There is so much to be discovered inside the covers of Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ that one barely knows where to begin.
In this lesson, we will have a summary and a short analysis of the book’s main motif and theme.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
In 1927, Thornton Wilder published a short novel that would go on to become one of the most celebrated works of his career. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was a best seller in its’ own time, won a Pulitzer, was made into three movies, an opera, and a play. It’s a story that delves deeply into the human heart to explore love in its many guises.
On July 20th, 1714, five travelers died when the bridge they were on broke. Brother Juniper,who witnessed the accident, becomes determined to prove that humans live and die by divine providence and sets out to explore the lives of the five victims.
Readers are led into a tangle of days in which our fated characters live their lives within their individual circles while consistently crossing each others’ paths. The story is a puzzle and all the pieces don’t completely fit until each chapter is combined to complement each other.
The Marquesa de Montemayor and Pepita
The Marquesa de Montemayor (Dona Maria) is a broken woman. After visiting her unloving daughter, Dona Clara, in Spain, and returning home with a broken heart from her mistreatment, Dona Maria begins writing beautiful letters to her instead of visiting. She has a companion, Pepita, a lonely orphan raised by the Abbess of the local convent.
Instead of accepting it, Dona Maria distances herself from Pepita’s waiting love and affection to wallow in her misery. However, it is through Pepita’s love for the Abbess that the Marquesa recognizes the flawed way in which she has loved her daughter: in pride and vanity. She writes her first real, unafraid, love letter to her daughter and vows to love her well. Two days later, Dona Maria and Pepita fall to their deaths.
Esteban and Manuel were orphans left at the convent of Abbess, Madre Maria del Pilar. The twins grew so close that their need to be with each other became paramount.
Both became scribes hired by the theater. It was here that Manuel fell in love with an actress, Camila Perichole (the Perichole).
When Manuel realizes his love for Camila hurts Esteban, he cuts her from his life. Soon after, he wounds his leg and develops a fatal infection.
In his delirium, he curses Esteban for having come between him and the Perichole. In lucid moments, he denies it all, but, when each feverish frenzy returns, he curses Esteban. When Manuel dies and Esteban takes to wandering the streets, a seaman he knows convinces Esteban to leave Peru with him. While waiting downstairs, the seaman hears the rough sound of rope on wood and realizes that Esteban means to hang himself.
Esteban is saved and the next day, they start out for Lima. The captain, taking a different path, leaves Esteban at the bridge where he meets his fate.
Uncle Pio and Jamie
Uncle Pio found Micaela Villegas, (aka Camila Perichole or, simply, the Perichole) when she was 12 and singing in a cafe. He was her maid, teacher, and caretaker: her everything. He molded her into a famous actress. The two loved one another as father and daughter though Uncle Pio would profess romantic love years later. Eventually, Camila left the stage and set herself up as a lady of society.
Years after, she contracted smallpox and her beauty was ravaged. Believing that her beauty was the only thing people loved about her, she despaired. Uncle Pio convinces her to let him take her son, Jamie, for a year. Sadly, Camila shows no real affection for him. She agrees to let Uncle Pio take him, and the next day they both fall with the others to their deaths.
And then there were only survivors.
Brother Juniper could not find a satisfactory answer for himself in the victim’s deaths, was found to be a heretic for his inquisitions, and was burned at the stake. The Abbess, Camila, and Dona Clara are left to grieve their losses and recognize that the love they bore those gone could be enough to make them better people.
The Overarching Motif: Impure Love
Love is seen in many of its costumes, but all are facades; each impure but the stuff of life, nonetheless. In the story Wilder addresses:
- The un-returned love of a mother for her daughter
- The selfish love of a mother that looks like obsession instead of devotion
- The fraternal love of Esteban and Manuel
- The love of Uncle Pio for his beloved Camila, which began as a fatherly love and became romantic love
- The Abbesses’ love wrapped in her desire to see her work into the future
- The love of a daughter who can only, after death, speak freely of her mother as a good woman
The Overarching Theme: The Power of Love
As Father Jupiter finds no answers, readers find, instead, a realization that his question, about humans living and dying by providence, does not matter.
All that matters is the love we give and the love given to us. Love and its’ manifestations are all there is by which to judge the world’s players. The Abbess tells us ”… the love will have been enough..
.. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love….” There is a bridge that spans this life and the next, a love which carries people, brings them together, separates them, and returns them to one another, and it exists far beyond questions seeking answers of divinity.
Thornton Wilder wove a philosophical story of how lives are lived and understood when humans feel loved, unloved or unlovable. Wilder creates a quilt in which each person’s life is stitched into a tapestry of loss and love. He sets up a search for divine answers but gives us a very human answer to questions of life: Love! ”…
the whole purport of literature …
is the notation of the heart.” Love offers life ”the only survival, the only meaning”. Is it irony that these five victims fell to their deaths as each embarked on a new life of possibility? Or is this to say that love does conquer all, even beyond the veil of death?