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Cover story

American author knew power of tattoos

NCR Staff

Well before tattoos carried with them the threat of gang violence, Flannery O’Connor wrote of the power of tattoos to change a life for better or worse.

In her short story “Parker’s Back,” O’Connor gives us O.E. Parker, a shiftless 28-year-old ex-sailor who marries a plain-looking woman of strong Christian principles almost despite himself. Parker’s body is entirely covered with tattoos except for his back. These are more than mere physical decoration to Parker; they’re his reason for being. As O’Connor makes clear, tattoos are the way grace manifests itself in her character’s life. It’s the sight of a tattooed man in a fair when Parker is 14 that provides him with his first experience of wonder in life, a wonder that he tries to duplicate by getting his own tattoos, each of which initially thrills him only to leave him dissatisfied with the effect.

Enter Sarah Ruth, poor, thin, charmless and ugly, who nonetheless exerts a spell upon Parker he can’t account for and who regards tattoos with aversion. “Vanity of vanities,” she pronounces when Parker thrusts in front of her a tattooed arm that’s emblazoned with an eagle perched on a cannon, a serpent coiled about a shield, a spread of cards, and several hearts, some of them with arrows shot through them. Sarah Ruth overcomes her disgust enough to marry Parker, but except in total darkness she prefers him dressed and with his sleeves rolled down. It’s a reaction Parker finds baffling, almost as much as his own feelings for a wife who has no discernible attractions he can identify.

“Parker understood why he had married her -- he couldn’t have got her any other way-- but he couldn’t understand why he stayed with her now,” O’Connor writes. “She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind. Nevertheless, he stayed as if she had him conjured. He was puzzled and ashamed of himself.”

Gloomy, wan, growing thinner by the day (Sarah Ruth is no cook) and in love, Parker contemplates getting a tattoo that Sarah Ruth will not be able to resist. When his tractor runs into a tree and bursts into flame, Parker sees the accident as a sign from God. He takes himself to the local tattoo parlor and chooses a stern Byzantine picture of Christ’s face to adorn his back, the only spot of skin still free of tattoos. But Sarah Ruth’s outraged reaction to this instance of “idolatry” is hardly what he imagines, and the movement of grace in Parker’s life, his unwilling induction into a Christian faith he despises, comes in heart-breaking form.

A Catholic writer who grew up in the Bible Belt and whose fiction is firmly rooted in the South and its people, O’Connor brings a gimlet eye and a comic touch to the wayward, often derelict characters she writes about. The unlikely, sometimes unwelcome ways God touches individual lives is the recurrent theme of her short stories. The reasons people get tattoos and why they have them removed vary from person to person, but in “Parker’s Back,” published posthumously in 1965, O’Connor shows that what is merely skin deep can still cut to the heart.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001