The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, presents the ancient dilemma of whether tragedy is the result of chance or a manifestation of divine intervention. It explores the lives of five people and reveals their internal struggles for survival. The sadness that is created by the undying love of the Marquesa de Montemayor for her daughter, Esteban for his twin brother, Manual and Uncle Pio for the vain actress, Camilla Perichole, is so overwhelming in its enormity, that when tragedy strikes, we feel relief that their suffering is finally over.
The scene is set in Lima, Peru, in 1714. One afternoon, an ancient bridge broke sending five people to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses this catastrophe and believes he can prove the existence of divine intervention. The first person is the Marquesa de Montemayor along with her servant and companion, Pepita. The Marquesa’s love for her daughter is not returned which sends her into a state of borderline psychosis. She begins to drink heavily and neglects to take care of the most important things in her life. One night while Pepita lay sleeping, the Marquesa is struck with the realization that her love for her daughter is a selfish love and she decides to renounce this love and begin a new life. Esteban and Manuel are orphaned twins found on the steps of a convent and raised by Maria del Pilar. When Manuel dies of an infection, Esteban is in despair and is about to embark on a new life with Captain Alvarado when he crosses the bridge. Camilla Perichole did not die on the bridge but was a victim nonetheless. Uncle Pio, friend and confidant of the Perichole, takes her son to educate him in the Arts and literature. The two never make it across the bridge. The Perichole is a famous actress who plays an important role in the story. “She is the axis, as it were, around which everything turns”(Stresau 23). She weaves the threads of the story together with her “passions and perversities”(Fadiman 338). The Perichole is a very selfish woman who indirectly causes the death of Manuel, Esteban’s brother, by destroying his will to live. When Manuel falls in love with the Perichole, the love the brothers' share becomes tainted and is forever destroyed. The only time that Manuel admits this is when he is in a state of such pain, he lashes out:
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... of tragedy and lets her be the diamond in the rough. She is the one person whose vision is unaltered from the very beginning of the book and to her the other survivors draw their own courage.
Camilla Perichole was in such pain over the loss Uncle Pio and her son Don Jaime, that she could no longer live in solitude. She desperately wished to be able to tell them one last time of her love for them. She sought out Maria del Pilar who accepted her with open arms and without judgment. “I fail everybody,” she cried. “They love me and I fail them”(Wilder 143).
The Marquesa de Montemayor’s daughter, Dona Clara, also came in search of redemption. Her guilt of not returning her mother’s love was consuming her and she wished to be punished. Dona Clara and Camille Perichole began to find new meaning in their lives by helping Maria del Pilar take care of those less fortunate them themselves.
The question still remains. Was it an accident or by design? It is best to leave the mystery in place, for to answer it dissolves the meaning of the book. Just knowing that some good came out of a catastrophic event brings pleasure to one’s heart and leaves us believing that it really does not matter.
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