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March's title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

02 November 2006

The novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey was Thornton Wilder’s first important literary work, and an immediate publishing phenomenon. It won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize, and was lauded as a masterpiece by critics.

It is based on a factual disaster: the breaking of the famous bridge at San Luis Rey, near Lima in Peru. The narrator says that most people are simply dazed and confused by the event. But Brother Juniper, a Franciscan friar who witnesses the disaster, is horrified, but not fazed. His faith leads him to trust that even this cruel tragedy must be part of God’s plan. Juniper launches a six-year investigation into the lives of the five victims to demonstrate, scientifically, why God has chosen each of them.

Juniper’s efforts inevitably fail, and the Church tries him for heresy. Juniper tries to rationalise the irrational, in order to justify God to his fellow humans. But Wilder shows us complex and hidden people, each in their different way in need of love and significance. Nothing explains their fate. The victims are like the “mysterious” ants that the Marquesa watches on her balcony.

The novel does not have a conventional plot, with a beginning and an end. The main characters are described independently, in short portraits, which are connected by a few narrative threads. The characters are properly united only in their arbitrary death at San Luis Rey. In its composition, the novel bears comparison to Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts (1993), which tells the lives of 20 people in Los Angeles before an earthquake.

Wilder’s method can also be compared to that of Bertolt Brecht. Like Brecht, Wilder tells us the conclusion of the story in the first sentence, deliberately robbing the novel of suspense, in order to focus our attention on the personalities and processes that lead to the catastrophe. We do not have to wonder how things end, just why they turn out as they do.

In his plays, Brecht also aimed to produce what he called an “estrangement”, to force the audience to make an unemotional analysis of human suffering. Wilder achieves a similar effect through the voice of the narrator, which is always cool and remote. All the deaths are told with an absence of feeling: the victims who fall from the bridge are called “five gesticulating ants”; one character “smiles and dies” at the burning stake; while another “receives the sacrament and dies”. The narration holds us at a forced distance, as if the action were taking place behind a glass screen.

The narrative voice is the crowning achievement of the novel. Although the narrator periodically identifies himself (herself?) as one who personally knew the circumstances and characters, we do not discover who this aloof person is, nor why he has told the story. The anonymity of the narrator creates an eerie mood of forensic detachment.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that the author himself was unfeeling. Why death befalls one person and not another was an intensely personal question for Wilder, whose twin brother Theophilus died at birth. Wilder was much preoccupied by his lost brother, and wrote a novel called Theophilus North (1973) about the twin’s imagined adventures.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is best understood as a moral fable about the meaning of suffering, or rather the meaning of life in the face of suffering. The novel is deeply engaging in its own way, but Wilder’s aim is to provoke thought, rather than to entertain.

The novel has endured because the question of suffering is a constant feature of human existence, whether one is religious or not. The narrator comments early on that “tidal waves were continually washing away cities. . . towers fell upon good men and women all the time.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was quoted by Tony Blair in the memorial service for the British victims of 9/11. The novel has a new relevance now as we try to fathom the meaning of the tsunami disaster.

Although it is not an explicitly religious novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey poses special questions for the Christian reader who believes in an all-powerful God of Love. Wilder reaches the powerfully agnostic conclusion: that suffering is irrational, and life is mysterious — tragedy has no reasons, and love is an unexplained gift.

The novel ends with only sparse comfort: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Perhaps this is the basis of a Christian response to suffering: that God is Love and our only meaning. The Christian, like Brother Juniper, must fall back on faith, which believes even where it cannot see. Brother Juniper’s mistake is to think that faith can be proved scientifically.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Area Dean of Kensington and author of The Devil’s Account: Philip Pullman and Christianity (DLT).

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is published by Penguin at £6.99  ( Ct Bookshop  £6.30); 0-14-118425-6.


One character in Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth comments: “My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” Is this the underlying message of The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

Do you have any sympathy with Brother Juniper? Why did the Church think he was a heretic?

Do you detect any signs of genuine Christian faith in Wilder’s story?

Wilder commented: “What I seek everywhere is the mask under which human beings conceal their unhappiness”. Is this novel really about secret human sadness?

Do you find the novel essentially pessimistic or optimistic?

What similarities were there between the lives of the various characters who died when the bridge collapsed?

Why did Clara and the Marquesa’s relationship become so distant?

The Marquesa’s letters were read long after she died. How do letters keep a person alive after their death? What can we gain by reading the letters of those who lived in the past?

“Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.” How are men and women portrayed differently in the book?

Next month's reading groups page

The book will be North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and more details will be published next month. The book was adapted by BBC Television and serialised in 2004. It is published in various editions, including ones with introductions and notes from Oxford World’s Classics ( pictured below, £4.99; 0-19-283194-1) and Penguin (£5.99; 0-14-043424-0).


Author notes
Elizabeth Gaskell was born in 1810 and brought up by an aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire, after her mother died the following year. Her father was a Unitarian, and she married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, in 1832. Her first novel, Mary Barton, was published in 1848. After the book had come to the attention of Charles Dickens, he asked her to write for his periodical Household Words. Her novel Cranford originated here, as did North and South. Other works by Elizabeth Gaskell include Wives and Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Brontë. She died in 1865.

Book notes 
The Hale family moves from a village in the south of England to Milton, a northern industrial town, after Mr Hale, a clergyman, resigns his living over a matter of conscience. In Milton, Margaret witnesses the turbulent lives of mill workers during an unsettled period of strikes and struggle for labourers’ rights.
 She also associates with a mill-owner, John Thornton, for whom her feelings grow as the novel progresses, though the relationship is tempestuous at times. As she begins to gain an understanding of both sides in the dispute, Margaret has to leave Milton. She later renews contact with Thornton, when she hatches a scheme to keep the mill going after it has become financially unviable for him.

Books for the next two months:
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
June: The Book of Creation by J. Philip Newell

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