The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, published in November, 1927, rocketed the modest author to celebrity status. Its extraordinary public reception and favorable reviews caught Wilder by surprise. Critics hailed it as a “work of genius,” a “little masterpiece” with a “deceptive clarity of style that marks pellucid depths.” The novel was viewed as a breath of fresh air as opposed to the downbeat realistic works of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on May 7, 1928. In 1929, and again in 1944, the novel was adapted on film, but both were disappointing ventures.

Wilder’s writing was influenced by two important factors. First was the historical figure of Camila Perichole. A famous actress in late eighteenth century Lima, Peru, she had played the central character in Prosper Merimee’s play La Carosse du Saint-Sacrament (1829), dazzling audiences with her performances. She became the mistress of the viceroy and donated his gifts to the Church to help the poor and dying. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Camila is a pivotal character who appears in all three main stories, coming in contact with every important character. The second influence concerned a real rope bridge that had been built in Peru in 1350, which collapsed centuries later, plunging people to their death.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in early eighteenth century Peru. The novel opens simply: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” The tragic accident is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a rational theologian, who attempts to piece together the story of the victims—why they were at the bridge at the same time and whether it was an accident or God’s will. The victims include a young boy, an adolescent, a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old noblewoman.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is divided into five sections, with the shorter opening and closing chapters serving as a framing device. The first major story involves the old, ugly Marquesa de Montemayor, her grief-ridden relationship with her unloving daughter, and the devoted servant Pepita. The middle tale concerns two inseparable twins, named Manuel and Esteban, who share a telepathic closeness. They suffer an estrangement when Manuel falls in love with the actress Camila; he later dies from blood poisoning. The final story is the love-hate relationship of Uncle Pio and Camila, his protégé, whom he has tutored to be Peru’s finest actress. Wilder shows that all five sufferers were victimized in life not only by the falling bridge but also by loving someone who could not or would not love them in return. All five realize their folly at the end and set out to start their lives in new directions.

After telling his tale of the five doomed travelers, Wilder focuses on the survivors, those whose unrequited loves are not destroyed by falling bridges. He makes the final point that they have lost individuals very precious to them and yet have gained something in return, the bridge of love drawing together the living and the dead.

Wilder raises many questions about why these people were killed, including whether it was simply an accident, whether they were responsible for their own lives, or whether they were part of some divine plan and were doomed to die together. He does not answer any one question but suggests that it may have been a combination of all four, reaffirming his central belief that life’s mysteries cannot be divined. Wilder ends the book with Brother Juniper, after years of research, attempting to publish his findings; the work, however, is declared heretical, and he and his research are burned by the Inquisition.

Wilder’s Christian humanism is clearly evident in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The concepts of wastefulness, sinfulness, and the failure to appreciate one’s life—recurring themes in later works, particularly Our Town —are presented here...

(The entire section is 3,156 words.)