Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Obadiah Elihue is, as his biblical name suggests, a kind of prophet, mysteriously driven to bear the truth to his stubborn wife, Sarah Ruth. While he fails in his mission, he nevertheless discovers that the direction of his own life has been changed significantly.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, whose religious faith consciously informed her fiction. The difficulty of her work, she once explained in a letter, is that many of her readers do not understand the redemptive quality of “grace,” and, she added, “don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal.”

In O’Connor’s mind, Parker is an unwilling agent of spiritual “grace” who cannot understand what is happening to him until he is beaten and rejected by his wife. Sarah Ruth, not Parker, is the “heretic,” O’Connor explained in another letter, for Sarah Ruth holds “the notion that you can worship in pure spirit.” By refusing to see anything redemptive in Parker, or in his instinctive motivation to “please” her, Sarah Ruth is, in effect, doing nothing less than battering the face of God, embodied in the flesh of Parker.

Parker is clearly likened to other familiar prophets, Moses and Jonah. Like Moses, who encountered God in a burning bush and was ordered to remove his shoes, Parker is impelled to carry a message to an unreceptive audience; like Jonah, he seeks to evade his responsibility. He has not “gone and got religion”; rather, it has come and got him—first, through his instincts and his impulsive actions, and finally, through the all-demanding eyes of Christ at his back. By being true to these mysterious, inner forces, which he does not even understand, he serves to expose the falseness of his wife’s arrogant religiosity and her own implicit idolatry.