The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Krista Langlois

Krista has taught language arts for 14 years. She has a master's degree in teaching and loves researching, reading, and introducing others to the wonders of literature and language.

There is so much to be discovered inside the covers of Thornton Wilder's 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' that one barely knows where to begin. In this lesson, we will have a summary and a short analysis of the book's main motif and theme.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

In 1927, Thornton Wilder published a short novel that would go on to become one of the most celebrated works of his career. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was a best seller in its' own time, won a Pulitzer, was made into three movies, an opera, and a play. It's a story that delves deeply into the human heart to explore love in its many guises.

Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder author

Summary

The Premise

On July 20th, 1714, five travelers died when the bridge they were on broke. Brother Juniper,who witnessed the accident, becomes determined to prove that humans live and die by divine providence and sets out to explore the lives of the five victims. Readers are led into a tangle of days in which our fated characters live their lives within their individual circles while consistently crossing each others' paths. The story is a puzzle and all the pieces don't completely fit until each chapter is combined to complement each other.

A traditional rope bridge
robebridge

The Victims

The Marquesa de Montemayor and Pepita

The Marquesa de Montemayor (Dona Maria) is a broken woman. After visiting her unloving daughter, Dona Clara, in Spain, and returning home with a broken heart from her mistreatment, Dona Maria begins writing beautiful letters to her instead of visiting. She has a companion, Pepita, a lonely orphan raised by the Abbess of the local convent. Instead of accepting it, Dona Maria distances herself from Pepita's waiting love and affection to wallow in her misery. However, it is through Pepita's love for the Abbess that the Marquesa recognizes the flawed way in which she has loved her daughter: in pride and vanity. She writes her first real, unafraid, love letter to her daughter and vows to love her well. Two days later, Dona Maria and Pepita fall to their deaths.

Esteban

Esteban and Manuel were orphans left at the convent of Abbess, Madre Maria del Pilar. The twins grew so close that their need to be with each other became paramount. Both became scribes hired by the theater. It was here that Manuel fell in love with an actress, Camila Perichole (the Perichole).

The character of Camila Perichole was an actress in the 1700s like the woman above
actress 1700

When Manuel realizes his love for Camila hurts Esteban, he cuts her from his life. Soon after, he wounds his leg and develops a fatal infection. In his delirium, he curses Esteban for having come between him and the Perichole. In lucid moments, he denies it all, but, when each feverish frenzy returns, he curses Esteban. When Manuel dies and Esteban takes to wandering the streets, a seaman he knows convinces Esteban to leave Peru with him. While waiting downstairs, the seaman hears the rough sound of rope on wood and realizes that Esteban means to hang himself. Esteban is saved and the next day, they start out for Lima. The captain, taking a different path, leaves Esteban at the bridge where he meets his fate.

Uncle Pio and Jamie

Uncle Pio found Micaela Villegas, (aka Camila Perichole or, simply, the Perichole) when she was 12 and singing in a cafe. He was her maid, teacher, and caretaker: her everything. He molded her into a famous actress. The two loved one another as father and daughter though Uncle Pio would profess romantic love years later. Eventually, Camila left the stage and set herself up as a lady of society. Years after, she contracted smallpox and her beauty was ravaged. Believing that her beauty was the only thing people loved about her, she despaired. Uncle Pio convinces her to let him take her son, Jamie, for a year. Sadly, Camila shows no real affection for him. She agrees to let Uncle Pio take him, and the next day they both fall with the others to their deaths.

Harvey Keitel played Uncle Pio on the big screen
harveyispio

The Ending

And then there were only survivors. Brother Juniper could not find a satisfactory answer for himself in the victim's deaths, was found to be a heretic for his inquisitions, and was burned at the stake. The Abbess, Camila, and Dona Clara are left to grieve their losses and recognize that the love they bore those gone could be enough to make them better people.

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