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Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey has been praised as a religious statement, examined for its theological implications, and categorized as Christian literature. To a large extent, this judgment is valid. The story takes place in Lima, Peru, in 1714, a time when the domination of the Roman Catholic Church was nearly absolute when there was no real secular authority, only the religious hierarchy. It concerns a Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, who witnesses the collapse of the bridge and sets about to understand the will of God. Brother Juniper is deeply faithful, and unable to accept the idea. In Peru on an evangelical mission, witnesses the incident and seizes upon it as a chance to "justify the ways of God to man." This monk, Brother Juniper, has made a career of trying to scientifically prove the justice of God in the face of evidence that would seem to argue against it. "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 His intentions in a pure state." Juniper believes that by diligently investigating the lives of the five victims, he will unlock the mysteries of God's providence. He believes these five people died for a reason, and he sets about investigating the facts of their biographies and interviewing those who knew them in order to determine, beyond all doubt, what that reason was.
The five people on the bridge had several parallels in their lives. The two children, Don Jaime and Pepita, were both sent away by people who supposedly loved them. Camila sent her son Don Jaime away because she didn't have the money to pay her ex-friend Uncle Pio. So in exchange for the money, Uncle Pio would take Don Jaime to Lima and teach him the ways of society. The Abbess sent Pepita away to live with Dona Maria, in hopes that Dona Maria would make a contribution to the orphanage where Pepita came from. The Abbess knew that Pepita was special and could one day run the orphanage, yet she sent her away because she wanted the money. The three adults, Dona Maria, Esteban, and Uncle Pio have things in common, also. They all lost someone they loved, but not always in death. Dona Maria lost her daughter Dona Clara when she married and moved to Spain. Dona Clara resented her mother and was very rude to her. Esteban lost his twin brother Manuel, with whom he was extremely close, to disease and infection. Uncle Pio lost Camila when she moved up and society and she refused to associate with him anymore. All three were also ostracized from society. These adults had just begun to get over their losses and be happy when they died. "If there were any pattern in the universe at all, any plan in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And in that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off" (Wilder, 7) This is the wonderful premise behind Wilderââ‚¬â„¢s examination of the connected lives of these five people. Several of them never actually meet, any more than we "meet" a person with whom we happen to ride an elevator but, each of them knows someone who knows one of the other victims. Wilder goes on to clear up the stories of their lives, devoting a chapter to each of the major characters: The old woman, The Marquesa; The young man, Esteban; and the old man, Uncle Pio. (The other two victims, the young maid Pepita and the child Jaime, are not really explored, because they are seen primarily in relationship to the adults they accompany. If it was God's intention to have these people die, then the only reasons he would have would be loss of a loved one, being sent away from the people they loved, or finally being happy. It seemed as if once these unfortunate people became happy their lives were suddenly cut short. Maybe it is God's intention for everyone to find inner peace on earth. Once they find that inner peace maybe they are summoned to Heaven."So he put everything down on the notion that if he reread the book twenty times, the countless facts would suddenly start to move, to assemble and to betray their secret." This means that Father Juniper never figured out if this tragedy was God's will or not. One would think that he did not succeed in his effort to puzzle out if this was an intention or a coincidence. No one can fully understand God. As (page 7) says, "Some will say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the 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." One might believe that this means we will never know if everything happens because of an intention or purely coincidence.
It is entirely up to each individual. Everyone has their own opinions and this question can only be answered when their time comes. In a period of furious reading, one of the first things I learned about the novel was that, aside from its exotic setting and some crazed characters, the movie (which we saw in class and I rented to see it a second time) was much different from the book. The novel was often in a journal form, some of the characters were deeply developed, and others altered. There was more and, in certain ways, less to the story. Furthermore this story has more themes than if god was involved. The never-ending importance of love is one of the themes of the novel. It is largely developed by the depiction of characters who suffer from a lack of love. The Marquesa showers her daughter with love, but is rejected by her. Esteban cares for Manuel through the pain of his infection, even though Manuel blames his twin for destroying his love for Camila. Uncle Pio is deserted by Camila, who becomes the mistress of the Viceroy.
All of these characters suffer greatly during the book because they feel unloved. Ironically, the Marquesa, Uncle Pio, and Esteban are all crossing the bridge at the same time, and each of them is heading towards a life filled with new love or meaning. Additionally, Dona Clara and Camila suffer from not showing love and begin to understand how fully they were loved by the deceased. Dona Clara regrets that she has been so cruel to her mother, the Marquesa, just as Camila is sad over not returning Uncle Pioââ‚¬â„¢s love. Both women decide that they will share their love and wealth with the needy children living at the convent. In the end, therefore, love does
prevail. The Abbess closes the novel by explaining the importance of love: ââ‚¬Å“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.ââ‚¬
Another important theme of the novel is that fate plays a key role in the lives of people. Manuel, Esteban, and Pepita were all fated to grow up in the convent with the Abbess. Esteban and the Marquesa were fated to be rejected by their closest relative, in spite of the fact that they had totally devoted themselves to Manuel and Dona Clara. Fate placed all five of the characters on the bridge at the very moment of the accident; and as fate would have it, all of them were heading from a miserable existence to a happier life. Fate, however, stands in the way of their happiness, for the bridge breaks and kills all five people crossing it. The Peruvians seem to
instinctively know that it is only Fate that has saved them from dying on the bridge. After the accident, they always offer a prayer of thanks when they see or cross the San Luis Rey; they are thankful that fate has spared them.
And oh, yes, the movie had a happy ending of sorts, which the novel decidedly did not. And yet the brooding questioning of Brother Juniper enthralled me, although I confess, off the top of my head, at the moment, I cannot give you a coherent analysis of its plot and its characters. But I'm always game. Let me try, as best I can.