Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Memory and the Past

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Memory and the Past

The past directly influences who we are in the present. Well, either that's true, or we wasted a ton of time studying history. Just kidding, of course it's true. But A Canticle takes the idea of historical influences and gives it an ironic twist. The present and future are shaped by the past, but many of the characters' views on the past are terribly distorted. Why? Because they superimpose their own worldviews and beliefs onto history. So it can be hard to tell whether what we're being told in the book is actually world history or just a bunch of made-up baloney. So this is actually one of the funnier themes in the novel. It prompts us to chuckle at a character's faulty memory—and perhaps a bit at our own.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. How does Brother Francis's view of the past alter his perception of the present, and the abbey's mission to protect the Memorabilia?
  2. Thon Taddeo and Marcus Apollo have different views on the previous civilization. How are these views different, and what do they suggest to you about these characters? Alternatively, you can consider the different views of Thon Taddeo and Dom Paulo.
  3. Pick one section of the novel. Does awareness of the past ultimately harm or benefit the characters in this section? Why do you think this is? Now pick another. And then ask yourself… Well, you get the picture, you're smart.

Chew on This

Rachel seems to lack any memory of the past, which hints to us that the cycle of history has finally been broken on Earth. But the same cannot be said for those spaceward monks and their Memorabilia.

Whether or not the pilgrim and Benjamin are the same character, they still share the same character trait: they are both bound to a particular understanding of the past.

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