Thornton Wilder. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927. Historical novel.
Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey proves itself to be an elegantly composed but tonally elusive novella. Set in Spanish Peru in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the story revolves around a classic Act of God: the fall of an ancient footbridge over a rushing mountain river, precipitating five travelers to their deaths. A Franciscan monk who witnesses the accident decides to investigate the secret lives of the five victims, seeking to establish that God caused their deaths for good and sufficient reasons.
Wilder sets forth the victims’ lives in detail. The Marquesa de Montemayor is a wonderfully gifted letter-writer but also a conflicted, neurotic woman frantically in love with her daughter. Pepita is an earnest orphan girl devoted to the abbess who had sent her into service with the Marquesa. Esteban, an orphan taken in by the abbess, has fallen silently in love with an actress, Camila, and lost his twin brother, Manuel. Uncle Pio is the Marquesa’s friend and Camila’s mentor and, after a falling out with his ward, is escorting her little son back to Lima when the bridge collapses beneath them. All these people’s lives intersect. And somehow everything that happens to them seems to lead them inexorably to the Bridge of San Luis Rey. What can we say to this? “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Thornton leaves us to decide whether our lives and deaths are meaningless or whether “the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”
* The quote in this post’s title comes from Beowulf, hinting at the remarkable parallels between the Germanic pagan Weltanschauung and the Roman Catholic belief system.