The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder with Foreword by Russell Banks, Afterword by Tappan Wilder. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015 (originally published in 1927).
Summary: A friar witnesses the collapse of a woven rope bridge with five people falling to their deaths and tries to discern some reason why, in God’s providence, each of them died.
It’s the unanswerable question we struggle with in every untimely death. We try to find some reason to explain why the death or deaths occurred, often some version of “it was God’s time,” or “they were too good for earth,” or that there was some sinful reason why they died. In the end we are left with uncertainty–none of these rationalizations satisfy or comfort and most explanations seem cruel or trite.
That is the premise of this Thornton Wilder story, which launched his literary career, winning him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and creating the opportunity for him to live a life of teaching and writing. Brother Juniper has just come into view of the woven rope bridge over a river gorge between Lima and Cuzco when the bridge collapses, sending five people on the bridge to their death. As a theologically oriented religious man, he sets himself the task to find evidence in their lives that would demonstrate that this was God’s plan for each person.
After the opening chapter, which lays out the premise of the story, the next three represent the account of six years of research on the part of Brother Juniper, talking to everyone who knew those who fell. The first concerns Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor, a difficult woman estranged from her daughter, who lives in Spain, and her companion Pepita, a young girl being groomed by Madre Maria de Pilar, to succeed her in the work of abbess of the orphanage where Pepita grew up. The two go on pilgrimage to a shrine so that Dona Maria can pray for her pregnant daughter. While she is praying, Pepita writes a letter to Madre Maria that Dona Maria sees, of how difficult life is with her. Pepita destroys the letter before Dona Maria confronts her, deciding it was not brave. They reconcile, Dona Maria writes a “brave” letter to her daughter, and it is on their return that they die in the collapse.
The next character is Esteban, twin brother of Manuel. The two grew up in the orphanage and became scribes, writing for, among others, Camilla Perichole, a famous and rather vain actress. Manuel dies of an infection, and Esteban, grief stricken despairs of life, attempting suicide, prevented by the captain who wants to take him to sea to restore him. Esteban wants to make a present of the pay advanced to him to Madre Maria de Pilar and dies on the bridge enroute to the orphanage.
The final two are Uncle Pio, who had mentored Camilla Perichole, helping her to achieve fame, and Perichole’s son Jaime. When small pox disfigures her, her career is ended. Uncle Pio sees her one night and she refuses to see him again but agrees to let him mentor her son. Uncle Pio and Jaime are on the way to Lima when the bridge collapses.
The final chapter describes the completion of Brother Juniper’s book in which he even tries formulas that he applies to each life, to no avail. This all ends badly for Juniper who is declared a heretic, punishable by death.
The account of their lives, in very formal language, brings no conclusion, just facts of people with their loves, longings, loneliness, petty, and noble acts. It’s simply, this is the story of their lives…and then they died on the bridge. The closest Wilder gets in the novel to making sense of it all is at the funeral in the famous, oft-quoted closing line spoken by Abbess Madre Maria de Pilar: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
I cannot decide whether this is a beautiful or a trite thought. I suspect some find comfort in keeping their dead alive in loving memory which connects them to the loved ones they’ve lost. I have those memories, particularly of father and mother and dear friends who have died, but also the apprehension of the yawning void that separates us that love may bridge in thought but not reality. I’m not sure we ever find “meaning” in the death of anyone, even if they die in some cause. I wonder instead, and this reflects my Christian convictions, if what we may talk about is hope, the belief that they, and we, will “rise in glory” after resting in peace. It doesn’t offer a “meaning” to death, which my faith tells me is the “last enemy” but it consoles in loss and grief.