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...
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On Friday, July 20, 1714, the bridge of San Luis Rey, the most famous bridge in Peru, collapses, hurling five travelers into the deep gorge below. Present at the time of the tragedy is Brother Juniper, who sees in the event a chance to prove, scientifically and accurately, the wisdom of that act of God. He spends all his time investigating the lives of the five who had died, and he publishes a book showing that God had a reason to send each one of them to his or her death at exactly that moment. The book is condemned by the church authorities, and Brother Juniper is burned at the stake. He went too far in explaining God’s ways to humanity. Through a strange quirk of fate, one copy of the book is left undestroyed, and it falls into the hands of the author. From it, and from his own knowledge, he reconstructs the lives of the five persons.
The Marquesa de Montemayor was an ugly child and was still homely when she matured. Because of the wealth of her family, she was fortunately able to marry a noble husband, by whom she had a lovely daughter, Doña Clara. As she grew into a beautiful young woman, the Marquesa’s daughter became more and more disgusted with her crude and unattractive mother, whose possessive and overexpressive love left Doña Clara cold and uncomfortable. The daughter finally married a man who took her to Spain. Separated from her one joy in life, the Marquesa became more eccentric than ever and spent her time writing long letters to her daughter in Spain. In order to free herself of some of her household cares, the Marquesa went to the Abbess Madre María del Pilar and asked for a girl from the Abbess’s school to come and live with her, so Pepita, unhappy that her beloved teacher was sending her away from school, went to live with the Marquesa.
When the Marquesa learned by letter that Doña Clara was to have a child, she was filled with concern. She wore charms, bought candles for the saints, said prayers, and wrote all the advice she could discover to her daughter. As a last gesture, she took Pepita with her to pay a visit to a famous shrine from which she hoped her prayers would surely be heard. On the way, the Marquesa happened to read one of Pepita’s letters to her old mistress, the Abbess. From the letter, the Marquesa learns just how heartless she was in her treatment of the girl, how thoughtless and egotistic. She realized that she was guilty of the worst kind of love toward her daughter, love that was sterile, self-seeking, and false. Aglow with her new understanding, she wrote a final letter to her daughter, telling her of the change in her heart, asking forgiveness, and showing in wonderful language the change that came over her. She resolved to change her life, to be kind to Pepita, to her household, to everyone. The next day she and Pepita, while crossing the...
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