The Bridge of San Luis Rey
By Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Title Information
Setting
Characters Structure, Special Techniques Narration Tone
Plot Summary Themes Climax and Conclusion Seizing Reader's Attention
Figures of Speech Terms From the Novel References and Allusions Study Questions
Essay Topics Author's Biography Complete Text Index of Study Guides

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
Type of Work

.......The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a novel that (1) looks back on the lives of five Peruvians who died when a bridge collapsed and (2) describes the effect of the accident on friends and relatives of the five victims.
 
Publication


.......The New York firm of Albert and Charles Boni published the novel in 1927. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928.   

Title Information  

.......San Luis Rey is Spanish for Saint Louis the King. In 1226, when he was still a boy, Louis (1215-1270) succeeded to the throne of France as Louis IX and reigned until his death. A devout Catholic, he went on the Seventh and Eighth Crusades to the Holy Land. He was a canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1297.

Setting

.......The action begins at noon on Friday, July 20, 1714, when a bridge between the Peruvian cities of Cuzco and Lima collapses. Five Lima residents fall to their deaths. The narration then flashes back several decades to tell the story of the victims. It also returns to the present from time to time to focus on how the accident affects the relatives and friends of the victims, as well as other residents of Lima.
.......
A viceroy (governor) is in power in Lima while the events of the novel unfold. After the Spanish conquests in South America, Spain established a viceroyalty in Peru in 1542.

Characters

Doña María, Marquesa de Montemayor: Noblewoman of Lima who dies when the bridge collapses. When she was a child, she was homely and withdrawn. Her mother verbally abused her. When she was twenty-six, she was forced to marry a "ruined nobleman," the narrator says. She bears a child, Clara, upon whom she lavishes affection. But the child grows up emotionally cold, like her father, and rejects her mother's love. After Clara marries a Spanish nobleman, she moves with him to Spain. Her mother sends letters to her frequently. So well written are the letters that long after
Doña María's death children study them in schools. Doña María is on the bridge when it collapses. Wilder based her character on a French noblewoman of a later time, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626–1696), who became famous for the letters she wrote.
Marqués de Montemayor: Husband of Doña María. The narrator describes him as a "ruined nobleman" who is emotionally cold and haughty. He has no speaking role in the novel.

Doña Clara: Daughter of Doña María and her husband. The narrator describes her as "cold and intellectual," like her father. Because her mother is overly affectionate and attentive, Doña Clara does not get along with her. When Clara marries, she receives the title Condesa d'Abuirre and moves to Spain to escape her mother.
Conde Vicente d'Abuirre: Influential husband of Doña Clara. He is a Spanish nobleman.
Madre María del Pilar: Elderly abbess of the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas, which operates an orphanage and cares for the sick. She is wise, kindly, and deeply concerned about the welfare of others.
Pepita: Intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working girl at the orphanage of the abbess, who regards Pepita as a candidate to become the next abbess. The abbess grants permission for her to become the companion of Doña María in hopes that her experience will broaden her education. Pepita is on the bridge when it collapses.
Camila Perichole: Stage name of Micaela Villegas, a proud, beautiful, and talented actress who becomes the mistress of the viceroy of Lima. She was a waif who came from humble origins. Wilder based Camila on a historical figure of a later time, Maria Micaela Villegas Hurtado (1748-1819), the most famous Peruvian actress of her time. 
Don Andrés de Ribera: Viceroy of Lima. Wilder based his character on the Spanish-born viceroy of Peru of a later time, Manuel de Amat y Junient (1707-1782).
Uncle Pio: Spanish-born free spirit who runs away from home in Castille, Spain, when he is ten. He discovers the world on his own terms. He earns money by running errands, distributing handbills, training snakes and bears for circuses, cooking, and doing various other odd jobs. He reads widely and has a deep appreciation for literature and the theater. After migrating to Peru, he studies Inca remedies and sells them in medical preparations. He also dabbles in real estate and other enterprises. When Camila Perichole is twelve, he trains her for her stage career. Uncle Pio is on the bridge when it collapses.
Don Jaime: Son of Camila Perichole and the viceroy. He is on the bridge when it collapses.       
Esteban and Manuel: Identical twin brothers whom no one can tell apart. They converse in their own private language and can communicate through extrasensory perception. Esteban is on the bridge when it collapses.
Captain Alvarado: Seaman whose daughter died when she was very young. He roams the world in an attempt to drown his sorrow. He comes to the aid of Esteban after the death of the latter's brother, Manuel, sends Esteban into deep depression.
Brother Juniper: Franciscan monk who witnesses the bridge collapse and researches the lives of those who fell to their deaths. His purpose is to attempt demonstrate that they died as part of a divine plan. He presents his findings in a book.
Archbishop of Lima: Devout, well-educated prelate with a weakness for food. On his return from a trip to Spain, he brings with him the scripts of thirty-five plays that can be enacted at the theater in Lima.
Don Rubío: Acquaintance of Doña María. When she is writing a letter to her daughter, she mentions a performance of Camila Perichole and says, "Don Rubío . . . cannot make out whether Uncle Pio is [Camila's] father, her lover, or her son.
Sister Juana: Nun at the abbess's convent.

Structure and Special Techniques


.......The novel contains five parts. The first part focuses on a bridge collapse in 1714 in which five persons fall to their deaths; the last part focuses on what happened in the days, weeks, and years following the bridge collapse. The second third, and fourth parts of the novel center primarily on the lives of the persons who fell to their deaths. These three parts are set days, weeks, or years before the bridge collapses. 
.......Wilder uses two techniques to support this structure: (1) in medias res and (2) flashback.
.......In medias res is Latin for in the middle of things. In literature, it means that a narrative begins with an event that occurs in the middle of the story chronologically. Flashback means that a narrative shifts from the present to the past to tell part of the story. The Bridge of San Luis Rey begins with the collapse of the bridge (in medias res), then returns to earlier times in flashbacks to tell the stories of the persons who fell to their deaths. After telling these stories, the novel returns to the present to tell how the bridge collapse has affected relatives and friends of the victims.

Narration

....... The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view more than a century after the collapse of the bridge. He is an omniscient narrator, enabling him to reveal the thoughts of the characters. On rare occasions, he shifts to first-person point of view when making an observation, as in the following passage:
And I, who claim to know so much more, isn't it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring? Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God. (Part 1)
Tone

....... The tone of the novel is serious and thoughtful.

Plot Summary

Part 1: Perhaps an Accident

.......A bridge over a river gorge between Lima and Cuzco collapses at noon on Friday, July 20, 1714. Five people fall to the their deaths. More than a century before the incident, Incas had constructed the span—called the Bridge of San Luis Rey—of woven rods of willow, with wooden slats for the walkway. Horse-drawn vehicles had to descend to the river and cross on rafts.
.......After the funeral for the victims in the cathedral in Lima, talk of the accident unsettles the region's inhabitants. Some of them picture themselves falling through the air. Others right wrongs or suffer pangs of conscience, realizing that such an accident could happen to them one day. Their reactions are unusual in a country that regularly experiences calamities far worse: earthquakes, punishing tidal waves, and epidemics.
.......Brother Juniper, an Italian Franciscan doing mission work in Peru, had witnessed the accident just before he was about to cross the bridge. Nearing the bridge, he heard a vibrating sound—like that of a plucked string on a musical instrument—then saw the structure collapse in the middle, like a piece of taut string cut in two. Later, he asks himself, “Why did this happen to those five?” He wonders whether the bridge collapse was part of a divine plan or simply an example of bad luck. He decides to investigate the accident to try to prove that there was meaning in it and to show the people under his tutelage that there is a reason for the pain and suffering they endure.
.......So he inquires about the people who lost their lives, calling upon thousands of Lima residents over six years. He writes a thick book recording his findings. But officialdom burns it as heresy and executes Brother Juniper himself in the flames. However, a copy of the book survives at the University of San Marco, presenting his research on the victims and their friends and acquaintances.

Part 2: The Marquesa de Montemayor

.......Doña María, the daughter of a cloth merchant, leads a troubled life as a child. She is ugly; she stutters. Her mother browbeats her for not being more outgoing and forces her to wear necklaces of jewels to make her more appealing. When Doña María is older, she prefers solitude to the company of young men—to the dismay of her shrewish mother. In a forced marriage when she is twenty-six, she becomes the husband of “a ruined nobleman” who is haughty and emotionally cold. In her early married life, she continues to keep to herself. However, after giving birth to her own child, Clara, she finds a purpose in life and dotes on the beautiful little creature.
.......“But little Clara took after her father,” the narrator says. “She was cold and intellectual.”
.......Doña María does not stop loving her, however. In fact, she smothers her daughter with so much attention that Clara resents her and deliberately marries a man who will make their home in Spain. After Clara leaves, Doña María becomes withdrawn. All she can think about is her daughter thousands of miles away. In time, she begins to talk to herself and pays less attention to the way she dresses. When people see the disheveled woman coming and going on Lima streets, her lips always moving, they mock her and attribute her behavior to drunknenness.
.......The Marquesa sends her daughter generous sums of money as well as other gifts. Clara, in turn, lavishes money and gifts on her friends, her servants, and others and becomes very popular.
.......Four years after Clara's marriage, Doña María travels to Spain to visit her daughter. Although mother and daughter had resolved to be cordial with each other, they bicker as soon as they come face to face. One day, Doña María rises at dawn, quietly leaves the house, and boards a ship for home. Thereafter, they communicate only by letter.
.......(Many years after her death, Doña María becomes famous for her exquisitely beautiful letters, which school students and grammarians study. To demonstrate her love for her daughter, she brought to her letters a pen refined with her reading of the classics and her keen observation of people she met. “We know now that her daughter barely glanced at the letters and that it is to the son-in-law that we owe their preservation,” the narrator says. “The Marquesa would have been astonished to learn that her letters were immortal.”)
.......In her letters, she writes of daily happenings—including scandals, her husband's flagging health, and her great love for her daughter. Clara objects to the highly emotional tone of her mother's letters.
.......Although Doña María fiercely loves her daughter, she knows that there is a selfishness in her love. She wants her daughter to think that she is the best mother in the world, and she wants to hear her daughter ask forgiveness for her past unkind behavior.
.......Meanwhile, Doña María begins spending time with a young girl, Pepita, from the orphanage run by the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas. The convent's elderly abbess—Madre María del Pilar—has been grooming the hard-working, intelligent girl to become the next abbess of the convent, although she has not informed Pepita of her intentions. When Doña María asked the abbess to lend her a companion, Madre María selected Pepita in the belief that placing her in the company of a wealthy aristocrat would benefit her educationally. 
.......One evening Doña María takes Pepita to the theater with her for a performance of Moreto's Trampa Adelante, with Camila Perichole in the starring role. She thinks she might be able to write about the performance in a future letter to her daughter.
.......It is a custom for Perichole to sing several selections between acts. When she appears on the stage to begin singing, she notices Doña María in her box and begins improvising lyrics that ridicule the marquesa. Perichole calls her an avaricious, drunken, slovenly woman whose own daughter ran away from her. The crowd approves of her improvisation. But because Doña María is thinking about her daughter at the time, she does not realize that she is being insulted. However, after Pepita tugs at her sleeve and whispers to her, the marquesa and Pepita leave. Sometime later, the viceroy learns of the mockery of a fellow aristocrat and orders Perichole to apologize in person to Doña María.
.......It is true that Doña María had taken up drinking. After her daughter went to Spain, she started on chicha, a fermented beverage similar to beer. After meeting Pepita, she tries to hide her drinking from her. But as her appreciation for chicha increases, she no longer attempts to conceal her fondness for it.
.......When Perichole calls on the marquesa and apologizes, Doña María is still unaware of the insults Perichole had inflicted on her from the stage. What is more, she has been drinking. In her jovial mood, she is exceedingly gracious and kindly to her visitor, telling her that she is a great artist. Perichole then becomes favorably disposed toward Doña María, who continues to praise the woman for her performance and orders refreshments for her.
.......After two years of visiting Doña María on afternoons, Pepita comes to live with her in her palatial home, performing various chores and continuing to act as a companion.
.......One day, Doña María learns that Clara is pregnant. The news prompts her to research all the do's and don't's of pregnancy and relay the information to her daughter. She also goes to early-morning masses to petition heaven to look after her daughter and makes a pilgrimage with Pepita to the shrine of Santa María de Cluxambuqua. While  Doña María is at the shrine in the afternoon, Pepita is at their inn unpacking the marquesa's belongings, including a small altar, tapestries, and portraits of Clara. After completing her task, Pepita sits down to write a letter to the abbess. With quill in hand, she pictures the face and eyes of Madre María del Pilar. She remembers how the nun would speak to her as an equal. She also recalls how Madre María made her feel that she was to act with a maturity of discipline beyond her age. Then she sent Pepita away with Doña María. Now Pepita longs to be back with the abbess. She writes the letter and goes downstairs to check on the preparation of Doña María's porridge, the staple of her diet. When the marquesa comes in and sits at the table, she is satisfied that she has done all she could on behalf of her expectant daughter. “Whatever will be, will be,” she says. Spotting Pepita's letter on the table, she opens and reads it.
.......When they are about to go to bed, Doña María tells the girl that she had written a thoughtful letter to the abbess. But Pepita says she has decided not to send it.
.......“It wasn't . . . it wasn't . . . brave,” she says. Pepita takes the letter to her room and tears it up.
.......Doña María reflects on the word “brave.” She had never been brave in her relations with her daughter. Immediately she sits down to write a letter—her first brave letter—remembering that in her last letter she had dared to ask how much her daughter loved her. On the page, she pours out her honesty; she does not complete the letter until dawn. She then goes to Pepita's room and says to the sleeping girl, “"Let me live now. Let me begin again.”
.......Two days later, while returning to Lima, both fall to their deaths when the bridge collapses.

Part 3: Esteban

.......Esteban and Manuel are twins that no one can tell apart. When they were babies, an unknown person left them at the door of the convent. While the boys are growing, people guess that they come from noble heritage because of their bearing. They are favorites of the abbess, who serves them treats in the afternoon and tells them stories. As time passes, she sends them to local churches to do odd jobs—dusting, trimming hedges, assisting priests in their ecclesiastical duties, and so on. When the time comes for them to get regular jobs, they choose to become as copyists. Because of the scarcity of printing presses in the region, there is still a need for scribes to copy documents such as theater plays, poetry, advertisements, and music scores.
.......They are quiet young men who dislike the little jokes people make about how closely they resemble each other. In fact, they avoid appearing in public together and walk on different streets when doing errands. .....
.......“Telepathy was a common occurrence in their lives,” the narrator says, “and when one returned home the other was always aware of it when his brother was still several streets away.”
.......After becoming bored with copy work, they take jobs loading and unloading ships. They then pick fruit and later work as ferrymen. Eventually, they return to Lima and do copy work for theater parts. In time, Manuel becomes fascinated with Perichole—at a distance. However, one day she asks him to write a letter; he must swear never to reveal its contents—or the contents of any other letters he writes for her. He swears by the Virgin and by Saint Rose of Lima that he won't even tell Esteban about the contents.
.......Manuel writes many letters for the woman (all to her lovers), receiving pay for each. Late one night, after two months, she comes to the twins' residence and dictates a letter to a matador, scolding him for failing to appear for a rendezvous. She whispers the words in Manuel's ear so that Esteban can't hear them. Esteban does not like the idea of being left out of their activity. After Camila pays Manuel and leaves, her presence lingers in his mind as he sits down. How he adores her. Suddenly, however, he becomes of aware of what Esteban is thinking—that this woman is coming between them. This thought frightens him. He does not want his brother to suffer; he does not want to alienate him. When he goes to bed, he says to Esteban, “Well, that's the last letter I write for that woman. She can go and find a pander somewhere else. If ever she calls here or sends for me when I'm out, tell her so. Make it plain.”
.......Esteban becomes sulky, but Manuel assures him he will never again have anything to do with Camila.
.......“I'm in your way,” Esteban says, then decides to go out for a walk even though it is 2 a.m. and it is raining. As Esteban moves toward the door, Manuel says, “In the name of God, in the name of God, Esteban, come back here." Esteban returns, and they do not speak of the Perichole matter for several weeks.
.......The next time that Perichole sends a messenger to summon Manuel to write a letter, Manuel sends word back that he will no longer write letters for her.
.......One night, Manuel accidentally brushes his knee against some sharp metal. A gash opens and the injury site begins swelling. Esteban runs out to fetch a barber-surgeon, but the surgeon does not come until morning. He prescribes medicines and tells Esteban to apply cold compresses to the wound every hour. But Manuel's condition worsens and the pain becomes severe. Against Manuel's protests, Esteban continues to apply the compresses. By 2 a.m Manuel is in excruciating pain and becomes delirious. He curses his brother to hell for applying the compresses—each one increasing his pain. Then he curses him again for “coming between me and what was mine by right”--meaning Camila. At dawn, however, Manuel's tells his brother he feels better and says he wasn't serious when he cursed his brother.
.......Esteban asks whether he would like to see Camila. Manuel emphatically says he would not. Esteban then says it is all right with him if Manuel wants to continue seeing her. But Manuel says he is through with her. Then he swears on a crucifix that he does not mean what he says when he curses Esteban while the latter is applying compresses.
.......When Esteban applies compresses in the ensuing days, Manuel cries out in rages of pain, disturbing others staying at the inn. The landlord threatens to evict them. As Manuel's condition worsens, Esteban summons a priest who administers the last rites. Then Manuel dies.
.......After the innkeeper informs the abbess of the death, she takes possession of the body. Citizens of Lima lament the death, aware of the bond between the young men.
.......Esteban wanders from place to place but eventually returns to Lima. When the abbess tries to converse with him, he runs off and later turns up in Cuzco doing copying for a university. After praying for him, the abbess asks a renowned explorer, Captain Alvarado, to recruit him for his next sea voyage. Life aboard a ship will help the young man adjust to life without his brother.  
.......After Alvarado tracks him down, he tells Esteban that he needs strong men for a trip to England and Russia. Esteban is such a man, he says, for he proved himself when he once helped unload cargo from Alvardo's ship. Esteban agrees to go under two conditions. First, he wants the captain to keep him busy with hard work all the time. He can't endure sitting still idly. Second, he wants the captain to pay him in advance so that he can purchase a gift for the abbess.
.......The captain notes that he heard of an act of heroism Esteban performed—namely, that Esteban had rescued someone from a burning house. Esteban replies, “You know, you're not allowed to kill yourself . . . But if you jump into a burning house to save somebody, that wouldn't be killing yourself.”
.......About the gift for the abbess, Esteban says it would be not only from him. The next day, the captain comes for him. Before they are to embark, Esteban goes to his room, scrapes away plaster around a beam, and throws a rope over it. Alvarez goes up the stairs, enters the room, and prevents Esteban from hanging himself.
.......“I am alone, alone, alone,” Esteban cries.
.......The captain understands his pain. He had a little girl once, but she died. Through Esteban, he relives desperate hours from long ago. He speaks encouraging words to Esteban and soon they are on their way to Lima. When they reach the Bridge of San Luis Rey, the captain goes down the gorge to see to some merchandise that must be ferried across the stream. Esteban begins crossing the bridge and falls to his death.

Part Four: Uncle Pio

.......Uncle Pio was born in Spain. Because of his adventurous spirit, he ran away from his father's hacienda when he was ten. In Madrid, he began living by his wits and has been doing so ever since. In one of her letters to her daughter, the marquesa writes of him:
He possessed the six attributes of the adventurer: a memory for names and faces, with the aptitude for altering his own; the gift of tongues; inexhaustible invention; secrecy; the talent for falling into conversation with strangers; and that freedom from conscience that springs from a contempt for the dozing rich he preyed upon.
.......While a teenager in Spain, he worked various jobs. He ran errands, distributed handbills, worked with horses, trained snakes and bears for circuses, cooked, and made money be spreading rumors. When he was in his twenties, the government hired him to stir up rebellions among mountain people so that the government would have an excuse to crack down on them. He also knew how to trade in antiquities and Italian silks and how to run a theater. All the while, he read widely and became well versed in literature.
.......After he migrated to Peru, he studied the remedies of the Incas and began selling medical preparations. He also dabbled in real estate and other enterprises. Through his activities, he became acquainted with almost everyone in Lima, including the viceroy. In fact, the viceroy hired him to perform various tasks. Because both men were conversant in literature, they enjoyed each other's company.     
.......One day Uncle Pio is in a cafe when a poor twelve-year-old named Micaela Villegas is singing ballads. He latches onto to her, providing a place for her to sleep in his home—a great improvement over the wine cellar that she previously slept in. Then he gives her singing and acting lessons, buys her new clothes, and takes her to the theater. The girl grows into a beautiful woman and a famous actress and singer known as Camila Perichole. Uncle Pio writes music for her, coifs her hair, gives her massages, runs errands for her, and helps her memorize her parts. But he is a demanding manager of her career. When her performances are merely good but not superb, he lets her know it.
.......“Why did you take that speech to the prisoner so fast?” he would say angrily.
.......His sharp words from time to time wound her, but they make her a better actress—in fact, the best in Peru.
....... In time, she becomes the viceroy's mistress and bears him three children. Just as her acting is at a peak, she begins to tire of it and it loses some of its color. At the same time, she tires of the viceroy and begins having affairs with matadors, merchants, and actors. Meanwhile, playing the real-life role of a lady begins to interest her more than the stage, and she gives up the theater. After hiring a duenna and footmen, she has documents made up that legitimize her children, and she invents relatives. She dresses her seven-year-old son in garnet velvet. Both she and the viceroy have their own villas in the hills outside town, where they entertain guests.
.......Uncle Pio tries to persuade her to return to the theater—in particular, to perform in Madrid—but she refuses to come out of retirement even though she is still in her mid-thirties.
.......Not long after she speaks with Uncle Pio, she contracts smallpox along with several hundred others in Lima. Many residents who are aware of her humble origins take cruel pleasure in news of her illness. Meanwhile, she moves to her villa in the country after selling her elegant clothes and returning jewels that admirers gave her. She permits no one to see her except her nurse and her servants. When the viceroy entreats her to allow him to see her, she sends him a considerable sum of money and a letter but does not accede to his wishes.
.......Her self-imposed exile is due in part to her belief that people had paid attention to her because of her beauty, of which they were envious. Now that smallpox has eaten away at it, she assumes that people want to see her in order to glory in her downfall. Her friends attempt to draw her out of her seclusion, but their efforts only harden her opinion against them.
.......And so she descends deeper into seclusion—and into poverty and despair.
.......Uncle Pio remains loyal, however. He takes a hand in the management of the villa's farm, attends to her children, and lends her money. When she admits him to her presence, her tongue lashes out at him like a whip. She is still proud, thinking he simply pities her, and she dismisses him. She tells him never to return.
.......However, Uncle Pio later intrudes himself into her presence and asks her to permit him to take Don Jaime from her for one year. He will train the boy as he once trained her.
.......“I shall love him and take every care of him,” he says. “Did I harm you? Was I a bad teacher to you in those other years?"
.......If the child wishes to go, she says, Uncle Pio may take him. He can look for him at a nearby inn at noon the next day.
.......When Uncle Pio arrives at the inn at the appointed time, the boy is there.
.......“His mother had given him a gold piece for spending money and a little stone that shone in the dark to look at in his sleepless nights,” the narrator says.
.......They set out for Lima. While they are crossing the bridge, it collapses and they fall to their deaths.

Part Five: Perhaps an Intention

.......A stone bridge now spans the gorge. Poems have been written about the accident, the narrator says, “but the real literary monument is Brother Juniper's book.” He spends six years compiling it, talking with many people in the city. Among the conclusions he reaches are that the wicked went to their destruction when the bridge collapsed and that the good went early to their reward. He also concludes that pride and wealth do not serve people well but that humility lifts them up. But he was not satisfied that his findings painted a true picture.
.......“It was just possible that the Marquesa de Montemayor was not a monster of avarice, and Uncle Pio of self-indulgence,” he thinks.
.......After he submits the book for review, officials find it heretical and him a heretic. Both he and the book are burned.
.......Meanwhile, the viceroy sends his and Camila's two remaining children—both girls—to a convent in Spain. Camila, alone, believes she has failed everyone. A year after the accident, she goes to the convent and introduces herself to the abbess, who says she has heard that Camila was a great a beautiful actress.
.......“Oh, Mother, you must not say that,” Camila says. “I am a sinner.”
.......The abbess says two of the children who grew up in her orphanage died in the bridge collapse, “but you lost a real child of your own . . . and a great friend.” Camila then tells the abbess her story—the story of despair since childhood.
.......One day, a beautiful young noblewoman from Spain, Doña Clara, arrives at the convent to see the abbess. She speaks of her mother, Doña Maria, this time in a positive light. When she acknowledges her failings toward her mother, the abbess tells her about Pepita and Esteban and about Camila.
.......“All of us have failed,” the abbess says. “But,” she says, “do you know, my daughter, that in love . . . our very mistakes don't seem to be able to last long?"
.......Clara shows the nun Doña Maria's last letter. The beauty of the words astonishes the abbess, and she realizes for the first time what a wonderful person Doña Maria was.
.......Later, as the abbess goes about her tasks, she thinks,
Almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five 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."

Top


Themes

The Redeeming Power of Love


.......
Since ancient times, human beings have searched around them for signs of the divine that give meaning to their lives and hearten them in their journey toward death. In their quest, they sometimes regard spectacular phenomena--such as earthquakes, eclipses of the sun, and inexplicable cures of the sick--as evidence God's presence. Brother Juniper believes the collapse of the bridge is a sign of divine intervention in human affairs and spends six years conducting research to prove his thesis. He publishes his conclusions in a book. It attempts to demonstrate that God indeed caused the bridge collapse.
.......
In Part V of The Bridge of San Louis Rey, the narrator explains Brother Juniper's findings: "He thought he saw in the same accident, the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city." But the narrator also says, "Brother Juniper was not satisfied with his reasons. It was just possible that the Marquesa de Montemayor was not a monster of avarice, and Uncle Pio of self-indulgence.
.......
In fact, Brother Juniper's research was faulty. It failed to detect that the flawed humans under his examination, in particular the marquesa and Uncle Pio, had redeemed themselves through love. The narrator in flashback reveals the following.
.......
Denied love by her mother and by the man she is forced to marry, Doña Maria is desperate to give and receive love. After giving birth to Clara, she smothers the child with possessive love, expecting the child to realize that she has an obligation to love her mother back. But Clara recoils from her mother, marries, and moves to Spain. Disheartened, Doña Maria begins drinking and exhibiting eccentric behavior. She also takes on a companion, Pepita, a sort of surrogate child. Meanwhile, she writes letters to her daughter that convey more of the same oppressive affection. Consequently, Clara remains cool toward her mother, even when Doña Maria visits her in Spain. Not until little Pepita demonstrates her selflessness does Doña Maria realize that her love for her daughter has been a selfish, possessive love that was a kind of transaction: I'll love you if you love me. Then, through Pepita, Doña Maria discovers the meaning of genuine love. Doña Maria resolves to be a new woman, a new parent.
.......When she writes her next letter to Clara, she presents herself as a changed person who now regrets her past behavior toward her daughter. She successfully communicates for the first time her genuine love for Clara without preachment or unctuous flattery. It is unconditional love, redeeming love. It is a sign of the divine in her, a sign that Brother Juniper failed to notice when researching her life.
.......Uncle Pio also demonstrates this kind of love when he wangles his way into Camila's villa after she contracts smallpox and retreats from the world. When she refuses to leave her hideaway, he persuades her to give him her son Don Jaime so that he may educate him and give him love. Remember, Uncle Pio--like the boy--was an illegitimate child. No doubt, he empathizes with the youngster and wants to give him a chance at life. Uncle Pio asks nothing in return. He wants only an opportunity to love the boy unconditionally. The love he demonstrates may also be interpreted as a sign of the divine at work.
.......Esteban and Manuel have been as close as two siblings can ever be. One is the exact image of the other. They think and  act alike; they have their own private language; they exchange telepathic messages. So close are they, the narrator says, that “love is inadequate to describe the tacit, almost ashamed oneness of these brothers.” But when Manuel becomes infatuated with Camila Perichole, Esteban feels alienated, alone. Sensing how Esteban feels, Manuel immediately ceases writing letters for her. He discovers that the intensity of his brother's attachment to him—and his attachment to Esteban—is too precious to jeopardize. When Manuel becomes ill with his leg infection, Esteban is at his side day and night attending to his wound. Manuel, meanwhile, again tells him that Camila means nothing to him and says, “You're all I've got.”
.......The intrusion of Camila into their lives—and then the illness—makes them aware of the depth of their brotherly love. Alas, though, Manuel dies and Esteban descends into despair. But Captain Alvardo—who lost a child and underwent his own inner torture as a result—comes to his aid and saves him from hanging himself. This incident demonstrates for Esteban that there is still love in the world; it did not all disappear when Manuel was gone.  .......
.......After Uncle Pio and Camila's son fall to their deaths, Camila emerges from her cocoon and becomes a different woman, recognizing her sins of the past as a promiscuous and sometimes vain and selfish woman. Uncle Pio and her son live on in her memory—and in her love.
.......Doña Clara also changes, thanks to her mother's letter of reconciliation to her. When she comes to Lima, she praises her mother in a conversation with the abbess. And she contributes money to help Madre and her convent care for the blind. Her mother's love for her has finally had its effect.
....... In the end, it is not the bridge collapse per se that teaches people a lesson, as Brother Juniper thought, but the genuine love that was all around him--love that built bridges to other human beings.

Searching for God

....... Brother Juniper sets out to prove that the bridge collapse was no mere accident but an act of God. The narrator says of his intentions,
To our Franciscan there was no element of doubt in the experiment. He knew the answer. He merely wanted to prove it, historically, mathematically, to his converts, poor obstinate converts, so slow to believe that their pains were inserted into their lives for their own good. People were always asking for good sound proofs; doubt springs eternal in the human breast, even in countries where the Inquisition can read your very thoughts in your eyes.This was not the first time that Brother Juniper had tried to resort to such methods. Often on the long trips he had to make (scurrying from parish to parish, his robe tucked up about his knees, for haste) he would fall to dreaming of experiments that justify the ways of God to man. For instance, a complete record of the Prayers for Rain and their results.
Struggling Against Adversity

....... When she is growing up, Doña Maria must cope with a verbally abusive mother. When she is an adult, her family forces her to marry an emotionally cold nobleman. Her only child rejects her after Doña Maria smothers her with love.
.......As a child, Camila is a waif who sleeps in a wine cellar before Uncle Pio rescues her and trains her to become an actress. She grows into a beautiful, accomplished actress. Her fame and beauty turn her into a proud and promiscuous woman who engages in many affairs and receives many gifts. But she faces adversity all over again when she contracts smallpox and loses her beauty.
........Esteban, Manuel, and Pepita are all orphans who must work hard to make their way in the world. Captain Alvarado lost a child very dear to him and copes with constant travel. Uncle Pio ran away from home when he was a child and used his resourcefulness to keep adversity at bay.

Isolation

........All the main characters become voluntarily or involuntarily isolated at one time or another. When she is young, Doña Maria is unattractive and, to her mother, intolerable. Consequently she prefers to be alone. After being forced to marry a "ruined nobleman" who is cold and haughty, she still prefers her own company. When a child is born to her, it appears that she will never again be lonely. But as the child grows up, she rejects her mother and eventually moves to Spain. The narrator says,
Left alone in Lima the Marquesa's life grew more and more inward. She became increasingly negligent in her dress and like all lonely people she talked to herself audibly. All her existence lay in the burning center of her mind. On that stage were performed endless dialogues with her daughter, impossible reconciliations, scenes eternally recommenced of remorse and forgiveness.
Doña Maria takes on a companion, Pepita, but she still feels alone without her daughter's love. Pepita, too, feels isolated; she loves the abbess as she would her own mother and wants to return to the convent. However, because of her strong character, she decides to persevere as Doña Maria's "loaned" companion and thus accepts her isolation, painful as it is.
........ Manuel's death deeply disturb's his twin brother Estaban. So isolated does he feel that he decides to kill himself. However, Captain Alvarado--who knows the pain of isolation after losing his daughter--intervenes and saves him.
........ Camila Perichole isolates herself from society after contracting smallpox, taking her little boy with her to her villa hideaway. Her daughters are sent off to a convent school in Spain. Thus, the boy is isolated from children his own age; the daughters are isolated from their mother. Uncle Pio, who isolated himself from his own family when he was a child, manages to break through her barrier of hostility. But she refuses to return to the stage, as he suggests. Fearing for the child's future, Uncle Pio receives Camila's permission to take the boy with him and educate him. But when he and the boy fall to their deaths, Camila becomes even more isolated than before--until she comes out of hiding and has a talk with the abbess.

Colonialism

........In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Spain rules in Peru, using the country's natural resources and native labor to bring home riches to Spain.

Importance of Education and the Arts

.......The novel emphasizes the importance of education and the arts. Self-education--through travel, reading, and learning different occupations--makes Uncle Pio something of a Renaissance man. He uses his knowledge to rescue Camila from poverty and turn her into a great actress. With the help of the play scripts the archbishop brings to Peru, Uncle Pio helps to promote theater in Lima, giving its residents an uplifting way to spend their leisure hours. Doña Maria turns letter writing into an art. Long after she dies, schoolchildren study her letters and learn from them. The wise old abbess educates her orphans in various ways, including exposing them to the experiences of life around them.

Flawed Humanity

.......As the novel unfolds, all of the important adult characters exhibit serious flaws.
Doña Maria treats her daughter like a possession. Estaban despairs and tries to commit suicide. Camila is promiscuous. Uncle Pio, the narrator says, "spread slanders at so much a slander. He sold rumors about crops and about the value of land." 

Top

Climax and Conclusion

.......Each story shares the same climax: the collapse of the bridge. The denouement consists of Part V.


Seizing the Reader's Attention

.......In the first chapter, Wilder seizes the reader's attention with the very first sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below." He then keeps the reader's attention by describing the unsettling effects of the bridge collapse on nearby residents and by asking a seven-word question:
"Why did this happen to those five?" Wilder then proceeds to examine the lives of the five persons who fell to their deaths.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the novel. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.

Alliteration

The first faint streak of sapphire was appearing behind the peaks and in the east the star of morning was pulsating every moment with a more tender in tention.

he dragged up the beach the bales of deep-red porcelain and sold the bowls.

Anaphora

Wilder frequently uses anaphora to achieve a pleasing balance in sentence structure while also presenting observations or alternatives. Here are examples:

If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off.

Perhaps it was the pure air from the snows before him; perhaps it was the memory that brushed him for a moment of the poem that bade him raise his eyes to the helpful hills.

Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.
Metaphor
Blurred and streaked became her view of the serene Pacific and the enormous clouds of pearl that hang forever motionless above it.
Comparison of the makeup of clouds to pearl

She had let fall upon the boys for a moment the detonation of her amazing eyes.
Comparison of the effect of Camila's gaze upon Estaban and Manuel to an explosion

He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her.
Comparison of a look of concern to a shadow

Camila, convinced in her pride that he pitied her, lashed him with the blade of her tongue.
Comparison of the tongue to a blade. Perhaps Wilder should have revised this sentence, for lash suggests whipping and blade suggests cutting.

He looked across the fields of black hair and lace at . . . the ropes of incense.
Comparison of hair and lace head coverings to fields; comparison of the rising smoke from incense to ropes
Personification
On the street you beheld an old woman her red wig fallen a little over one ear, her left cheek angry with a leprous affection, her right with a complementary adjustment of rouge.
Comparison of the cheek to a human. (Only humans become angry.)
Onomatopoeia, Simile, and Metaphor
Then his glance fell upon the bridge, and at that moment a twanging noise filled the air, as when the string of some musical instrument snaps in a disused room, and he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.
Onomatopoeia: twanging
Simile: Comparison of the noise the bridge makes to the snapping sound of a musical instrument
Metaphor: Comparison of people to ants
Simile
Travellers from the interior told of seeing Esteban as he strayed with eyes like coals along the dried-up beds of rivers.
Comparison of eyes to coals

They talked about . . . whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death. (Part 4)
Comparison of the possible visibility of the soul to that of a dove
Terms From the Novel

abbess: Nun in charge of a convent.
chicha: Fermented beverage similar to beer.
de: Spanish for of.
del: Spanish for of the.
de las: Spanish for of the.
don: Spanish for mister.
doña: Lady, a Spanish title.
duenna: Spanish for an elderly woman who acts as a governess or chaperone.
mantilla: Light lace or silk scarf worn over the head and shoulders of women in Spanish-speaking countries.
opéra bouffe: Opera with a happy ending. Parts of the libretto are spoken rather than sung.
escurial: Escorial. Village near Madrid, Spain, with a building housing a palace, monastery, school. The building is also called the Escorial.
excelencia: Spanish for Excellency, a title.
viceroy: Governor.
madre: Spanish for mother.
marquesa: Spanish for marchioness, a noblewoman married to a marquess (or marquis). 

marqués: Spanish for marquess (or marquis), a nobleman of high rank. A marquess was roughly equivalent to a count.
conde: Spanish for count.
condesa: Spanish for countess.
 

References and Allusions


Achilles (Part 3): In ancient mythology, a Greek soldier who was unsurpassed in his battlefield prowess. Of the tens of thousands of warriors who fought in the Trojan War, he was the greatest. For additional information on Achilles, click here.
Alarçon, Ruiz de (Part 4): Juan Ruiz de Alarçon (circa1581-1639): Mexican-born playwright of Spanish heritage.
Brantôme (Part 4): Pierre de Bourdeille, Lord of Brantôme (circa 1540-1614): French biographer and historian.
Calderón (Part 4): Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), eminent playwright and poet who was also a Roman Catholic priest.
Cervantes
(Part 4): Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). He is the author of one of the greatest works in western literature, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Cid (Part 3): Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043–1099), a heroic Spanish warrior. His admiring Moorish combatants dubbed him the Cid (the Lord). The Cid is the title of a play by the French dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606-1684).
Descartes (Part 4): René Descartes (1596-1650): French mathematician and philosopher; founder of analytical geometry.
doubt springs eternal in the human breast (Part 1): In his Essay on Man, English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote,
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
great Perhaps (Part 2): Allusion to words said to have been uttered by the French writer François Rabelais (1494-1553) on his deathbed. He reportedly said, "I go to seek a great perhaps."
Harlequin (Part 3): Comic servant in who appears in many Italian plays. Click here for more information.

Jupiter: Roman name for Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology.
Judas Maccabeus, also spelled Maccabee, Maccabaeus, and Machabeus (Part 3): Jewish leader who led a revolt (167-161 BC) against the Seleucid Empire and recaptured Jerusalem.
justify the ways of God to man (Part 1): Wilder borrows this phrase from John Milton's Paradise Lost. The phrase encapsulates the theme of Milton's great epic poem. Milton used justify as a synonym for explain and defend. For additional information on Paradise Lost and the theme, refer to the study guide on the work.
Lope de Vega (Part 4): Félix Arturo Lope de Vega (1562-1635), outstanding Spanish playwright.
Molina (Part 4): Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), Spanish playwright and poet who was also a Roman Catholic priest.
Morales (Part 3, 4): Cristóbal de Morales (circa 1500-1553), great Spanish composer of sacred music.
Moreto (Part 4): Augustine Moreto y Cabaña (1618-1669), Spanish playwright.
Palestrina (Part 4) : Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 or1526–1594), Italian who was one of the greatest composers of Roman Catholic liturgical music in history.
Pygmalion (Part 4): In Roman mythology, a sculptor who falls in love with one of his creations: an ivory statue of an exquisitely beautiful girl. The goddess of love, Venus, takes pity on him and brings the statue to life. For more information on this myth, click here.
Second Corinthians (Part 2): After
Doña Maria discovers how ineffective she has been in her dealings with her daughter, she writes a letter to her in which she attempts to explain herself and her motives in order to reconcile with her daughter. Many years after the death of Doña Maria, encyclopedists refer to this letter (the fifty-sixth that she wrote to her daughter) as her "Second Corinthians," the narrator says. This phrase is an allusion to the second epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians in the New Testament of the Bible. In that epistle, Paul deals with the effects that his first epistle to the Corinthians had on his readers. In Chapter 7 of Second Corinthians, Paul writes, in part: "I have already said that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. Great is my confidence in you, great my boasting about you."
this letter is number LVI (56) and compares it to the content of Second Corinthians, a Bible book in which St. Paul

sword of Damocles (Part 5): Ancient legend about a Greek named Damocles at the court of Dionysius II, the ruler of Syracuse, Italy. Damocles frequently flatter Dionysius as a great man and tells him that it must be wonderful to have so much power and to live in his magnificent surroundings. Dionysius then invites Damocles to change places with him to experience what it feels like to be a ruler. But when Damocles sits on the throne, he finds that a sword is suspended above him on a single strand of hair.
that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day: Allusion to lines 44 and 45 in the first scene of Act 4 in Shakespeare's King Lear. In commenting on the whimsical power of fate and supernatural forces on man, Gloucester says, "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport."         
Vittoria (Part 3, 4): Tomás Luis de Victoria (or da Vittoria). Victoria (1548–1611), Roman Catholic priest who was one of the great composers in fifteenth-century Spain. He composed hymns, masses, and motets. He was also a singer, organist, and choirmaster.


Study Questions and Essay Topics

1.  Who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least admirable? Explain your answers.
2.  Do you believe Brother Juniper was an objective researcher? Explain your answer.
3.  In an essay, compare and contrast Doña Maria and Camila Perichole.
4.  Good writers use specific language in their descriptions, as in the following passage focusing on the archbishop:
There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop. Between the rolls of flesh that surrounded them looked out two black eyes speaking discomfort, kindliness and wit. A Curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard, but by dint of never refusing himself a pheasant or a goose or his daily procession of Roman wines, he was his own bitter jailer. He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties; he was very devout. Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he was presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to the certain salad that will follow it. And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect.
     Identify five other paragraphs in the novel that contains specific descriptions.
5.  Write an essay that defends or opposes the view that God intervenes in human affairs.



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