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The Distorted Body
© 2007, Katarzyna Nowak

The body dismembered, tattooed and transformed figures prominently in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. This writer of the American South, praising its local color and mercilessly revealing its absurdities at the same time, was preoccupied with the issues of Christian faith. O’Connor herself acknowledged that stating: “I see from the standpoint of Christian Orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to it” (O’Connor, Mystery & Manners 32). Therefore, it is clear that the deciphering of meanings attached to the distorted bodily images mentioned above should respect Christian beliefs. Employing Saint Augustine’s theory of the body and the soul, in order to provide a theoretical tool for discovering the meanings of bodies’ deformations in O’Connor’s fiction may be justified, as “Flannery O’Connor’s library on display in Flannery O’Connor’s Room at Georgia State College reveals works by St. Augustine” (Welborn). Focusing on Augustinian theory of distorted body reflecting distorted soul, developed in his first Christian work, entitled “De quantitate animae”, it is possible to prove that “the marked body” (Slattery) always means “the marked soul” for Flannery O’Connor. However, every object; body as well, might, throughout the literary text, accumulate differentiated meanings, finally reaching a status of a symbol. Hence, the application of Mircea Eliade’s theory of symbols stating that although the symbol may be interpreted in numerous ways, the senses it reveals are always simultaneous (Cirlot 50). On this basis, it is possible to present reasonable meanings of the subjects in question, observing them from different perspectives while none of the possible meanings assume a prevailing position.

Given this goal, let us look at two stories in which the issue of body’s alterations dominates the whole text and emerges as the center of it, “Good Country People” and “Parker’s Back”. The first story comes from Flannery O’Connor’s earliest collection of short stories entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find while the second originates from her last compilation Everything That Rises Must Converge, and is the last short story O’Connor wrote before her premature death. Both stories deal with the theme of body’s distortion, however “Good Country People” describes a deformation acquired involuntarily, while “Parker’s Back” shows a conscious choice of such alteration. Moreover, the first story, marking the onset of Flannery O’Connor’s literary career and the second one, indicating its tragic end, provide an excellent insight into the evolution of O’Connor’s theme of distorted body.

“Good Country People” is a tale of a woman called Joy Hopewell, whose PhD in philosophy leads her to a complete denial of faith. Due to a hunting accident in her childhood, Joy loses her leg and is forced into using an artificial one. What is more, she has poor eyesight and suffers from some kind of heart condition that puts her life at risk and prevents her from realizing an academic career. She has to live in her childhood house together with her mother and meddlesome subtenant, growing more sullen and harsh every day. She even changes her positive-sounding name to a really horrible one--Hulga. One day, a Bible salesman called Manley Pointer appears and manages to win Hulga’s trust, however he soon proves to be even a greater cynic than Hulga herself, and an utterly cruel creature who does not hesitate to steal the disabled woman’s artificial limb.

Mary Flannery O’Connor herself maintained that the leg in question is inclined to amass figurative connotations:

In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work. This story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning.  As the story goes on, the wooden leg continues to accumulate meaning. The reader learns how the girl feels about her leg, how her mother feels about it, and how the country woman on the place feels about it, and finally, by the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning that it is, as the saying goes, loaded. And when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl's personality. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners 99).

This accumulation of meaning provides us with an excellent alibi for our potential over-interpretations.

While trying to approach the complicated theme of symbolism, we should examine the contexts in which the word “leg” emerges, in what circumstances does the word appear and, more importantly, who uses it. On this basis, it is possible to draw some general conclusions and then conduct more profound analysis of the potential regularities. Following through with other literary sources (namely dictionaries of symbols and the bibliographical sources) that are not directly linked with the text of “Good Country People” may put a new, fresh perspective to our discussion of the symbolical meaning of the artificial limb.

For convenience, appearances of the wooden leg are catalogued below and have been noted with the letters of the alphabet. Each entry includes the name of a person who uses the word “leg” (or, very rarely, a lexical item containing the particle “leg”) followed by the appropriate quotation, providing context for the word and outlining the situation in which it has been used. The enumeration respects the chronological order of the time of action.

  • Mrs. Hopewell.
    “Joy was her daughter, a large blond girl who had an artificial leg.  Mrs. Hopewell thought of her as a child though she was thirty-two years old and highly educated” (O’Connor 271).
    Mrs. Hopewell excused this attitude because of the leg (which had been shot off in a hunting accident when Joy was ten)” (274).
    “It was hard for Mrs. Hopewell to realize that her child was thirty-two now and that for more than twenty years she had had only one leg” (274).
  • Joy- Hulga.
    “Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away from home, she had had it legally changed” (274).
    “Her legal name was Hulga” (274).
  • Mrs. Freeman- the neighbor.
    “Something about her seemed to fascinate Mrs. Freeman and then one day Hulga realized that it was the artificial
    leg
    ” (275).
    “Hulga had heard Mrs. Hopewell give her the details of the hunting accident, how the leg had been literally blasted off, how she had never lost consciousness” (275).
  • Bible salesman. 
    "I see you got a wooden leg,” he said (283).
    “Where does your wooden leg join on?” (285).
    “Yer leg,” he said reverently (286).
    “Show me where your wooden leg joins on,” he whispered (288).
    In addition, it appears in two words connected with this character: “He had never been in a room as elegant as this” (278) and “I don’t want to go to college” (279).
  • Joy-Hulga. “She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail”             (288).
  • Bible salesman. “Very gently, he began to roll the slack leg up.  The artificial limb, in a white sock and brown flat shoe, was bound in a heavy material like canvas and ended in an ugly jointure where it was attached to the stump” ( 289).
  • Joy-Hulga. “She was thinking that she would run away with him and that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again” (289).
  • Joy-Hulga. “Without the leg she felt entirely dependent on him” (289).
  • Bible salesman. “Every now and then the boy, his eyes like two steel spikes, would glance behind him where the leg stood” (289).
  • Joy-Hulga. “Give me my leg.” Said three times (290).
  • Bible salesman. “She saw him grab the leg” (290).

Total: 20 uses of the word “leg”.

Cataloguing all the instances of leg in the story allows us to form several groups of interpretations for the symbolic artificial leg. As Flannery O’Connor herself suggested, it means something completely different for every character of the story. For example, analyzing the instances in which the “leg” and Mrs. Hopewell appear together suggests a certain conclusion; that the leg must be for this woman a symbol of her daughter’s loneliness, unhappiness and oddity. Mrs. Hopewell always mentions the leg as Joy’s distinctive feature (just after her large size and blonde hair), indicating that the mother constantly thinks about it, even over twenty years after the fatal accident. Even so, Joy, in her sordidness, insists on reminding her mother about it, making completely unnecessary, horrible sounding noises with the leg, only because she knows that it makes her mother suffer by reminding her of how she has neglected her maternal duty to protect her child. Consequently, in Mrs. Hopewell’s eyes the leg is an artificial bond linking Joy’s childhood with the moment of the fatal accident and her entry into adulthood.

By way of digression, it is interesting that throughout the text Joy- Hulga is called a “girl”, not “woman”, constantly emphasizing her immature status. Moreover, it is worth noting that Joy-Hulga’s garments further accentuate her girlish condition. She is clothed either in “a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it” (276), or, on more solemn occasions, in “slacks and a dirty white shirt” (284). Such clothes are characteristic of a hoyden, rather than a thirty-two year old woman with a PhD in philosophy, especially when we compare these outfits with Mrs. Hopewell’s “red kimono...with her hair tied around her head in rags” (275). Obviously, the choice of such clothing may testify to Joy-Hulga’s complete ignorance of such down-to-earth subjects as clothes.

Adding to the leg’s meaning, Mrs. Freeman, a nosy subtenant, who is always ready to interfere in other people’s lives, has “a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden deformities, assaults upon children.  Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or incurable” (275). Such characteristic seems to fit some kind of witch or a person with a mental disorder, rather than a decent, middle-aged woman descended from simple “good country people” (273). Nevertheless, Mrs. Freeman is fascinated with everything distorted or abnormal, but this fascination is not viewed as something unusual, and it is no wonder that Joy-Hulga’s wooden leg instantaneously captivates her. Ironically, her surname clashes with the fact that her obsessions limit her liberty. Mrs. Freeman presses Mrs. Hopewell, demanding the details of Joy-Hulga’s accident again and again. The leg seems to enchant her, she seeks contact with Joy-Hulga only to admire the prosthesis. Therefore, in Mrs. Freeman’s eyes, the leg symbolizes all the “delightful” deformations she is able to imagine, it is something precious, something everybody should be proud of. Mrs. Freeman makes us think of the mutable nature of all objects, as they transform themselves depending on the state of  mind in which we reach them.

Like Mrs. Freeman, Manley Pointer has an obvious interest in the leg, to the point that he uses words (elegant, college) containing it. However, he is more circumspect with his interest. When he first addresses Hulga, he asks the neutral yet weird question, has she ever eaten a chicken that was two days old. Then he wants to know her age and impolitely utters that he has noticed her wooden leg. While it is fairly rude, such behavior signals that Manley Pointer doesn’t understand the leg literally but as a symbol, as something unique. He gains Hulga’s trust by saying, “it’s what makes you different.  You ain’t like anybody else.”(288), and touches the deepest layer in her, and makes her feel unique. Pointer sees the leg as embodying her distinctiveness, and even as a magic capsule storing her individuality. Telling lies, he manages to throw Hulga off her guard and effortlessly dispossess her of the leg, an act that may be interpreted as robbing the woman of her quintessence. Pointer has previously deprived another woman of her glass eye, and such deeds make him a truly satanic character, as stealing somebody’s essence is like stealing her soul.

Another remarkable aspect of Pointer’s concern with the artificial limb is that he is extremely interested in investigating where does it join the real body. Obviously, such interest might have erotic connotations and evidence of his desire to reach this very body. However, the interest with the jointure also takes on a spiritual meaning that can be interpreted as a fascination with the transitory sphere, a magic realm where the spiritual unites with the material. It is worth mentioning that the object of Pointer’s interest is described as “ugly”, contrasting the elevated sphere of spirit with the mundane sphere of matter. The artificial leg is dressed like a real leg, wrapped in “heavy material”, clothed in a “white sock” and “brown flat shoe”, as if it was bound to the material world. The heavy fabric weighs the leg down, the flat shoe makes the most contact with ground, and brown is closest to the color of soil, yet this dressing is still an artifice that cannot contain the spiritual domain.

But what does the prosthesis mean in the eyes of its owner, Joy-Hulga? The only fragment of “Good Country People” where Joy-Hulga’s attitude towards her artificial limb is directly stated is the sentence: “She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail” (288). The peacock itself symbolizes the imperishable soul, especially in Christian art (Cirlot 286), and other scholars such as Carter W. Martin agree that the leg symbolizes Joy/Hulga’s soul (143). Indeed, the text itself asserts that “she took care of it as someone else would his soul” (O’Connor 288). Martin goes on to say that

Hulga’s loss of her real leg when she was only ten years old was a traumatic experience which led directly to her sense of despair and her renunciation of God and her own former unquestioning self, symbolized by the change in her name from Joy to Hulga. Subsequently the artificial leg became for her an object other than her body, yet an intimate part of her, as the soul is. Yet she is contemptuous of the artificial leg as she is of the notion of the soul (143).

Add to this symbolism Robert Drake’s position that in Flannery O’Connor’s writings “physical or mental deformity of the outward and visible sort always suggests inner, spiritual deformity” (Drake 39), and the conclusion is that Joy-Hulga’s soul is dead, just like a piece of wood. Returning to the way the leg was “bound in a heavy material like canvas” (O’Connor 289), the heavy textile brings to mind a death shroud, a material used for covering corpses.

If we consider some of the traditional meanings assigned to legs by dictionaries of symbols, we see that the leg “is always linked with the meaning of foot, together they differentiate human beings from the animal world, as they indicate the upright position” (Cirlot 273). Additionally, “in kabala the leg symbolizes wonderfulness and impassiveness”, attributes of soul (Cirlot 273). Continuing this connection of the legs with the feet, Paul Diel states that the foot is a symbol of moral strength, lack of which showed in Hefaistos’ limp and in Achilles’ heel (Julien 163). Soul is the seat of all morality, so, again, Joy-Hulga’s artificial leg (and foot) symbolizes her corrupted soul. Considering that Cirlot also says that the foot is “an essential part of human body, because it gives it support, a basis on which the body rests” (387) we can take the meaning a step further. Analogically, the soul gives support to the whole body, and a body deprived of a proper soul will sooner or later collapse.

On another level, Joy-Hulga’s leg represents its owner’s artificial self (Rath and Shaw 45), her counterfeit beliefs elaborated as a result of an enormous effort of intellectual powers. The leg undeniably influenced her decision to change her name, which she did “legally”. The alteration of her name marks the moment when the artificial limb starts to accumulate meaning, and from this moment on the leg may be even identified with the new name (and thus with the new self), as Joy-Hulga “had arrived at it [the name] first purely on the basis of its ugly sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her.  She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called” (O’Connor 275).

The leg is not the only part of her body that Joy-Hulga has problems with, in fact she has a number of such distortions. According to Oliver, “her heart condition, her poor eyesight, and her artificial leg symbolize her emotional, intellectual, and spiritual impairments”. She is blinded with her philosophy, which leads her to a complete denial of faith in which she audaciously claims that “some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see" (O’Connor 288) and thus expresses her nihilism. However, Flannery O’Connor uncovers the spiritual bareness of such a “self-proclaimed atheist” (Oliver). When Joy-Hulga, for the sake of love, deposits her wooden leg with the Bible salesman, she shows us that it is impossible to “believe in nothing” (O’Connor 291), she “embodies the weakness of modern man who cannot believe in nothingness yet is equally unable to profess with assurance a belief in anything” (Martin 64). This situation can be interpreted as a victory of the authentic need for love over artificial beliefs, and shows that without God, who “is Love” (1 John 4:8), we ”can do nothing” (John 15:5), and as Oliver points out, “for O'Connor, religion would have provided Joy-Hulga with spiritual and emotional support, a so-called real leg on which to rebuild her life”. However, Hulga denies it and finds herself abandoned and only able to see “nothing”.

On the other hand, the artificial leg might also represent the positive outcome of the events in Joy-Hulga’s life. According to Nadia Julien, “feet are connected with possibilities of progress and movement in life” (163), and the fact that Joy-Hulga lost her foot (that is, her potential prospects of development) reinforced her need for achievement and therefore made it possible for her to study philosophy at the university. If it had not been for the hunting accident, Joy-Hulga (named Joy) would probably have been an average housekeeper, surrounded by her children and preoccupied with her neighbors’ affairs. As further support of this idea, according to Jung, insufficiency is always associated with some kind of compensation, for example Hephaistos has extraordinary skills that compensate for the fact that he is lame (Cirlot 388), and in a similar fashion Joy-Hulga compensates for her missing leg with her amazing intellect.

The world of symbols offers another interpretation of the wooden leg’s meaning to Hulga. According to Nadia Julien, “in Chinese folklore female feet came to be thought of as the most intimate part of the female body, the focus of her sex appeal, the symbol of femininity. Her feet were strictly taboo and were never openly displayed” (163). Such a view on woman’s feet seems to be reflected in O’Connor’s story, especially in Joy-Hulga’s offering of the artificial limb to the Bible salesman as an act of a total sacrifice. If we look at the wooden leg in such light, we are more likely to understand Joy-Hulga’s desire for Manley Pointer “taking the leg off every night” and “putting it back every morning”. Such an imagined activity expresses a deep, womanly longing for someone to whom she might surrender and to whom she wishes to submit her femininity.

An entirely different interpretation of the artificial leg occurs in the context of a biographical analysis of the author, which Flannery O’Connor herself suggested when she uttered the famous phrase: “What would you make out about me just from reading "Good Country People"? Plenty, but not the whole story” (Bosco 283). Marc Bosco proposes a deep analysis of the author’s private life, in order to explain what exactly she had on her mind when she spoke these words, and he describes O’Connor’s short-lived relationship with a Dane named Erik Langkjaer as a prototype for the situation described in the story. However, Langkjaer was actually very different from Manley Pointer, as he did not realize what feelings he evoked. He treated Flannery O’ Connor in a friendly way, only once offering her a brief kiss, to which he did not receive any response. Langkjaer comments upon this fact, from the perspective of almost fifty years: "her sense of rejection broke her heart but in hindsight she benefited from it. That was her own wooden leg.... she had a sense that this was her final chance. And she accepted it as her destiny, as one has to when one has a limitation" (Bosco 295). Bosco adds that “in consenting to love Langkjaer and seeing that love not returned, O'Connor hung onto this metaphorical "wooden leg" for the second and last time” (259). In this light, Joy-Hulga’s wooden leg may be understood as her denial of love, as a representation of her cold, intellectual, self-control and its victory over affection. On the other hand, the leg may just as well be an allegorical representation of O’Connor’s own illness (called lupus), which forced her to live in her mother’s care on the family farm and kept her from participation in the intellectual life found in big cities. The wooden leg stands as a perfect symbol of limitation and restriction, and ultimately O’Connor’s incapacitation by lupus.

Up to this point, we have dealt solely with an artificial, involuntarily acquired disfigurement, but what meanings could be ascribed to another type of body alteration, obtained fully consciously and with a sense of pride? The protagonist of “Parker’s Back”, named eccentrically Obadiah Elihue Parker, is an uncomplicated man married to an extraordinarily religious woman called Sarah Rut. When Parker was fourteen years old, he saw at the fair a man, whose body was covered with tattoos; he was “dressed” in a “single intricate design of brilliant color “( 512), and when he moved “the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own “(513). Young Parker, fascinated with this view, immediately decided that from that time on, his main goal in life would be “amassing” tattoos, in order to finally gain an equally astounding compilation. It was like a revelation for him, the pivotal moment of his life; a short moment that influenced and shaped his entire future existence. Almost immediately, Parker managed to acquire his first tattoo--an image of an eagle perched on a cannon. Then, he dropped out of school and started to work in a garage in order to raise money for more tattoos. Finally, the young Parker managed to join the marines and was able to acquire tattoos from all over the world. By adulthood, the only part of Parker’s skin that is entirely free from images is his back. Sarah strongly disapproves of “pagan” images on her husband’s body, calling them “vanity of vanities” (O’Connor 515). Parker grows more sullen every day until, after a chain of dramatic events, he decides to fill his back with a tattoo that will finally satisfy his wife.

Parker’s most obvious reason for tattooing his body is his desire to imitate the fascinating man from the fair. Perhaps he believed that duplicating somebody else’s fascinating character, he could hide his own uninteresting personality. The moment Parker succumbs to his yearning to cover his whole body with a colorful mosaic might be read as the moment in which his consciousness is born, when he deliberately starts to perceive himself as an independent human being capable of autonomous decisions. Like many teens, it is credible that Parker, through the act of tattooing, wants to express his rebellion against his mother, and equally important is the fact that Parker discovers that the tattoos make him attractive in the eyes of women. David R. Mayers quotes Scutt and Gotch, who describe the reasons for acquiring tattoos as “superstition, status and attraction” (63), motives that might easily be applied to Parker’s behavior, however these motives alone do not satisfactorily explain the significance of Parker’s tattoos.

If we consider Parker’s opinion as expressed in the text, his choice of the tattoos’ themes and their placement was accidental (except for the final tattoo on his back), as he claims that he simply desired to cover his whole body, no matter with what images, he just wanted them to be extremely colorful, exactly like the ones covering the man from his youth. Indeed, David R. Mayer’s table of the tattoo’s arrangement shows no purpose in their layout: 

Place           Designs
Hand:          eagle perched on a cannon
Arms:          serpent coiled about a shield; hearts, some with arrows and
                     one with the name of his mother; spread hand of cards;
                     Buddha
Shoulders:   tiger and panther
Chest:          cobra around torch
Stomach:     Elizabeth II
Liver:           Prince Philip
Abdomen:   obscenities
Thighs:        hawks
Knees:         peacocks
(unknown): anchors and crossed rifles. Parker had several military
                     designs before he started with designs of living beings
                     such as animals and people. (Mayers 123).

However, when we look at the designs enumerated in Mayers’ table, we cannot avoid the impression that the selection of images is somehow significant. It is clear that they form several thematic groups:

  • animals (tiger, panther, lion, hawks, peacocks)
  • animals in some relation to arms (eagle perched on a cannon, serpent coiled about a shield)
  • human figures (Elisabeth II, Prince Philip, Buddha)
  • military and sailor’s  designs (anchors, crossed riffles)
  • obscenities
  • abstract, symbolic objects (hearts, spread hand of cards)

The natural inclination is to analyze the associations attached to each group of tattoos. For instance, the first group consists of emblematic animals, almost every one of which is connected with strength, power and masculinity, however peacocks belong to a completely contradictory world of meanings and they seem out of place here. Nadia Julien offers the following symbolic connotations: “the peacock is thought to absorb poison from snakes and thus destroy them, and also owes the beauty of its plumage to them; for these reasons it symbolizes the power of spontaneous transformation” (318). Such ideas correspond with Parker’s attempts to transform his body and become somebody else. In the book we are told that Parker acquired the images of peacocks in Burma, a Buddhist country and, thus, we are entitled to quote Julien once again as she says, “in Buddhism, the peacock is a metaphor for worldly values and renouncing these values of outward appearance for awareness” (318). The peacocks logically symbolize Parker’s quest for deeper meaning in his life, his desire to go beyond the colorful patterns on the surface of his body and find the person he longs to be. This quest for meaning in life repeats itself, and indeed Parker admires each new tattoo for about a month before he again begins to feel dissatisfied with his life and decides to acquire another tattoo. Such a vicious circle must eventually end, and it happens when Parker finally tattoos his back.

The subsequent thematic groups of tattoos confirm the theory that they embody particular stages in Parker’s search for meaning in life. The first group represents masculine powers and may be interpreted as Parker’s attempts to discover life’s sense in a “macho”lifestyle. Mayer agrees that “Parker’s restless soul does indeed seem to be influenced by the totemic animals on his skin, their wild nature enters him.” (125), and the story informs us that Parker visits local taverns on regular basis and drunken fights are not uncommon for him.

The second and the fourth thematic groups can be related to each other as well as to the first. They contain typical military representations, generally the arms symbolize armed forces and the anchor is connected with the marines, and represent Parker’s attempt to find his life’s purpose while serving in uniform. However, the military life did not fulfill Parker’s expectations, leading him to further exploration. The fifth group of tattoos--the obscenities--represent Parker’s search for meaning in a hedonistic way of life. We know that before he met his wife Parker “had had other women but he had planned never to get himself tied up legally” (511). Similarly, the sixth group of tattoos signify Parker’s avocation of worldly pleasures such as an unrestrained sexual life (hearts), or hazard (spread hand of cards), neither of which brought him fulfillment. However, these actions led to pain for those whom he used for his convenience, and some of the hearts tattooed on Parker’s body were “with arrows through them” (512). The final group of tattooed human figures, both Buddha and the members of royal family, suggest that Parker tried to define his life by playing the role of a cynic, showing the world his disrespect towards esteemed persons and religious systems.

None of these temporarily adopted quests proved valid, and Parker’s feeling of dissatisfaction with life, instead of being reduced, grew every day till it reached the moment where something drastic had to happen, a moment marked by an event at Parker’s work. Tantalized by the excruciating thought that he must finally tattoo his back, and that it cannot be anything but a religious image that would satisfy even his bigoted wife, Parker drives his tractor into an enormous tree standing lonely in the middle of a field. Shocked, he utters a cry, “GOD ABOVE” (520), and runs away, haunted by the image of the burning tree, knowing that “there had been a great change in his life” (521). He soon chooses to tattoo “the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” (522) on his back, turning the accident into the moment of Parker’s conversion, and the whole story immediately gains a new meaning.

Up to this point, Parker has always gone by his initials, O.E., and the moment of conversion is equal with assuming a new name, and with beginning a new life as well. When Parker loudly utters his beautiful, Old Testament names, Obadiah Elihue--names of God’s faithful servants--he feels the tree he saw burning fill him with light that “turns his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts” (527). According to Dennis P. Slattery, “the word ‘garden’ in the text suggests a return to paradisiacal vision of man before the Fall. It suggests a vision of life ordered, harmonious and complete” (122). The image of Christ finally introduces harmony to the tattoos on Parker’s body, just like the conversion brought peace to his soul. The tattooed symbolic animals prefigure the final image of Christ, as the eagle, lion and snake are all emblems of Christ in Christian iconography. While all his previous tattoos “taken together show no order or overall design; rather the effect is ‘botched’”(Slattery 120), it is Christ’s image that finally gains control over Parker’s body and his life introducing harmony and control over him.

Augustinian theory confirms that Parker’s body is the mirror of his soul, the former chaotic images reflecting his disorganized inner life. Parker’s circling around the old tree mimics his circular search for the life’s meaning while its rightful center was there all the time. However, the collision was necessary, as it immediately put everything in due order. The tree in the center of the field is like the Cross in the center of Christian religion, collecting around it all the believers. It is significant that Parker collides with the tree at three o’clock in the afternoon, which is believed in the Christian faith to be precisely the time of Christ’s redemptive death on the Tree of Cross.  

The events following Parker’s decision to tattoo Christ on his back further support its equation with his conversion. Just like a neophyte, Parker wants to share his joy at discovering his life’s purpose with the one he loves. He is elated to think how delighted his religious wife will be when she sees the image of her Savior, but only bitter disappointment awaits him. Laying bare his tattooed back and his newly converted soul, Parker learns from his wife that his Christ is not “anybody she knows” (O’Connor 529). Instead, she brands Parker as an idolater and beats Parker’s back with the broom so that “large welts form on the face of the tattooed Christ” (529). Parker suffers physically and, more severely, spiritually. His newfound faith has just been questioned, but he may now more fully sympathize with his new Master who was beaten cruelly on his way to Golgotha. The marks on the tattooed Christ’s face symbolize the unmasking of the false, superficial piousness of the bigoted, just as they reflect the actual blows to Christ’s face by those who outwardly professed to believe in His words.

Although each text approaches the issue of the distorted body in a different way, both stories treat the body as the soul’s representation, confirming the validity of both Augustinian theory and the theory of symbols described by Mircea Eliade. It is significant that in the case of Joy-Hulga, the body’s alteration is equated with the corruption of the soul, while for the protagonist of “Parker’s Back”, it is equivalent with the soul’s elevation and ennoblement. Moreover, a certain regularity appears: the earlier text seems to be more rich in symbolical connotations, whereas the later one appears as a structure subordinated to one central idea with restricted interpretations. O’Connor’s Christian concerns prevail here, however the text does not reach the status of an exclusively religious story but rather appears as a kind of  testament, a perfect fulfillment of O’Connor’s commandment that “your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” (O’Connor, Mystery & Manners 91).

Works Cited

Bosco, Marc. "Consenting to Love: Autobiographical Roots of "Good Country People"". The Southern Review. Baton Rouge: Spring 2005. Vol. 41, Iss. 2. Literature Online, the home of literature and criticism. 3 April 2007.

Cirlot, Juan E. Słownik symboli. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 2000.

Drake, Robert. Flannery O’Connor: A Critical Essay. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966.

Julien, Nadia. The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols. Understanding the Hidden Language of Symbols. London: Robinson Publishing, 1996.

Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Kingsport: Vanderbilt University Press,1969.

Mayer, David R. "Outer Marks, Inner Grace: Flannery O’Connor’s Tattooed Christ". Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1. (1983), pp. 117-127.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Oliver, Kate. "O’Connor’s Good Country People". Explicator. Summer 2004.

Rath, Sura P. and Shaw Mary N., eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: The University of Georgia Press,1996.

Slattery, Dennis P. "Faith in Search of an Image: The Iconic Dimension of Flannery O'Connor's "Parker's Back"". The South Central Bulletin. Vol. 41, No. 4, (Winter, 1981), pp. 120-123.

Welborn, Amy. Flannery O’Connor: Stalking Pride. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al 0058.html .

 

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