Summary and Analysis
The overt religious message presented in "Revelation" is used again by O'Connor in "Parker's Back." This story was composed by O'Connor while she was lying in the hospital a few weeks before her death. The story has the salvation of a hard-drinking, woman-chasing heathen as its main theme.
The protagonist, O. E. Parker, resembles Hazel Motes, the protagonist of O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood. Both characters undergo a disturbing experience at a fair, both try to reject any involvement with religion, and both finally succumb to the demands of the spirit. As you work with this story, pay particular attention to the chronology of the story. O'Connor does not follow a strict time sequence, but, instead, she uses flashbacks to provide background information.
Parker's initial awakening occurs at a fair where he sees a tattooed man whose "skin was patterned in . . . a single intricate design of brilliant color." This experience has a subtle effect on the fourteen-year-old boy, who prior to that time had never felt "there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed." After seeing the tattooed man, however, he becomes unsettled, and it is "as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know that his direction had been changed."
Following this awakening, Parker tries to emulate the tattooed man by having himself tattooed also. Even though he discovers that his tattoos "were attractive to the kind of girls he liked but who had never liked him before," and that each new tattoo could temporarily ease the sense of dissatisfaction which he feels, he becomes frustrated because "he had not achieved that transforming unity of being that the intricately patterned skin of the tattooed man at the fair represented."
Following a five-year term in the navy, from which he was discharged for going a.w.o.l., Parker rents a shack in the country, purchases an old truck, and takes "various jobs which he kept as long as it suited him." While working at one of these jobs ("He was buying apples by the bushel and selling them for the same price by the pound to isolated homesteaders on back country roads"), Parker meets the hawk-eyed, horny-handed, sin-sniffing female who later becomes his wife. Although Parker acknowledges her uncommon ugliness, he finds himself repeatedly returning to court the woman who has rejected his tattoos as "a heap of vanity."
The courtship of Sarah (the name means "princess" or "mistress") Ruth ("friend" or "companion") Cates by O. E. Parker proceeds on the basis of his furnishing fruit for her entire family. At their third meeting, Sarah Ruth succeeds in coaxing Parker to reveal his full name on the condition that she will never reveal it to anyone. Parker's refusal to acknowledge his full name can be seen as his refusal to recognize that even he has a role to play in the divine scheme. Later, however, after he is touched by grace, he is then able to accept his full name.
The symbolic significance of names and name changes in O'Connor's works is one element of the stories which should not be overlooked. Traditionally, it marks the passage from adolescence to adulthood (Timmy becomes Timothy), emphasizes a change in one's view of himself or herself (Joy becomes Hulga), or it indicates a change in the status of an individual (Jacob, the scoundrel who cheats his brother Esau out of his birthright, becomes Israel, one of the ancestors of the House of David).
Parker's having revealed his full name to Sarah Ruth establishes a bond between the two which ultimately leads Parker to marry her even though he has no conscious desire to do so. After they are married, he sometimes suspects that "she had married him because she meant to save him." You should also note that, in addition to the meaning of her name, O'Connor also plants other suggestions which point out Sarah Ruth's function in the story. When Parker first meets her, she is described as "a giant, hawk-eyed angel." Also, he is driven to get a tattoo which will please her. And after he has that tattoo, he finds her "icepick eyes" are the only comfort he can "bring to mind."
Parker and Sarah Ruth are married, and Parker becomes progressively more dissatisfied with his life. His preoccupation with "a suitable design for his back" causes him to drive a broken-down tractor into the only tree in a field where he is baling hay. The tractor upsets and catches fire, and Parker finds himself in the presence of a metaphorical burning bush. The obvious parallel with Moses' experience is reinforced by O'Connor's comment that if "he had known how to cross himself he would have done so." As a result of this spiritual experience — which he interprets as only a sign that the tattoo on his back should be that of the face of God — Parker drives barefoot into the city and contacts a tattoo artist.
In addition to appreciating the wild humor with which Parker's adventures in the city are related, you should note that serious things are going on in this section of the story. Parker rejects all the romantic pictures of Christ as he flips through the book of available designs because he is convinced that when he reaches "the one ordained, a sign would come."
Finally, he is compelled to select a "Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes." Even though Parker is caught up in a rush of events which he cannot control, he still attempts to avoid the "someone" who is trailing him. That someone is, of course, the inexorable approach of the Divine which Parker has been trying to avoid. His experiences with the tattooist (he denies that he is "saved," and, initially, he refuses to look at the finished tattoo), his attempt to get drunk, his fighting with the men who ridicule his new tattoo, and his expulsion from the pool hall (described as being like "the ship from which Jonah had been cast into the sea") are all elements within the story which function to emphasize Parker's attempt to avoid acceptance of his new spiritual condition.
This lack of acceptance is carried still further, and although Parker now realizes that "the eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed," he makes one final attempt to return to his former state by returning to Sarah Ruth. He feels that she "would clear up the rest of it, and she would at least be pleased." As he drives homeward, "he observed that his dissatisfaction was gone, but he felt not quite like himself. It was as if he were himself but a stranger to himself, driving into a new country."
The change in Parker is in some way intuitively recognized by Sarah Ruth, who refuses to let him into the house when he arrives home. His insistence that "It's me, old O. E.," does not convince Sarah Ruth to let him in. O'Connor's use of the expression "old O. E.," is evidently designed to call attention to at least three scriptural parallels in which this term is used. Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, and Colossians 3:9 all stress the need to put off "the old man" (one's former, sinful self) in order to become a part of the kingdom of heaven.
It is a puzzled Parker who turns and looks behind himself "as if he had expected someone behind him to give him the answer." O'Connor presents the descent of grace on Parker through the use of color and light imagery. As he looks to the east, the sky lightens, and he sees "two or three streaks of yellow (the color of the sun and of divinity) floating above the horizon." He then sees a "tree of light burst over the horizon." This image, of course, recalls the tree of fire image which has set him on his final quest. The effect of these events is to cause him to fall back against the door "as if he had been pinned there by a lance." With this image, O'Connor ties together the crucifixion ("One of the soldiers opened his side with a lance," John 19:34) and the earlier passage from Romans 6:6: "For we know that our old self has been crucified with him, in order that the body of sin may be destroyed, that we may no longer be slaves to sin."
Now touched by grace, Parker whispers his name through the keyhole, "and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts." No longer "old O. E.," — Parker proclaims his full name: Obadiah (serving Jah, or God) Elihue (God of him) unknowingly proclaims his complete acceptance of the Deity. This, of course, marks the culmination of Parker's desire to emulate the tattooed man at the fair and brings him to the "destination" toward which he has been directed since he was fourteen.
When Obadiah Elihue shows his wife the new tattoo, convinced that "she can't say she don't like the looks of God," her reaction is not at all what he expects. Steeped in a legalistic-fundamentalist tradition which looks upon any representation of the Deity as idolatrous, she declares, "I can put up with lies and vanity but I don't want no idolator in this house." She then takes up her broom and drives him from the room, beating him across the shoulders until "large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ." In the final image of the story, we see Parker "who called himself Obadiah Elihue — leaning against the tree, crying like a baby."
The conclusion of the story, while presenting a generally humorous picture, carries with it an expository burden which should not be overlooked. Obadiah Elihue's suffering clearly places him in the ranks of the saved as the following passage from the Beatitudes would indicate: "Blessed are you when men reproach you and persecute you, and speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake. Rejoice and exult, because your reward is great in heaven; for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).