O'Connor repeatedly provides characters who exhibit such extreme confidence in their moral prerogatives that they act upon these convictions, only to discover that they were sadly mistaken. The protagonist of "Parker's Back" clearly demonstrates this human fault. To gain respect in his wife's eyes, Parker decides to hire a tattoo artist to engrave an image of Christ upon his back, to accompany all the other body art he has been collecting since his time in the service. When the pool-hall occupants ask him why he did it, Parker initially responds in rage, only to be kicked out into the alley where he began:
Examining his soul. He saw it as a spider web of facts and lies that was not all important to him but which appeared to be necessary in spite of his opinion. The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed. He was as certain of it as anything. Throughout his life, grumbling and sometimes cursing, often afraid, once in rapture, Parker had obeyed whatever instinct of this kind had come to him.
That he attempts to reach his wife's level of morality, only to be called an idolater, is not the greatest irony in the story. His wife's supposed higher moral standards apparently do not allow for true Christian humility and compassion, as she beats his back and disdainfully regards him "leaning against the tree, crying like a baby."
One of O'Connor's most successful methods of uncovering the shallowness of characters is to report their trite assumptions about the world that they unknowingly share with others in their daily conversations. Most often such trite phrases are followed by assumptions. For example in "The Comforts of Home," Thomas's mother says, "We don't know how the other half lives," and follows this comment by several assumptions about how she thinks blacks or "poor white trash" do live and think. This characterization oftentimes occurs when the characters feel threatened. The younger children in the stories seem to recognize this hypocrisy, yet are not saved by it.
The belated contriteness of spoiled, disdainful adult children follows. The most effective example of this generation gap struggle is in the interaction between Julian and his mother in the title story as he accompanies her on the bus. His bullying laughter and maneuverings to drive home the nature of changing racial relationships push her toward death. In "The Comforts of Home" Thomas agonizes over the changes in his routine as he grapples with his mother's need to bring home the unfortunate. He is so morally snug in his convictions of how the world should operate, that Thomas abhors even the existence of this young woman. When Sarah Ham discovers the gun he has planted in her purse, "At that instant Thomas damned not only the girl but the entire order of the universe that made her possible." He does, indeed, create a permanent change in his world, by killing his mother as he and Sarah tussle:
The blast was like a sound meant to bring an end to evil in the world. Thomas heard it as a sound that would shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks were stifled and nothing was left to disturb the peace of perfect order.
As his mother falls to her death, Thomas clings to the womanly temptation that his mother has brought into his life. This conflicting state of affairs is noted by the sheriff, who "was accustomed to enter upon scenes that were not as bad as he had hoped to find them, but this one met his expectations."
Either doting parents try to shield their child from the realities of the world that they themselves do not wish to recognize, or parents abandon their sacred duties to protect their children in a number of stories. In "The Lame Shall Enter First " Sheppard becomes so engrossed in helping out the "unfortunate child," Rufus Johnson, that he neglects his own son until he realizes too late that the one takes advantage and the other becomes victim. When Sheppard can finally no longer turn the other cheek to Rufus' lying ways and must face a...
(The entire section is 1,656 words.)