Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder's short novel ends with the following sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." This conclusion to his story of the death of five innocents as the title bridge collapses is a clue to some of the meaning that one may glean from this well-written novel.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, this novel certainly qualifies as a classic. In my recent, long overdue, reading I found the style fitting for a tale of Peru with the prose evocative of the setting; however, the individual parts were uneven and only with the the story of Uncle Pio did I find the theme of love emerging in a meaningful way for me. Perhaps the opening story of the Marquesa and her daughter, with its layers of Catholicism, was too foreign for me to appreciate. The doppleganger existence of the twins, Esteban and Manuel, was also a strange interlude. Holding the story together like a thread of beautiful silk was the young Camila Perichole (based on a real person as was the Marquesa). Whatever the reason, the novel unfolded for me slowly and became a better read as I neared the ending with its famous sentence. The question of innocence and guilt and who deserves to die remains in my mind long after I laid the novel down. It is certainly one of the very best first novels that I have read and I will likely return to it.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. In Twelve Short Novels selected & introduced by Thomas B. Costain. Doubleday & Company, New York. 1961 (1927).


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

I read this book in my high school English class, junior or senior year. I liked it very much and never forgot it.

I also liked the 2004 movie of this book. As Geraldine Chaplin begins to move towards the screen and say "and in a while even Brother Juniper would be forgotten" I knew: Yes, they're gonna do it. She delivered the final line right at the audience of the film. Beautiful.

I had the last line by heart those many years since reading the book. Actually, I had come to recall it a bit transformed after the first clause. I would say it to myself: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. This is the bridge that does not fall."

Looking it up in my book, I found, of course, that that second sentence had come from me, though it worked well. The first sentence became my way of existence, as you know, and I have shared that beautiful thought with a few others through the years who needed to know it.


James said...

There are moving moments in this thoughtful story that remain in my mind - suggestions I should return to further savor Wilder's prose. Thanks for your comment.