The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 10, 2015

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The Iconographic Fiction and Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor
(from IR 36:1-2, Fall 2000/Spring 2001) - 02/16/11

When Parker arrives at home just before dawn, the door is locked. He calls to Sarah Ruth. “A sharp voice close to the door said, ‘Who’s there.’” Parker answers, “I don’t know no O.E.,” the voice answers. At that moment the sun comes up. “The sky had lighted slightly and there were two or three streaks of yellow floating above the horizon. Then as he stood there, a tree of light burst over the skyline.” It is the lone pecan tree in the yard and Parker suddenly has an ecstatic religious experience: “He felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees, birds and beasts.” This ecstatic moment is quickly extinguished, however, when Sarah Ruth expels him from their home. For when Parker uncovers his back and shows it to her, the results are not as he imagined. At first Sarah Ruth is confused. She does not recognize the face on his back. “ It ain’t no body I know,”28 she says. Her words are packed with irony.

“It’s him,” Parker said.
“Him who?”
“God!” Parker cried.
“God? God don’t look like that!”
“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”
“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s spirit. No man shall see his face. . . .”

“Idolatry,” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry. . . . I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it . . . and large welts . . . formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door . . . still gripping [the broom] she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was—who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.30

The story ends this way. O’Connor gives it no full closure. The fate of this scourged and “crucified” figure is left unknown. But it seems clear that Parker has come to some deep subliminal understanding of the meaning of his name and the destiny it holds for him. Obadiah means “servant of God,” which Parker has become, in spite of his aversion to God and religion. And Elihue means “God is he,” with whom Parker has identified in the most intimate manner by carrying his image in his own flesh. What is more, Elihue is a variant of Elihu, who in the book of Job turns from explaining suffering as the result of human sin to interpreting it as part of the divine mystery of God’s creation. Let us recall that Sarah Ruth as one writer said “sees his tattoos as ‘vanity’ and a sign of sinfulness, whereas to Parker they represent ineffable mystery.” What is more, Parker signifies someone “whose home is a park, a walled garden like those in icons of the Expulsion from Paradise and of the New Jerusalem. Parker courted Sarah with apples and other fruit, an allusion to Eden.”31 When he arrives home at dawn, Parker imagines that he indeed has gotten to Eden. After being forced to repeat his full name Obadiah Elihue, he feels “the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees, and birds and beasts.”

In Voice of the Peacock, Kathleen Feeley comments: “It seems strangely fitting that the story of a man led in mysterious ways to incarnate the Redeemer on his own body should be the final story of an author led by equally mysterious ways to make Redemption a reality in her fiction.”32 Feeley turns our attention back to the powerful incarnational vision that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and stood at the heart of her Christian humanism.

O’Connor’s iconographic fiction was drawn out by the challenges to Christian orthodoxy that she felt compelled to answer. And “Parker’s Back” in particular helps us to understand where and on what grounds she parts company with the fundamentalist religion of the South—a religion that on various occasions O’Connor said she otherwise stood beside as a Roman Catholic in opposition to the secular mind. Ironically, modern fundamentalism doesn’t take the Incarnation seriously enough. It limits the limitless God to the written word and denies his presence in the physical creation. Sarah Ruth completely fails to detect God’s presence in the drama that unfolds around her. She is unable to see the image of God in her husband and does not comprehend his participation in the suffering of Christ and redemptive victory on the cross. Could this be because she is a Christian gnostic? O’Connor leaves Sarah Ruth no better off in relation to God and humanity than the secular people she abhors. On another occasion, Flannery O’Connor penned these words about her art which crystallize in her characteristically homely way her remarkable incarnational and humanistic vision of life. “Fiction,” she said, “is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”31 Now that is a lesson not limited to writing but applicable to the whole of living.

  1. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 102.
  2. Ibid., 290.
  3. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 68.
  4. Ibid., 148.
  5. Ibid., 165.
  6. Frederick Asals, Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1982), 66.
  7. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 147.
  8. Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace (Cowly Publications, 1983), 24.
  9. O’Connor, Habit of Being, 144.
  10. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 163.
  11. Ibid., 157.
  12. Hawkins, Language of Grace, 24.
  13. O’Connor, Habits of Being, 307.
  14. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), 376.
  15. Ibid., 373.
  16. Ibid., 382.
  17. Ibid., 362, 367.
  18. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 82.
  19. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 382.
  20. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 162.
  21. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 513.
  22. Ibid., 518.
  23. Ibid., 513.
  24. Ibid., 515.
  25. Ibid., 514.
  26. Ibid., 519, 522.
  27. Ibid., 520.
  28. Ibid., 524, 527.
  29. Ibid., 528, 529.
  30. Ibid., 529–530.
  31. Credit is due here to a splendid little paper submitted in a course I taught in the summer of 2000 on the icon as theology. The paper, entitled “Ironic Icon,” is by Annette M. Chappell and the quoted material is taken directly from that paper.
  32. Kathleen Feeley, Voice of the Peacock (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 15–51.
  33. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 68.
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