Thornton Wilder – The Bridge of San Luis Rey

‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ was published in 1927. It was Wilder’s second novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Set in Lima, Peru, in the year 1714, the novel starts with the collapse of an ancient bridge. Five people are thrust into the abyss and do not survive the accident. Father Juniper, a Franciscan monk, attempts to find out why these people died. He wants to uncover the bigger plan that he believes God must have had.

For me, some parts of this novel worked really well, but others did not. I will try to explain why. First of all, to me ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ is really a study of love, in all its forms. In telling the stories of the five people who died in the accident, Wilder shares with us several stories of love; love between a mother and her child, between two twin brothers, the love of  a grown man for his pupil, etc. He does this very beautifully, as in this fragment, where he describes what happens between the twins Manuel and Esteban, when one of them falls in love with a woman

It was merely that in the heart of one of them there was left room for an elaborate imaginative attachment and in the heart of the other there was not.

This image of one of the twins falling in love and the other not knowing how this could have happened was very powerful, I thought. Similarly, the Marquesa de Montemayor and her devotion for her daughter really moved me.

The whole overarching plot with Father Juniper seeking God’s design seemed unnecessary scaffolding to me. The stories of the five people are told by an omniscient narrator and we do not hear Father Juniper’s words. We only find out later that things did not end well for the Father and that his manuscript is hidden somewhere. I found that the novel could do without this device.

I also did not much care for a second device, used by Wilder to give weight to his story of the Marquesa de Montemayor. The Marquesa dotes on her daughter, but her relationship with her daughter is troublesome and the daughter escapes to a marriage in Spain. The Marquesa is from then on forced to express her devotion in letters and not being surrounded by people who love her, she becomes a local oddity. She dresses and behaves in a funny way and people laugh at her behind her back. To make sure that the reader does take the Marquesa seriously, Wilder from the start emphasizes that after the Marquesa’s death, her letters became very famous literary works, studied in schools etc. Every time she writes a letter, he reminds us of this, which became to me at least, rather odious. The point is that for me, the fame of the Marquesa’s letters did not matter. Her story itself is sufficiently heart-breaking to make it of interest and importance to the reader.

Overall, this was a good read. There were some things I liked, some things I disliked, but on the whole the portrait of love is well done. I really sympathized with some of the characters and I do love the motto of this book as it is given on the last page

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.

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