The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a classic novel from 1927 that won the Pulitzer Prize and was much praised by critics in general. It is quite short, really more of a novella of only about a hundred pages.

The story is set in the 1700s in colonial Peru. It begins with the collapse of the titular bridge, which plunges five people to their deaths. The disaster is witnessed by a monk named Brother Juniper. Brother Juniper decides that he will try to use the event to generate some good by investigating each of the victims’ lives to show how the deaths, while tragic on the surface, actually happened as and when they should according to God’s plan.

The bulk of the book then consists of character studies of the five victims. At the end we’re told Brother Juniper’s efforts were in vain, that he failed to show how the deaths of these people fit into some system of divine justice.

The first victim discussed is the Marquesa de Montemayor. She is an eccentric, superstitious widowed noblewoman who over the years has become something of a figure of ridicule amongst the local people. Her one great passion is her daughter, who by no means returns the affection and indeed has married and relocated to Spain. Almost the only contact they have is long letters from the Marquesa, with no more than occasional perfunctory responses from the daughter.

The Marquesa takes on a servant girl from a local orphanage named Pepita, who is the second victim of the bridge collapse. Pepita has grown up under the efficient but strict and cold tutelage of the Abbess of the orphanage. The Marquesa and Pepita spend a great deal of time together and share many experiences, but there is no warmth or friendship to speak of from the Marquesa, who is too focused on her uninterested daughter. Pepita, though, develops some admiration and fondness for the Marquesa and is hurt that they do not have a closer relationship.

Esteban and Manuel are identical twins who were also raised in the orphanage. They have that almost supernatural kind of connection twins are reputed to sometimes have, where they’re more like one person than two.

Then one of them, Manuel, falls in love with a local big shot actress named Camila Perichole, the mistress of the Viceroy, for whom he becomes an occasional personal assistant she pays to write letters for her. His feelings are unrequited.

Esteban is hurt that Manuel has developed such a strong attachment to someone else. They then go back and forth for a while, with Manuel insisting he’ll give her up because his brother is more important to him, and the unconvinced Esteban adopting more of an attitude of “don’t do me any favors.”

Manuel gets a cut on his leg which gets infected and he becomes very sick, and the recommended treatment of cold compresses is administered regularly by Esteban. Manuel deteriorates. The illness and especially the treatment cause him great pain and send him into periods of delirium, where he curses Esteban for hurting him and for making him give up his great love, all of which he takes back in between treatments.

Soon he dies. The distraught and lonely Esteban doesn’t know what to do with himself. He considers suicide, but the closest he comes is to put himself at risk for others, as by rushing into a burning building to save people, commenting that sacrificing your life that way isn’t even looked down upon as suicide.

On his way to take a job aboard a ship, he becomes the third victim of the bridge collapse.

Uncle Pio is kind of like how the Dos Equis “The Most Interesting Man in the World” guy might have been in the 1700s. He has traveled the world living by his wits, involving himself in everything from circuses to war.

Uncle Pio discovers Camila Perichole as a child, when she is a nobody, and recognizes her rare talent. He settles down to spend the rest of his life as a mentor/coach/friend/father figure/unrequited lover to her. As she becomes a big star cavorting with viceroys and such, she takes Uncle Pio for granted at best, and treats him with disdain at worst.

Regardless of how she treats him, he remains devoted to her, including after she contracts smallpox, which disfigures her face and causes her to withdraw from the world, assuming that everyone will forget her now that she is no longer beautiful or worse yet will revel in her misfortune.

She agrees to allow Uncle Pio to take her son under his wing and teach him as he once taught her. He and the boy become the fourth and fifth victims of the bridge collapse.

One of my main reactions to the book is that the supposed point of the story—that it’s a philosophical inquiry into whether deaths occur according to some divine playbook—is a dud, for multiple reasons.

One, that whole angle with Brother Juniper is barely developed. He’s in it very, very briefly at the beginning and end, and that’s it. He plays no role in all the material in between.

The descriptions of the victims and their lives are not told via his investigation. We don’t see him compiling evidence, interviewing people, mulling it all over, writing up his conclusions, etc. Nor is the material itself written as if by him, in the first person.

His role in the book is equivalent to the few seconds of screen time Rod Serling got at the beginning and end of each Twilight Zone episode. Serling was never a character in the stories themselves, just a brief presence before and after. That’s how external to the story Brother Juniper feels.

Two, it’s a dumb inquiry. What is it he’s supposedly looking for that would confirm his hypothesis of everything happening according to God’s plan? Does he think he’ll find evidence that only evil people die? That only evil people die young? That only evil people die painfully? That people only die at some logically appropriate time when they’ve served their purpose and any additional life would be superfluous? That no one ever dies with things left undone, loose ends left loose?

But nobody is stupid enough to believe any of that. You don’t need to meticulously gather evidence for years to figure out that that isn’t how death happens.

I don’t mean that no one believes “Everything happens according to God’s will,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” These are in fact extraordinarily common, indeed platitudinous, beliefs.

But they aren’t the kind of beliefs people hold as conclusions drawn from empirical observations, or confirmable or disconfirmable by empirical observations. They are attitudes people adopt from faith because they feel better assuming that some kind of benevolent intention pervades the world, that there’s some guarantee that everything will work out for the best in the end.

These aren’t scientific hypotheses; they’re positive thinking mantras.

There is always an unspoken “even though it seems otherwise” behind every “everything happens for a reason.” The very fact that terrible and inexplicable things happen is why people are driven to assume such an attitude in order to be able to bear living in a chaotic and suffering-filled world. They have to believe that there is some hidden and loving will behind it all, the key word being “hidden.”

So of course the result of Brother Juniper’s investigation would be that there’s no apparent rhyme or reason to the deaths at the bridge. Even the people who believe in the “everything happens for a reason” wishful thinking already know that. I can’t imagine any of them being shaken in their philosophy of life by the information Brother Juniper gathered. They believe that God works in mysterious ways; mere mortals are not supposed to be able to discern the divine plan as it applies to every event that happens.

But the thing is, beyond that I actually enjoyed the book. The character sketches are quite interesting and well done. Had all the stuff about Brother Juniper’s philosophical inquiry been deleted, it would still be a good read, an insightful portrait of a number of mostly lonely people.

Because really that’s the import of learning about these lives. Forget about this silliness of whether they died for a reason or not, what the novel explores quite well is the all-too-common phenomenon of wanting to love and be loved, wanting genuine human connection, but failing to get it. More specifically it’s about successfully finding someone to love and give your all to, but not having it reciprocated, as that person is likely offering their best to someone else who is not reciprocating it, and on and on.

I think The Bridge of San Luis Rey is worthwhile as a sad study of unrealized potential in human relationships like that. Embedding it in a supposed inquiry into whether the universe is governed by some divine purpose is a gimmick that never really goes anywhere, nor is it clear how it could have.

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