The Bridge of San Luis Rey marked the beginning of a key stage in Thornton Wilder’s development and also revealed the essential dimensions of the artistic program he would follow. His first novel, The Cabala (1926), had viewed the decadent aristocracy of contemporary Rome through the eyes of a young American student. In the tradition of Henry James and Edith Wharton, the highly autobiographical work suffered by comparison and was not praised by the critics. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, however, which vividly evokes a forgotten era and a type of society utterly foreign to Wilder’s experience, sold three hundred thousand copies in its first year and made its author a celebrity. This success confirmed Wilder’s intention to make abundant use of historical materials, and he set his next novel, The Woman of Andros (1930), in postclassical Greece. The Bridge of San Luis Rey also served notice that a major philosophical and theological writer had entered the literary scene. The engaging simplicity of the book drew its readers toward problems no less recondite than those of the justice of God, the possibility of disinterested love, and the role of memory in human relationships. Wilder’s subsequent works consistently returned to these themes.
The Christianity that inspires and informs The Bridge of San Luis Rey is existential and pessimistic. “Only one reader in a thousand notices that I have asserted a denial of the survival of identity after death,” Wilder once remarked of the book. He also denied the value of the apologetic task that Brother Juniper undertakes. Even if human reason could scientifically demonstrate God’s Providence—a proposition Wilder rejects—humanity would inevitably employ this knowledge in a self-aggrandizing manner. The inherent mystery of the divine intention is a check to human pride, and pride is Wilder’s overriding concern, especially that pride which cloaks itself in the guise of unselfish love. If there is Providence, Wilder suggests, it most clearly operates as something that exposes the egoistic taint in all love and reveals to the lover his need to be forgiven both by the one he loves and by the social community.
Despite the ostensible importance of Brother Juniper, Uncle Pio, and Esteban, only Wilder’s female characters develop sufficiently to gain awareness of the meaning of the novel’s action. The Marquesa undergoes the clearest transformation. The maternal love that she cultivates so assiduously is neither spontaneous nor generous. Rather, the...
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