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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.
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The Marquesa, Wilder reveals, lives an extraordinarily lonely life; her husband is dead, and her only daughter has deliberately moved to Spain to get away from her mother. The mother, however, is devoted to the girl, and writes voluminous letters about every aspect of
Peruvian life, under the misguided assumption that the girl must be homesick for news of her native city. These letters are in stark contrast to Wilder’s description of what the Marquesa’s life is really like; she is old and ugly and eccentric, and the butt of all Lima’s jokes. She, however, lives in blissful ignorance of this fact, because her attention is so completely focused on her daughter. She does not even see the fact that in her own household her faithful little teenage maid is miserable from the lack of being loved. When she accidentally learns this from reading one of Pepita’s letters (coincidentally on the same day that the Marquesa receives a criticizes letter from her own daughter) she goes in and touches the hair of the sleeping Pepita and says, “Let me begin again” (Wilder, 39). Wilder concludes the chapter with, “Two days later they started back to Lima, and while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey the accident which we know befell them” (Wilder, 39).
The next story tells of a twin, Esteban. He and his brother Manuel are foundlings, raised in the same convent as Pepita herself had been. However, Pepita, as we know, was taken in by a wealthy woman, while Manuel and Esteban seem to have fended much more for themselves. The boys are very close, even speaking an invented language (not an uncommon phenomenon among twins). Esteban becomes very jealous of Manuel when he attracts the attention of a celebrated actress and serves as her secretary. Esteban is not jealous because he wants the attention of Camila Perichole for himself; he is jealous because she has created a rift between the bond between himself and his brother. When Manuel dies from a freak accident to his knee, Esteban momentarily assumes his brother’s identity because it makes him feel closer to the one person in his life he really loved. He also does more dangerous things to achieve unity with Manuel; he tells Captain Alvarado that he once went into a burning house to save the occupants because “you’re not allowed to kill yourself; you know you’re not allowed. Everybody knows that. But if you jump into a burning house to save somebody, that wouldn’t be killing yourself. And if you became a matador and the bull caught you, that wouldn’t be killing yourself” (Wilder,65). Clearly, Esteban wants to die, because with Manuel gone he has nothing else to live for. Consequently, the accident at San Luis Rey could almost be said to be fortuitous for him.
But for Uncle Pio and little Jaime, the final two victims of the collapse of the bridge, their accident robbed them of the chance to start a new life. Uncle Pio was the mentor and manager of Camila Perichole, the actress, during her early years in the theater. He made
her a star. But as she enters middle age, she no longer wants to be known as an actress (considered a somewhat disreputable occupation in the eighteenth century); now she has made her money in the theater and come under the patronage of a Viceroy and she wants to be known as a great lady. She rejects Uncle Pio as being below her station, and unnecessary to her new life; worse, he is a reminder of the old life she now wants to forget.
He goes to see her one last time, and asks a strange favor; he asks whether he might have her young son Jaime to mentor as he once did her. Even though Jaime is epileptic, he sees in the boy much of the same magic he once found in the Perichole herself. At first the
Perichole is horrified by the thought, but then tells Uncle Pio that the boy may go if he himself wishes it. Jaime, of course, does wish it; and the two are on their way back to Lima when the bridge falls.
The focus returns briefly to Brother Juniper, who, we are told, completes his book on the metaphysics behind the tragedy at San Luis Rey. We are not told what the book said, but only that both it and its author were burned for heresy. However, we can pretty well guess what the book concluded by looking at Brother Juniper’s observation when he first began it: “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan” (Wilder, 5). Juniper’s heretical conclusion must have been the existentialist one: we live by accident and die the same way. There is no plan.
The facts of the three deaths bear this out. The Marquesa had just made the decision to reform her life as well as Pepita’s. They never got the chance. Uncle Pio was old, but he could have been a great influence upon Jaime, who like Pepita had his whole life ahead of him. Only Esteban was ready to give up at twenty-two. Suddenly, however, all five lives are snuffed out, regardless of whether they were ready to go.
What all these people had in common, however, is love. Jaime was loved by his mother; Pepita and Esteban, by the Abbess at the convent. Uncle Pio had been loved by the Perichole, and loved her greatly still; the Marquesa loved her daughter so much that she left a legacy of letters that would later be loved by thousands of readers. Their memories survived through their love, freely given, and the love which was given to them. This is the theme of Wilder’s novella; as he puts it, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those [we loved] 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” (Wilder, 117).
In conclusion, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not a book to read once and then throw away;
It should be kept, because the novella deftly combines the aspects of memory, loss, and love into a portrayal that you will not easily forget.