Everything That Rises Must Converge | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Everything That Rises Must Converge | Parker's Back | Summary

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Summary

O.E. Parker's wife is snapping beans on the front porch. The woman is plain, with gray eyes "sharp like the points of two icepicks." Parker thinks he married her because he couldn't have her any other way, but he is ashamed he has stayed with her, especially because she is pregnant, and "pregnant women were not his favorite kind." Suspicious and judgmental, his wife is "forever sniffing up sin." He is puzzled equally about why he married her and she him.

In a long flashback, the reader learns Parker met his wife when his truck broke down and he pretended to hurt his hand so he could get a glimpse of the woman watching him from a nearby house. When she came out to help him, she noticed a tattoo on his hand and turned away with disdain. Parker had found that women like tattoos, so he didn't believe this young woman was any different. His body art reaches from his hands to his elbows. In fact, the front of his body is almost completely covered in tattoos.

Parker first became fascinated with body art after seeing "a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot." Parker quit school at age 16, worked sporadically, mostly for money to buy tattoos, and then joined the navy. He continued to pick up tattoos in various ports of call, not especially concerned about the subject, so long as the tattoo was colorful. The overall effect was something "haphazard and botched," thus leading him to get additional tattoos. Dishonorably discharged from the navy after five years, he moved to the country, rented a shack, and worked at odd jobs.

Parker began courting the young woman after their first encounter by bringing her hungry family apples and other fruit. When she asked what the O.E. of his name stood for, he told her after she promised never to tell a soul. He has kept his name, Obadiah Elihue, a secret, except from the navy. Her name is Sarah Ruth Cates, and her father is a Gospel preacher.

Marriage makes Parker gloomy, and he keeps thinking about leaving his wife. He continues to get tattoos when his emotions become overwhelming, but his back is still a blank. Sarah Ruth refuses to look at his tattoos. "Except in total darkness, she preferred Parker dressed and with his sleeves rolled down." She nags him on a regular basis about "the judgement seat of God" and how he needs to change his ways.

Parker has taken on work with an elderly woman. One day as he is baling hay, he has a vision while thinking about a suitable tattoo for his back. He is making circles with the broken-down tractor around the woman's prized tree, and at one point the sun seems to appear both in front and behind him. He then feels the tree reach out and grab him. He lands on his back, and the tractor crashes into the tree and bursts into flame. He himself has been thrown right out of his shoes and escapes harm. He quickly scrambles to his own truck and drives into the city without thinking why but knowing "there had been a great change in his life, a leap forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it."

Parker ends up at his favorite tattoo parlor and tells the artist he wants a tattoo of God on his back. From a large book, he chooses "the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes." The artist must do the intricate tattoo in two sittings, so Parker spends the night at a Christian Mission. In bed he replays the sensation of the tree reaching out to grab him and feels as if the image on his back were telling him "GO BACK." When he returns to the tattoo artist, who asks him about his choice of image, he says his wife is saved. The artist asks if he thinks his wife will like it, and Parker responds, "She can't say she don't like the looks of God."

When the artist finishes, Parker heads to the local pool hall, which he frequents when he is in town. His cronies make him show his new tattoo and tease him about it until he begins a brawl, which gets him thrown out in the street. In the alley he sees his soul "as a spider web of facts and lies that were not at all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion." The eyes on his back are to be obeyed, he thinks. Previously he has obeyed other such instinctual commands—first when he saw the tattoo artist, then when he joined the navy, and finally when he married Sarah Ruth. He thinks she will know what he has to do now, and at least she will be pleased with the tattoo.

When he gets home, his wife has barred the door against him. She finally opens it when he says his entire name, Obadiah Elihue. She begins to scold him about his tractor accident, but he is more intent on her looking at his tattoo, so he takes off his shirt and turns to her. Instead of being moved, she calls his tattoo idolatry. "I can put up with lies and vanity but I don't want no idolator in this house!" she screams, as she hits him with a broom on his shoulders and back, creating large welts on the face of the tattooed Christ. He staggers up after the beating and goes outside. When Sarah Ruth looks out the door, "her eyes hardened still more." Her husband is "leaning against the tree, crying like a baby."

Analysis

Told in third-person narration from Parker's perspective, "Parker's Back" is the only story in the collection that makes a specific statement about the prejudice of some Protestant sects against emblems, images, and icons of God with which Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians are comfortable. Groups opposed to images of God believe them idolatrous because they encourage the worshipper to confuse the image with the spirit it represents. In this story, however, Flannery O'Connor turns the tables on a narrow-minded Gospel preacher's daughter, who comes up short on compassion and is unable to get past her own prejudices to recognize her husband's true conversion experience.

O.E. Parker, who has a biblical name he rejects until he meets his wife, has been living a degraded life. Yet he has a presentiment of something higher in life to which he should aspire. Parker is unaware he is looking for transcendence, but this existential longing is what draws him in when he first sees the tattooed man. The tattoos represent the possibility of getting beyond the dreariness of his life, and so he continues to tattoo his body. He also finds the tattoos attract women. Sarah Ruth Cates, however, presents a challenge to him, and he wishes to conquer her with his body art. He is unable to do so, and yet he can't bring himself to leave her. Like the man from the fair, Sarah represents the possibility of a higher type of life, although Parker is not consciously aware he was attracted to her for that reason.

In his book of criticism, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Ralph C. Wood emphasizes the author's admiration for Jesus-obsessed fundamentalists. Yet she did not agree with their "denial of the sacramental presence of God in the natural order, whether in artistic creation or in the created cosmos itself," he writes. For a Catholic, divine grace is always mediated through a human or natural agency, and O'Connor claimed that for Protestants, "Grace and nature don't have much to do with each other." Sarah Ruth is extreme in her rejection of temporal representations of God, which is why she insists on a civil wedding. She will not look at her husband, insisting he undress in the dark. Nonetheless, Parker gets the idea of tattooing a Bible verse somewhere on his body, still thinking he can win her over to his "sacramental" imagination. While he is daydreaming about a new tattoo, he has an accident that he interprets as a sign from God. The burning tree seems akin to the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. Parker is miraculously saved, and his religious change of heart is shown when the narrator says, "If he had known how to cross himself he would have done it." Because tattoos have been his only tenuous connection to the sacramental, he immediately goes to his favorite tattoo artist to get a tattoo of Jesus inked on his back.

While he doesn't admit to his friends or even to himself that he has been through a conversion experience, he now wants a tattoo that will please his wife. His attitude toward her has also changed. He no longer is thinking of her as an annoying presence always holding him back but rather as someone to offer him guidance. The tattoo he picks is a Byzantine Christ, the Pantocrator, or Lord of the Universe. His choice of an Eastern icon is significant, for these images are designed to maximize the possibility that the "divine reality might emanate from them," Wood says. Parker tells the tattoo artist he is getting the image to please his wife. When his drinking buddies at the bar tease him about getting religion, he begins to fight with them and gets thrown out into the street. Although Parker denies his conversion, he has committed to it. His sinful past is no match for "a lifetime discipleship to Christ," Wood says. O'Connor's narrator, knowing Parker's thoughts, says, "The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed."

Parker has found an avenue for transcendence, something he has been looking for his whole life, and the reader might expect his devout wife to recognize the change in him. He no longer wants to dominate Sarah Ruth and instead is hoping to find a partner in Christ. But when he gets home and solemnly shows his tattoo to his wife, she rejects him as an idolator, declaring, "God don't look like that!" When he says it's just a picture of God, she gets even angrier and begins beating him. By the end of the story Parker has become a Christ-like figure himself, having to endure not only the beating but also the pain of estrangement caused by his unimaginative and unforgiving wife. While the story begins with the hubris of the godless protagonist, his conversion experience changes his outlook. By the end of the story, he exchanges places with his seemingly devout wife, who has too much pride in her own limited righteousness to realize her husband is a changed man and may be able to teach her a thing or two about God.

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