Study Guide

Abbot Jethrah Zerchi in A Canticle for Leibowitz

Abbot Jethrah Zerchi

Abbot Zerchi is far and away the most go-get 'em protagonist in the entire book. He's a man of action, as is evidenced by this statement: "His nature compelled him toward action" (24.61). Hey, sometimes it's nice when the narrator doesn't beat around the bush.

Zerchi's take-charge attitude also means that the scenes featuring him tend to be more action packed than those featuring Francis and Dom Paulo. There are trips to space colonies, the threat of nuclear war, deadly robot cars on highways, and even a fistfight when Zerchi's around.

But most of Zerchi's actions aren't just about satisfying our need for an adrenaline rush. They work toward Zerchi's two primary goals: launching the Quo peregrinatur program and trying to explain his approach to combatting evil in the world.

To Space And Beyond

The Leibowitz Abbey has already gone through one nuclear war, so the whole world-wide holocaust business is old hat this point. Yikes. See, Zerchi and the Church see the inevitable disaster coming and decide to launch the Quo peregrinatur, a spaceship meant to take monks to the space colonies so the Church can be a part of humanity's future.

Zerchi's role is to gather the monks with the skill sets necessary for starting a new future. He also recruits Brother Joshua to be the monks' leader, and tasks Joshua with keeping the Memorabilia microfilm safe.

Before the monks are flown to their spaceship, Zerchi offers them a few words of inspiration:

Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. (26.88)

And Zerchi, like a mama bird, is the one who pushes the little monks out of the nest. So Zerchi's character is all about carrying on legacies, and dealing with the heavy burden of being responsible for pretty much the whole human race.

The legacy of the Church and of Man's morality, which was started by Leibowitz, and continued by Brother Francis and Dom Paulo, becomes Zerchi's purpose in life. Their burdens become his. And he ensures that both the Church and the scientific innovations lost in humanity's previous dark periods will live on, in Brother Joshua and the Quo peregrinatur.

The Problem of Evil

The success of the Quo peregrinatur is only half of Zerchi's tale. We also have to consider the not-so-love triangle between Zerchi, Dr. Cors, and the woman he tries to prevent from committing assisted suicide.

In Zerchi's world, the government has set up suicide laws called Mori Vult (27.4). These laws allow an individual who has suffered severe sickness or injury from a nuclear blast to seek out a medical professional. If that professional deems it necessary, the individual may accept state-sponsored euthanasia.

Zerchi and Dr. Cors argue passionately over these laws. Zerchi maintains it is "wrought evil, according to [his] belief" and a way for the government to prevent "a few million corpses lying around [and] start[ing] a rebellion" (27.11, 27.22). Dr. Cors believes the laws are good laws since the only evil he knows is pain, not the devil (22.48).

Their arguments come to a head when Cors recommends euthanasia to a woman and her child. He tells her, "'If you love your child, spare her the agony'" (28.119). Zerchi tries to talk the woman out of it. But the woman ultimately accepts because her child can "hurt" but "she can't understand" why she hurts (28.103).

What this ultimately comes down is what philosophers call "The Problem of Evil." The problem is essentially this: how can an all-powerful, all-knowing God allow for bad things to happen? Or, in the context of A Canticle: How can God allow such pain and suffering to exist in the world?

Dr. Cors sees pain and suffering as pure evil. God doesn't factor into the doctor's worldview, so it becomes Zerchi's burden to come up with an answer to that question. And he does.

While buried beneath a pile of rubble, Zerchi continues his argument with the absent doctor, who is now dead. He tells Cors that if God "didn't allow [pain], human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things. Besides, you'd be out of a job, Cors" (29.68).

In a novel filled with suffering, pain, and death, Zerchi's conclusion seems to be the culminating answer to the Problem of Evil set up throughout each story. It's a little too late, however, since both Cors and the world have perished by then.

Also, we don't think that A Canticle is presenting Zerchi's view as the ultimate answer to The Problem of Evil. After all, the world has ended, so there is no one left to either accept, rebuke, or add to Zerchi's claim.

Instead, both the novel and Zerchi are offering this one potential explanation to you, dear Shmooper, and asking what you think of that explanation. Agree? Disagree? Bring it on.

Brought to You by the Letter "Z"

Zerchi's name beings with the letter "Z." Not an astounding discovery, we know. But did you notice that the name of first abbot of the abbey, one Arkos, starts with an "A"?

Zerchi's name signifies his position in the line of Leibowitzian abbots. Arkos came first, and Zerchi comes last. A to Z. Alpha to Omega.

Zerchi is the final spoke of the wheel—a wheel that may, or may not, continue to spin with Brother Joshua and his fellow space-journeying monks.