Iconoclasm in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back”

One of the virulent attacks on Catholic and Orthodox churches in the past has assumed the form of “image-smashing,” the literal meaning of the Greek word iconoclasm. Eamon Duffy’s book on this subject entitled The Stripping of the Altars explains how the Protestant Revolt in England denuded churches of statues, paintings, stained glass windows, vestments, and every vestige of ornamental beauty that adorned churches to glorify God and express the beauty of holiness. To iconoclasts the beautiful signifies the idolatrous worship of false gods and the pompous expression of vanity. The physical, the material, and the sensuous detract from the spiritual and violate their sense of godliness. This rabid desecration of churches, holy places, and sacred art appears in human history not only in sixteenth-century England and in Moslem destruction of Christian churches during the Crusades but also in Communist nations that have confiscated church property and reduced churches to warehouses or buildings to serve the state.

Iconoclasm, however, continues in the modern world in many other forms that assault the sacred and holy as Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back” especially illustrates. It portrays an unlikely marriage between a man and a woman with nothing in common: the Bible-quoting, self-righteous Sarah Ruth, the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher and a woman with contempt for the body married to the licentious, sensual Parker who lives for carnal pleasure and has no use for religion or the Bible. In his first impression of Sarah Ruth whom he describes as unspeakably plain and ugly with a face that needed “paint” to improve it and with eyes resembling “the points of two icepicks,” Parker asks “Who in God’s name would ever marry her?” The beautiful is the attractive aspect of the good as St. Thomas teaches, but Sarah Ruth cannot imagine their co-existence.

Sarah Ruth has similar negative reactions in their first encounter. Railing against Parker’s habitual foul language (“You don’t talk no filth here”) and condemning the tattoos on his body as vanity (“I don’t like it. I ain’t got any use for it”), she was “ever sniffing up sin.” Drinking, dancing, and gambling she regards as deadly vices. The spiritual, moralistic Sarah Ruth and the hedonistic Parker who lives to eat, drink, womanize, and do as he pleases with no commitments have nothing in common and no basis for marital compatibility. She despises the body and the sins of the flesh, and Parker gives no thought to heaven, hell, death, or the soul. Sarah Ruth loathes tattoos, and Parker takes special pleasure in decorating his body with new pictures. Anything related to the body by way of beauty or pleasure Sarah Ruth judges as inherently evil and Parker regards as absolutely good. In the story, she represents the typical iconoclast who equates the physical with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Her contempt for every form of visual representation, especially tattoos, reveals her brand of iconoclasm.

With his love for whiskey, women, and tattoos Parker—with no idea of God, the soul, or the sanctity of marriage–cannot understand why he is attracted to a woman like Sarah Ruth. Even though he vows “to have nothing further to do with her,” he finds it impossible to end the relationship and marries her even though he cannot comprehend why Sarah Ruth would accept his proposal. However, he speculates: “Sometimes he supposed that she had married him because she meant to save him.”  Sarah Ruth’s notion of saving Parker means rescuing him from the way of all flesh. He also conjectures that Sarah Ruth, puritanical and straight-laced, actually admires Parker’s ability to enjoy pleasure and to delight in the gratification of the senses that she pretends to despise. Presumably opposites attract, and Sarah Ruth and Parker secretly admire in the other qualities they lack in themselves—a plausible basis for their strange marriage. In any case, they marry in the office of a public official “because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.” To her way of thinking the spiritual and the physical are as opposed as the beautiful and the good.

Shortly after marrying Sarah Ruth, however, Parker is determined to leave her. He finds it unreasonable to stay married when his wife is pregnant, ugly, and unskilled in cooking. Nevertheless, while Sarah Ruth, for all her moralizing and religiosity, is unable to “save” Parker, he, for all his worldliness, comes to know God in a personal, tangible way that surpasses Sarah Ruth’s fundamentalism.  In a tractor accident in which Parker strikes a tree, falls and lands on his back while the tractor overturns and bursts in flame, he yells in terror “GOD ABOVE!” Nearly killed, Parker attributes his miraculous escape to divine intervention and encounters the concrete reality of God’s presence in his life. Out of gratitude to God’s mercy and to win favor from Sarah Ruth because the painting is religious, he decides to place on his back, not the usual tattoo of a rifle, a tiger, or some famous historical figure like Queen Elizabeth II but “the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes.” The incarnate God “saved” Parker, not Sarah Ruth’s crusade against the sins of the flesh.

Now Parker, saved from death, touched by God’s grace, and in awe at God’s image in the icon, wishes to edify his devout wife. When he asks Sarah Ruth to look at his back and see a picture of the living incarnate God, she does not identify the painting of the tattoo as an image of Christ. When Parker insists “It’s him,” she acts ignorant: “It ain’t anybody I know.” To Sarah Ruth, God “don’t look like that!” God “don’t look . . . . He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” Instead of rejoicing that Parker has found God and undergone a conversion, Sarah Ruth vents her fury, shouting “Idolatry!” She beats Parker with her broom and defaces the face of the tattooed Christ with large welts in her version of image-smashing. In his own simple, natural way Parker senses the reality of the Incarnation and the Word that became Flesh. God is not only spirit but also flesh and blood, a spirit who became man, who was born of a woman, who united a body and a soul, and who assumed a human shape, form, and appearance—true God and true man.

In his own unsophisticated understanding of God from his near-death experience, Parker comes to a greater knowledge of Christ than his holier-than thou wife. The body is not inherently evil, pleasure is not naturally immoral, art is not vain, and beauty is not idolatrous. Parker intuitively grasps these fundamental truths of Christian faith. Because of the wonder of the Byzantine Christ, he also recognizes the power of art and beauty in giving glory to God and in leading the mind to a contemplation of heavenly realities. Because of the Incarnation the Word that has become Flesh has redeemed the material world. Just as Christ’s body reveals his soul, the invisible things of God are known by the visible as St. Paul teaches. This knowledge also forms the basis of the sacramental life of the Church. Physical elements like the water used in baptism, the oil in Chrismation, and the bread and wine consecrated in the Eucharist embody the matter used as a visible sign of inward grace which the  the Holy Spirit sanctifies with the supernatural gifts which the Sacraments bestow.

Sarah Ruth’s failure to recognize God’s face and eyes in the Byzantine icon depicts the iconoclast’s ignorance about the educational power of the arts to lead the senses, the emotions, and the mind to a greater knowledge of God’s truth, goodness, and love. Her attack on Parker’s back with her broom reflects the iconoclast’s insensibility to beauty as a manifestation and attribute of God. Without the poetry of the Psalms celebrating the grandeur of creation(“The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork”); without sacred hymnody and Gregorian chant elevating the spirit to a knowledge of the sacred; without Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals and the religious art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and iconography making visible the invisible; and without the sublimity of the rituals and language of holy liturgy man lives an impoverished spiritual life in which he can barely “taste and see the sweetness of the Lord.” Parker was attempting to tell Sarah Ruth that God is present, near, and real. Images are not lies but glimpses or hints of the divine. The body is not the root of all evil but the temple of the Holy Spirit. Beauty is not false allure but a revelation of the image of God.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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