‘Parker’s Back’ by Flannery O’Connor
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To the uninitiated, the significance of Flannery O’Connor’s Parker’s Back can seem at once cold and dispassionate, as well as almost absurdly stark and violent. Her short stories routinely end in horrendous, freak fatalities or, at the very least, a character’s emotional devastation. Flannery O’Connor is a Christian writer, and her work is message-oriented, yet she is far too brilliant a stylist to tip her hand; like all good writers, crass didacticism is abhorrent to her. Unlike some more cryptic writers, O’Connor was happy to discuss the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of her stories, and this candor is a godsend for the researcher that seeks to know what makes the writer tick.
Flannery O’Connor put much conscious thought into her dual role of Catholic and fiction writer, and reading her written reflections on the matter reveals that she had developed a whole literary philosophy devoted to reconciling the two, and joining them into a single unified force to prove the truth of the Faith. O’Connor observed a Manichaeism in the mind of the average Catholic reader, resulting from a conceptual separation between nature and grace in considerations of the supernatural, thus rendering fictional experience of nature as either sentimental or obscene. Nature imagery is everywhere in O’Connor, and it is often used to reinforce the negativity of the lives and mental states of her characters.
The novice reader of O’Connor may well wonder how her work, grotesque and violent as it is, would be considered “Christian” or “Catholic” significance. As to the, at times, extreme use of violence in her significance, O’Connor’s literary philosophy allowed for the use of it in the service of some greater vision of spiritual reality. Heidegger was a definite influence on O’Connor, and ideas such as this, as well as his concept that essential truth is a mystery that pervades the whole of human existence, dovetail perfectly with the larger theological interpretation of reality seen in her significance. Other philosophers who influenced the thought and significance of Flannery O’Connor’s Parker’s Back include Sartre, Pascal, Merton, as well as theologians Saint Augustine, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Veering our critical analysis back to Christianity, let us examine how such fundamental concepts as compassion, mystery, and analogy are handled in O’Connor.
O’Connor is compassionate to her characters in that she gives them the opportunity of receiving grace, however devastating that might be to their fragile self-images, as well as their fragile mortal frames, for in O’Connor, grace often comes at the moment of grisly death. Unsympathetic characters are often revealed in an entirely different light at story’s close. For in fact, according to O’Connor, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, God’s ways are essentially mysterious. O’Connor utilizes this as a plot option, this mysterious, unexpected turn. 11 For O’Connor, “the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted.” As mentioned earlier, the triumph of Flannery O’Connor’s significance lies in the balance between the realistic and the anagogical. When posed with the question of what makes a story work, Miss O’Connor replies, “it is probably some action or a gesture of a character…which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character.” Elements of Style
Also significant in the significance style of Flannery O’Connor is a tendency to take on the character point of view in the narrative. One feature of O’Connor’s significance which is none-too-subtle on the Christian fiction front is her use of character names. The fact that the names are most usually a mockery of the characters adds to the cryptic Christianity that characterizes O’Connor’s work.
For O’Connor, salvation was ice, not fire, as is made clear in “The Enduring Chill,” a story that concerns a young intellectual named Asbury who is convinced that he is about to die. For me, the most chilling aspect of the story is the description of a prophetic water stain above Asbury’s bed:
This concept of “displacement” runs throughout O’Connor’s work, and it is essentially a displacement from the world of the one true God, a theological displacement, although within the context of the story it is more social, based on the nature of the freak’s position in the society. Very often, the grotesque elements of O’Connor’s stories are balanced out by anagogical ones. Again, the latter are not specifically symbols, for symbols work contextually to represent interactive story elements, whereas O’Connor’s anagogical elements are just there, they wander in and out of the action; they may have symbolic significance, but it never comes directly into play as a plot element. Facing death is another thematic element that recurs often in O’Connor, for obvious reasons, both personal and religious. 23 O’Connor admits as much herself, in an essay in which she discusses “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “The heroine of the story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian.
She is facing death.” 24 This last quote speaks volumes; it is probably the single most significant and telling remark the student of Flannery O’Connor can have in his attempt to understand her work. Clearly facing death as a Christian was the motivational engine that drove her significance, and the theme that emerged from it often, as is common in O’Connor, got turned on its head, becoming stories in which people are facing death not as Christians. In a letter written to Winifred McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor writes, “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.” 25 We touched briefly on the concept of grace earlier, and a more in-depth discussion is necessary here, when considering thematic elements, because just as the idea of grace figures prominently in Catholicism, so it does in O’Connor.
Critic Carter W. Martin notes, “Most of the short stories are constructed in such a way as to dramatize the sinfulness and the need for grace…” and goes on to delineate two different kinds of grace normally received by the characters, “prevenient grace- which moves the will spontaneously, making it incline to God–and illuminating grace, by which God enlightens men to bring them nearer to eternal life.” O’Connor is willing to go to draconian lengths to mete out her particular brand of divine grace, utilizing such techniques as matricide, strangulation, suicide, impaling, beating, shooting, and whipping, to name a few.
Carter W. Martin, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor, p. 105.
Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 114.
Gilbert H. Muller, Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Grotesque, p. 5.
O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 91.