Mrs. Grales and Rachel are a cryptic pair. Although, to be fair, you can say that about quite a few characters in A Canticle.
Mrs. Grales is a two-headed tomato farmer and mutant who offers tithes to Zerchi's abbey to prevent "'that no-good man'" from "do[ing] the Devil's work" (25.94). She has a second head sprouting from her shoulder, more than likely a conjoined twin who merged with her in utero, named Rachel.
Mrs. Grales's one wish is to see Rachel baptized, a service Zerchi is reluctant to perform. Believe it or not, this is where things really get weird.
No disrespect to Hamlet, but, in fairness, man can be pretty frail too. Perhaps the line should have read "thy name is people." No. Doesn't have the same pithy ring to it, does it?
Either way, Mrs. Grales is full of strengths and frailties, sins and divinity. We've already mentioned her virtues above: the fact that she tithes her money despite being a poor tomato farmer, and her desire to see her "sister" baptized.
She even wishes to forgive God for, as she puts it, "'[making] me as I am'" (29.18). Even Zerchi, who considers God's Justice pure if perhaps "terrible," cannot reprove her for her sacrilegious word choice (29.21). Maybe it's just us, but we find the notion to be one of Mrs. Grales's virtuous characteristics.
However, she's also a sinner. Or at least, a sinner in the eyes of the Catholic Church and her belief system. As Zerchi notes, "even a woman with two heads could not contrive new ways of courting evil, but could only pursue a mindless mimicry of the Original [sin]" (29.25).
We're given no specifics, but there are references to "murky and secret things, things to be wrapped in dirty newspaper and buried by night," suggesting abortions, perhaps of her own Pope's Children (29.25).
Mrs. Grales is neither purely evil nor pristinely good, but both simultaneously. She is, in a word, human.
Rachel, on the other hand, is anything but human.
Brother Joshua dreams of Rachel after seeing the supposedly dead head smiling. In the dream, she refers to herself as the "'Immaculate Conception'" (26.170). This reference is the key to unlocking Rachel's character, even if we can't be certain what we've discovered by unlocking it.
The Immaculate Conception is a Catholic doctrine stating the Virgin Mary was free of Original Sin from her conception onward. Christians believe that all people are conceived with Original Sin, thanks to Adam and Eve's mistake in the Garden of Eden.
Think of it as an unseen scar we all carry on our souls. Only through accepting Christ and, depending on the denomination, accepting the sacraments, can a person be cleansed of Original Sin… and the other sins that result from the Original Sin.
In Mary's case, God made an exception to this universal law. He allowed her to come into the world pure of sin's scar despite being conceived by human parents (if you're curious, their names are Saint Anne and Saint Joachim according to Catholic tradition).
When Rachel comes singing to Zerchi on his deathbed, she's become a sort of new Immaculate Conception.
As noted way back in Fiat Homo, the Dominicans of New Rome believe the "Immaculate Conception impl[ies] not only indwelling grace, but also that the Blessed Mother had had the preternatural powers which were Eve's before the Fall" (2.46). This explains why "the glass splinters [cause] her no discomfort" and why she refuses the baptism (29.91, 29.95).
Without sin, she has no need of baptism to cleanse sin. And she cannot feel pain—an unfortunate side effect of Original Sin. Rachel is also very childlike. Her singsong of "'la la la'" (29.67), her mimicry of Zerchi's words (29.80), and her continual smile (29.91) are just a few of the childish traits displayed by this newborn girl.
This childlike state further connects Rachel to the pre-fallen Eve, who was said to have lived in a "primal innocence" within the Garden of Eden
But why does the novel end with a character like Rachel? Well, that's a really good question. Here are some possible readings:
• Even Zerchi sees in Rachel's eyes "a promise of resurrection" (29.105). As such, Rachel could symbolize a reset for humanity. The sins of Earth have been baptized by the fire of nuclear weapons, and it has returned to the state of Eden.
• She could prophesize Zerchi's fate. The abbot sheds his flesh, his "Mrs. Grales," to become like Rachel in the afterlife.
• Zerchi could be imagining the whole thing, and Rachel could be his dream for what life should be like. Hey, extreme blood loss can have odd effects on perceivable reality.
Whatever the case, we can safely say that Rachel's appearance, although brief, is profoundly important to understanding A Canticle For Leibowitz. Read carefully, Shmooper.
Said aloud, Grales sounds a lot like "grails." As in, the "Holy Grail." From Arthurian legend all the way to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, grails, or The Grail, are depicted as holy objects sought after by Templars and knight-errants, Nazis and whip-wielding archeologists.
The quest often ends when the grail is secure, and the warrior returns to his homeland.
So does Mrs. Grales's name suggest that some kind of quest had ended? If so, then whose quest, and how is Mrs. Grales the one to end that quest? Hm.
Rachel means ewe. (A ewe is a full-grown female sheep, for those of us with a more urban persuasion.) The Bible often uses the image of sheep to depict the followers of God (Matthew 25:31-46).
Jesus is referred to as "the Lamb of God" by John the Baptist (John 1:29). In the Bible, a woman named Rachel is the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, two important patriarchs of the Israelites and the founders of two of Israel's Twelve Tribes.
Clearly, Rachel's name is meant to connect her in some fashion with the idea of God's chosen people, as well as a Jesus-like purity. Fancy stuff.