Themes and Meanings
There can be little doubt as to the central theme of A Canticle for Leibowitz. The novel is an inquiry into the value of secular knowledge as opposed to spiritual knowledge, and, on the face of it, secular knowledge, or science, is given a very low rating. It leads with seeming inevitability to war, nuclear weapons, and racial suicide. While human beings seem to have an innate propensity toward collecting knowledge of this kind, as dramatized by Thon Taddeo and his eventual collaborator Brother Kornhoer, this seems only a proof of their fallen nature. Even the smallest dabbling with science carries ominous overtones, as in the scene in which the Leibowitzian monks are preparing to use their newly invented generator to light an arc lamp—for which they have, significantly, moved a Crucifix. As Brother Kornhoer touches the contacts, a spark snaps, and he lets out the mild monastic oath of “Lucifer!” Lucifer, however, means “light-bearer” (which is what Kornhoer himself is); it is furthermore a name for the devil and, in section 3, is strongly linked with new nuclear explosions. Kornhoer, then, kind and honest man that he is, is on the road from Satan to nuclear destruction; not even electric lights, seemingly, are sinless.
This apparent blanket condemnation of science and secularity is tempered, however, by a surprising feature of this novel—namely, its unwaveringly comic tone. The comedy is often, indeed usually, wry. Poor Brother Francis devotes his life to gilding and decorating a copy of a blueprint of...
(The entire section is 629 words.)