The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey



The Pequod Review:

Despite his enormous critical and commercial respect as a playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) has been mostly forgotten today. But his best work holds up quite well. The opening paragraph of his short novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is spare and to-the-point, with a great hook:

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 high road 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… The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break.

Brother Juniper, a Franciscan cleric who observes the tragedy, wonders, “Why did this happen to those four?” The book that follows is his attempt to investigate the lives of the victims and discover why God allowed such an event to occur. He isn’t entirely successful, but Wilder’s description of his journey is thoughtful, forgiving and graceful — and has a intimate and melancholic tone as it explores fate, perception, and motivated reasoning. His final paragraph ends with a measure of optimism:

We ourselves shall be loved and then 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.

Winner of the 1928 Pulitzer Prize.