January Slow Read: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
- Patricia Bochi
- January 3, 2013
January's Slow Read is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. This is a monthly feature by Patricia Bochi inviting readers to (re)discover a work that’s so rich and delightful it calls for slow reading to appreciate it fully.
We start the new year of slow reads with a work familiar to many readers yet no less worthy of multiple readings: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by the American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder (April 17, 1897 – December 7, 1975).
Published in 1927, the novel was an instant success, winning its author the Pulitzer Prize the following year (and 17 printings later), as well as the honor in 1998 of being named by the editorial board of the American Modern Library one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.
The slim book (138 pages) examines overarching questions of evil, divine determinism, the meaning of human life and love. And from a post-9/11 perspective, the story of several unrelated people falling to their death from the collapse of a bridge eerily foreshadows the tragedy of a decade ago.
“Few novels identify their basic plotline as succinctly and forthrightly as the opening line of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: ‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.’ The novel’s conceit is this: a certain Brother Juniper was himself about to step out onto the bridge when it broke and subsequently witnessed the plunge of five people into the abyss below. Brother Juniper wonders if the tragedy happened according to a divine plan or was simply a random instance of misfortune. His curiosity leads him to investigate the lives of the five victims to prove that the bridge collapse and the resulting deaths were indeed divine intervention — that God intended for them to die then and there. But, of course, the point of the novel is that there is no commonality among them, other than the fact that they are all simply human, with their own frailties. Wilder ends his at-once urgent and serene novel with this haunting passage: ‘But soon we shall die and all memory of these 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.” — Brad Hooper, 2004
“Wilder’s career was established with this book, in which he first made use of historical subject matter as a background for his interwoven themes of the search for justice, the possibility of altruism and the role of Christianity in human relationships. The plot centers on five travelers in 18th-century Peru who are killed when a bridge across a canyon collapses; a priest interprets the story of each victim in an attempt to explain the workings of divine providence.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature.