Thornton Wilder Long Fiction Analysis
Thornton Wilder’s seven novels, written over nearly fifty years, show a remarkable consistency in theme and tone. His early books, contemporaneous with Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), are far from the realism and naturalism that dominated American literature in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Though he joined groups active in civil rights and social justice, these themes did not find their way into his works in the manner of John Dos Passos or John Steinbeck. His later works, similarly, show none of the interest in psychoanalysis that may be found in the works of Sherwood Anderson, for example, and none of the angry intensity of a Norman Mailer.
Wilder chose not to comment on contemporary politics, social problems, psychological angst, or cultural changes, preferring instead to mine those themes he considered of utmost importance: love, brotherhood, tolerance, and faith. His faith was expressed not in strictly Judeo-Christian terms but in humanistic convictions that incorporated diverse religious beliefs. Without being didactic, Wilder wished to educate, to inspire, to allow his readers to move beyond an obsession with the individual case to a consideration of humankind and its history. His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is representative of the themes that recur throughout his works, and his final statement in that book well expresses his one abiding conviction: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Though Wilder drew on his memories of Rome for his first novel, The Cabala, the book is a fantasy, only incidentally autobiographical. The Cabala is an aristocratic social circle in which two Americans find themselves involved. These two, Samuele and James Blair, represent Wilder’s interest in duality of personality that recurs in later works and results in part from his having been born a twin (his sibling was stillborn). Samuele is a typical Wilder character: innocent, sensitive, stable, with a deep strain of common sense. Blair is the dry intellectual so obsessed by books that he fears real life.
Samuele is the vehicle by which a number of episodes are linked, since he is asked by various members of the Cabala to intervene in the lives of others. First, he is called in to restrain the impetuous and licentious Marcantonio, but fails: The young man engages in incest and then kills himself. Then, Samuele must console the lovely young Alix, unfortunate enough to fall in love with James Blair. Finally, he must deal with the royalist Astrée-Luce in her plot to “prop up” and empower cynical Cardinal Vaini. Samuele is baffled by these obsessed and decadent characters, and is hardly satisfied by an explanation offered to him that the group is possessed by ancient gods who have passed on their power to unsuspecting mortals. Finally, on advice from Vergil’s ghost, Samuele returns to America. For Wilder, Europe, for all its richness of culture, was too deeply mired in the past to allow the spirit to grow. Samuele could thrive only in America, a country of youth and intellectual freedom.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
In his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder again uses a structure of separate episodes linked by one thread, this time the collapse of an ancient bridge over a chasm in Peru. Again, he offers a religious figure, but instead of the jaded Cardinal, there is the sympathetic Brother Juniper, who searches for meaning in the deaths of those who perished: the Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita, her maid; Esteban, a young Indian; Uncle Pio, an aging actor, and his ward Jaime. Brother Juniper finds that the five were victims of love, and those who survive are forced to a change of consciousness by the deaths of those they spurned or misjudged.
As in The Cabala, Wilder explores twinness in the tale of Esteban and his twin brother Manuel. The two are extraordinarily close, and when Manuel falls in love with a woman, Esteban becomes despondent. Yet he nurses his brother faithfully after Manuel is injured, suffering his delirious ravings until Manuel dies. Nearly mad with grief, Esteban first assumes his dead brother’s identity, then attempts suicide, only to die when the bridge collapses. A sea captain, Alvarado, had offered to sign him on his crew, and tried to console him by reminding him, “We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes.” Wilder was always conscious of the brevity of life and the need, therefore, to cling to love where one finds it. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he urges the celebration and fulfillment of love as the only meaning in the world.
The Woman of Andros
From eighteenth century Peru, Wilder moved to pre-Christian Greece in his third novel, The Woman of Andros, again dealing with love; its theme, as in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is “How does one live?What does one do first?” Society on the island of Brynos was not essentially different, according to Wilder, from that of his own America. When Chrysis, the central character, says “Lift every roof, and you will find seven puzzled hearts,” she speaks of people’s bewilderment in the face of the unknown, their search for communion, their need for love—basic human struggles that are not rooted in any particular time or place.
In 1930, however, a number of critics were disappointed with this message. In a time of economic and social crisis, Wilder seemed to retreat into yet another esoteric setting, far removed from the urgencies of the day. One critic writing in The New Republic dubbed Wilder a “Prophet of the Genteel Christ” who wrote for a wealthy elite not interested in social problems. The article touched off a month of debate, with letters supporting or attacking Wilder appearing in each issue of the magazine. At the end of December, Wilder finally received his greatest support when Sinclair Lewis, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, praised his fellow writer “who in an age of realism dreams the old and lovely dreams of the eternal romantic.”
Heaven’s My Destination
Throughout the controversy, Wilder remained silent. He was sensitive to the criticism, however, and in his next novel he attempted to find a setting and characters that would appear relevant to his own time. Heaven’s My Destination concerns the misadventures of George Marvin Brush, a salesman of religious textbooks who travels across the Depression-ridden United States preaching, moralizing, and interfering in the lives of ordinary citizens. Converted to Bible Belt Christianity by a woman evangelist at Shiloh Baptist College, he has proceeded to spread his own fundamentalist version of the Gospel wherever he goes. Wilder returned to the episodic structure of his first two novels in presenting George’s adventures in picaresque form. Unlike Don Quixote, however, with whom George has been compared, Wilder’sprotagonist is rarely endearing, more often...
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