The Significance of Environment: Comparing a Canticle for Leibowitz and Thoreau’s Where I Lived


Many of us have heard the saying, “You are a product of your environment”. The statement suggests that one’s environment not only makes us who we are but also determines how we understand the world around us. This statement rings true when reading the book A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and Where I Lived and What I Lived for by Henry Thoreau. In both these works, the narrator is heavily impacted by his environment. Weather this is a hostile environment or an angelic one, people will act, react, and cope according to their surroundings. While both these stories are vastly different from one another, one can better understand how the environment shapes the individual; it affects personality, reasoning, and how people interact with others.

In Chapter Two of Henry Thoreau’s work entitled, Where I Lived and What I Lived for, Thoreau directly relates to his environment and his surroundings. He explains to the reader his task of finding a farm, a home to call his own. He goes on to stress the importance of one’s environment, how we choose to use our time, and associates the environment with leisure and freedom. His ideal environment means connecting not only to the earth but also ourselves. It is open air in the natural world. There is little interference from the outside, with scenes like the warm summers and running rivers. Thoreau takes the time to learn about his environment and finds happiness and contentment. This is an ideal environment not only for Thoreau but for many people as it is free from any threats from others in society. The world the Thoreau describes is a much different from the world observed in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book that fits into the genre of Science Fiction. It takes place in the far future, 2600 A.D. The whole of the book tells the journey of Catholic monks as they attempt to preserve relics from the past. This includes items that come from today’s society such as books, blueprints, maps, and other antiques of importance. All of this is done in remembrance of an ancient civilization. The book is separated into three parts, “Fiat Homo” which means “let there be man”, “Fiat Lux” meaning “let there be light”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” translated as “let your will be done”. Each part refers to a different time in the future reflective of the different environments. As the characters change throughout each part so does the different types of characters that the reader is introduced to. From robots and human mutants to the natural human that we know today, the environment depicted throughout this book is much different from the one we know. As a result, the character’s personality and reaction is a reflection of this environment. The environment is unique in that it is observed as hostile, violent, and filled with anarchy. However, to dive deeper into this environment and how it shapes the character, the analysis will focus primarily on part one, Fiat Homo, and it’s main character novice brother Francis Gerard of Utah.

Thoreau lives in an environment that is quite angelic. It is an environment that he has personally chosen on his quest to acquire a farm. This farm is like any farm that one can imagine. It is on a large acreage filled with trees and a passing river. It is an environment that he intends to live off of, harvesting his own garden and possible livestock. The reader gets a clear vision of this farm when he states: “An afternoon sufficed to lay out on the land into orchard, woodlot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door”, (Thoreau 83). As this statement indicates, the land is filled with trees some of which bear fruit for the eating.  There is also a clearing or meadow where livestock can graze if he chooses. Another thing to note is what he does with his day. His day is not consumed with work or worry. Instead, he almost appears to be lazy. He is content lying around all afternoon. The only thing he wastes his time considering is what wood he should use for timber. This thought not only confirms the angelic environment, it also indicates beauty and serenity. Both oak and pine are trees often used to create woodwork such as furniture and carvings. He has these trees on his property that offer both beauty and elegance. It indicates that his surroundings are the same. This is the environment that he surrounds himself and it reflects his actions and personality.

The surroundings of the character Brother Francis is the complete opposite. He lives in a part of the world that is barren both today and in the far future- Utah. His surroundings are large and vast. However, there is no beauty found here because there are no inhabitants including animals and vegetation. Even foreigners do not travel here and the ones that do only pass through. The only animal that is observed in this scene is a lizard, which Brother Francis eats, that and cactus fruit. The place that Brother Francis roams stretches from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso. This area, also happens to be home of the Abbey, a church and monastery for monks. Although this place is home to a holy sanctuary its surrounding environment sounds bleak. The surrounding environment and the people who live there is best described by the author: “inevitably, then, when seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security”, (Miller 29). This line suggests not only the barren surroundings but also the living conditions. The people who journeyed through the area cannot be trusted, proving themselves to cause suffering by taking, beating, and stealing.

Living in the environment that Thoreau creates for himself, he states, “I did not feel crowded or confined in the least. There was pasture enough for my imagination” (90). With nothing but the beauty of his own thoughts the narrator is able to lose himself in his imagination. He purposely chooses a place that is away from civilization and society. He does not want to be near people and influenced by them. With no interruptions from the outside world Thoreau is able to reflect not only on his life but life in general. This provides him with a prime environment to generate philosophical thoughts, asking important questions, and generating answers that can still be applied today. In a world such as this he had no obligations to anyone but himself. The only thing he required was food and shelter. He ate off the land and his home. In this way “there are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon” (Thoreau 90).

Brother Francis on the other hand is plagued with worry and wanting. He is plagued by his environment which shows not only in his health but also in his interactions with others. Throughout the first part of the book Brother Francis is observed fainting on multiple occasions. When it happens, he passes out either from hunger or from fear. In the first two chapters Brother Francis is observed in fear of many things, ranging from the traveling pilgrim who he blesses with holy water to the wolves that he fears will eat him at night. He is weak and hungry during these chapters. However, this is partially because Brother Francis is celebrating lent. Despite him being on his way to becoming a monk and used to fasting, he faints from hunger and later from fear when encountering Cheroki his superior. Cheroki observes the right to beat him, which he does and treats him with little respect. Outsiders treat him with little respect as well. This is seen when he is robbed of a blueprint he has copied and intends to present to the Pope. Later when Brother Francis is honest and attempts to purchase his stolen art from the robbers, Brother Francis is killed. “Pain is the only evil I know about… and that society is the only thing that determines whether an act is wrong or not” (Miller 67). It is apparent in this future society that people are driven by power, fear, and survival. Although he lives in a world of anarchy the things that were once wrong and unlawful –stealing and death- it is now part of everyday life. The only good deed which can be observed in this part of the book is the acts of the pilgrim. Not only does he offer Brother Francis food in the first chapter, in the last chapter he buries Brother Francis body in the sand to keep him from being eaten by buzzards.

There are very few similarities in the two stories presented. While Thoreau lived a life of leisure and luxury surrounded by the beauty of nature, Brother Francis lived in the post-world apocalypse surrounding by scavengers and barrenness. As such, there are no similarities in their living environments. What they do have in common is the impact environment had on their personality. Plagued by a dry and hostile environment, Brother Francis lived the life of fear and was always weak and hungry. He stood up to his oppressors only to save himself or to maintain his truth. If he wasn’t afraid of his superiors, he was afraid of the wolves, or the pilgrim, and even the mutant thieves who attacked him. In many ways his life was dismal and desperate. Thoreau on the other hand lived a life that was enjoying and relaxing. He worried for nothing on his farm. Even though his house needed mending and did not have the perfect shelter for rain and cold weather, he was still happy and lived a life of bliss. Within their irrespective environments both characters maintained their truth while being heavily affected by the world around them.


Works Cited

Miller, Walter. A Canticle for Leibowitz. reprint. San Francisco, CA: S.F Masterworks Series, 1-87. eBook. < canticle for leibowitz&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yR4ZUsGIKKjx2AXQo4HgAQ&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA>.

Thoreau, Henry. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. New York, NY: T.Y Crowell & Company, 83-102. eBook. < thoreau walden&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EpkXUuezE6jm2gWL7oCYAQ&ved=0CEUQ6AEwAA


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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