People who thinks of Thornton Wilder primarily in terms of his classic novella “Our Town,” The Bridge of San Luis Rey will seem like quite a switch. For one thing, he has switched countries; instead of middle America, he deals here with Peru. He has switched eras, moving from the twentieth century back to the eighteenth. He has also dealt with a much broader society than he did in “Our Town,” representing the lower classes and the aristocracy with equal ease. But despite these differences, his theme is much the same; life is short, our expectations can be snuffed out with the snap of a finger, and in the end all that remains of us is those we have loved.
The novella begins by describing the quest of a Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, to figure out why some people’s lives are cut short while others, apparently less deserving of life, live well into their eighties and nineties. He has happened to witness a terrible accident
(the sudden collapse of a national landmark, the Bridge of San Luis Rey) which five people were crossing at the time of the disaster. All five were killed instantly: a little boy, a young girl, a wealthy old woman, an old man, and a youth. Brother Juniper is shocked into a metaphysical thought: “If there were any pattern in the universe at all, any plan 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. And in that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off” (Wilder, 5).
This is the wonderful premise behind Wilder’s examination of the connected lives of these five people. Several of them never actually meet, any more than we “meet” people with whom we happen to ride an elevator but, each of them knows someone who knows one of the other victims. Wilder goes on to clear up the stories of their lives, devoting a chapter to each of the major characters: The old woman, The Marquesa; The young man, Esteban; and the old man, Uncle Pio. (The other two victims, the young maid Pepita and the child Jaime, are not really explored, because they are seen primarily in relationship to the adults they accompany.