Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Bridge of San Luis Rey

Bridge of San Luis Rey. Colonial Peru’s most famous bridge, an old rope suspension bridge in the region between Lima and Cuzco that collapsed on July 20, 1714, sending five travelers to their deaths in the deep gorge below. Their deaths would have been forgotten, were it not for the fact that a Roman Catholic priest, Brother Juniper, who narrowly missed being among the dead, questioned why the others died and he was spared. His questions sought to demonstrate the importance of place in the shaping of human lives. After devoting his life to investigating the lives of the five victims, he published a book showing that God had reasons to send each of the victims to their deaths at that moment. The book was condemned by Church authorities, and he was burned at the stake for going too far in explaining God’s ways to humanity. The one surviving copy of Brother Juniper’s book fell into the hands of Thornton Wilder’s fictional narrator, who tells the stories of the five bridge victims’ lives and examines the effect their deaths had on the people whom they left behind.

The bridge has become a memorial to despair. For example, Madre Maria, who seemed to be the one physical connection among the five victims, felt great despair because her children were lost in the fall. She felt that she had to overpay for her placing her wards on that bridge at that moment. Only she remembered the orphans whom she had so carefully reared. She retreated to her memories at the place of the convent.


Cathedral. Roman Catholic cathedral in Lima, where a great service was held after the tragedy for its victims. Everyone in attendance considered the incident an example of a true act of God, and many reasons were offered for the various deaths.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a judicial process instituted by the Papacy to investigate and try those charged with...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

First Person Narrator

For the most part, this novel is told through the third person omniscient point of view. It is third...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1714: The Catholic Church supports a formal Inquisition board in Peru. An offshoot of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, it has...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Read a history written by a person who was not involved in the event, but who found out about the background of the people through...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • The most recent film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey was made in 2004, written and directed by Mary McGuckian. It stars...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Though Wilder never won another Pulitzer Prize for his fiction, his other novels are considered just as powerful and moving as this one....

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Goldstein, Martin, The Art of Thornton Wilder, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 60-61.


(The entire section is 259 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Anderson, M. Y. “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”: A Critical Commentary. New York: American R. D. M., 1966. Provides concise background details on Wilder and effective commentary about the book’s plot structure, characterizations, and major themes.

Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1961. An insightful introduction to Wilder and his writings. Explores the humanism of The Bridge of San Luis Rey and concludes that this novel, despite weaknesses, “has all the intellectual scope, depth of feeling, and complexity of character that make a mature and aesthetically satisfying vision.”

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986. An excellent brief introduction to Wilder and his works. Sees The Bridge of San Luis Rey as a study “of isolation and chaos” which attempts to show how “to rise above the disasters of the modern world into a sustaining, if not always clear, spirituality.”

Goldstone, Richard H., and Gary Anderson. Thornton Wilder: Annotated Bibliography of Works By and About Thornton Wilder. New York: AMS Press, 1982. An excellent source for finding works by and about Wilder. Includes many bibliography entries for sources and reviews dealing with The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor and Fields, 1983. Includes important information surrounding the writing of the novel, as well as emphasizing its purpose, reception, and contribution.