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A Year with Short Novels: “There is a bridge….”

By (March 1, 2010) One Comment

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

By Thornton Wilder
Original printing 1927, many reissues

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a peculiar masterpiece. Its chapters and themes interlock with such grace and necessity that the book seems more like a marvelous and free-standing mechanism — a jeweled music box or perfectly sprung wrist-watch — than like a novel. At the story’s start Wilder creates a world and an over-arching theme. Over five chapters of only a few thousand words each, he proceeds to deftly populate the stage he has set. The parts fit together so perfectly that, as one gazes at the descriptive polish and intricate overlapping of plot and characterization, the force that underlies and propels the tale remains invisible until the very end.

I. Conceit

The nominal setting of the novel is 18th century Peru. But Wilder only takes history as his raw material. The book really unfolds in the world of parable, of fast narration and delicate, stylized descriptions which arise out of Wilder’s imagination. From the first line, Wilder envelopes the reader in a narrative arc: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.”

The subject of the first line is the eponymous bridge rather than the travellers — not the individuals but the snap of rope that determined their deaths. Using a baroque verb such as “precipitated” instead of a more conversational “throwing” or “dropping” serves to draw attention to the travellers’ fall, suspending them in a moment instead of simply dispatching them to finish the phrase. The precise date and confidently objective description of the bridge as the “finest in all of Peru” set the novel’s tone. Throughout, Wilder narrates with omniscient assurance:

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.

The smooth way Wilder sets the tableau of Peruvians signing themselves and wandering as in a trance works because the experience he describes is common. Upon hearing of an accident at a frequented road or a misfortune coming to a close friend, most people feel the thinness of the line that separates good luck and bad, the presence of the dark gulf below our actions.

Wilder uses this universality to pivot to the heady question of determinism. An Italian missionary, the memorably-named Brother Juniper, is present when the bridge snaps. Stopping to rest on his way to Cuzco and gazing at the snowy peaks (all this transpires in the first three pages), he takes in the bridge — and “at that moment a twanging noise filled the air, as when the string of a musical instrument snaps in a disused room, and he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.”

Instead of being full of furtive relief that the bridge didn’t snap a few minutes later, when he was crossing it, a strange idea stirs Brother Juniper. Juniper, Wilder notes with wry bemusement, longs for theology to “take its place among the exact sciences.” In the past he has tabulated the results of prayers for rain and the piety, sin, and usefulness of survivors versus that of victims of a plague. But the experiments have never been adequate: “the gap between faith and fact is greater than generally assumed.”

But in the bridge’s collapse, the determined missionary sees the perfect laboratory for proving the existence of divine providence: “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.” Unlike other calamities which involved human agency or probability, the fact that the bridge should fail at the exact moment a certain set of people were crossing seems to him an Act of God.

The Franciscan resolves to find out everything he can about the five who died in order to explain why they should have died at that moment. He spends the next six years knocking on doors in Lima, compiling a huge tome about the victims, recording every little detail. However, Wilder suggests that Brother Juniper’s pseudo-scientific labors miss the point. The slim and eloquent The Bridge of San Luis Rey is presented as a counter to Juniper’s grandiose compilation of details and theological surmises:

Yet for all his diligence Brother Juniper never knew the central passion of Dona Maria’s life; nor of Uncle Pio’s, not even of Esteban’s. 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 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.

The subject of the book, then, is what is later referred to as “the great Perhaps”: humankind’s search for meaning, poised between the cruel and random fall of a fly-swatter and the unlikely attention to detail of an invisible finger brushing a feather. The first chapter which sets forth the conceit is titled, “Perhaps an Accident.” It stands across from the last, “Perhaps an Intention.” In between, Wilder strings three chapters, each named for a victim of the bridge collapse. He narrates their lives, promising an answer to the ancient question of life’s meaning which will be more profound than all contained in Juniper’s furious prayers and investigations.

II. Style & Character

We know from the start that there are five who fall from the bridge, but only three chapters, for the Marquesa de Montemayor (Dona Maria), Esteban, and Uncle Pio. The other two victims are unknown, giving the sections a shade of suspenseful authority. Each chapter ends with its protagonist’s fall from the bridge, and it is a pleasure to watch Wilder shift from descriptions of their lives to the end we know is coming. We meet a host of characters — some who will live, and some who will die — all inhabiting a finely-wrought and idiosyncratic world.

First comes the Marquesa de Montemayor, who becomes posthumously famous in Peruvian literature for the letters she writes Dona Clara, her unloving daughter in Spain. The Marquesa persecutes her child with “a fatiguing love” and tries to win her admiration with monthly letters, full of wit and eloquent observations. The Marquesa is an alternately pathetic and tragic figure. Oblivious to those around her and often drunk, her red wig slightly askew, she lives almost entirely in her imagination and her compositions. But the Marquesa also loves her daughter deeply and sometimes feels a pang of shame, “for she knew…that though her love for her daughter was vast enough to include all the colours of love, it was not without a shade of tyranny: she loved her daughter not for her daughter’s sake, but for her own. She longed to free herself from this ignoble bond; but the passion was too fierce to cope with.”

We are also introduced to her precocious, diligent assistant, the 14 year-old Pepita, who comes to live with the Marquesa after growing up in an abbey, raised by the Abbess Madre Maria del Pilar. Madre Maria sees a successor to her work in the bright, serious girl. Wilder characterizes her as one of those people who have “allowed their lives to be gnawed away” by falling in love with an idea ahead of its time. In the abbess’s case, the independence of women, which she tirelessly organizes for among her nuns:

Looking back from our century, we can see the whole folly of her hope. Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age…. She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon. Such persons are raised up in every age; they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of bystanders.

Of course, Wilder’s book is itself a sort of fable. His characters are archetypal, the settings evoked with embroidered confidence. He tells the tale through small, striking metaphors. Wise generalizations are dispatched with intimate ease. The neat, bird’s eye narration resembles the tone of a book of children’s folk tales.

Uncle Pio, for instance, subject of the fourth chapter and mentor of the beautiful stage actress Camila Perichole, lives a varied, wandering life because he possesses “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.”

Esteban of the third chapter, raised by the abbess with his twin brother Manuel, is torn by jealousy when Manuel, always extremely close to him, becomes infatuated with Perichole. “There was no room in [Estaban’s] imagination for a new loyalty, not because his heart was less large than Manuel’s, but because it was of a simpler texture. 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.” Later he is torn apart by grief when his beloved brother, who gives up his infatuation for his sake, dies because of an infection.

Part of the fabulist feel arises from the fact that some of the characters are Wilder’s versions of real historical figures, distilled into archetypes. The Marquesa has her antecedent in Madame de Sevigne, a 17th century French marquise famous for letters to her admiring and loving daughter. Wilder changes the setting and character, and makes the poignant love for her daughter unreturned. Camila Perichole, a beautiful actress, is based on La Pericholli, a real 18th century street-singer-cum-aristocrat. But Uncle Pio, her world weary care-taker, who loves her with fatalistic remove and is ultimately spurned by her, is pure invention.

Each character, completely invented or partly derived from history, is stylized to fit the ends of Wilder’s narrative. Each attribute has its place in the novel. Wilder sketches whole biographies with a few authoritative words. The characters are like Mona Lisas painted on the head of pins in order to fit into his short, delicate narrative of meaning.

III. On Necessity

The framing device of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is justifiably famous. It has inspired authors as diverse as New Journalist John Hersey (he zooms in on the lives of six individuals in his famous account of the 1945 bombing, Hiroshima) and to the overlapping stories of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which features a character named Luisa Rey in tribute to Wilder. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is beautiful and brilliant, but the fact that every element fits in place— the very neatness of the plot — can be oppressive.

Wilder’s novel possesses an old-fashioned, sepia tint. Its Victorian conventions of asides to the reader and its neat third person were as unfashionable when it was published in the modernist 20s as they are today. The craft of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is overt and utterly earnest. The narrative manipulation is up-front, with nary a wink or untidy sentence. One longs to ruffle a feather or discover a crack. Wilder gets away the patness through the fantastic beauty of his writing and because of the tale’s Aesopean brevity (varying editions usually clock in at around 110 pages).

Wilder has written that he was inspired to write the novel by friendly arguments with his father, a strict Calvinist. But though the novel dismantles a certain kind of calculating Puritanism, it carries its own form of calibrated plan. Though it treats the question of whether things happen of divine necessity with bemused wisdom, there is no question that what happens in the book is pre-planned and inevitable. The plan is Wilder’s, not God’s. The pleasures of the novel are those of being carried along on authorial skill, watching a carefully structured narrative unfurl rather than participating in a drama. The joy of reading it lies in narrative necessity and beauty. Wilder’s artistry finds meaning and creates order, even if order’s existence is in doubt in the world outside.

IV. Resolution

The end of each character’s life, chapter by chapter, are like notes in an ascending score. The night before her walk over the bridge, the Marquesa is inspired by Pepita’s strong, tacit longing for the Abbess. When the girl tears up a beseeching letter she wrote the nun, the astonished Marquesa asks why she isn’t going to send it. “It wasn’t brave,” Pepita replies, causing the Marquesa to question her own grasping love from her daughter. That night, she sits down to write the first generous and brave letter of her life, demanding nothing in return for her love. The next day, she and Pepita both step onto the famous rope bridge to return to Lima. Esteban, who has lost the will to live in a world without his brother, crosses at the same time on his way to a dreaded sea voyage. Uncle Pio falls out from Camila and, in a last bid for inclusion in her life, takes her son away for tutoring — both also cross the bridge.

At the end of the book, the survivors gather. Camila Perichole mourns her inability to show to love to both her son and Uncle Pio; Dona Clara, brandishing the Marquesa’s last letter, praises her mother. The abbess feels resignation that her hopes for the next generation’s continuation of her work died with Pepita. Was the bridge meant to fall or not? There is enough narrative order that Intention seems possible. Perhaps it was planned that Esteban should fall from a bridge once he’d lost the will to live; that the Marquesa should die at the moment of her most brave and generous impulses, without living to fail them.

Then again, there is no good reason the Abbess’s bright teenage protegee should die with her years ahead, that Camila should outlive her son. Wilder doesn’t give an answer to his great Perhaps. Brother Juniper is ultimately burned at the stake by church authorities for being too inquisitive. The order of the novel’s plot and resolution make the reader aware of the human instincts toward story and purpose, the desire to impose a narrative on and find a reason for tragedy which Wilder makes manifest in his book’s conceit and execution.

V. Love

Yet ultimately, Wilder overturns his own game of narrative agnosticism, dissolving the dichotomy between Divine Intention and a universe woven of apathy and accident. If it seemed clear to the reader that the book’s careful structure was crafted in order to delve into the conflict between Juniper’s desire for certainty and the world’s refusal to supply it, Wilder in the last proves it was his design to make the very question irrelevant. Running beneath each sentence of the novel, animating each description, is a different purpose.

Wilder doesn’t merely borrow tone and narrative mode from fable — the novel is a fable of love. Wilder’s short novel gets to the center of each character’s life more than Juniper’s tabulation of sins because the novel gets to the heart of their passions. The fact that the book was about love all along is scarcely noticeable because Wilder articulates love in such completely different ways. There is a huge distance between the Marquesa’s fervent pining and the Abbess’s steady and self-contained empathy and idealism. Uncle Pio’s romantic, distant love for Perichole is utterly different than Manuel’s infatuation — or the profoundly tender way Esteban cannot function without his twin. Camila Perichole feels the greatest love for those around her when she is most keenly aware of her own coldness.

But in Wilder’s rendering, even lack of love, failed and distorted love, is part of the stream. The composite picture of love that emerges from the book’s pages is as idiosyncratic as it is indelible. The idealistic Abbess is allowed this insight. At the end of the day, with Dona Clara attending her, she goes to tend to the sick and talks to them of those alone in the dark who find the world “more than difficult, without meaning”:

But even while she was talking, other thoughts were passing in the back of her mind. “Even now,” she thought, “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 bridge Wilder builds between meaninglessness and purpose, the famous bridge of San Luis Rey, doesn’t belong to accident, God, or to his own authorial plotting, but to love.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.

One Comment »

  • D'Artagnan says:

    “Old rivers grow wilder every year” — John Prine

    Your very description is some heady stuff, but makes me want to read Wilder’s sweet little short novel nonetheless. You outline a formula on the outskirts of Hollywood for guaranteed strong evocation of the reasonably sensitive readers emotions, something which has intrigued me for years. Gabriel Garcia Marquez used to buy pulp fiction mysteries and then condense them down to their densest and then publish them as installments in a Columbian newspaper – people loved it, foolproof formula. Yes, I as well was aghast, but I love his work so much I had to wonder at the long-term wisdom of that exercise in creative journalism.

    Love of course must come last, most powerful of the emotions. Stunning stuff, yo

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