Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Facing Parker's Back: Mary Flannery O'Connor and Her Character Sarah Ruth Cates

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Facing Parker's Back: Mary Flannery O'Connor and Her Character Sarah Ruth Cates

Article excerpt

Until her graduation from Georgia State College for Women in 1945, Mary Flannery O'Connor was a town girl living in the house where her father had died. Roughly twenty years later, as she faced her own dying from the same cause, she completed a story that I will argue reveals a view of herself through the gaze of her focal character's wife, Sarah Ruth Cates. However, Sarah Ruth's perspective has been suppressed, as the narrator of O'Connor's short story "Parker's Back" strongly associates with the character O.E. Parker at almost every point. Through a reconsideration of O'Connor's times, place, and craft-separating reported discourse from free indirect style and questioning the relationship of narrator to character as well as to author-a view of Sarah Ruth emerges that is considerably more sympathetic than current scholarly consensus allows.

This essay will argue that Sarah Ruth's superficial sourness as seen by narrator and focal character emerges from cultural and economic circumstances. Received tradition at the time would suggest two acceptable goals for aspiring women-marriage and a family- though a religious vocation, marriage to Christ and His Church, was a source of pride in a large family. If a woman had not secured a mate by the conclusion of an undergraduate education, her next best aspiration was a graduate or professional degree, a fact summarized in the caption for O'Connor's 1943 cartoon in which a wallflower at a formal dance remarks in an aside, "Oh, well, I can always be a Ph.D." (Cartoons 35). At the point that a woman was unable to pursue her education, marriage became an expectation.1 The expectation itself influenced women's choices. For example, O'Connor writes to Elizabeth Bishop in a letter dated 13 Jan. 1957 that a friend has encountered resistance to the works he assigns because '"Nobody gets married in them.' Which is an attitude I am right familiar with from hearing my connections estimate my own work" (HB 198). Furthermore, males ostensibly took the lead in instigating courtship. Evidence of this cultural practice occurs in a letter from O'Connor to Erik Langkjaer that bears a second "hand-written postscript" from her to the effect that "My mother don't think it is proper for me to send mail when I don't receive it" (qtd. in Bosco 50).

Not only was marriage expected, but marriage itself had expectations. Until the sixties-and, for strictly observant Roman Catholics, to this day-marriage led to family.2 Biographer Jean Cash speculates, "Had she not fallen ill, [O'Connor] might have entered a heterosexual love relationship that could have somewhat shifted her focus from art as a vocation" (144). O'Connor's last-drawn female character, Sarah Ruth Cates Parker, the daughter of a Straight Gospel preacher, is situated within these cultural constraints and, in addition, is impoverished and socially isolated.

Attacks on Sarah Ruth, "a tall raw-boned girl with a broom" (CW656), are prevalent in O'Connor criticism. In 1986, Carol Shloss calls Sarah Ruth "sallow" and "sour" (75) but a "good fundamentalist" who is "brittle" and exhibits "harshness" (76). Jill Baumgaertner consistently dismisses her as "bony and judgmental" with "vision [that] is clouded" (48), "an old-fashioned heretic of the gnostic strain" (55). Richard Giannone calls her "skinny and bossy and indifferent enough to [Parker's] sexual stance that he marries her to meet the challenge of her libidinal coldness" (222). Giannone's Sarah Ruth is, to use his word, "ruthless" (222). Subsequent critics argue whether Sarah Ruth is Gnostic or Manichean. John Sykes writes of her "hard-edged and iconoclastic biblicism" (52) and "her insistent demands" (53). Even as he states that she is "Christlike in her ability to see through Parker's self-deception" (52), he rates her actions as those of a "persecutor in her iconoclasm" (52). Christina Bieber Lake calls the character "a fundamentalist interested in little more than nagging Parker and disapproving of everything around her" (222). …

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