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Bibliophile Beth

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Thornton Wilder


Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), American playwright and novelist
·        First published in 1927
·        1928 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction
·        Setting:  Lima Peru, 1714
·        Themes: love and fate
·        The Bridge as symbol:
·        transition: from life into death
·        love: its endurance and the fact that it outlives death.
This novella is more complex than it initially appears. It is not simply about a bridge collapsing and the tragic death of five individuals. It looks at the importance of love in our lives, how it outlives us, and how it effects those left behind. It is not that people are merely saddened by another’s loss, but that mortality provides us with new and expanded perspectives. In other words, we may begin to see things we failed to notice during a person’s lifetime. A relationship once wickedly spurned can awaken to deeply repressed or unacknowledged feelings. It is a continuum of emotions previously undiscovered. Wilder also looks at religious theory as it relates to fate and coincidence in our lives. Are our lives governed by God’s pre-ordained plan (fate), or by accident – random occurrences?  Wilder’s inspiration for this question is found in the Gospel According to Luke, when it states: “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” Such is the question man has struggled with since the beginning of time and Wilder considers in this profound novel dealing with humankind.

Quotes from, The Bridge of San Luis
p. 7   Franciscan Brother Juniper:
·        “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”
·        “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 [sic] His intentions in a pure state.”
p. 8 “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 lives for their own good. People were always asking for good sound proofs; doubt springs eternal in the human breast…”
p.16  Most readers miss the fact that, “the purport of literature, is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.”
p. 17  “She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by the accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires.”
p. 45   “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.”
p. 81   “…he had to repeat over to himself his favorite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune. Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely-read could be said to know that they were unhappy.”
p. 99   “Everyone knows that in the world we do nothing but feed our wills.”
p. 107   “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.”

Thornton Wilder
Quotes from Wilder clearly define his literary intent and his theory of human nature, which are one and the same thing. They are integral to and enhance the reading of “The Bridge”, which is why I have included them here.
The quotes below are copied from sections of Wilder’s lectures, interviews, and letters as are printed in the 1996 First Perennial Classics edition of, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
p. 121   In a letter to a former student about The Bridge of San Luis, Wilder quotes his literary influence, Chekhov, “The business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly.’ I claim that human affection contains a strange unanalyzable consolation and that is all.”
p. 124  Wilder developed his characters from his own literary influences, “My weakness is that I am too bookish, I know little of life. I made the characters of The Bridge out of the heroes of books”. For example, the Letters of Mme. De Sevigne influenced the character, Marquesa de Montemayor (Dona Maria).  p. 116 After attending a concert in Paris featuring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Wilder said he, “came home and wrote the death of Manuel.”
p. 125   Wilder states that human beings conceal their unhappiness. “In my own case, what I seek everywhere is the mask under which human beings conceal their unhappiness…In social life… in varying degrees. They are solitary, they are consumed with desires which they dare not satisfy; and they wouldn’t be happy if they did satisfy them, because they are too civilized. No, a modern man cannot be happy; he is a conflict, whether he likes it or not.”
p. 125 Humour is a mask to hide unhappiness, and especially to hide the deep cynicism which life calls forth in all men. We’re trying to bluff God. It is called polish.”
p.129   “Art is confession; art is the secret told. Art itself is a letter written to an ideal mind, to a dreamed-of audience.”
p. 137   “A letter can function as a literary exercise, the profile of a personality, and news of the soul.”
As a side note, and in context to his work, I think it is interesting that Thornton Wilder was friends with Sigmund Freud.