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Literature / The Bridge of San Luis Rey

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"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below."

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a 1927 novella by Thornton Wilder.

The story starts with the collapse of the eponymous bridge, a rope bridge on the road between Lima and Cuzco. The bridge collapse is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan friar who was in Peru trying to convert the natives to Christianity. Brother Juniper, who has long wondered about fate and the nature of God's will, seeks to study the lives of the five people who fell from the bridge that day. By studying the lives of the five victims, Brother Juniper can show how God's will works on earth, or so he believes. The victims are:

  • Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, and her handmaiden Pepita. The Marquesa is an elderly dowager who was unhappily married, and had one daughter who left her behind to move back to Spain. Pepita is her young servant, an orphan raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas. Madre María del Pilar, the abbess of the convent, was grooming Pepita to take over her job as abbess and continue on with the abbess's charity work.
  • Esteban, a young man who was left at the convent as an orphan along with his twin brother Manuel. The twins are basically two halves of a unit, so Esteban is sent into an emotional crisis when Manuel dies from an infected wound.
  • Uncle Pio and Don Jaime. Uncle Pio is The Svengali to Camilla Perichole, a famous actress and singer. Perichole forsakes Uncle Pio when she starts a new life as a society lady, so Uncle Pio asks to be a tutor for her sickly son, Don Jaime.

Wilder's novel won the Pulitzer Prize. The closing lines are quite famous; none other than Tony Blair quoted them at a 2011 memorial service for British victims of the 9/11 attacks (see The Power of Love below).


  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Esteban goes through a great deal of angst after the death of his twin Manuel. He essentially becomes a homeless person for a while, wandering around aimlessly, answering to his brother's name. It culminates in an Interrupted Suicide.
  • Arranged Marriage: Doña Maria would have preferred to remain single, but when she was 26 her parents forced her into marriage with a “ruined nobleman.”
  • As the Good Book Says...: “...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.” (Matthew 10:29)
  • Call-Forward: The Abbess Maria has some far-sighted ideas. Specifically, she wonders if some sort of language can be created for deaf-mutes, and she thinks that there must be a more "gentle" way to treat the insane.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: After his book about the bridge collapse is judged to be heretical, Brother Juniper is burned at the stake.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The unnamed narrator, presumably Thornton Wilder, who assumes a snarky tone throughout.
    "Everyone knew that he was working on some sort of memorial of the accident and everyone was very helpful and misleading."
  • Dice Roll Death: Discussed. As a major element of the novel is the question of whether the people who were killed in the collapse of the titular bridge were there by chance or by providence.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The story is framed as coming from Brother Juniper's original book, a history of a Real Life bridge collapse, which the author has discovered.
  • Does Not Like Men: Abbess Maria del Pilar, who does a lot of charity work that involves things like helping prostitutes and abandoned mothers and babies, "had come to hate all men" because of how they take advantage of women. This causes her some internal conflict when she comes to love the twins Esteban and Manuel so much.
  • Doorstop Baby: The twin babies later named Esteban and Manuel are found in a basket at the door of the convent.
  • How We Got Here: The book starts with the collapse of the bridge, and then goes back to consider how the five people killed on the bridge happened to be there on that day.
  • Hyperlink Story: All five of the people who died on the bridge that day were connected. Camilla Perichole had met and talked with both Doña Maria and Pepita, she was the object of Esteban's brother's affections, and Uncle Pio and Don Jaime were her family. The Abbess Maria sent her protege Pepita to Doña Maria, and raised Esteban from infancy.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Esteban is hanging himself due to grief over Manuel when Captain Alvarado bursts in and saves him.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: A particularly extreme example with Camilla, who has retired from the stage but is still a beautiful society matron when she suffers an attack of smallpox. The smallpox scars destroy her face. Camilla, who assumes that the only reason anyone cared about her was her beauty, shuts herself up in her mansion and refuses all human contact.
  • Lady Drunk: After Clara leaves her, sailing off to Spain with her new husband, Doña Maria is old and alone and broken-hearted. She starts drinking constantly. She makes a habit of drying up for a week ino order to prepare herself to write the monthly letter to her daughter, then drinks herself into oblivion for three weeks after the letter is sent.
  • The Mistress: Camilla Perichole is this to the Viceroy of Peru. She bears him a son, Don Jaime, and two daughters.
  • My Beloved Smother: Doña Maria “could not prevent herself from persecuting Doña Clara with nervous attention and a fatiguing love.” Maria, who has no one else in her life to love, focuses all her energy and attentions on her daughter, which winds up alienating Clara from her mother.
  • The Power of Love: In the moving final lines of the novel, the Abbess Maria contemplates the souls of those who have died and those who are still alive but will come after them. She concludes that love is the only thing that gives life meaning.
    "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."
  • Pygmalion Plot: Lampshaded, as "the determination entered his mind to play Pygmalion" after Uncle Pio first met young Camilla. Somewhat averted when their relationship never turns romantic; "They loved each other deeply but without passion."
  • Redemption Equals Death:
    • Doña Maria, having been inspired by Pepita, realizes that she has been cowardly her whole life—“She had never brought courage to either life or love.” She resolves in her old age to finally start living life for herself, saying “Let me begin again.” Two days later she plunges off the bridge.
    • Similarly, Esteban finally decides to stop mourning for Manuel and become a sailor, only to fall off the bridge almost immediately after.
  • Rope Bridge: The plot is kicked off by the collapse of the rope bridge, killing five. An inquisitive friar then sets out to learn about the five people who died in the accident.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day,” followed immediately by As the Good Book Says... (see above).
  • Single-Minded Twins: Esteban and Manuel pretty much share a single identity.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Uncle Pio was replaced in death by an unidentified man in the 1944 film adaptation.
  • Stage Name: Camila Perichle was a 12-year-old girl named Micaela Villegas, singing in cafes, when Uncle Pio discovers her and sets about making her into a great actress and singer.
  • Take It to the Bridge: Notably, four of the five people who plunged off the bridge, all but little Don Jaime, had reached major turning points in their lives. And the last lines of the novel (see The Power of Love above) characterize love as a bridge between the living and the dead.
  • Twin Banter: Esteban and Manuel wind up developing their own language, one that doesn't even resemble Spanish.
  • Twin Telepathy: "...telepathy was a common occurrence in their lives...." When either Esteban or Mauel is coming home, the other knows it when his brother is still blocks away.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There really was an actress called "La Perichole", aka Micaela Villegas, who had an affair with the Viceroy of Peru, Don Manuel de Amat y Junyent.