The Bridge of San Luis Rey*

by Thornton Wilder

Although there's NOTHING simple about this short novel, the plot can be recapitulated simply: The Bridge of San Luis Rey is about a Catholic missionary in 18th century Peru who sets out to prove the existence of God (mostly for the benefit of the natives) by delving into the lives of a handful of people who have been killed in the same seemingly random accident, and looking for what those who perished had in common. Or as the narrator characterizes Brother Juniper's thoughts on the matter: "Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan." I first read this book about ten years ago and was edified to discover that, this time around, I walked away with a completely different set of understanding from it.

I want to be clear that this is a great book. But it does suffer a little bit from its archaic setting. For the modern reader in the Northern Hemisphere, the number of men ascribed the titular name "Don" and the number of women with "Maria" somewhere in their names can be baffling impediments to a clear understanding of the narrative now & again. Don't let that dissuade you though, because the topic is SO compelling! (As a side note, I know the story has been made into a movie three separate times, but I think an ultramodern redux is in order: ditching the period setting, the foreign locale, & the Catholicism altogether.) The Bridge of San Luis Rey is difficult to rate: The writing is so spare as to leave something to be desired...but the story is irreproachable!

The novel poses a great conundrum. It's an enduring question that's as relevant in the here & now as it was in South America in the early 1700s: Who lives, who dies, and what's the rhyme & reason for it all? Thornton Wilder does such a delicate job in the treatment of this topic that it seduces the reader into attempting to answer the question on his or her own! One might guess the tack a monk might take in coming up with an answer—and the light in which that answer might be cast—but...go ahead...what is YOUR take on it? Do you think you see, as Brother Juniper, "in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven"? Or is your view more nuanced than that? There's a provocative little frame going on as well in that there are interpretations of the accident itself, but then there is also the issue of the interpretation of Brother Juniper's report on the accident—a surprise that is revealed in the last chapter and something that I won't spoil for you here.

The first time I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I (like Brother Juniper) was more focused on assessing the reason that five random people might die unexpectedly in the same tragedy. This time around though, I came to understand something more the provenance of the omniscient narrator: If you're looking for the presence of 'God,' you might turn your attention to the people the accident left behind...instead of those who perished. Or, as Thornton Wilder writes, "But where are sufficient books to contain the events that would not have been the same without the fall of the bridge?"

There are resonant stabs at universal truth here, in matters of life & death, as well as a strong undercurrent of attempts to understand something else: Love. It's a triptych of elegant design the Modern Library has put together for us at 39, 38, & 37 on the list. Read Go Tell It on the Mountain, Howards End, & The Bridge of San Luis Rey right in a row as I did! (They are three totally different books!) Over 200 years of religion bookend the trio. Then, in the middle (appropriately), E.M. Forster would have us "Only connect!", 'bridging' the other two books. And finally, in the aftermath of what happened at San Luis Rey, we learn: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

*Pulitzer Prize winner for the year 1928.