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Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a monk's quest to find meaning behind the deaths of five people from a Peruvian bridge collapse. Enhanced edition features in-depth author biography and the title's publishing history.
About the Author
One of America's most acclaimed and beloved writers, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his acclaimed novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his full-length dramas Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder's numerous other honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature.
Read an Excerpt
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below. This bridge was on the highroad between Lima and Cuzco and hundreds of persons passed over it every day. It had been woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before and visitors to the city were always led out to see it. It was a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vine. Horses and coaches and chairs had to go down hundreds of feet below and pass over the narrow torrent on rafts, but no one, not even the Viceroy, not even the Archbishop of Lima, had descended with the baggage rather than cross by the famous bridge of San Luis Rey. St. Louis of France himself protected it, by his name and by the little mud church on the further side. The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break. The moment a Peruvian heard of the accident he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed by it and how soon he had intended crossing by it again. People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf.
There was a great service in the Cathedral. The bodies of the victims were approximately collected and approximately separated from one another, and there was great searching of hearts in the beautiful city of Lima. Servant girls returned bracelets which they had stolen from their mistresses, and usurers harangued their wives angrily, in defense of usury. Yet it was rather strange that this event should have so impressed the Limeans, forin that country those catastrophes which lawyers shockingly call the "acts of God" were more than usually frequent. Tidal waves were continually washing away cities; earthquakes arrived every week and towers fell upon good men and women all the time. Diseases were forever flitting in and out of the provinces and old age carried away some of the most admirable citizens. That is why it was so surprising that the Peruvians should have been especially touched by the rent in the bridge of San Luis Rey.
Everyone was very deeply impressed, but only one person did anything about it, and that was Brother Juniper. By a series of coincidences so extraordinary that one almost suspects the presence of some Intention, this little red-haired Franciscan from Northern Italy happened to be in Peru converting the Indians and happened to witness the accident.
It was a very hot noon, that fatal noon, and coming around the shoulder of a hill Brother Juniper stopped to wipe his forehead and to gaze upon the screen of snowy peaks in the distance, then into the gorge below him filled with the dark plumage of green trees and green birds and traversed by its ladder of osier. Joy was in him; things were not going badly. He had opened several little abandoned churches and the Indians were crawling in to early Mass and groaning at the moment of miracle as though their hearts would break. 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. At all events he felt at peace. 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.
Anyone else would have said to himself with secret Joy: "Within ten minutes myself...! " But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: "Why did this happen to those five?" 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 fives so suddenly cut off. Either we five by accident and die by accident, or we five by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.
It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences and he had long intended putting it there. What he had lacked hitherto was a laboratory. Oh, there had never been any lack of specimens; any number of his charges had met calamity, spiders had stung them; their lungs had been touched; their houses had burned down and things had happened to their children from which one averts the mind. But these occasions of human woe had never been quite fit for scientific examination. They had lacked what our good savants were later to call proper control. The accident had been dependent upon human error, for example, or had contained elements of probability. But this collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state.
You and I can see that coming from anyone but Brother Juniper this plan would be the flower of a perfect skepticism. It resembled the effort of those presumptuous souls who wanted to walk on the pavements of Heaven and built the Tower of Babel to get there. But 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 fives 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. Often he had stood on the steps of one of his little churches, his flock kneeling before him on the baked street. Often he had stretched his arms to the...
Table of Contents
|Part 1||Perhaps an Accident||3|
|Part 2||The Marquesa de Montemayor||11|
|Part 4||Uncle Pio||65|
|Part 5||Perhaps an Intention||95|
What People are Saying About This
"A remarkably confident evocation of the secret springs of half a dozen men, women, and children...A very beautiful book."
"One of the greatest reading novels in this century's American writing...Wonderfully lucid reading."
Reading Group Guide
Set in colonial Peru in the early 18th century, The Bridge of San Luis Rey interweaves the stories of five people who die when an ancient rope bridge breaks and sends them plunging into a gulf. The book opens with an account of how a Franciscan monk named Brother Juniper witnessed the accident and spent his subsequent years amassing evidence to explain why God singled out these five for premature death. Wilder then narrates their life stories leading up to the moment they crossed the bridge. The Marquesa de Montemayor is a rich, ugly, elderly aristocratic woman who lives only for the well-being of her child, a haughty beauty named Clara who has recently married and moved to Spain. The Marquesa devotes herself to writing long, beautifully meditated letters to Clara and performing elaborate superstitious rituals on her behalf. She finally finds peace from her unrequited maternal love two days before she and her servant girl Pepita cross the bridge. Esteban is an identical twin orphan who loves his brother Manuel with an all-consuming, single-minded, wordless ferocity and is deeply wounded when Manuel falls in love with the beautiful, vain actress Camila Perichole, and then is devastated when Manuel dies soon after. On the brink of suicide, Esteban agrees to embark on a long voyage with a sea captain he respects, but on the way to Lima he happens to cross the bridge at the precise wrong moment.
The final narrative tells of the adventures of Uncle Pio, a wise and wily old man who has dedicated the better part of his life to guiding the stupendous acting career of Camila Perichole. Uncle Pio looks on with amusement and dismay as Perichole becomes thetoast of Lima, enters into a profitable love affair with the Viceroy of Peru, and finally renounces her stage career for the life of a great lady. When Camila contracts small pox and loses her looks, she shuts herself away in the country with her sickly young son Don Jaime. Pio convinces her to let him take Don Jaime to Lima so that he can educate the boy as a gentleman. Pio and Don Jaime die with the others on the doomed bridge. In the last chapter the novel returns to Brother Juniper, who finally completes his vast tome about the five victims of the bridge collapse: for his efforts he is condemned as a heretic and burned, along with his book, on Lima's central square.Topics for Discussion
1. Wilder is often labeled an optimist, and some feel that this quality makes his work seem shallow and a touch sentimental. As one critic put it, "People talk of outgrowing Wilder." Do you consider Wilder essentially an optimist or a pessimist? In framing your discussion, consider the accidental deaths in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
2. Several critics have pointed out that the characters in Wilder's plays are types -- the mother, the young girl, the embodiment of evil -- rather than realistic human figures. What about the characters in The Bridge of San Luis Rey -- the Marquesa, the Perichole, Manuel and Esteban, Uncle Pio: are they types too?
3. For his efforts to seek meaning in the accident, Brother Juniper is burned as a heretic. Discuss the role of religion in the book and Wilder's attitude toward religion. Consider not only Brother Juniper's fate but also the thoughts and deeds of the Abbess Madre Maria del Pilar and the apparent religious conversion of Camila Perichole.
4. In a sense, The Bridge of San Luis Rey can be read as a novel about meaning -- how we assign and perceive meaning, how accidents and coincidences take on meaning in our daily lives. What conclusions does Wilder want us to draw about the human endeavor to find meaning in the world?
5. Wilder once declared "I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods." Discuss The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the light of this remark. What particular "forgotten goods" has he rediscovered?
6. The critic Edmund Wilson wrote that "Wilder occupies a unique position, between the Great Books and Parisian sophistication one way, and the entertainment industry the other way, and in our culture this region, though central, is a dark and almost uninhabited no man's land." Do you agree? Which aspects of his works do you find most sophisticated? Which most purely entertaining? As the entertainment industry comes to dominate our culture more and more, how has Wilder's position shifted? Does he seem more marginal today -- or more relevant and accessible and pleasurable?
About the Author:Thornton Wilder was born in 1897. His plays include Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Matchmaker, and his novels include The Eighth Day and Theophilus North. He was awarded the first of three Pulitzer Prizes for The Bridges of San Luis Rey. He died in 1975.