Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
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
New York firm of Albert and Charles Boni published
the novel in 1927. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
.......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.
.......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
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homely and withdrawn.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
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
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
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
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
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
Sister Juana: Nun at the abbess's convent.
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)
.......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.
....... 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)
....... The tone of the novel is serious and
Part 1: Perhaps an
.......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
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
.......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
.......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
.......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
.......“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
.......“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
.......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
.......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
.......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
.......“I am alone, alone, alone,” Esteban
.......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
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
.......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
.......“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
.......They set out for Lima. While they are
crossing the bridge, it collapses and they fall to their
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
.......“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
.......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."
The Redeeming Power
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. .......
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.
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.
....... 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
her with love.
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.
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
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
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.
........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
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.
.......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."
Climax and Conclusion
.......Each story shares the same
climax: the collapse of the bridge. The
denouement consists of Part V.
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.
examples of figures of speech in the novel.
For definitions of figures of speech, click here.
The first faint
behind the peaks
and in the east the star
of morning was pulsating
with a more
tender in tention.
he dragged up
frequently uses anaphora to achieve a
pleasing balance in sentence structure while
also presenting observations or
alternatives. Here are examples:
If there were
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
had no family, because
they were twins, and because they
were brought up by women, they were silent.
Blurred and streaked
became her view of the serene Pacific and
the enormous clouds of pearl that hang
forever motionless above it.
of the makeup of clouds to pearl
had let fall upon the boys for a moment the
detonation of her amazing eyes.
the effect of Camila's gaze upon
Estaban and Manuel to an explosion
respected the slight nervous shadow that
crossed her face when he came too near her.
a look of concern to a shadow
convinced in her pride that he pitied her,
lashed him with the blade of her tongue.
the tongue to a blade. Perhaps Wilder
should have revised this sentence, for
lash suggests whipping and blade
looked across the fields of black hair and
lace at . . . the ropes of incense.
hair and lace head coverings to
fields; comparison of the rising smoke
from incense to ropes
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.
Simile, and Metaphor
of the cheek to a human. (Only humans
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
Comparison of the noise the bridge makes
to the snapping sound of a musical
Comparison of people to ants
Travellers from the
interior told of seeing Esteban as he
strayed with eyes like coals along the
dried-up beds of rivers.
From the Novel
of eyes to coals
talked about . . . whether the soul can be
seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the
moment of death. (Part 4)
of the possible visibility of the soul
to that of a dove
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
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
madre: Spanish for mother.
marquesa: Spanish for marchioness, a
noblewoman married to a marquess (or marquis).
Spanish for marquess (or marquis), a
nobleman of high rank. A marquess was roughly equivalent
to a 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
Brantôme (Part 4): Pierre de Bourdeille,
Lord of Brantôme (circa 1540-1614): French
biographer and historian.
(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
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
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.
Roman name for Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek
Maccabeus, also spelled Maccabee, Maccabaeus,
and Machabeus (Part 3): Jewish leader who led
a revolt (167-161 BC) against the Seleucid Empire and
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.
(Part 4): Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), Spanish
playwright and poet who was also a Roman Catholic
(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
(Part 4) : Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525
or1526–1594), Italian who was one of the greatest
composers of Roman Catholic liturgical music in
(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
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.
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
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
5. Write an essay that defends or opposes the view
that God intervenes in human affairs.