Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 29, 2011

Some say we shall never know and that to 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 —– Thornton Wilder

To a question on what literature meant to him, Julian Barnes, responded that it’s the “best way of telling the truth”. While I agree that of the available tools for human beings, fiction or literature is the most suited to tell the truth, how effective it is in telling the truth in its totality is in the realms of debatable. This is neither due to the inherent limitations in the craft of fiction nor due to any attributable lacunae in its practitioners. The problem lies in the amorphous, frustrating, perplexing and very often bewildering variety of human situations and paradoxes itself. However, what fiction or literature can do and which no other art form can do is pose right questions about the ineluctable truth in specific contexts in a mode that is understandable, appealing, joyous and purposeful. Successful endeavours in posing the right questions around human reality have always resulted in fiction of outstanding quality and universal appeal. Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge Of San Luis Rey” is a rare but yet another superb outcome of such sincere questioning

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below“….. thus begins this deceptively simple, exquisitely ponderable, stylistically written, wonderfully thoughtful, deeply moving and metaphysically grand book about love, the vexing entanglements it ensues and the idiosyncratic reconciliations that three people involved with it gravitate to and perish in an accident involving the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey. The collapse of the bridge is watched by a christian monk, Brother Juniper, who sets out to establish on a scientific basis if there was a method and higher purpose in this act of God. The chosen approach of Brother Juniper is to explore the past of the deceased to ferret and establish patterns in their lives which justifies this fate. The ones who die in the mishap are: Dona Maria and her maid Pepita – the former who after an extended, one sided and all-consuming love for her daughter realises the need for simplicity, lack of pride and vanity in a relationship – this realisation dawns on Dona Maria after she witnesses the plain, near guileless and soul consuming love of Pepita for her original benefactress abbess Maria del Pilar; Esteban who with the help of the reclusive and largely reticent sailor Captain Alvarado, comes to the conclusion that time will temper and even wither the passionate love he has for his dead but doppelgänger of a twin brother Manuel; Uncle Pio, who has a platonic relationship with his protégé and pygmalion Camilla – a famous but a growingly disinterested actress, whom he tries to get back to commit to her craft driven by the sheer impulse of his love for her, her talent and a passion for theatre. It is after these personally profound realisations about the nature of love and the painful decisions to re-start their lives on an accommodative note that these pivotal characters plunge to death along with two other innocents due to snapping of the bridge of San Luis Rey. And in the process of telling this story, Wilder places a handful of troubling questions in front of his reader: does divine retribution have an associated rationale at all and if so what is it? Is it explicable? How should love be viewed and what place should it have in human existence? The answers to which Wilder tells his readers is not only hard to articulate but also difficult to conclude definitively

Wilder employs an omniscient narrator (he is watching Brother Juniper who is watching the other characters in the book) to tell the story and this narrator expresses his thoughts with a clarity that is illuminating. The objects he illuminates are material and external, non-material and internal. His prose brings an extra-ordinary vividness to objects under observation which is rare and impressive. The vivification is on account of a sharp focus on detail which a busy reader looking for the greater meaning in a good book is wont to ignore but is purposefully jolted to sudden cognizance. This happens in the book time and again. Consider brother Junito’s casual raising of eyes into the horizon and the unexpected observation of the collapsing 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”

….. or….. Dona Maria’s seemingly matter of fact juxtapositions

 “I was able to follow the activity of a coterie of ants in the wall beside me. Somewhere behind the partition they were patiently destroying my house. Every three minutes a little workman would appear between two boards and drop of grain of wood upon the floor below. Then he would wave his antennae at me and back busily into his mysterious corridor. In the meantime various brothers and sisters of his were trotting back and forth certain highway, stopping to massage one another’s heads, or if the messages bore were of first importance, refusing angrily to massage or to be massaged. And at once I thought of Uncle Pio. Why? Where else but with him had I seen that very gesture with which he arrests a passing abbe or a courtier’s valet, and whispers, his lips laid against his victim’s ears “

The comparison of falling human beings to “five gesticulating ants” is the one that brings to the reader a sense of the distance of the observer from the scene, the relative scale, the panoramic quality of the occurrence and the zoom-out nature of the vision. Similarly, the clarity within the miniature of processioning ants comes from the zoom-in and precise focus on” stopping to massage one another’s heads” and then comparing this to the idiosyncratic gesture of Uncle Pio. Similar is another wonderful passage portraying the personality of archbishop of Lima:

 “There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop. Between the rolls of flesh that surrounded them looked out two black eyes speaking discomfort, kindliness and wit. A curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard, but by dint of never refusing himself a pheasant or a goose or his daily procession of Roman wines, he was his own bitter jailer. He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties; he was very devout. Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he was presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to the certain salad that will follow it. And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect”.

It appears effortlessly observed, complete, focused in its detail on both internal and external aspects and a pleasure to read

Another appealing quality of Wilder’s writing is his ability to portray various aspects of human love with words that are elegantly strung and in a way that is deeply insightful with a deep ring of truth to it. Sample the following two examples:

“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 one love one another equally well”

 Or the portrayal of the platonic love between Uncle Pio and Camilla

“They loved one another deeply but without passion. He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her. But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream”

There is explicitness in this which is moving and truly remarkable

Wilder’s writing has a quality that matches with the genius of Herman Hesse and especially like in Hesse’s Siddhartha is full of simple and beguiling prose employed to express the inner turmoil and a particular reality of human life. Yet, for all the mature understanding of the subject under treatment, Wilder never even remotely hints that he has answers to all the imponderables and it is this that forces him to conclude the novel in a way which is at once deeply insightful, brilliant and zen like:

 “……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 living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”

It is this soul hugging felicity in writing that makes this book one of the finest I’ve read so far and one that I will read over and over again

One Response to “The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilder”

  1. TGC said


    your review is as enticing as the book itself and reflects the author’s mind to its extremities. When you absorb something so intensely, you lose yourself and become of part of the other. That is an experience in itself.

    I guess, you should move on to writing something from within, where words and thought intermingle to make a story, which is a cathartic experience. Probably you will enjoy the ride even more! Try it…you can do it…


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