Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Source of book: I own this


It is a rare event indeed when a book wins both popularity and critical acclaim. In the case of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, it won the Pulitzer in 1928 and was the bestselling work of fiction that year. Thornton Wilder actually won three Pulitzers - this one, and two for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is rather short - a novella, really - but it makes the most of its few pages by bringing to life three very different characters. 


The central event of the story is the collapse of a rope bridge - the titular bridge - which kills five people. Brother Juniper barely misses being on the bridge when it collapses, and he is both shaken and inspired to try to figure out why these people? What about them made God kill them? Okay, so he doesn’t phrase it exactly that way, but that is the central question, is it not? Brother Juniper spends years on this project, but when he completes it, he is condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake. 


These events form the first and last chapters, while the middle three chapters are each devoted to one of the victims, telling of their lives. The remaining two victims are children, so their lives are enough intertwined with the adults that they do not need their own chapters. 


The three characters are the Marquesa de Montemayor, Esteban, and Uncle Pio. 


The Marquesa is a wealthy woman, who over-smothered her one child, who departed for Spain and a life with her husband. Unable to win her daughter’s love, she writes beautiful letters to her, letters which eventually are recognized as great literature. 


Esteban is a foundling, who, along with his twin brother Manuel works as a scribe. When Manuel falls in love with Camila Perichole, a famous actress, their relationship becomes strained. 


Uncle Pio is Perichole’s mentor and manager, who has lived a hardscrabble life getting by however he can, before he is able to make great theater his life’s passion. His coaching enables Perichole to go from being a peasant girl to the best actress in Peru - perhaps in the world. When she tires of the theater and retires, he finds himself on the outs. 


The two children are the Marquesa’s child servant, Pepita; and Perichole’s son, Don Jaime, who Uncle Pio is taking to learn the acting craft like his mother. 


While Brother Juniper is seeking to confirm the justice of Divine Providence, Wilder appears to be doing the opposite. He questions if there is some greater purpose, or just plain chance. He also portrays the characters, not as ratings on a grid (which Brother Juniper does) based on character traits, but as complex and nuanced human beings, with our usual set of conflicting emotions, desires, and motivations. 


Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. 


Wilder never answers that question, unless the act of showing us fully human characters is an answer of some sort. Or perhaps his wry observation that “You and I can see that coming from anyone but Brother Juniper this plan would be the flower of a perfect skepticism.” But Juniper never doubts - he already is convinced of a divine plan - he just needs to do the math to prove it. 


Throughout the book, there are many occasions when characters doubt the things most others take for granted. For example, the abbess finds the heteronormative patriarchy to be troubling. 


[S]he had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress.


There are other times religion is questioned as well. When the Marquesa visits a famous shrine to seek blessings for her coming grandchild, Wilder notes an interesting fact about it. 


The ground had been holy through three religions; even before the Incan civilization distraught human beings had hugged the rocks and lashed themselves with whips to wring their will from the skies. 


It isn’t just that the place remains the same - holy no matter the religion - it is that the purpose remains the same, whatever the ritual. This has been one of my own struggles with the evangelical version of “prayer.” It is just another example of trying to manipulate God (or gods, or fate, or the stars, or whatever) into loving you more than they love other people. To exempt you from bad luck, and give you good luck. Just pray more. Or better. Or do this ritual, and get what you want. A quarter in the cosmic coke machine. 


Another profound statement in this book comes in the chapter on Manuel and Esteban. 


Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.


This is very true. My experience has been that in most of my relationships, of all sorts, I am the one who loves more profoundly. That’s just life, and it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the relationship, just that we all have different personalities and ways we love. 


I thought the portrayal of Uncle Pio was particularly well done. This line is just great. 


But for all his activity nothing made Uncle Pio rich. One would have said that he abandoned a venture when it threatened to prosper. 


The final chapter summarizes Juniper’s findings, and also the problem that he faced: there was no clear pattern to be found. So, he essentially did what believers in a divinely micromanaged world always have to do. 


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. 


It is a cheap dodge, and I think at some level, we all know it. And goodness knows the writers of the Bible knew well enough to spend hundreds of pages on it. Most of what happens to us isn’t the result of divine pleasure or displeasure at all - it either comes as a result of what we do to each other, or, even more often, as the result of blind chance and circumstance. 


This realization - that sometimes shit just happens - is actually (as Steven Pinker notes) a significant moral advancement, as important as “love your neighbor” and “all men are created equal.” If you believe that divine displeasure causes bad things to happen, pretty soon you start looking for witches to burn. Or LGBTQ people. Or those with a different skin color, or language, or religious creed. By instead embracing the truth that shit just happens, we can see others, not as the cause of bad luck, but as fellow sufferers of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. 


I’ll close with the final words of the book, which are excellent. The abbess, the only one who knew all of the deceased, can already feel their memories fading. 


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 Bridge of San Luis Rey is a truly excellent work, superbly written. Wilder seems to have had a real knack for polished gems - short plays, novellas, stories - that have nothing that is not necessary, yet everything that is. 


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