Writing predominantly about poor rural characters in the mid-20th -century South, O'Connor's people have little about them that would seem loveable or attractive to today's readers. Most of the actors in her stories and novels strike us as bizarre, often psychologically or physically violent. They try to exercise a soul-destroying control over those around them.
Even her "good" characters exhibit behavior we would consider far from normal. Some, like Bishop, the school teacher's son in "The Violent Bear It Away," are mentally handicapped by childhood wounds; others are genetically defective. Many, like the old prophet Mason in the same book, live out a religious vision that, while having a strong integrity, also seems fanatical, searing and scarring everything it touches.
Thus, we get to the second problem: on the surface-a very thick surface--the Christianity the Roman Catholic O'Connor seems to commend to her readers often seems as difficult and unattractive as her brutal characters. Her religion appears to have more in common with the fiery judgment of God that her southern protestant preachers warn against than with the gentleness of love.
By drawing on what O'Connor says, both explicitly and implicitly, about her serious reading of the early monastic Christian ascetic movement, Giannone makes sense of both of these difficulties. O'Connor, Giannone says, employs a "poetics of solitude." The reader is meant to understand that the solitary emotional and moral wasteland in which O'Connor's characters find themselves is the modern equivalent of the desert in which the ancient Christian solitary sought God.
As was true for the early Christian teachers, O'Connor's modern parched and hungry "Abbas and Ammas" also seek God without benefit of the luxuries, comforts, and the easy and callous self-deceptions of the self-serving, loveless civilization they emphatically critique. As solitaries, they struggle, as do the monks, against the temptations and illusions of the devil and of their own pride-filled wills, which, in the words of the desert father Abba Poemen, "have become the demons" for them. They fight or languish under acedie, despair, spiritual and emotional emptiness, self-satisfaction, judgmentalism, anger, self-indulgence, and blindness.
Like their predecessors in the desert, their own bodies are frequently the symbolic or literal sites of their struggles. Like O'Connor herself-who died of lupus in 1964--they wrestle with illnesses that have forced them into solitude, and they battle physical hunger that can only be satisfied by "the bread of life" they would reject.
Like their monastic forbearers, O'Connor's characters are frequently saved from eternal damnation only by a combination of their own unlikely disciplines (Hazel Motes in "Wise Blood" has his chest wrapped in barbed wire), their stubborn persistence, and by a willingness in times of extremity to let themselves be pierced and humbled by the terrible mercy of God. There is no doubt that this mercy, which opens O'Connor's characters' eyes to their own lack of love, also brings them to an excruciating, but heart-softening repentance.
There are important differences between O'Connor's characters and the 5th century Abbas and Ammas which Giannone overlooks. O'Connor's stories generally end with the kind of repentance that brought men and women into the very earliest stages of the solitary life, not the more complex wisdom gained after a long life of discipline and prayer in the desert. Further, one is hard-pressed to find in the fourth, fifth, and sixth century texts the same emphasis that either O'Connor or Giannone places on the rebellion of the human will against God.
Nor does Giannone acknowledge how significant in the material of the early church is the warning against judgmentalism and contempt of neighbor. The fact that the ancient monks consciously chose to live their lives in the desert, while O'Connor's characters invariably are forced into their solitary lives also seems to me to be more than an accidental difference between them.
These differences in interpretation, however, ought not outweigh the fact that Giannone has produced an invaluable study of the Christian fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Whether we are to understand her characters as mere beginners in the ascetic life or full-fledged teachers, Giannone has deep sympathy for, and understanding of, the ancient monastic tradition upon which O'Connor seems to draw.