with someone else, or you may meet someone you are more compatible with. These are opportunities to remember the beginning of your story with your spouse; what drew you to them in the first place, and how that love has grown over time.

  1. It is Christ who must be obeyed in marriage.

Parker goes to the tattoo parlor and asks for the book with “all the pictures of God in it” and finds a Byzantine Christ he chooses for his back because of the eyes.  “[Parker] felt as though, under their gaze, he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.”  Later, he realizes, “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as he had ever been of anything.”  Parker thought that when he returned home, Sarah Ruth would appreciate the face of Jesus on his back and see it as a way for Parker to be close to her; but Sarah Ruth does not really know Jesus: “It ain’t anybody I know,” she says when she sees the tattoo. Then she beats Parker across the back with the broom, “until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.” Christ is crucified again in Parker. We see Parker weeping under a tree in the last scene, at a total loss to understand what he could do to make his wife happy.

  1. Husbands, love your wives…

This doesn’t sounds like a hopeful story, does it? Yet somehow it is, because you have to think about Parker’s back, now carrying the icon of Christ, as he is being called to love a woman who hurts him. “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5: 25).


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