Parker is one of Flannery O’Connor’s crazy misfits. A tough dropout who was captivated by the mystique of tattoo at the age of fourteen when he saw the tattooed man at the county fair. Having a tattoo made the poor idiot feel special, so whenever he was feeling down or lonely he got himself a new tattoo. After he joined the Navy, O.E. got a new tattoo in every port and finally he had no more space for a new tattoo except on his back.
Then O.E. Parker fell in love the best he could with Sarah Ruth, the scrawny daughter of traveling preacher. The problem is, pregnant Sarah Ruth is unimpressed with O.E.’s tattoos. She’s unimpressed because she sees through them. The tattoos are Parker’s mask and the swaggering mark of his false masculinity. Sara Ruth calls the tattoos the “vanity of vanities.” Her mockery of his tattoos drives him crazy. So to impress Sarah Ruth, O.E. spends a pile of money getting a beautiful tattoo he thinks will please her. It’s a haloed Christus Victor—as grand as a mosaic in a Byzantine temple.
But when Sarah Ruth sees the tattoo she shrieks out a condemnation of idolatry and beats poor Parker with a broom.
In her usual style O’Connor uses a freak to reveal a truth about ourselves. In her essay, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction O’Connor observed,
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
O.E. Parker picked up his penchant for tattoos from a circus freak and for want of a better role model took it on himself. Sarah Ruth is right. His tattoos are the vanity of vanities. Parker was created in the image of God, but as he covers himself with images, he has masked the image of God with fake bravado, cultivated cynicism, and artificial rage. Beneath it all he’s still a slack-jawed, ignorant, and innocent red neck. O’Connor’s portrait of O.E. Parker exposes the heart of vanity: it’s the worship of a false image of ourselves.
Beneath his disfigured tattooed body, Parker is a son of Adam—created in the image of the Almighty, and the irony of the story is that his final choice is to have Christ himself etched onto his back—as it were to bear the image of Christ for the sake of the wife he’s trying to win over. That she beats him and blames him for idolatry unlocks the true heart of vanity: in worshipping a false image of ourselves we are idolaters.
Poor Parker is himself Christ-haunted. As O’Connor points out, he is “very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”
As with O.E. Parker, so with all of us. Afraid that we are creatures of eternal glory, we turn away to caress our addictions and obsessions. Our false loves turn us into freaks. Some of the addictions and obsessions—like sex change, extreme cosmetic surgery, tattoos and piercings—are disfiguring and disgusting. Some like drugs, gambling and prostitution are illicit or illegal, but most of our addictions and obsessions are not only legal but laudatory.
We are addicted to prestige, power, prosperity, and pleasure, and the citizens of America praise us for our “success.” We have our idols and false gods galore but we cannot see them as such because along with our addictions and obsessions comes a kind of self-justifying insanity. Our freakish behavior we proclaim to be “the new normal.”
We need a Sarah Ruth to mock our foolishness, beat us with a broom, and light a bonfire beneath our vanities.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.