I need help to discuss the main conflict in Thorton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey between the Marguesa and Dona Clara and how the conflict brings out the theme that compassion, not passion, is authentic love.
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Thorton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey examines the myriad conflicts that had encompassed the lives of those who perished that fateful day when the bridge in Peru collapsed. Part Two of Wilder’s novel focuses on one of those victims, the Marquesa De Montemayor, perhaps the story’s saddest figure yet whose death provides for a level of admiration and respect that eluded her in life. Marquesa laments her estrangement from her daughter of an unhappy arranged marriage, Dona Clara, and pens a series of letters to Clara, who has married and lives in Spain, while unofficially adopting Pepita, an orphan whose loneliness and despair further sadden Marquesa. Those letters provide the basis for the enduring fame she would enjoy in death. The Marquesa had hoped to find in Pepita the love of a daughter that was deprived of her by the temperament of Clara. As Wilder describes Marquesa,
“Still she lived alone and thought alone, and when an exquisite daughter was born to her she fastened upon her an idolatrous love. But little Clara took after her father; she was cold and intellectual.”
That Pepita’s unhappiness becomes known to Marquesa lends added poignancy to their shared fate when both plummet to their deaths on the bridge. It is in Marquesa’s death, however, that Dona Clara finally begins to feel true love for her now deceased mother, and for what her mother stood.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a story, above all, about love, about human relationships and about the emotionally-debilitating feeling of loneliness to which some seem condemned. In the story about Uncle Pio and the beautiful actress Camila, Wilder describes the latter’s metamorphism :
“She had never realized any love save love as passion. Such love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it give birth to visions and to great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest. Not until it has passed though a long servitude, though its own self-hatred, though mockery, though great doubts, can it take its place among the loyalties. Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.”
That Clara, upon returning to Peru, undergoes the same transformation as Camila, speaks to the urgency Wilder suggests that overwhelms people when confronted with the permanency of death. Just as Camila put aside her vanity and aspirations to devote her life to the poor, so does Clara attempt to make amends for the sin of hating and resenting the mother who so deeply, if suffocatingly, loved her. The Bridge of San Luis Rey ends with Clara contemplating the nature of human relationships and the truest meaning of love:
“Even now," she thought, "almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. 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."
Wilder understood the distinction between love born of passion and love born of compassion. Love can be a fleeting, even superficial emotion grounded in infatuation or lust. Compassion, on the hand, is a part of our character and what binds people together. Clara discovers in mourning her mother’s death that what she failed to bring to her relationship with Marquesa was love born of compassion, and that her only noble path now resides in applying her new-found knowledge to those to whom she is unrelated by blood, but is related by a sense of shared humanity.
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