The Bridge of San Luis Rey

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Thornton Wilder

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Bridge of San Luis Rey was Thornton Wilder's second novel, published when he was just thirty, and it won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It tells the story of a religious man's spiritual quest to determine why God allows disasters to occur. Wilder sets the action in Lima, Peru, in 1714, where a Franciscan monk witnesses the collapse of a bridge that has stood for over a century, killing the five people on it. The priest becomes determined to develop a scientific method for calculating what personality characteristics the five might have shared that would make God ready to call them to him. In the novel, Brother Juniper spends years compiling data about each victim in order to draw his conclusions. Wilder fits their personal stories into a slender volume, told with a voice that resonates across years and cultures.

Almost since its first publication, The Bridge of San Luis Rey has been recognized as a literary masterpiece. Its unique mixture of the spiritual with the humane has given readers throughout the decades a point of reference when considering the apparent horrors that can occur in a world that is explained increasingly through cold scientific eyes. In his memorial tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, British prime minister Tony Blair quoted from the book, and since then it has become even more popular, as the world has struggled to reconcile faith with catastrophe.

Author Biography

Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897, along with a twin brother who did not survive childbirth. His father was a newspaper editor who joined the Foreign Service, eventually being named as the U.S. consul to Hong Kong in 1906. Wilder lived briefly in Hong Kong, returned to the United States, then went back to the Far East in 1911 when his father was reassigned to Shanghai. He returned to California once more. He attended an exclusive boarding school in Ojai, which he found to be a miserable experience, feeling isolated and being treated as an outcast for being a homosexual. Throughout his life, the isolation he felt during his high school days persisted. He returned home to attend school in Berkeley for two years, and there he started writing plays. During World War I, Wilder served two years in the Coast Guard.

Wilder attended college at Oberlin in Ohio and then transferred to Yale, where his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, was published in the prestigious Yale Literary Magazine in 1920, later to be produced onstage in 1926. After graduation he studied archeology in Rome at the American Academy for a year then returned to the United States to attend Princeton, teaching French at a New Jersey high school while working on his master's degree in French, which he earned in 1926. That year, his first novel, The Cabala, was published. The following year saw publication of his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. He won a second Pulitzer in 1938 for his play Our Town and a third in 1942 for the play The Skin of Our Teeth. His second famous play was The Matchmaker, a 1955 Broadway production that was based on Wilder's 1939 play The Merchant of Yonkers and which itself became the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly. In all, he wrote seven novels and over a dozen plays and is credited for translating several foreign plays into English.

Wilder died in his sleep on December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut, of a heart attack.

Plot Summary

Part One: Perhaps an Accident

The first few pages of the first chapter of The Bridge of San Luis Rey explain the book's basic premise: this story centers on an event that happened in Lima, Peru, at noon of Friday, June 12, 1714. A bridge woven by the Incas a century earlier collapsed at that particular moment, while five people were crossing it. The collapse was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was on his way to cross it. Curious about why God would allow such a tragedy, he decides to take a scientific approach to the question. He sets out to interview everyone he can find who knew the five victims. Over the course of six years, he compiles a huge book. Part One foretells the burning of the book that occurs at the end of the novel, but it also says that one copy of Brother Juniper's book survives and is at the library of the University of San Marco, where it sits neglected.

Part Two: The Marquesa de Montemayor

The second section focuses on one of the victims of the collapse: Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor. She was the daughter of a cloth merchant, an ugly child who eventually entered into an arranged marriage and bore a daughter, Clara, whom she loved dearly. Clara was indifferent to her mother, though, and married a Spanish man and moved across the ocean. Doña María visits her daughter, but when they cannot get along, she returns to Lima. The only way that they can communicate comfortably is by letter, and Doña María pours her heart into her writing, which becomes so polished that her letters will be read in schools for hundreds of years after her death.

Doña María takes as her companion Pepita, a girl raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas. When she learns that her daughter in Spain is pregnant, Doña María decides to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of SantaMaría de Cluxambuqua. Pepita goes along as company and to supervise the staff. When DoñaMaría is out at the shrine, Pepita stays at the inn and writes a letter to her patron, the Abbess, complaining about her misery and loneliness. DoñaMaría sees the letter on the table when she gets back and reads it. Later, she asks Pepita about the letter, and Pepita says she burned it because it was not brave to write it. DoñaMaría has new insight into the ways in which her own life has lacked bravery, but the next morning, returning to Lima, she and Pepita are on the bridge when it collapses.

Part Three: Esteban

Esteban and Manuel are twins who were left at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas as infants. The Abbess of the convent, MadreMaría del Pilar, developed a fondness for them as they grew up. When they became older, they decided to be scribes. They are so close that they have developed a secret language that only they understand. Their closeness becomes strained when Manuel falls in love with Camila Perichole.

The Perichole flirts with Manuel and swears him to secrecy when she retains him to write letters to her lover, the Viceroy. Esteban has no idea of their relationship until she turns up at the twins' room one night in a hurry and has Manuel write to a bullfighter with whom she is having an affair. Es-teban encourages his brother to follow her, but instead Manuel swears that he will never see her again.

Manuel cuts his knee on a piece of metal and it becomes infected. The surgeon instructs Esteban to put cold compresses on the injury: the compresses are so painful that Manuel curses Esteban, though he later remembers nothing of his curses. Esteban offers to send for the Perichole, but Manuel refuses. Soon after, Manuel dies.

When the Abbess comes to prepare the body, she asks Esteban his name, and he says he is Manuel. Gossip about his ensuing strange behavior spreads all over town. He goes to the theater but runs away before the Perichole can talk to him; the Abbess tries to talk to him, but he runs away, so she sends for Captain Alvarado.

Captain Alvarado goes to see Esteban in Cuzco and hires him to sail with him. Esteban agrees. He wants his pay in advance in order to buy a present for the Abbess. The Captain offers to take him back to Lima to buy the present, and at the ravine, the Captain goes down to a boat that is ferrying some materials across the water. Esteban goes to the bridge and is on it when it collapses.

Part Four: Uncle Pio

Uncle Pio acts as Camila Perichole's maid, and, in addition, "her singing-master, her coiffeur, her masseur, her reader, her errand-boy, her banker; rumor added: her father." The story tells of his background. He has traveled the world engaged in a variety of businesses, most related to the theater or politics, including conducting interrogations for the Inquisition. He came to realize that he had just three interests in the world: independence; the constant presence of beautiful women; and work with the masterpieces of Spanish literature, particularly in the theater.

Media Adaptations

  • The most recent film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey was made in 2004, written and directed by Mary McGuckian. It stars Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Bates, and Gabriel Byrne.
  • The most familiar film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the 1944 release starring Akim Tamiroff, Lynn Bari, and Francis Lederer. It was written by Howard Estabrook and directed by Rowland V. Lee.
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey was originally filmed in 1929 as a part-silent, part-sound production, starring Lili Damita, Ernest Torrence, and Raquel Torres. Charles Brabin directed. The only known surviving print of this version is held at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
  • The Thornton Wilder Society maintains a web-site at∼wilder/ dedicated to preserving the memory of the author and his works.

He becomes rich working for the Viceroy. One day, he discovers a twelve-year-old café singer, Micaela Villegas, and takes her under his protection. Over the course of years, as they travel from country to country, she becomes beautiful and talented. She develops into Camila Perichole, the most honored actress in Lima.

After years of success, Perichole becomes bored with the stage. The Viceroy takes her as his mistress, and she and Uncle Pio and the Archbishop of Peru and, eventually, Captain Alvarado meet frequently at midnight for dinner at the Viceroy's mansion. Through it all, Uncle Pio is faithfully devoted, but as Camila ages and has three children by the Viceroy she focuses on becoming a lady, not an actress. She avoids Uncle Pio, and when he talks to her she tells him to not use her stage name.

When a small-pox epidemic sweeps through Lima, Camila is disfigured by it. She takes her son Jaime to the country. Uncle Pio sees her one night trying hopelessly to cover her pock-marked face with powder: ashamed, she refuses to ever see him again. He begs her to allow him to take her son and teach the boy as he taught her. They leave the next morning. Uncle Pio and Jaime are the fourth and fifth people on the bridge to Lima when it collapses.

Part Five: Perhaps an Intention

Brother Juniper works for six years on his book about the bridge collapse, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits, with no results. He compiles his huge book of interviews, but a council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.

The story shifts back in time to the day of a service for those who died in the bridge collapse. The Archbishop, the Viceroy, and Captain Alvarado are at the ceremony. At the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, the Abbess feels, having lost Pepita and the twin brothers, that her work will die with her. Camila Perichole comes to ask how she can go on, having lost her son and Uncle Pio. Doña Clara comes: throughout the book she has been in Spain, and no one in Lima knows her. As she views the sick and poor being taken cared for at the convent, she is moved. The novel ends with the Abbess's observation: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."


Captain Alvarado

Captain Alvarado is a world traveler, known to many of the characters in the novel. Uncle Pio brings him into the group that has frequent midnight dinners at the estate of the Viceroy, and the Marquesa de Montemayor writes about him in a letter to her daughter. The Abbess of the Convent Santa María Rosa de la Rosas sends for him when she hears that Esteban is grieving the loss of his twin brother Manuel, knowing that both boys have sailed with the Captain before. The Captain goes to Esteban and convinces him to not commit suicide, consoling him, "It isn't for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You'll be surprised at the way time passes."

The force driving Captain Alvarado is that he once had a daughter, who died while he was away at sea. The Marquesa says about him in her letter, "You will laugh at me, but I think he goes about the hemispheres to pass the time between now and his old age."

Archbishop of Lima

The Archbishop is an epicure, more concerned with good food and good wine than with salvation. He is part of the group that meets at the Viceroy's mansion each evening for long, all-night dinners, to discuss politics and philosophy. He considers himself to be an amateur philologist, so when he hears about the secret language that Manuel and Esteban use for speaking to each other, he calls them to teach it to him, but when he sees how embarrassed they are about it he allows them to leave.

Doña Clara

Clara is the daughter of Doña María. DoñaMaría loves her dearly and centers her life on her daughter, though Clara is, for the most part, disinterested in her mother and even somewhat embarrassed by her. When she is old enough to marry, Clara weds a Spanish nobleman and moves to Spain. Her mother visits her there once, but they do not get along, so their primary means of communication is through letters, which take six months in transit each way by ship.

Doña Clara makes her first appearance in the book at the very end, when she shows up at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas on the day that there is to be a memorial for her mother and the other victims of the bridge collapse. Following the Abbess through the convent, she sees the sick and old people who are cared for there. The Abbess expects her to leave, but she stays, looking at the wretched people whom she has never been so near in her privileged life, learning about suffering that she never understood before.

Conde Vincente d'Abuirre

The husband of Doña Clara has little to do in this novel. At one point, his amusement at the letters written by his mother-in-law, the Marquesa de Montemayor, is mentioned. Also, the Viceroy forces his mistress, Camila Perichole, to apologize after she has made fun of the Marquesa because he has business in Spain and he knows that Conde Vincente is a very powerful figure there.

Marquesa de Montemayor

See Doña María

Don Andrés de Ribera

The Viceroy, Don Andrés, has had a hard life, and is a broken-down old man with a high title. He is crippled with gout, a widower without children. He hires Uncle Pio to look after secret affairs for him, and through Uncle Pio he meets Camila Perichole and takes her as his mistress. She adores him.

When she sings a song that insults the Marquesa de Montemayor, Don Andrés forces her to apologize for three reasons: to keep peace in Lima; to humble his mistress because he suspects her of cheating on him with a matador; and to curry favor with the Spanish court, to which the Marquesa's son-in-law belongs.

At the memorial service for the victims of the bridge collapse, the Viceroy is very conscious of people looking at him, expecting for him to grieve for his dead son Don Jaime. He wonders where the boy's mother, the Perichole, is, having no contact with her.

Abbess Madre María del Pilar

The Abbess, head of the Convent SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, is instrumental in the stories of two victims of the bridge collapse. In addition to being in charge of the orphanage, she runs a hospital for the old, sick, and infirm. The narrative refers to her as "that strange genius of Lima."

The Abbess raises the orphan Pepita and decides to give her a chance at a worldly education by sending her off to be the companion of the Marquesa de Montemayor. She also raises the twins, Manuel and Esteban, of whom she is very fond, even though she is not generally fond of men.

After the bridge collapse kills Pepita and Esteban, the Abbess is left forlorn. She has lost two of her favorite people, and she foresees that, once she herself is dead, there will be no one to run the convent and care for the poor. This conclusion becomes uncertain at the end, though, when the previously haughty actress Camila Perichole comes to her for consolation and the rich Doña Clara, who ignored her own mother most of her life, shows an interest in helping the poor. The Abbess sees how a tragedy can bring together people who would otherwise have no connection.


Esteban and Manual are twins who were abandoned at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas as infants. They are inseparable, traveling the world as sailors and developing a secret language that is understood only by them.

One day, when the Perichole comes to their house to request Manuel write a letter for her to her lover, Esteban notices that Manuel is in love with her. This drives a wedge through their close relationship, but Esteban tells his brother to follow her; instead, Manuel declares that his infatuation with her is over and that he will never see her again.

Later, an injury on Manuel's leg becomes infected. Manuel is in so much pain that he curses Esteban's efforts to heal the wound, damning him to hell. Manuel eventually dies, and Esteban acts crazy, shunning all people and giving his name as "Manuel" when asked.

An old friend, Captain Alvarado, finds Esteban drinking in a restaurant and invites him to sail the world with him. Esteban agrees, as long as he can be kept constantly busy, so that he will not be reminded with his brother. The next morning, he says that he has changed his mind and that he cannot leave Peru, but the Captain reminds him that he had expressed interest in buying a present for the Abbess of the orphanage who raised him. He goes to his room, and the Captain follows him there just in time to stop him from hanging himself. They leave, and while Esteban is on the bridge it collapses and he is killed.

Don Jaime

Don Jaime is the only son of the Perichole. He is a sickly child, which is the main reason that his mother remains at her villa in the mountains, away from Lima. He dies in the bridge collapse when Uncle Pio is taking the boy to Lima to live as his student for a year.

Brother Juniper

Brother Juniper is the focus of the first and last chapters of the novel. He can be considered the protagonist of the book, even though his appearances are few and brief. He is a Franciscan monk, in Peru to convert Indians to Catholicism when he witnesses the collapse of the bridge. Being a religious man, he wonders why God would make such a tragedy occur, and he sets about to explore the lives of the victims of the collapse so that he can better understand what standards God holds for humanity.

Brother Juniper has a scientific mind, and he believes that theology should be held to the same standards of inquiry as the other sciences. A talk with an old school friend who has become a hardened skeptic leads him to devise a chart that rates people according to goodness, piety, and usefulness, a system that he tries out during a plague at the town of Puerto, calibrating his scale by applying the same standards to people killed by the plague and people who have survived. He finds out that no such standard is helpful in measuring the moral attributes of those who die early.

After his inquiry into the bridge collapse has proven inconclusive, a panel of judges examines Brother Juniper's work and declares it to be heretical. The book is burned in the town square, and Brother Juniper is sentenced to be burned too. The night before his execution, he thinks about why he is being punished when all he wanted to do was to help the church. He finds no reason for his death, and the narrator says that there were many in the crowd who believed in him. He goes to his death thinking that St. Francis, at least, would support his work.


Manuel and Esteban are twins who were abandoned as infants at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas. In childhood they developed a secret language that no one but the other twin can understand. They are scribes. While copying a script at the theater, Manuel falls in love with Camila Perichole. She has him write letters for her to her lovers.

When his twin brother finds out that Manuel is in love with the Perichole, Manuel is so embarrassed that he swears he will not see her again. He proves good to his word when she sends a servant for him and he refuses to go.

Manuel cuts his knee and it becomes infected. The doctor tells Esteban to treat it with cold compresses. Every time Esteban puts a compress on the wound, the pain is so intense that Manuel curses at Esteban, damning him to hell, even though they have always been inseparable. Eventually, Manuel dies of the infection.

Doña María

DoñaMaría is the first of the bridge collapse victims to have a section of the book dedicated to her. She is introduced as a legendary figure, famous for her letters, which now, two hundred years after her death, are well-known examples of the writing of her time. The grand obsession in her life is her daughter Clara who, as soon as she is old enough, marries and moves away to Spain.

Doña María is known around Lima as an eccentric. She is a secret drinker. The Abbess Madre María del Pilar looks at her and sees a "grotesque old woman." When the Perichole sings an insulting song about her at the theater and is forced to apologize, she initially thinks that DoñaMaría is being gracious when she claims to know nothing of the incident, but, as the scene continues and Doña María makes a fool of herself, it becomes clear even to the Perichole that the old lady really is oblivious.

Doña María takes a girl from the orphanage, Pepita, as her companion. Pepita can see how the other servants take advantage of the Marquesa, mocking her behind her back and stealing from her, but Doña María remains ignorant of what they think of her until one day, when her entourage is at a shrine in the hills praying for the baby, which she has heard, almost casually, that her daughter had. There, Doña María happens upon a letter Pepita has written, explaining how unhappy she is. Doña María later offers to mail the letter for her, but Pepita says that she burned it because writing such a letter was not courageous: from this, Doña María receives sudden insight into courage, and she realizes just how much her own life has lacked courage. She decides to start living differently just as the bridge collapses beneath her and Pepita, killing them.


Pepita was left as an orphan at the Convent Santa Maria Rosa de la Rosas. The Abbess grooms Pepita to be her successor, and in order to give her a broader education and introduce her into wealthy society the girl is sent to be a companion at the house of the Marquesa de Montemayor. Pepita hates it there. Not only is her mistress a vain, drunken, ignorant woman, but Pepita is left to deal with the household staff's dishonesty as they steal from the Marquesa, make fun of her behind her back, and use her house for their own pleasures. They pick on Pepita and make her the victim of practical jokes. Still, she remains faithful to her duty.

The day before her death, Pepita is so miserable about her life with the Marquesa that she writes a letter to the Abbess, detailing her complaints. She destroys the letter, but not before the Marquesa has seen it on the table. When the Marquesa asks why she did not send the letter, Pepita holds tight to her suffering and says that the letter betrayed a lack of courage in her.

Camila Perichole

Wilder bases this character on the title character of La Perichole, a Jacques Offenbach opera that opened in Paris in 1868 (more than a hundred years after The Bridge of San Luis Rey takes place). It concerns a Peruvian street singer who is brought to the palace to amuse the Viceroy. Her last name means "half-breed [b―]." Her first name is taken from the 1848 novel Camille: The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils (the younger).

Throughout the story, the woman born Micaela Villegars is referred to as, alternately, "Camila" or "the Perichole." She is discovered by Uncle Pio at the age of twelve in a café, and he decides to make her a singing star. He trains her and takes her around the world, so she can sing in different countries while honing her craft. When they end up in Lima she is lauded as the best singer and actress in Peru. Through her relationship with him she meets the Viceroy, who is a much older man; she becomes his mistress and has three children, a boy and two girls, with him.

The Perichole is a vain social climber. During a break in a concert, she sings a song making fun of the Marquesa de Montemayor, a rich eccentric, mocking her for the drinking she thinks is secret and her devotion to her daughter. At age thirty, the Perichole decides to quit the stage and be a lady. She stops associating with Uncle Pio, and she makes up family members with classy social backgrounds.

Her vanity is assaulted when she contracts smallpox, which leaves her face pockmarked. She tries unsuccessfully to hide the scars with makeup. She agrees to allow Uncle Pio to take her son Jaime to Lima, to train the boy as he trained her, but they are killed in the bridge collapse.

In the end, the Perichole is humbled, arriving at the Convent SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas without makeup, kneeling before the Abbess there to ask for religious counsel.

Uncle Pio

Uncle Pio is the subject of the fourth section of the book. He is a successful, self-made man, having been in a variety of businesses and traveled the world. He does secret work for the Viceroy. Still, nothing makes him happy until he takes young Micaela Villegas under his control and trains her to be the popular singer, Camila Perichole. His association with her allows him to follow his three interests: being a free and independent man; being surrounded by beautiful women; and working in or near the theater.

He brings the Perichole up in society, introducing her to his friends. Eventually, she decides to turn her back on her singing career, and she distances herself from Uncle Pio. He finds excuses to see her. Once, after her looks have been marred by smallpox, he comes upon her trying to cover up her scarred face with makeup, and she tells him that she does not want to ever see him again. He makes up elaborate schemes in order to see her, once hiding in her garden at night and crying like a little girl, hoping that it will affect her subconsciously and make her more compassionate. When that does not work, he asks to take her son Jaime to Lima and train the boy as he trained her. The bridge collapses as they cross it en route to Lima, and Uncle Pio and the boy die.


See Don Andrés

Micaela Villegas

See Camila Perichole


Search for Knowledge

After witnessing the collapse of the bridge, Brother Juniper does not embark on a quest to find the physical causes that would explain why a structure that has stood for a thousand years would give out at that particular time. He takes such tragedy as a part of life, like disease and old age. Instead of concerning himself with physics, which is not his field of expertise, Brother Juniper takes a theological approach. He is determined to use scientific methods to try to understand God's will. He creates a scale for measuring such abstract moral values as piety and goodness, and he applies his scale to people who have suffered from tragedy and those who have not, in order to find the proper relation between them. Because the bridge collapse is such a freak accident with a limited number of victims, he feels that the event poses a rare opportunity to conduct his study with a manageable sampling.

Even though the lives of five people represent a small group, Brother Juniper finds out that there are so many minute facets to their lives that nothing can be measured. He compiles thousands of pages of information but is not able to draw any satisfactory conclusions from them. He does not find commonality between the lives of those killed and so is not able to point to any particular characteristic that would mark these individuals for tragedy.

Though Brother Juniper's line of inquiry is fruitless, the book does not leave the search for knowledge completely unfulfilled. It ends with the suggestion that there is, after all, some reason for an otherwise senseless tragedy: the event brings together people such as Doña Clara, Camila Perichole, and the Abbess of the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, who would otherwise not have any relationship to each other, and it gives hope that the Abbess's work with the poor and suffering will be continued. Though this knowledge gives meaning to an event after it has happened, it is no good for predicting, as science attempts, when a similar event is going to occur.

Parental Love

Another theme in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the relationship between doting parents and ungrateful children, is established early in the novel, in the story of the Marquesa de Montemayor, who leads a lonesome life in Lima, pining away for attention from her daughter, Doña Clara, even though she receives no love in return. This parental devotion is reflected in the relationship between Camila Perichole and her son, Don Jaime, whom she treats kindly but holds at a distance. Wilder does not show her to be unloving, but she is more concerned with appearances than with expressing her affection.

The fathers in this novel present similar contrasts. Captain Alvarado is explained to be ruled by the memory of his dead daughter, so devoted to her that even in her absence she is the driving force behind his every moment. The Viceroy, on the other hand, is unmoved by the death of his son Don Jaime in the bridge collapse, concerning himself with public appearances at the memorial service, wondering how much sorrow to show.

Topics For Further Study

  • 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 research. Report to your class on what happens in the book and also on what you think the author's attitude is toward the participants.
  • Wilder uses the special language shared by Manuel and Esteban to represent the unique, exclusive bond between the twins. Do some research on scientific studies about the emotional connection between twins and make a chart showing how it differs from the ways that non-twin siblings relate.
  • In the wake of the catastrophe, the people of Lima have a period of great soul-searching, looking at their misdeeds with repentance and defensiveness. Research some personal stories of how people felt in the week after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, and report to your class the ones that you think sound most like the reactions of the people in Lima.
  • Just before the bridge collapse, Brother Juniper hears "a twanging noise … as when a string of some musical instrument snaps in a disused room." Read about the physics of bridge collapses, and explain what the connection between this sound and the ensuing tragedy could be.
  • Choose a religion, examine its theology, and write a report on how you think it would explain a catastrophe like the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The story is also filled with symbolic parent-child relationships. The Abbess, of course, since she is in charge of the orphanage, has a parental role in the upbringing of Pepita, Manuel, and Esteban. Uncle Pio behaves like a father to Camila and, at the end of his story, is ready to assume a similar role toward her son Don Jaime: ironically, Camila rejects him as strongly as Doña Clara rejects her own mother, also out of social embarrassment. The orphans attach themselves to parental figures when Esteban lets himself fall under the guidance of Captain Alvarado and Pepita becomes fiercely devoted to the Marquesa, although she treats Pepita badly.


In literature, an epiphany is a sudden realization that allows a character to view the world in a completely new way. Some of the characters in this book have epiphanies before their deaths, and some do not. For instance, just before going to the bridge, Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, realizes that she has not been brave in the past, an insight that cuts through the self-delusions that allowed her to hide her embarrassing lifestyle from herself. Similarly, the novel hints that Captain Alvarado's explanation to Esteban that "Time keeps passing by" appears to have stopped Esteban's suicide and given him a reason to go on in spite of his grief for his brother Manuel, even though a catastrophe takes his life just minutes later. Madre María del Pilar, the Abbess, is falling into despair that her life's work will be for nothing before realizing, in a flash, that the appearances of Doña Clara and Camila Perichole at the convent constitute a sign that there is a connection between all people dead and living.

The one notable exception in this book is Brother Juniper, who devotes his life to the search for understanding and, in the end, receives none. Though he compiles his book with good intention, the accusations of the religious tribunal that finds against him make him doubt his own motives. He prays for someone to believe in him, but dies without knowing that a delegation supporting his views has come. Upon his death, he is even afraid to call out to God, being too unsure of his right to do so because he might be evil.


First Person Narrator

For the most part, this novel is told through the third person omniscient point of view. It is third person because it is told about other people, referring to them as "she" and "he." The narrative is omniscient because it does not limit itself to any one person's perspective: it can shift from one person's thoughts to another's in one line, and then back, as when it goes from Manuel's infatuation with Camila Perichole to Esteban's reaction to his brother or shifts from one perspective to another during the ceremony for those killed in the collapse. It is also able to give readers information that no one in the novel would be able to know, such as the inadequacy of the word "resignation" to describe what the Marquesa felt at the inn in Cluxambuqua.

Technically, though, this is a first-person account. The narrator refers to himself or herself several times as "I," particularly at the end of Book One, with the line, "And I, who claim to know so much more, isn't it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?" There is some effort to explain how a modernday narrator would have been able to gain information about the people described in the book, primarily through the one remaining copy of Brother Juniper's work and the letters of the Marquesa, which have been saved for centuries. Still, Wilder gives more information than what any first-person narrator, years removed from the event, could know. Drawing attention to a narrator who is trying to reconstruct their lives invites a parallel to Brother Juniper's quest to understand them through his research.

Multiple Protagonists

In the first section, it seems as if Brother Juniper is going to be the protagonist, or main character, of this story. The tragedy occurs on page one, and the book focuses right away on Brother Juniper's response to it; furthermore, Brother Juniper is a compelling character, searching for an answer to an essential question about human existence. At the end of Part One, though, Brother Juniper disappears from the novel, and he does not come back until the last part.

The book then goes through a series of protagonists, each identified by the title of a chapter: the Marquesa de Montemayor, Esteban, and Uncle Pio. These chapter titles are helpful because it is not always easy to tell who is the main character. Part Three, for instance, focuses on Manuel and his growing love for the Perichole before it settles on Esteban, and Part Four gives a detailed background of Camila Perichole, leaving Uncle Pio out of the story for dozens of pages. The final part starts with Brother Juniper and his intellectual quest, but after his death shifts to the Abbess, Madre María del Pilar, who up to that point has been a relatively minor character.

Epistolary Narrative

Wilder uses the letters of the Marquesa de Montemayor to tell significant parts of the story, quoting from them liberally. He does not just do this in her section of the story but refers back to the Marquesa's writings in order to introduce new characters, such as Uncle Pio and Captain Alvaraz. In addition, he includes a large passage of Pepita's letter to the Abbess, and he uses Manuel's occupation as a scribe to include sections of love letters dictated by Perichole. A story that is told through people's letters is called an epistolary narrative.

Referring to letters gives the novel a sense of being in direct contact with characters who are supposed to have died hundreds of years ago. As opposed to a first-person narrative, which could have the character talking directly to the reader or musing privately, the use of letters shows the character's formal side, the personality that is conveyed to the public or at least to one other person.

Historical Context

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a judicial process instituted by the Papacy to investigate and try those charged with opposing the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It was prevalent in Europe from 1184 on, in one form or another until 1836, and was enacted in some European colonies such as Peru.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1714: The Catholic Church supports a formal Inquisition board in Peru. An offshoot of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, it has the ability to execute those found guilty of heresy.

    1927: As Peru becomes more internationally oriented, the people are exposed to a wider variety of worldviews: still, Catholicism is strongly entrenched.

    Today: About three-fourths of the population of Peru are Catholic.
  • 1714: The basic means of transportation over a mountain pass is by foot or in an animal-drawn cart.

    1927: Rail lines are constructed to connect dangerous mountain areas.

    Today: Roads and bridges for cars make most locations accessible.
  • 1714: Peru is a colony, under the control of Spain.

    1927: Freed of Spain's rule a century before, Peru is controlled by a series of powerful dictators, who exploit the country for its rich mineral holdings. It has been ruled by Augusto Bernadino Leguia y Salcedo since 1908.

    Today: Peru's democratic government has been challenged in recent years by, on one side, the violent Maoist guerilla movement Shining Path and, on the other, by the government's authoritarian measures to fight the insurgents.
  • 1714: In Peru, as in much of the world, professional scribes (like Manuel and Esteban in the novel) are needed to write and read letters for the mostly illiterate population.

    1927: Peru is still an agrarian society. The literacy rate is between 30 and 40 percent.

    Today: Over 90 percent of Peruvians are literate. Education is required between the ages of six and fifteen, and it is free.
  • 1714: Spain's viceregal capital of colonial Peru, Lima is isolated from Europe. News takes six months or more to travel across the sea.

    1927: Telephone connections between New York and London are first established (at a rate of $75 for a three-minute call). Telephone service between Peru and Europe is decades away.

    Today: Thanks to satellite technology, a person walking down the street in Lima can contact any phone anywhere.

The point of the Inquisition was to investigate and prosecute charges of heresy. Throughout the late 1400s and early 1500s, a number of secular governments helped the church in persecuting people deemed to be insufficiently pious. The church established a formal Inquisition in Rome in the 1500s, under the control of a board of cardinals answering to the pope. The Italian Inquisition followed court process, allowing defendants to answer charges against them and to appeal convictions. Sentences were often fines or brief imprisonment.

The most brutal phase of the Inquisition occurred in the late 1400s in Spain. There, the burden of proof shifted to the accused. Panels of inquisitors went from town to town and heard cases, often convicting people in their absence, or for failure to confess the crime of which they were accused. To extract confessions, torture was used. The Spanish Inquisition had the authority to try, sentence, and execute citizens who were assumed to pose a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. These tribunals had the authority to confiscate the estates of those who were convicted, creating an immediate conflict of interests.

Conquered by Spain in 1533, Peru remained under Spanish domination until 1824. Subject to Spanish law, it was also subject to the religious decrees of the Catholic Church and, therefore, to the rules of the Spanish Inquisition. Lima, a small, conservative town, was made the seat of the Peruvian Inquisition, which was most active during the 1500s and 1600s. By the time of this story in 1714, the Inquisition was seldom enacted. The court was formally closed by the church in 1836.

The Lost Generation

Though Thornton Wilder is not frequently associated with their ideals and concerns, the literary scene at the time when he was writing this novel was dominated by a group of writers referred to, collectively, as the Lost Generation. The name comes from a quotation by Gertrude Stein, which was used as an epigraph to Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, which is considered a key text of his generation.

The label, Lost Generation, is used to describe the writers who came to prominence after World War I ended in 1918 and their disillusionment caused by the horrors they experienced during that first great global conflict. After the war, many American writers, such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Kay Boyle, e. e. cummings (who chose to print his name in lower case), William Faulkner, Archibald MacLeish, and Thomas Wolfe, moved to Paris for two main reasons: first, the monetary exchange rate was favorable and Americans could live there cheaply if supported by U.S. dollars; second, the city was a gathering place for intellectuals from across Europe, including the Irish James Joyce and the Spanish Pablo Picasso.

The works of the writers of the Lost Generation expressed a sense of nihilism, betrayal, and spiritual abandon. These writers, many of whom had been raised in wealthy, well-established families, realized the pre-WW II social order, which supported previous generations, had come to an end. If they started life thinking that they would follow in their fathers' footsteps or grow old and die in the towns where their families had lived for generations, their participation in the Great War taught them the impermanence of life. Their works often express a search for moral values not based on tradition, an inquiry into truth that rejects the conclusions of previous generations.

Wilder is often categorized as a member of the Lost Generation, and chronologically he fits right into it, having been born in 1897, right between its two most prominent members—Fitzgerald (1896) and Hemingway (1899). He lived only briefly in Paris, though, and his writing lacks the sense of loss that characterizes most Lost Generation literature.

Critical Overview

Thornton Wilder's literary reputation is primarily based on his work as a playwright, not as a novelist. Of the few works of fiction he did produce, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is by far the most celebrated. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, though he won two Pulitzers for drama, for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Bernard Grebanier, in his 1964 pamphlet about Wilder for the University of Minnesota Press, explained why: 'In an era overrun by naturalistic novels, against which James Branch Cabell was almost the only challenger, Wilder calmly took his place as a leading storyteller who could not be satisfied with a documentation of the externalities of life, yet without adopting Cabell's deliberate escape from the realities of experience." In other words, Wilder's writing straddles the fine line between faith and rationality.

While not fitting into the category of "naturalistic" fiction, the book avoids "such deficiencies in taste and wisdom as are evident in most American religious fiction," according to Martin Goldstein. "The Bridge is not sentimental; it offers no promises of earthly rewards and no overestimation of the worth of the characters. Nor does it speak out against active participation in this life in favor of patient waiting for the life to come."

Wilder himself noted that many readers found the book inspirational reading, ignoring the darker implications of death erasing entire existences from the face of the earth. Still, readers over the decades have proven savvy enough to accept the complexity of his worldview and to appreciate the clarity of his prose. The book has stayed in print continuously since its first publication, and in 2001 the editorial board of the American Modern Library selected it as one of the hundred best novels written in the twentieth century.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, Kelly explains how looking at the novel as a religious work might produce too narrow an interpretation.

Since its initial publication in 1927, Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey has been praised as a religious statement, examined for its theological implications, and categorized as Christian literature. To a large extent, this judgment is valid. The story takes place in Lima, Peru, in 1714, a time when the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church was nearly absolute—when there was no real secular authority, only the religious hierarchy. It concerns a Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, who witnesses the collapse of the bridge and sets about to understand the will of God. Brother Juniper is deeply faithful, and unable to accept the idea that a loving God would cause the deaths of five unrelated people, he becomes determined to understand the reasoning behind the event by understanding the lives of the victims. Before its end, however, the novel drops Brother Juniper's quest—he is executed for heresy by the Inquisition—and brings together some of the survivors among those connected to the dead, who inspire the Abbess of the Convent to think the book's often-quoted closing line: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

It makes sense, then, to read this novel as a religious story. In reality, though, religion is not so much a guiding factor in this story as is its rural setting. The book's Lima is a frontier town, an oasis of Western culture in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. Unlike towns in the early 2000s, which sprawl in all available directions, Lima in 1714 is isolated from the world beyond it, having more in common with Spain across the ocean, than with the people a mile or two outside the city limits. For all of its talk about the will of God, the novel is more interested in presenting ways for people to break out of their isolation.

Early in the novel, Brother Juniper considers how the bridge collapse offers him an ideal opportunity to explore the variations of life that would be subject to such calamity because there are only five people killed, and five seems a manageable number to explore. For the same reason, the limited number of victims is useful to Wilder, giving him more chance to explain his characters in depth than he could have if there were a larger group. In fact, he only really focuses on three of the dead—the Marquesa de Montemayor, Esteban, and Uncle Pio. Two of the dead are auxiliary characters, traveling with the others. He also includes significant biographies of several important characters among the living, including Manuel, the Viceroy, the Archbishop of Lima, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas, and Camila Perichole.

The fact that this event takes place two hundred years before he wrote it, in a remote, unknown region, made it possible for Wilder to present his characters as isolated. They are specimens, floating in the liquid of his distant, dreamy prose. They are also all stereotypes, though in some cases fleshed out with more details than in others. He presents the ingénue and the faded beauty (both Camila Perichole); the abandoned sibling; the hard-working orphan girl; the neglected parent (Doña María, literally, and Uncle Pio figuratively); and a chorus of corrupt government officials. Usually, the charge of stereotyping is leveled as a criticism of the author, implying a failure of imagination and an inability to come up with characters true to life, but in this case, the fact that Wilder is using basic types works to the story's advantage. If his point is that people are isolated from each other, then making each character an overly familiar stereotype enforces that isolation by sealing them each off from their surroundings.

To test this hypothesis, one only needs to look at the last half of the final chapter, in which the Abbess Madre María del Pilar becomes the book's focus. She has been mentioned before, interwoven in the stories of other characters, just as others (such as Captain Alvarado and Camila Perichole) play roles in a few different stories. Readers know her as an efficient administrator, working behind the scenes to provide a decent education for Pepita in one place and sending the Captain to console grief-stricken Esteban in another. It is not until the end, however, that readers see her deep concern that the work to which she has devoted her life might fade away after her death. The officious personality that seemed obvious from the outside turns out to be hiding a worried human being inside. The Abbess plays her social role, which is a minor one throughout the novel, but Wilder shows in the end that even bit players have human concerns, a fact that he punctuates by having Doña Clara, who has been conspicuously absent from the novel, show up at the end, grieving.

It could be said that the novel is still primarily religious, because breaking through isolation is the point of religion, but such a reading relies on stretching the definition of religion a bit, blurring the line between organized religion and piety. Brother Juniper, for instance, might be driven by his devotion to God, but his quest is something that he and possibly he alone would consider religious. The idea of devising a calculation that can measure God's intent is basically flawed. If divine agency in the world could be understood by rational means, as mechanical as the trajectory of a moving object, then there would be no need for faith at all. If the universe were as predictable as Brother Juniper would like it to be, God would be irrelevant. Brother Juniper seems, shortsightedly, to be on a quest to defend God, not worship him. His goal is really irrelevant to religion.

The church in the story is clearly political, not spiritual. The Archbishop of Lima is discussed only in terms of his refined, epicurean appetite; his appreciation of fine European music; and his hobby of dabbling in linguistics. The church's most active role in the story comes when an anonymous panel of judges sentences Brother Juniper to death so callously that it is expressed as almost an afterthought, once his book is condemned. As with the stereotypical personalities that form boundaries around the characters, the rules and regulations of the church serve to isolate people from each other. The fear of heresy expressed by the church is a fear of infiltration by outside knowledge, which would contaminate the system that is already established.

Wilder fills the novel with attempts to break through isolation, to bridge the gaps between one person and another, but something, usually social position, stands in the way. The bond between Doña María and her daughter never really gels because the Marquesa does not really believe in motherhood, just the idea of it; the bond between Manuel and Esteban that seems natural proves unable to stand when looked at through the spectrum of pain and romantic love; the bond that Uncle Pio works hard to establish with Camila Perichole is severed when she decides he is an obstacle to her social-climbing ambitions; the bond that Pepita thinks she has with the Abbess is left unstated because neither party feels it would be proper to express it. All of the characters play their assigned roles, but none is happy about it.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Though Wilder never won another Pulitzer Prize for his fiction, his other novels are considered just as powerful and moving as this one. In particular, readers who like The Bridge of San Luis Rey tend to find the same lingering tone and spiritual presence in The Eighth Day, about a coal miner in a southern Illinois town who, sentenced to death, escapes and hides out with a family. Published in 1967, it won the National Book Award for that year.
  • Like Wilder's novel, Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, also published in 1927, is an historic story that deals with a cleric traveling in frontier territory, trying to reconcile faith and wonder. It tells the story of two French Catholic priests traveling among the Native Americans and Mexicans in the American Southwest in the 1850s.
  • The most prominent Peruvian writer of modern times is Mario Varga Llosa. His novel Death in the Andes, published in 1997, gives a good view of what Peru was like at the end of the twentieth century, from the mountain life in the Andes to political machinations in the capital, Lima.
  • For an insider's look at Wilder's life and career, readers may enjoy Thornton Wilder and His Public, written by his older brother, Amos Niven Wilder. It was published by Fortress Press in 1980.
  • The main character of Orhan Pamuk's 2005 novel Snow faces a spiritual quest similar to Brother Juniper's, but with a decidedly modern theme: when he returns to his home in Istanbul for his mother's funeral, he is drawn into investigating a rash of suicides by girls who are forbidden to express their religious beliefs freely, finding himself contemplating corruption and the will of God in the process.
  • Readers interested in Wilder's life can see his warmth and wit on display in his correspondences with the author Gertrude Stein, the matriarch of many writers of the postwar generation and a good friend of his for many years. The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, published in 1996 by Yale University Press, is insightful and candid.

The only character who manages any type of human contact in this novel is the Abbess, though there is hope in the end for the other two, Camila and Doña Clara, who go to her with their grief. The Abbess is forced to rein in her affection for Pepita and for the twins, but she does have outlets for her caring that involve her in humanity. She finds a bridge between her spiritual rigidity and the spiritual wilderness. Her part in the structured hierarchy cannot be denied: she is, at heart, a bureaucrat, looking after the day-to-day functions of several institutions. Yet she is also on the outskirts of the social order, dealing with outcasts from their birth at the orphanage through their deaths at her hospital. As Wilder says, "Madre María del Pilar … was able to divine the poor human heart behind all the masks of folly and defiance." This quotation leads to the observation that she found herself unable to see the heart in the Marquesa de Montemayor, a situation that is resolved in the novel's final pages when she consoles the woman's grieving daughter.

It may seem just a matter of semantics to shift the focus of The Bridge of San Luis Rey from religion to isolation: the "love" that is invoked at the end of the book is a key element in religion every bit as much as it is a part of humanism. But readers should always view a novel carefully and with skepticism: they are not always about what seems most obvious. In this case, the story is steeped in a religious tradition that fits the setting, but even more significant is the fact that the story is set in a remote time and place. This is a story about people, and the ways they work to break through their isolation. It is the story of a bridge.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Lincoln Konkle

In the following essay excerpt, Konkle discusses how Wilder examines "issues of this life that have ultimate ramifications in the next life," and how the worldview in The Bridge of San Luis Rey is similar to Puritan doctrine.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Wilder's second and most popular novel which also won him his first Pulitzer Prize, is neither an allegory of Judgment Day, nor does it allude to Judgment Day explicitly; yet, it is centrally concerned with judgment of the principal characters. Indeed, the effect and meaning of "the sometimes obtrusive presence of the omniscient author, who judges and interprets as he narrates the histories and inner lives of the main characters" (Burbank 48) is quite similar to Act Four of Wilder's Judgment Day play The Trumpet Shall Sound. However, it is not only the author—or the narrator, to be more precise—but also the Franciscan priest Brother Juniper who judges the characters. In fact, he devises a system of evaluating the victims of "acts of God" to detect the hand of Providence at work. Like Peter Magnus in Trumpet, Brother Juniper, though for different and disinterested reasons, has conducted his own "trial of all flesh." Thus The Bridge of San Luis Rey (hereafter Bridge) examines ontological and epistemological issues of this life that have ultimate ramifications in the next life, making it kin to the other literary descendants of The Day of Doom already discussed above, despite the non-New England and non-Protestant milieu—eighteenth-century Peru in predominantly Catholic South America.

With regard to setting Bridge in Peru, scholars have noted that it was only a defamiliarizing technique. In an interview Wilder himself said, "It merely supplied the background of the story. It could have been placed in any other country just as well. Peruvian scenery and manners were not essential" (Bryer 6). In the text of the novel, too, there are hints that Wilder was thinking of the story as closer to home. In referring to the Marquesa coming back to Peru from Spain, the narrator says that she "took ship and returned to America," even though, properly speaking, it is South America. Later the narrator identifies South America—or Peru, at least—as "the New World."

As for the Catholic context of the theological issues raised in the novel, as Haberman says, "[T]he meaning of life of the novel's characters is closer to old-fashioned Protestant individual will." But though we do not have Protestant characters counterpoised to Catholic characters, as in Wilder's other 1920s works, there are still vestiges of Puritan prejudice toward Catholics, as in the following passage: "I am told that in the convent the silly sisters inhale it so diligently that one cannot smell the incense at Mass." Does the following description mock just the Marquessa or Catholic devotion in general: "She hysterically hugged the alter-rails trying to rend from the gaudy statuettes a sign, only a sign, the ghost of a smile, the furtive nod of a waxen head." Idolatry was one of the charges the iconoclastic Puritans made against Catholics; even the Abbess is said to have "torn an idol from her heart." Except for Brother Juniper, priests are not much regarded in the book, even by their superior: "The Archbishop knew that most of the priests of Peru were scoundrels." Furthermore, the Archbishop is portrayed in terms hardly respectful.

Yet the novel's respect for Brother Juniper and especially for the Abbess makes up for any unflattering descriptions of Catholicism elsewhere; furthermore, the theological issues are framed more in Puritan terms than Catholic. The dominant interpretative issue in Bridge is Providence; as the narrator says in his description of Brother Juniper's investigation, "Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan." The hermeneutic Brother Juniper applies to experience is almost identical with that of Edward Johnson, the author of a seventeenth-century Puritan history of the settlement of America entitled Wonder-Working Providence: "If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off…. This collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state."

The claim that Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, expresses a theology closer to Puritanism than to Catholicism may seen less radical in view of the response his project elicits from his superiors: he is burnt at the stake as a heretic. Another indication that the version of Christianity Bridge represents is closer to Puritanism than it is to Catholicism occurs when the narrator describes Brother Juniper's purpose with an allusion to a rather famous Puritan poet's intention in retelling the story of the garden of Eden: "He would fall to dreaming of experiments that would justify the ways of God to man"—Milton's Paradise Lost.

Despite the apparent indeterminacy suggested by Brother Juniper's failure to prove God's intentions and the titling of the frame chapters "Perhaps an Accident" and "Perhaps an Intention" ("perhaps" is one of the most repeated words in the novel), Wilder provides enough information about each of the characters for the hand of Providence to be seen in the bridge falling: "He [Brother Juniper] thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." Kuner concludes, "Pepita was a good child, so was Jaime. Therefore the accident called the young to Heaven while they were still pure. On the other hand, Uncle Pio had led a dissolute life and the Marquesa was an avaricious drunkard. Therefore the accident punished the wicked." Besides, for all his skeptical commentary on Brother Juniper's quest, the narrator expresses the alternatives to the question of Providence in such a way that neither version denies a Calvinistic universe ruled by a sovereign God: "Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God." Borrowing from Shakespeare (Lear) and the Bible (Matthew), the point is the same: the gods or God controls history; the difference lies in the point of view—tragic or comic (in Calvinistic terms, reprobate or elect). While the narrator's own stance would not allow a glib, "All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds," he does admit near the end, "But where are sufficient books to contain the events that would not have been the same without the fall of the bridge?" From one perspective, then, the accident was a fortunate fall.

The belief that Providence operates on a larger historical level is also affirmed in The Bridge, as seen in the Abbess' feminism and her care of the mentally ill: "She was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization" (emphasis added). For the Puritans, everything had its appointed appearance in God's plot, especially the establishment of a colony in New England. Clearly, Wilder—or his narrator—is affirming the belief that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends, roughhew them how we will."

Of course the problem with deterministic explanations of history, at least when the Determiner is believed to be good, is the existence of evil in the world, in events, and in people. As demonstrated in Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom, it was possible for the Puritans to rationalize that the doctrine of predestination did not absolve individual souls of responsibility for their reprobate nature or behavior. Compared to Wigglesworth's hardline Calvinism, Edward Taylor's consideration of evil in his Puritan morality play Gods Determinations Touching His Elect seems much more humanistic. In this Puritan answer to Everyman the blame for the failure or delay of the allegorical character named "Soul" to come into assurance of election is laid upon Satan, whose temptations Taylor vividly dramatizes. In the theological tradition which extends in the United States from Wigglesworth and Taylor to the present, Wilder addresses in Bridge the theodicy problem with a providential world view by including in his anatomy of souls an allegorical representation of the devil—Uncle Pio.

In The Trumpet Shall Sound Wilder's allegorical representation of Satan went awry, perhaps, because Flora's crime was too insignificant and her punishment too harsh on the literal level of the narrative; in Bridge Wilder creates a more appropriate Satanic character to represent the devil in an attempt to address the problem of evil within a providential universe. Although other characters in Bridge exhibit attitudes and behaviors considered sinful in a Christian context, what distinguishes Uncle Pio is his manipulation, temptation, and destruction of others. That is, Uncle Pio is a representative of the category of souls in Brother Juniper's Judgment scheme which "was not … merely bad: [but] was a propagandist for badness."

That there will be no mistaking what or who Uncle Pio represents, the summary of his life includes descriptions that are traditionally associated with the devil or Satan. For example, the narrator says that he can be seen on a street in a typical posture as he "whispers, his lips laid against his victim's ear"; he is to be left to "his underworld…. He is like a soiled pack of cards [and the Marquesa] doubt[s] whether the whole Pacific could wash him sweet and fragrant again"; "He possessed … that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon"; "He spread slanders at so much a slander … was sent out by the government to inspirit some half-hearted rebellions in the mountains so that the government could presently arrive and wholeheartedly crush them"; "His pretensions to omniscience became more and more plausible" and "was perpetually astonished that a prince should make so little use of his position, for power, or for fantasy, or for sheer delight in the manipulation of other men's destinies"; he watches Camila give a performance, "standing at the back of the auditorium, bent double with joy and malice" (emphasis added in all of the above). When brother Juniper conducts his research on Uncle Pio, only Camila speaks well of him: "Her characterization of Uncle Pio flatly contradicted the stores of unsavory testimonies that he had acquired elsewhere." (She was, of course, greatly indebted to him for her own success in life; therefore, she could not be considered an unbiased source.) If this were not enough, even Uncle Pio's physical appearance resembles the traditional portrait of the devil: "With his whisp [sic] of a mustache and his whisp of a beard and his big ridiculous sad eyes."

As a deceiver of great subtlety and invention, Uncle Pio is a pretender to and a parody of God. Thus his name—Uncle Pio, suggesting pious—is ironic. The ostensibly affectionate title of "uncle" should not necessarily be taken at face value either. In the 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder was hired by Alfred Hitchcock to write the screenplay, Uncle Charlie turns out to be a serial killer. Furthermore, Wilder follows Milton's portrayal of Satan as one who would rather rule in hell than to serve in heaven: "Even in this kingdom he [Uncle Pio] was lonely, and proud in his loneliness, as though there resided a certain superiority in such a solitude." This allegorical Satan even has his own version of Calvinistic predestination:

He divided the inhabitants of this world into two groups, into those who had loved and those who had not. It was a horrible aristocracy, for those who had no capacity for love (or rather for suffering in love) could not be said to be alive and certainly would not live again after their death. They were a kind of straw population, filling the world with their meaningless laughter and tears and chatter and disappearing still lovable and vain into thin air…. He regarded love as a sort of cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge, pale and wrung, but ready for the business of living. (emphasis added)

From a Puritan perspective, then, on the literal level of the narrative Uncle Pio's untimely death would not seem to bode well for a blissful afterlife since he has not made progress during his life on earth, as Camila tells him: "You don't seem to learn as you grow older, Uncle Pio." That Uncle Pio is categorically different from Camila in the state of his soul is evident in the narrator's comment that "One day an accident befell that lost him his share in her progress" (emphasis added). Camila's slow conversion from her former selfish life is confirmed by the implication (though it is fairly oblique) that it will be she who takes over the charitable work of the Abbess (caring for the mentally ill and other unfortunates): "She [the Abbess] disappeared a moment to return with one of her helpers, one who had likewise been involved in the affair of the bridge and who had formerly been an actress. 'She is leaving me,' said the Abbess, 'for some work across the city'" (emphasis added). For Camila to have gone from cafe singer, to honored actress, to member of the social Cabala in Lima, to comforter of the poor and sick, attests to the progress of grace in her life. Uncle Pio was responsible for her ascension in the world, but her spiritual growth was solely the result of the accident of the bridge, an act of God which, as we have seen, had fortuitous as well as tragic effects. For the Puritans, the proof was in the progressive manifestation of their election. Wilder plots such a trajectory for Camila, but not for Uncle Pio.

Bridge also affirms progress on the historical level, as is evident when the narrator or Wilder employs dramatic irony (relying on the reader's knowledge of the advances made in the twentieth century for the care of the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and so forth) in the Abbess' hopeful musing on what could be done for the suffering of those she cares for as best she can:

The Abbess would stop in a passageway and say suddenly: "I can't help thinking that something could be done for the deaf-and-dumb. It seems to me that some patient person could,… could study out a language for them. You know there are hundreds and hundreds in Peru. Do you remember whether anyone in Spain has found a way for them? Well, some day they will." Or a little later: "Do you know, I keep thinking that something can be done for the insane. I am old, you know, and I cannot go where these things are talked about, but I watch them sometimes and it seems to me…. In Spain, now, they are gentle with them? It seems to me that there is a secret about it, just hidden from us, just around the corner."

Of course she is right; sign language, Braille, psychoanalysis and other theories and methods of psychiatry are just around the corner by a century or so. In some ways, then, things do get better: the kind of charity people like the Abbess used to do as a matter of their religious beliefs becomes institutionalized; society itself becomes more charitable. Thus Bridge shows us a world in which there are no real accidents, nor the free reign of evil; a Judgment Day awaits us all within the providence that presides over the events of our lives; progress is made on the historical and personal levels (at least for the elect); and all of this is discernible—even provable, though Brother Juniper paid with his life for trying to provide the proof that each soul must find for him-or herself. As the Abbess tells herself near the end of Bridge when all loose ends have been tied up, all plot lines resolved, "'Learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace.' And she was filled with happiness like a girl at this new proof that the traits she lived for were everywhere, that the world was ready" (emphasis added). The very last lines of Bridge are more bittersweet in tone as they remind us of the deaths of the five on the bridge, and allude to the death and being forgotten predestined for us all; yet the narrator allows the Abbess to pronounce an acceptance of this aspect of the human condition: "But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

That this world view is as affirmative as the cosmic optimism of the Puritans is evident. The similarity of particular aspects of this world view in Bridge to Puritan doctrine and Puritan writers' ways of expressing their beliefs in narrative works is no coincidence. In this last work of the 1920s and Wilder's own twenties, we see the young author finding the combination of theme and form, shaped in part by the Puritan legacy in his familial and American heritage, that would later bring him his greatest artistic and popular success in Our Town, which along with The Skin of Our Teeth, again dramatized a Puritan expectancy of the prophesied end of human history in an American context. Thornton Wilder may not have believed in Judgment Day by that time, but the belief in Judgment Day was in him, and thus, as we have seen, was also in his early drama and fiction written in the moral wilderness of the Jazz Age.

Source: Lincoln Konkle, "Judgment Day in the Jazz Age …," in Thornton Wilder: New Essays, edited by Martin Blank, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer, and David Garrett Izzo, Locust Hill Press, 1999, pp. 81-89.

Rex Burbank

In the following essay excerpt, Burbank describes how Wilder affirms "the moral nature and value of love" courageously in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

II The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Like The Cabala, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) is a romance. Although the fantasy of The Cabala is missing, The Bridge has the remoteness of setting, the symbolism, the yoking together of past and present, the moral and religious themes, and the episodic structure of the earlier book; and in it Wilder attempts, as he did in The Cabala, to capture not only surface realism but the complex workings of the inner life as well. He had stated his conviction that the purely realistic fiction of the day had run the course of its usefulness and effectiveness when he told Harry Salpeter in 1928 that he felt that America was turning away from the rule of realism to the introspective novel. "Until about ten years ago," he told Salpeter, "experience was very valuable as a preparation toward the writing of novels. Authors who had been stokers and barhands did bring something valuable to America in the process of discovering itself. But now the notation of things has been done so well through such men as Sinclair Lewis that from now on the profounder assimilation of a little experience rather than a rapid view of a great deal is the more desirable. Literature, now that America has discovered itself, could spring from solitude and reflection, with less emphasis on observation and more on intuition."

Nevertheless, in both The Cabala and The Bridge the characters are portrayed with considerable realism and clarity as individuals; and, from the standpoint of response to the promptings of the flesh and susceptibility to forces of environment and heredity, they are conceived with enough naturalism to allay any charges that Wilder ignores the observable and unpleasant facts of life. Marcantonio's losing struggle with his "lower nature," for instance, is as compulsive and has a pathetic consequence similar to that of Clyde Griffith in Dreiser's naturalistic American Tragedy; and Camila Perichole in The Bridge feels the same physical attraction to bullfighters that Hemingway's Lady Brett Ashley does in The Sun Also Rises. The Cabalists and the victims of the disaster at San Luis Rey, moreover, are as subject to the forces of history and circumstance as any characters of Dos Passos or Stephen Crane.

But Wilder's humanism precludes what he regards as the one-sidedness of philosophical naturalism and realism. The characteristic feature of these two novels and of The Woman of Andros is the inclusion of the inner as well as the outer facts of life with the intent of reaffirming the sense of the mystery of life which realistic and naturalistic writers had tended to ignore in their concern with external, observable data and with the power of heredity and environment. Wilder gives full scope to the claims of scientific, observable, objective knowledge (as manifested in literature by naturalism); but he insists that the inner life—the passions, the intellect, the hope and the aspirations—is a mystery whose workings and purposes defy rationalization. The life of the mind is one of constant struggle between the lower and the higher qualities in man. Moreover, the inner struggle has a metaphysical parallel in the universal tension between change and purpose. This view of course is not original, but the achievement of it in a literary work is difficult. If the work is original, the ideas take on fresh meaning.

Wilder revealed that it had been his intention in these early works to try to restore the aura of mystery to life when he told Walther Tritsch in a Berlin interview in 1931 that "It is the magic unity of purpose and chance, of destiny and accident, that I have tried to describe in my books." The superiority of The Bridge over The Cabala consists in large part in its more successful achievement of the "magic unity" through dialectic. The action of The Bridge begins when Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, sees the bridge fall and the five victims plunge to their deaths in the canyon below. "Why did this happen to those five?" he asks. "If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan."

Convinced the incident is an act of God, he sees in it an opportunity to observe God's intentions "in a pure state"; but, when his investigation of the lives of the victims shows no pattern of cause and effect, he concludes that the "discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed." Juniper's mistake is that he never learned the "central passion" of the lives of the three adult victims—the Marquesa de Montemayor, Pio, and Esteban. So the omniscient author steps in to recount these intimate facts although he admits that it is "possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring." We move, then, from the extrinsic motivations revealed by Juniper's investigation to the intrinsic motivations in the minds and hearts of the victims.

Wilder borrowed some of his material for The Bridge from Prosper Mérimée's La Carosse Du Saint Sacrement. In the Perichole, he combined Mérimée's Perichole with the parrot that taunts her; and he drew the Marquesa de Montemayor after Mérimée's marquise d'Altamire. But it is with Conrad's Chance, rather than Mérimée's work, that the book can most profitably be compared. Like Chance, The Bridge explores the themes of moral isolation and love and raises the question of whether events occur by accident or design. The title of Conrad's novel is ironic: Life is not a matter of chance or accident. Even where chance appears to govern men's lives—as it does in the events involving Flora de Barral and young Powell—there are causal factors at work. Conrad took as the epigraph for Chance a quotation from Sir Thomas Browne: "Those who hold that all things are governed by fortune had not erred, had they not persisted there." While Browne believed that all events have a divine cause, Conrad showed them in Chance to be governed by human motivation. He presented a series of incidents that seemed to be the result of sheer chance, but then showed that behind the appearance of accident was an intricate network of human causes. Flora's suicide attempt, for instance, appears to have been caused by a chain of misfortunes that began with her father's financial disaster; but it actually can be explained by her abusive treatment at the hands of the disgruntled Eliza, whose actions can also be explained in terms of clear-cut traits of character.

Wilder's strategy is to set forth the two alternatives by means of external and internal evidence—that which Brother Juniper adduces to prove the presence of the hand of God in the fall of the bridge, and that which he cannot see because it is in the minds and hearts of the characters. Juniper combines the two extreme and dogmatic interpretations of the incident: the scientific, which sees the fall as something that can be explained in physical terms; and the orthodox Christian, which sees in all events the operation of Providence. Both of these views are based upon externals, and Juniper's collection of data in the scientific manner in order to settle a theological question is a reductio ad absurdum of both positions, since his investigations lead to no conclusion at all.

Attention is thus directed to the inner sources of evidence when the omniscient author points to the "central passion" in each of the major characters. Beyond this purely human explanation lies the suggestion that there is a divine cause in the "central passion," love, in the victims. The fall of the bridge of San Luis Rey symbolizes the force of circumstance or of the meaningless workings of nature, but the passions of the victims act as the primary human cause leading them to the bridge. Fusion of these two factors brings about the "magic unity" of purpose and chance that provides the element of mystery which is the essence of mysticism. The applicability of the Browne epigraph to The Bridge is thus apparent: Those who hold that the fall of the bridge was an accident would not err in the position if they did not insist upon its being the whole truth. To this Wilder adds: Those who believe would not err if they did not insist, like Juniper, upon proving God's presence in all the events of life.

Between the first chapter ("Perhaps an Accident") and the last ("Perhaps an Intention"), three flashback chapter recount the lives of the three chief victims up to the time of the disaster. Each of them, it turns out, is a person with deep spiritual attachments whose "central passion" is thwarted either by emotional coldness or selfishness or by natural circumstance. But each is also governed to such an extent by his consuming passion that the conflict it generates and the disaster that follows it have the earmarks of fate. Yet each one is a free spirit and has an opportunity, just before the fall of the bridge, to make a compromise with the circumstances of his situation and rebuild his moral life. The vision is a tragic one: Their deaths are an inescapable fact, regardless of the interpretation one makes of their lives; but their deaths are not entirely futile, since they generate a love in the survivors that did not exist before.

The sense of mystery is achieved in the episodes dealing with the individual victims, whose complexity demonstrates why Juniper's investigation is futile. The Marquesa de Montemayor has fixed her whole spiritual being upon her daughter, Dona Clara, who has married a Spanish nobleman to escape her mother's extreme affection. Cold and intellectual like her father (and like Blair in The Cabala), Dona Clara is the opposite of the Marquesa, whose love for her daughter is the chief factor in her life. Dona Clara sails from Peru to Spain "with the most admirable composure, leaving her mother to gaze after the bright ship, her hand pressing now her heart and now her mouth."

The object of her life gone, the Marquesa turns in upon herself and lives a mental drama in which she and her daughter live as she, the Marquesa, would have them live. "On that stage were performed endless dialogues with her daughter, impossible reconciliations, scenes eternally recommenced of remorse and forgiveness," the Marquesa always being the one who forgave and the daughter feeling remorse. To the people of Lima there was no indication that the Marquesa was suffering the agonies of the unloved. They knew her as a slovenly, drunken old woman who talked to herself; at one time there was a petition circulated to have her locked up, and she had been denounced by the Inquisition. They were unaware, when interviewed by Juniper, that she read widely and that she wrote letters to her daughter (letters Wilder patterned after those of Madame de Sévigne) which "in an astonishing world have become the textbook of schoolboys and the anthill of grammarians." These letters, like all great literature, reflected "the notation of the heart."

But while genius was concealed by outward ugliness and kindled by suffering, the Marquesa had moral weaknesses that were a part of the love that generated the great letters. For one thing, her devotion to her daughter was "not without a shade of tyranny: she loved her daughter not for her daughter's sake, but for her own." And even the great letters, in their sophisticated tone of detached amusement at the people and events in Lima, concealed the lack of humility and courage in the love that produced them. The Marquesa learns the lessons of humility and courage from the orphan girl Pepita, who also dies in the disaster.

Pepita, whose devotion to the Abbess, Madre Maria, is as strong as the Marquesa's for Dona Clara, is sent by the Abbess to serve the Marquesa. Feeling as strongly about her separation from the Abbess as the Marquesa does about hers from her daughter, Pepita writes a letter to the Abbess asking to return to the convent. She does not send the letter, however, because she feels it "wasn't brave." The Marquesa, having read the letter, discovers in it the humility and willingness to sacrifice that she herself lacks. The night before the fall of the bridge, watching Pepita as she sleeps, the Marquesa whispers to herself, "Let me live now … Let me begin again."

The Marquesa's "central passion" gains an added dimension by her apparent victory over circumstance. Like Pepita, she has had an unfortunate beginning in life, Pepita being an orphan, the Marquesa having had an unhappy childhood. Pepita, however, since coming under the guardianship of the Abbess, has lived in an atmosphere of love and sacrifice that has enabled her to withstand the affliction of separation with courage, which the Marquesa was not able to do without losing her religion and seeking escape in drinking. The Marquesa's life has been directed by circumstance up to the time she reads Pepita's letter, since, in addition to having a daughter who is colds towards her, her selfishness and lack of courage both stem from an unhappy childhood and a marriage she was forced into against her will. When she decides to "begin again," therefore, she affirms the triumph of her will over circumstance. Yet, ironically, she seems to lose to circumstance finally when the bridge falls.

The complex development of the Marquesa's character and the interplay between the forces of will and circumstance preclude any easy metaphysical or theological affirmations. The episode ends in mystery, as do those involving Esteban and Pio. But the moral imperative of love is clear enough; and the highest love is the kind of disinterested love shown by Pepita and by the Abbess, whose life is devoted to the care of the suffering. The levels of love are worked out in a somewhat broader fashion in the Esteban chapter and represent Wilder's humanistic answer to the contention that love is a purely human contrivance.

At the lowest level are Camila's shabby, clandestine affairs with various men of Lima. She hires Manuel to write letters to her lovers, all of whom she quarrels with and almost casually abandons. In contrast to her animal-like passion, vulgarity, and absence of profound feeling is Manuel's brief but intense love for her. Manuel himself is not inexperienced sexually; for both he and Esteban "had possessed women, and often, especially during their years at the waterfront; but simply, Latinly." His love for Camila, however, represents a departure from purely physical pleasure: "… it was the first time that his will and imagination had been thus overwhelmed." That is, he rose for the first time to a human level in love and above the mere promptings of nature. He "had lost that privilege of simple nature, the dissociation of love and pleasure." Understanding nothing higher than physical pleasure, Camila is cynical about love. "There is no such thing as that kind of love," she tells Pio. "It's in the theater you find such things." But Manuel, without art or learning, has no such cynicism. Love is as natural to him as pleasure, but more intense, and in it one undergoes a "crazy loss of one's self." He represents an affirmation that love may spring from a higher source than sexual desire.

He shows an even higher type of love than this love for Camila in giving her up for the sake of Esteban. Again, there is no intellectual analysis, no reflection, in his sacrifice. He intuitively feels the isolation of Esteban; and, while his attachment to him is not so complete as Esteban's for him, it is strong enough to make Manuel willing to sacrifice to save his brother from misery.

Yet profound as Manuel's devotion to Esteban is, it falls below Esteban's for him. If Manuel's love is characterized by sacrifice, Esteban's is characterized, after Manuel's death by blood poisoning, by the complete identity of himself with his brother. But Esteban discovers in Manuel's attraction to Camila "that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well." Esteban's love attains the level of the tragic, for it is a part of the human condition that "the most perfect love" is never quite perfect.

This ascending scale of types of love, culminating in Esteban's devotion to his brother, sets the stage for Captain Alvarado, who has also suffered a loss, that of a daughter. The cause of the girl's death is not mentioned, but it is implied that there is no more "reason" for it than for Manuel's. The captain's grief is as profound as Esteban's, but they react in opposite ways. The captain travels "about the hemispheres," as the Marquesa writes to Dona Clara, "to pass the time between now and his old age." Yet he is reconciled to life, is determined to live it out to its end, and even hopes to see the girl again. Esteban cannot, however, face life or reconcile himself to it without Manuel. His identification with Manuel is so complete that he buries himself, figuratively, and assumes Manuel's name; and the night before the bridge falls, he attempts suicide. The inability of Esteban to face life without his brother symbolizes the pathos of man before circumstance. Endowed with a profound capacity for love and for pain, Esteban is unable either to comprehend or to accept a world which cares for neither. When the captain asks him to sail aboard his ship, he accepts in the hope that he can escape from his hopelessness in ceaseless activity. But this hope is short-lived: He cannot leave Peru, where Manuel is buried.

By the end of the Esteban episode, the moral qualities that comprise the highest form of human love appear in the acts of courage, humility, and sacrifice performed by the victims prior to the fall of the bridge. In the Pio episode, love is seen in terms of its highest and most concrete expression in art. The theme of artistic beauty being wrested from ugliness through the agency of love, a minor theme in the Marquesa episode, is developed fully in the Pio chapter. When Pio decides to "play Pygmalion" with Camila, his three great passions—"his passion for overseeing the lives of others, his worship of beautiful women, and his admiration for the treasures of Spanish literature"—assume moral significance. Until he meets Camila, Pio is totally unscrupulous. The conflict that develops when he begins to train her for the stage is the conflict between the artist (it is he, more than Camila, who is the artist) and his recalcitrant materials, the raw life from which the artist creates. Camila is Pio's "great secret and reason for his life"; but she is "quite incapable of establishing any harmony between the claims of her art, of her appetites, of her dreams, and of her crowded daily routine." Each of these is "a world in itself, and the warfare between them would soon have reduced to idiocy (or triviality) a less tenacious physique." Lack of a profound love to integrate the various claims upon her leaves Camila without any real meaning in her life. She leaves almost at random, the theatre at times capturing her enthusiasm, love at others; but nothing lasts for long, including her love for the Viceroy, whose mistress she becomes. Once during the twenty years she and Pio are associated love comes into her life—when she first meets the Viceroy—and then her acting reaches its perfection.

Pio's attempts to bring art and life together in a perfect union in Camila are successful only when love is present to bridge the gap between the two. This would be a platitude if it were not for the fact that the love that informs both is accompanied by suffering. This profoundest love, Pio believes, is a "cruel malady through which the elect are required to pass in their late youth and from which they emerge, pale and wrung, but ready for the business of living." He has the humility and compassion that come from the "illness" of love—the "rich wisdom" of the heart that Camila does not find until she has lost her beauty (by smallpox), Pio, and her son Jaime.

Having thus defined love and the abstract qualities that give it moral significance, Wilder concludes the book with the theme of love as a moral responsibility. All the survivors realize their failure to respond to the love directed toward them, imperfect though it was in the cases of Pio and the Marquesa. The full impact of love as a first condition to meaningful living comes to all the survivors after the disaster; and the Abbess, the only character in the book whose life has fulfilled itself in love (although even she, as she confesses to herself, has been too busy to appreciate fully the devotion of Pepita) expresses the significance of love in a world meaningless and purposeless without it: "Even now … almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman [Dona Clara], 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. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

Limited as it is to the human level, this proposition is directed to believers and skeptics alike; it warns both that, whatever their beliefs about God, love is indispensable if life is to have any meaning. The question raised by Juniper remains a mystery; the "perhapses" in the titles of the first and last chapters remain. At one level, human motivation brought the victims to the bridge at the same time—and in this The Bridge resembles Chance—but these motives have been shown to be so bound up with circumstance that the two are hardly separable. Moreover, as Juniper's investigation shows, the "good" died with the "bad"; there was no discernible relationship between desert and reward. Moral behavior, Wilder maintains, is, therefore, a purely human responsibility and has clear-cut human consequences: Whatever the interpretation of the disaster, it generated in the survivors a love that had not previously existed.

The theological and metaphysical question remains, however, in the "magic unity" achieved in the mysterious synthesis of circumstance and human motivation; and the sense of mystery in the lives and deaths of the characters provides an option for both believer and non-believer; at the same time the mysterious is in itself, paradoxically, the basis for a mystical interpretation. With regard to the persuasive effect of "magic unity"—which it was Wilder's declared aim to achieve—Kenneth Burke has remarked: "Mystery is a major resource of persuasion. Endow a person, an institution, a thing with the glow or resonance of the Mystical, and you have set up a motivational appeal to which people spontaneously ('instinctively,' 'intuitively') respond. In this respect, an ounce of 'Mystery' is worth a ton of argument." This mystery in the lives of the characters convinces rather than the "arguments" set against one another by Juniper. Thus, while Wilder doesn't say it in The Bridge, the "spring within the spring"—the love that bridges the land of the living and the land of the dead—has mystical significance….

The Bridge has become a classic of American fiction, and it will likely continue to hold a high place among that very august company of novels written during the twenties by such men as Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos—different as it is from their works. Despite its technical weaknesses, it has all the intellectual scope, depth of feeling, and complexity of character that make a mature and aesthetically satisfying vision. It was an unusual, courageous act in the twenties for a serious writer to affirm the moral nature and value of love—a subject most serious writers were associating in one way or another with sex. The almost inherently banal and sentimental "higher" manifestations of love were being abandoned to the hack writers or rejected as "genteel." But as he defines love in The Bridge, it is a most difficult thing; for it is accompanied by selfishness, confronted by human coldness, and loss upon a universe that does not seem to know or care that it exists. Considering the critical climate that prevailed in the twenties, it might fairly be said of Wilder himself what he says in The Bridge: "There are times when it requires high courage to speak the banal." The Bridge shows that not only courage but also the touch of the poet is there. The familiar takes on new life and meaning in art.

Source: Rex Burbank, "Three Romance Novels," in Thornton Wilder, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 44-56.

Malcolm Goldstein

In the following essay excerpt, Goldstein discusses various misinterpretations by both readers and critics of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In review, the victims of the bridge are these: an old woman whose daughter spurns her affection, an adolescent girl who lives only for the affection of an older woman, a young man whose sole object of love is dead, an old man whose sole object of love has rejected him, and a child whose mother is too self-involved to give him the affection he requires. For one reason or another, each stands apart from human society: two because they are old and unkempt; two because they are orphans; and the fifth because he is chronically ill. And with the exception of Don Jaime, each has added to the barrier between himself and society by failing to respond to any activity which does not involve his beloved. Pepita is at only slightly greater odds with the rest of manity than Don Jaime, but even she must think constantly of the one person she loves in order to sustain herself, and it is not until she begins to recognize the selfishness inherent in her distress in the Marquesa's household that she is allowed to escape through death. Perhaps it is a flaw in the novel that Don Jaime's life so poorly fits the pattern set by the other characters; yet he resembles them in part by agreeing to leave his mother, the only person whom he adores, and to go down to Lima with Uncle Pio. But, for that matter, Wilder flatly asserts that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find patterns in existence, and Brother Juniper is burned as a heretic for trying to do so.

Although The Bridge of San Luis Rey is imperfect, its faults are not ruinous. Whatever they may be, they are not caused by such deficiencies in taste and wisdom as are evident in most American religious fiction—the novels of Lloyd C. Douglas provide suitable examples for comparison. The Bridge is not sentimental; it offers no promises of earthly rewards and no overestimation of the worth of the characters. Nor does it speak out against active participation in this life in favor of patient waiting for the life to come. Yet, noting that many persons have misunderstood his intention, Wilder has himself remarked: "Only one reader in a thousand notices that I have asserted a denial of the survival of identity after death." While it is true, as this comment suggests, that many find the book "inspirational" and read it precisely as they read Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's Peace of Soul or Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebmann's Peace of Mind, it is difficult to understand how they could be misled. For, far from recommending a narcotic contemplation of the afterlife, Wilder speaks out for the vigorous pursuit of purely human relationships. If the five characters are tragic, they are so not because they die suddenly, or simply because they die, but because they have not truly lived, and at no point are we led to think that they will win the reward of an eventual reunion in heaven with the recipients of the love that for so many years enchained them. Threading through the narrative is the career of the Abbess, whose closeness to the life of Lima and attentiveness to everyday events are a reminder of the indifference of the others to such matters in their pursuit of a single goal. None of the victims escapes the measurement of his personality against that of this very vital woman. The consecration of her life to a program of work for the good of all humanity, involving her in the sacrifice of Pepita, Manuel, and Esteban, puts to shame the selfishness of the others as it is reflected in their indulgence in the anguish of love. In The Bridge, as in The Cabala and the major works which followed, Wilder insists that the life that is a rush of unanalyzed activity is as nothing when compared to the life in which the participant allows himself to become fully aware of the meaning of each experience.

Unhappily, Wilder's latter-day critics have served him no better than his most naive readers. Impatient with the slow-moving, aphoristic style and the historical setting, they have looked back on The Bridge as a kind of sport among the popular novels of the 1920's and mention it as such if they mention it at all. It is true that this work contrasts bleakly with the naturalistic novels which now seem to be the sum of the literature of the decade, but to admit that fact is not to deny its quality. However much it may differ in technique from the fiction of, say, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or John Dos Passos, it does not display a soft attitude toward the human condition. At the time of its publication it offered a considerable change in tone from the fast-paced novels of the age, and obviously a welcome change in view of the sales record, but it did not offer easy lessons in contentment.

Source: Malcolm Goldstein, "Voyages into History," in The Art of Thornton Wilder, University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 60-62.


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

Grebanier, Bernard, Thornton Wilder, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, No. 14, University of Minnesota Press, 1964, p. 15.

Further Reading

Bunge, Nancy, "'New Modalities of the True and Beautiful': Point of View in Thornton Wilder's Novels," in Thornton Wilder: New Essays, edited by Martin Blank, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer, and David Garrett Izzo, Locust Hill Press, 1999, pp. 157-68.

Bunge examines Wilder's aesthetic philosophy and applies it to his fiction.

Cowley, Malcolm, "The Man Who Abolished Time," in Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, edited by Martin Blank, G. K. Hall, 1996, pp. 32-38.

This essay, by one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century, explains ways that Wilder toyed with the concept of time in this and other novels.

Harrison, Gilbert, The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder, Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

This comprehensive biography by a writer who knew Wilder for several decades is one of the best books available on the writer's life.

Kuner, M.C., Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972.

Kuner considers Wilder's major works in terms of the author's two conflicting moods.

Walsh, Claudette, Thornton Wilder: A Reference Guide, 1926–1990, G. K. Hall, 1993.

This reference work is an indispensable, comprehensive guide for finding articles by and about Wilder.

Wescott, Glenway, "Talks with Thornton Wilder," in his Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism, Books for Libraries Press, 1972, pp. 242-308.

Wescott, a social observer and lively, personal writer, captures Wilder's personality in this essay on his long relationship with the author.