“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.
By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy.
by Ashley Gallagher
Winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey begins: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Much like the opening of The Eighth Day (1967), Wilder begins at the height of havoc. Immediately, the reader knows the tragic fate of the novel’s five main characters, but their significance is still a mystery. Wilder then introduces Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary who witnessed the tragedy. Deeply affected by the lives lost in the bridge’s collapse, Brother Juniper begins a mission to uncover the truth about the five victims. In so doing, he asks the novel’s pivotal question: “Why did this happen to those five?” The Bridge of San Luis Rey is comprised of five parts or chapters; the first, entitled “Perhaps an Accident,” introduces readers to the tragedy and Brother Juniper’s role in its history. “The Marquesa de Montemayor” presents how the eponymous character based on the distinguished French letter-writer, Madame de Sevigne, and Pepita, a teenage girl the Marquesa borrowed from the convent, both die in the bridge collapse. The reader learns of the Marquesa’s arranged marriage and estranged daughter who, despite the Marquesa’s constant letters and obvious affection, shuns her mother. Pepita, who serves as the Marquesa’s only companion, is an orphan raised by the Abbess Madre María del Maria, one of the great women of Peru. It is not until Part Three, “Esteban,” that the reader learns of twins brothers Esteban and Manuel, who were also orphans raised by the Abbess. Esteban, distraught at the recent loss of Manuel, who died from an infected gash on his leg, attempts suicide but is prevented by Captain Alvarado. His decision to join the captain’s crew for a long voyage causes Esteban to be on the bridge at the exact moment of its collapse. In Part Four, “Uncle Pio,” the reader meets the Svengali-like Uncle Pio who has dedicated much of his life to Camila Perichole, a brilliant Peruvian actress and another historically-based character. As the reader learns, serving as Perichole’s uncle-mentor is only one of the many roles Uncle Pio plays; he is an adventurer, linguist, teacher, and Spanish theater aficionado. On the day of the bridge’s collapse, Uncle Pio perishes along with Camila’s epileptic son, Jaime, who had recently been entrusted to his care. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey’s conclusion, “Perhaps an Intention,” Brother Juniper’s painstaking research reveals the error of his initial hypothesis about the victims of the bridge collapse: “…the wicked [were] visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven.”1 Disheartened and distraught, Brother Juniper tears up his findings and casts them into the Pacific. Brother Juniper, deemed a heretic by the Church for his blasphemous project, is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Although Brother Juniper’s investigation is discredited by the religious powers that be, the lasting effects of the bridge collapse are manifested in the penance of those who were left behind, such as Camila and Doña Clara. With the death of Uncle Pio and her son, Camila pursues a purer existence in the convent as a volunteer for the Abbess’s charity work, and Doña Clara comes from Spain to mourn her mother’s passing. The Abbess’s witnessing of Camila and Doña Clara’s spiritual awakening triggers a realization that acts as Wilder’s ultimate commentary: “‘But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’”2
Although Wilder had never journeyed to Peru, his description of the country in The Bridge of San Luis Rey remains, as Edmund Wilson commented, “solid, incandescent, distinct.”3 Wilder’s superior ability to capture the essence of an unknown place contributes to the novel’s overall tone and style. Despite the novel’s neatly constructed denouement, which Castronovo deems “…clumsy and sentimental…,”4 Goldstein counters that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is “not sentimental; it offers no promises of earthly rewards and no overestimation of the worth of characters.”5 Instead, Wilder focuses on a sundry of philosophical concepts ranging from transcendentalism to existentialism to humanism. Apart from his style and integration of philosophical and symbolic content in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder’s use of an unidentified first-person narrator enables the reader to experience more than simply Brother Juniper’s limited point of view. However, as the narrator expresses in “Perhaps an Accident,” “Yet for all his diligence Brother Juniper never knew the central passion of Doña Maria’s life; nor of Uncle Pio’s, not even of Esteban’s. And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?”6, thus establishing an ambiguity or even mystery in matters of human character and theology. Among the plethora of themes Wilder incorporates in his novel — obsession, isolation, neglect, and death — the common thread among these themes is love. As Kuner writes, “Every type of love is scrutinized in this novel: primitive sexual love, exaggerated fraternal love, one-sided mother love. All are, in one way or another, impure.”7 The impurity of love in characters such as the Marquesa de Montemayor and her daughter Doña Clara causes them to struggle to expel their illusions and accept each other as they truly are. Wilder received nearly universal praise for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Laurence Stallings of McCall’s called the novel “the philosophical novel brought to perfection.”8 Confirming The Bridge of San Luis Rey initial reception, the novel was ranked thirty-seventh on the Modern Library Board’s list of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.9
1Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
2Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
3Wilson, Edmund. “Thornton Wilder.” The Shores of Light. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952. 388.
8Stallings, Laurence. “Booth of the Month: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” McCall’s. 34. (May 1928): 124.
9Paul, Lewis, “Ulysses at Top as Panel Picks 100 Best Novels,” 4.
“An Act of God.” Tablet 151 (4 February 1928): 146-147.
Allison, Ann C. E. “The Distaff — The Bridge of San Luis Rey — The Story of Its Parts in Five Lives — Studies in Love. Another Bridge.” Providence (R.I.) Evening Bulletin 17 February 1928, sec. 3: 2.
Benammi. “The Letters of Benammi CCCCLX.—In the Country of the Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Jewish Chronicle (31 August 1928): 13.
Brickell, Herschel. “The Literary Landscape.” North American Review 225 (February 1928): unpaged.
Christensen, Peter G. “Human Relatedness and Narrative Technique in the Early Novels of Thornton Wilder and Glenway Wescott.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Ed. Martin Blank. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Literary Studies 26 (1999): 185-205.
Connolly, Cyril. “New Novels.” New Statesman 30 (26 November 1927): 208-209.
Dodd, Wilson. “The Ways of Man to Man.” Saturday Review of Literature 4 (3 Deccember 1927): 371.
Goodman, Lanie. “Archbishop Inquisitor.” Sight and Sound 13.8 (18-20 Aug 2003): 18-20.
Kinninmont, Kenneth. “What Five Lives Told: Theme of Divine Purpose in a New Novel.” T.P.’s Weekly (London) (17 December 1927): 297.
Thornton Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, was published in 1927 to worldwide acclaim. The plot is deceptively simple: On July 20, 1714, “the finest bridge in all Peru” collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, happens to witness the tragedy, and as a result, he asks the central question of the novel: “Why did this happen to those five?” He sets out to explore the lives of the five victims, and to understand why they died. Ironically, his quest will lead to his own death.
In later years, when someone asked Thornton Wilder about his purpose in writing The Bridge, he replied that he was posing a question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?”
Wilder populated his novel with an interesting cast of characters. The Marquesa de Montemayor, dies when the bridge falls, as does her maid, Pepita. As an awkward, homely young woman, the Marquesa was forced into an arranged marriage. At the time of her death, she is estranged from the person she loves most in the world, her daughter Clara. The Marquesa writes her daughter voluminous letters. The lonely Marquesa’s companion at home and on the doomed bridge is Pepita, an orphan who was reared by the Abbess Madre Maria del Maria, one of the great women of Peru.
The Abbess has also watched over the orphaned twins Esteban and Manuel. Esteban, who is thrown to his death when the bridge goes down, has been in such despair over Manuel’s recent death that he has contemplated suicide. It is because he has decided to “push on” and to go to sea that he is on the bridge at the exact moment of its collapse. [It is interesting to remember that Thornton Wilder had a twin brother who died at birth.]
Uncle Pio has devoted much of his life to Camila Perichole, the most celebrated actress in Peru, if not in all of the Spanish world. According to the Marquesa, Pio was an “aged Harlequin.” In addition to guiding the Perichole’s career, he has been an adventurer, a linguist, a teacher, and an expert on Spanish literature, especially the literature of the theater. He is traveling on the bridge that fateful day with the Perichole’s little son Jaime because he is going to spend a year educating the boy.
Describing the sources of his novel, Wilder explained that the plot was inspired “in its external action by a one-act play by [the French playwright] Prosper Merimee, which takes place in Latin America and one of whose characters is a courtesan. However, the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist. Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s Caritas’ which is more all- encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question’ correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way.”
When asked if his characters were historical or imagined, Wilder replied, “The Perichole and the Viceroy are real people, under the names they had in history. Most of the events were invented by me, including the fall of the bridge.” He based the Marquesa’s habit of writing letters to her daughter on his knowledge of the great French letter-writer, Madame de Sevigne.
The Bridge received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was translated into many languages, and established Wilder’s reputation in “the front rank of living novelists.”
For further discussions of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, please visit the Bibliography.
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