Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Mortality

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Mortality

In his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett created a figure of Death who is unintentionally hilarious, cares for humanity, and enjoys a tasty curry. In A Canticle, death cares neither for humanity nor has much of a taste for curry. But he remains pretty humorless all the same. More than any other aspect of life, death pervades the trials and conflicts of A Canticle's characters. Their past and present are shaped by a worldwide holocaust, and their future seems bent on sweeping them toward even more tragedies. In short, death is as pervasive in this novel as it is in our own reality. Wow, depressing. If you'll excuse us, we need a Discworld chaser.

Questions About Mortality

  1. What is the importance of having a character die at the end of each section? What do you think the novel is trying to say with all this death, and why does Miller choose the characters he does for the chopping block?
  2. What kind of knowledge is shown to be mortal in this novel? Is any knowledge shown to be immortal? What is the relationship in A Canticle between death and ideas?
  3. It's hinted that the old Jewish wanderer is immortal. If you believe this reading of the wanderer, why do you think A Canticle would have this one immortal character, when basically every other character shuffles off that coil most mortal? If you disagree with this reading of the character, then how do you think the three similar wanderer characters inform our understanding of mortality in the book?

Chew on This

The relationship between Rachel and Mrs. Grales represents the relationship between life and death—all on a single pair of shoulders.

The novel never portrays the death of any political figures or advocates of violence (like the robber, Mad Bear, Hannegan, and the Defense Minister), only those who oppose it or are neutral toward it.

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