1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Literary Style:

I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts about what works for Wilder, and why I wouldn’t have guessed it would work.  He finishes the book in that in-between place, where sometimes I can see why what he does is brilliant and emotionally gripping, and sometimes I feel a bit distanced from his platitudes.  Marianne Moore (I think it was) once said “a poem should not mean, but be”.  Not bad advice.  And I think it’s a good flashlight to shine on this book, since it’s at its best when Wilder doesn’t make it obvious what he “means”, but instead paints the landscape with light and lets us ponder the mysteries that lie in the shadows, or what may rest behind that ridge.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey is good at this in large part because he sets out to explain the unexplainable—why do some people die and others don’t?  What can make sense of the death of five people who were unfortunate enough to be standing on a bridge at the moment of its collapse?  Meaning is too hard to draw out of the situation, and I think he mis-steps (but only briefly) at the end when he tries to soar a bit, and explain what this all might be about.

Wilder has excelled at many aspects of the novel that I’ve found lacking in some other Pulitzer winners: perhaps most critically, he’s very good at creating engaging characters.  All of the characters we encounter, even the crueler ones, feel alive to me, and I would gladly have spent more time with each of them.  The Marquesa, in particular, has a charisma that I can’t deny—I don’t know what it is I like about her, but I could have read a whole novel just tracing her life.

Life-tracing is a good term, perhaps, for what Wilder does well: certainly the plot isn’t complicated.  We know everyone’s end before they begin.  But Wilder takes us along with them, slowly drawing the corners of their life together until we can see the whole thing with one sweep of the eyes, and even though we cannot explain why they die on that bridge on that morning, somehow we know that it came at the right moment.  There’s something about these lives that integrates death intelligibly: even those whose lives seem “interrupted” by death, who would not have said they were “ready to go”, go to their deaths in a way that gives peace (with tears).

I think Wilder’s to be commended for many things—he’s bold enough to choose a setting outside the U.S., to talk rapidly about Spanish court life and 18th Century Spanish drama without dumbing it down for an American audience, to tackle a huge issue (the problem of evil) without resolving it neatly and pleasantly.  It may be most bold of all to tell a story with no central character (though many recurring faces appear), no real central conceit other than that every main character will die (in the same manner) and that we want to know why.  It’s a strange novel…if he’d written it 40 or 50 years later, I feel sure he’d have stepped into science fiction, since his choice of 18th Century Peru was, I think, an attempt to free himself from his readers’ preconceptions in order to focus on the ideas (something I think is now very common in the best sci-fi) and let them drive the whole story.  But unlike a lot sci-fi authors, Wilder’s not prescriptive…it’s not obvious who he’s rooting for, or even whether or not he thinks these deaths are just ends for wicked souls (most of them have something to be sorry for, at least) or terrible, tragic losses of innocent life.  In the end, as a literary talent, I don’t know that a lot of other authors could (or should) emulate his approach in this novel, but I thought it was excellent.

Historical Insight:

I can’t give him high marks here.  It’s not Wilder’s fault—he didn’t know that I’d come along 80+ years later and want him to give insight into 1928 in the United States.  Nevertheless, it’s a criteria and one I can hardly see how to apply: perhaps the character of the flamboyant actress, Camila Perichole, connects on some level with the New Woman of the 1920s, but even that is a stretch.  And the meditative, thoughtful pace of this book, and its fixation on the very humble reality of death, really seem light years from the decadent, devil-may-care, last call year of 1928, where the U.S., perched on the brink of a precipitous depression, careened blissfully through the night towards the iceberg of Black Tuesday.  I expect the next few novels to reveal those cultural currents really starkly (I hope they will, at least), but Wilder doesn’t seem to have cared to engage with his society—not in this book, at least.


My ratings system is hard to fine-tune, but here’s my considered opinion: “I strongly recommend reading this book, in the right mood.”  I think it’s great—I really do!—but I also know that I needed to get about 20-30 pages in before I could tell that it was worthwhile, and I generally had to read it in moments of real peace, usually in solitude.  It’s not a great book for dashing through as you jostle elbows with folks on a crowded bus.  I’d rank this my 2nd favorite novel thus far, though, so if you don’t normally read in places with peace and quiet, find the place, make the time, and get this book.  Please.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Last Word:

It’s becoming a frequent complaint of mine that it’s hard to pick this last excerpt.  Maybe doing so is a bad idea?  I’m not sure.  At any rate, in this book particularly, it’s very hard to choose something from late in the book, since all the principal characters are dead.  So I’m going to back track (if that’s all right with you), and supply a piece of the last character’s section, Uncle Pio’s section, that I’d considered excerpting from in my blog post about him (but cut for considerations of space).  I hope you enjoy this little view into Uncle Pio and Camila’s work on her skills as an actress (and perhaps the view also includes Wilder’s own feelings about his art?), and I encourage you to vote in the poll just below this post!  And now, in conclusion, take it away, Thornton Wilder:

“The Perichole would fling her face and arms upon the table amid the pomades, caught up into a tremendous fit of weeping.  Only perfection would do, only perfection.  And that had never come.

Then beginning in a low voice Uncle Pio would talk for an hour, analyzing the play, entering into a world of finesse in matters of voice and gesture and tempo, and often until dawn they would remain there declaiming to one another the lordly conversation of Calderon.

Whom were these two seeking to please?  Not the audiences of Lima.  They had long since been satisfied.  We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world.  Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theatres in some Heaven whither Calderon had preceded them.  The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”