At dawn, a truck carrying tar moves through central Toronto to take workers to the half-built bridge. Once they are near the viaduct, the men jump off and walk quickly to fight off the cold. The innovative bridge, which will carry traffic, water, electricity and, later, trains, requires the constant work, day and night, of men who climb on wooden plank structures to perform their tasks. After the electricians place lights on the bridge, it is finally completed in 1918 and called the “Prince Edward” or Bloor Street Viaduct.
This description of the bridge shows that the grandiose, state-of-the-art bridge relies on a much less grandiose set of workers: men who perform manual work in extreme conditions. This contrast suggests that, while the bridge will be admired in years to come, the workers—who are only described as anonymous groups of men—will be long forgotten, their participation in this project overlooked.
Later, during the bridge’s opening ceremonies, an unauthorized person avoids the guards and circles the bridge twice by bicycle, enjoying the bridge’s emptiness. Although this person might be the first member of the public to be seen on the bridge, the evening before the workers took part in an unofficial ceremony of their own, walking on the bridge while carrying candles to honor the workers who died during the bridge’s construction.
Although the workers will probably never receive the official recognition they deserve for their service to the city, their awareness of the fact that they form a community, as well as their pride in the long project they have taken part in, expresses itself through honoring the dead and recognizing that the bridge was built through exertion and self-sacrifice.
While workers pour tar onto the mud roads leading to the bridge, the foreman calls a man named Caravaggio, who feels exasperated at the prospect of having another fight with the foreman. While the men work with the tar, nearby children sometimes put bits of tar in their mouths to chew for fun, and the workers themselves heat their cans of beans over the hot surface.
Caravaggio’s presence on the bridge suggests that, before becoming a thief, he took part in this legal, strenuous physical work. It also suggests that, beyond the details readers learn about Caravaggio throughout the novel, he might have gone through a wealth of experiences that the reader can only imagine. This gives him greater complexity as a character.
During the bridge’s construction, Commissioner Harris always comes to look at the bridge in the evening. Harris has dreamed of this bridge for a long time. He took a passionate part in the planning and was the person who imagined that trains, in addition to cars, could pass on it. He is also fascinated with water and wants to bring water from the outskirts to the center of the city. Sometimes accompanied by Pomphrey, an English architect who later designed Harris’s greatest achievement, the water filtration plant, Harris walks on the bridge toward the workers even though most of them do not speak English.
Harris is more concerned with the beauty of his project and the advance of technology than with the lives of his workers, from whom he is separated by language and culture. Throughout the novel, he will show little regard for his workers’ lives, considering their work necessary but unworthy of his sincere attention. At the same time, though, his project will probably benefit the city as a whole, bringing it more efficient transportation services and profiting generations to come.
Harris enjoys seeing the bridge at night because it allows him to concentrate on its general shape and to dream of his grandiose plans, which he sometimes shares with Pomphrey. In April 1918, on a night of heavy wind, after attaching themselves with harnesses, Harris and Pomphrey are shocked to see five nuns walking on the bridge.
Harris’s attitude toward construction projects is one of aesthetic fascination. These projects constitute a creative outlet through which he believes he makes the world a better, more beautiful place. The nuns’ presence makes this scene even more magical and surreal
Watching the nuns, Harris concludes that they must have lost their way at night and become attracted by the fire on the bridge around which workers gathered. On the bridge, the heavy wind makes them lose their balance. Although some men grab the nuns, one of them is soon lifted up and pushed off the bridge. Everyone looks at the scene in awe and horror, and Commissioner Harris concludes that his first creation has already become a murderer.
Commissioner Harris’s realization that the bridge kills people is hypocritical: he cares about the nun, but does not realize that multiple workers have already died on the job. This highlights how segregated this society is in terms of class, as the lives of members of the working class are not considered as important as those of higher classes.
Although everyone is convinced the nun is gone forever, one of the men working in a lower arch, attached by a rope, sees a figure fall and catches it. The sudden weight forced onto him causes the man to scream and his shoulder to fall out of its socket, as he holds onto a metal pipe to steady himself. The man sees a girl’s face and notices her habit. Terrified, the girl cannot speak, but the man, Nicholas Temelcoff, unable to yell because of the pain, tells her that she should scream to call for help.
Nicholas’s extraordinary rescue elevates the seemingly routine work that the men perform on the bridge, suggesting that some individuals are particularly skilled and courageous. This episode thus makes a hero out of a mere bridge worker, a traditionally marginalized member of society, suggesting that social class or status is unrelated to individual valor.
Nicholas evaluates the situation and decides that they will need to swing to a higher level. Therefore, he takes the nun in his arms and tries to swing toward the bridge’s structure, feeling responsible for this person’s life. When they finally reach the lower level, the woman is still in shock, her clothes and hair disheveled, and Nicholas is so exhausted that the girl herself saves him from falling back. She holds him as they walk on the bridge.
Nicholas’s decision to risk his own life to save an unknown woman—and, in turn, the woman’s concern for keeping him from falling—reveals the beauty of human empathy and cooperation. It also highlights Nicholas’s noble character, presenting him as an archetypal literary figure: the noble fighter who saves a damsel in distress.
On a higher level, the workers and the nuns are still agitated, as they are convinced that the nun who flew off the bridge—a girl known for being clumsy and unlucky—is gone forever. In the meantime, Temelcoff and the girl walk off the bridge without attracting any attention. They walk through a cemetery and the girl holds him, showing him that he should keep his arm rigid. She then pushes underneath his arm forcefully, which makes Temelcoff groan in pain and feel as though he is about to faint, and she uses her veil to maintain his shoulder in place.
The two characters’ decision to avoid the crowd suggests that Temelcoff is not interested in being seen as a hero and, perhaps, that the nun is happy to escape and give up on her former life, as the removal of her veil indicates symbolically. Their intimacy and physical contact, as the nun apparently succeeds in pushing Temelcoff’s shoulder back into its socket, serves as a prelude to their shared attraction. Much later in the novel, Patrick will discover that the nun was none other than Alice, who has maintained a lifelong friendship with Nicholas.
Finally, Nicholas shows the nun the direction to the Ohrida Lake Restaurant, where his friend Kosta opens the door and he tells him to go back to bed. He goes to look for a bottle of brandy and the nun waits for him in the dark, empty restaurant. As Nicholas gestures her to sit at a table, he realizes that she has not said a single word, since even the scream on the bridge was his own.
The nun’s silence reveals her shyness and gives her an aura of mystery—which Alice will later retain, as she will avoid speaking about her past. It also emphasizes what will later appear to be the cultural gap between the two of them—a gap in language and culture that is bridged, nevertheless, by their mutual interest and curiosity.
Nicholas is known on the bridge for being exceptionally talented and fearless. He is given the most dangerous tasks, which involve diving off the bridge while being attached with a rope. He is so agile that it is easy not to spot him on historical photographs of the bridge’s construction, where he appears as nothing but a distant dot.
Nicholas’s tasks reveal how impressive workers’ talents can be, and how little his work is valued in the public eye. The public, like Harris, focus more on the beauty of the construction than on the skills of the people who are building it.
Nicholas’s solitary, risky work allows him to be paid one dollar per hour, whereas other workers are paid only forty cents. However, everyone prefers to leave these dangerous tasks to him. He knows the bridge so intimately that he could perform his tasks while blindfolded.
Although Nicholas is paid better than his colleagues, the workers’ salaries are extremely low, especially considering the life-and-death danger of the work they perform. However, like Patrick’s father, Nicholas has a lot of respect for his own expertise.
In the restaurant, Nicholas walks past a parrot called Alicia to search for brandy. When he returns, he offers some to the nun, adding that she does not have to drink it if she doesn’t want to. He then thanks her for his arm, which prompts her to indicate that he still needs medical help. However, Nicholas says that he prefers to drink and rest for the moment, to alleviate the pain. He stands up to turn on the radio and sits back down next to her, telling her that he is in pain but that he feels alive. The nun then picks up her glass and drinks.
Later in the novel, Patrick realizes that Alice took the parrot’s name as her new identity, abandoning her former life as a nun after being saved by Nicholas. What Alice’s motives might be in making such a radical decision remain unexplained. However, her decision to drink the alcohol Nicholas handed her, which it later becomes apparent she is not used to doing, suggests that she is choosing to change her life completely and abandon her former habits.
Noticing a scar on the nun’s nose, Temelcoff asks her about it and encourages her to speak, despite her apparent diffidence. Wanting her to stop feeling shocked, he tries to start a gentle conversation and tells her about his own scars, while showing them to her. While Temelcoff talks incessantly, the woman hears a song she enjoys on the radio and listens to it while observing Temelcoff’s intense stare into her face. This is the first time she has been alone in a bar with a man and, as she looks around, she realizes that this Macedonian restaurant is meant to imitate an old courtyard in the Balkans.
The nun (or Alice)’s silence allows her to observe the world around her without needing to participate. This makes communication difficult, but allows Temelcoff, usually so solitary, to express himself. Both characters’ attitudes contrast starkly with how they will behave later in the novel: Alice, as a voluble political believer, and Nicholas as a reserved baker who does not usually tell stories about his past. These apparent contradictions give depth to these characters, proving that they can display a variety of attitudes according to shifting circumstances.
As Temelcoff keeps on talking, mixing words of English—which he learned by listening to songs on the radio—with his native language, the nun looks alive and interested, looking around the room and tapping her fingers to the music. He admires her brown eyes and her short brown hair, and realizes that he wants to touch it. He then tells her that he loves her hair and thanks her for her help, as well as for accepting the drink. The woman looks intently into his eyes and feels as though she wants to say something, although she realizes she does not even know his name. Temelcoff then closes his eyes and, exhausted, falls into a deep sleep from which nothing can wake him.
This moment of intimacy between Alice and Temelcoff proves that, unlike other workers such as Patrick’s father, Nicholas is interested not only on his work, but also in his emotions and in sharing deep interactions with other human beings. This scene also shows that two strikingly different characters can overcome their superficial differences, such as language and culture, to connect on an intense level—in this case, without even needing to speak or know each other’s particular identity.
Left alone in the darkness, the nun feels as though she is the only person alive in the building. She walks to the sink to wash the bad taste from the alcohol in her mouth and looks at herself in a mirror. She passes her hand through her hair, as Temelcoff had wanted to do, and puts her face on the cold surface of the counter. She then returns to Temelcoff and, in a whisper, asks him what his name is before kissing him.
Alice’s apparent attraction to Temelcoff is given no more detail. Later in the novel, Patrick will try to understand what exactly happened between the two characters, but Alice refuses to talk about her past, thus leaving Patrick—and the reader—to imagine for themselves what happened after this first meeting.
On the bridge, in mornings of fog, the men stay close to each other, feeling as though they are trapped in a new space from which everything outside seems foreign and invisible. However, Temelcoff walks off on his own, entering steel and wood cages hanging unstably on the bridge. He directs the movement of steel bars from a hanging platform, from which structures called “travelers” handle the steel. Since travelers have already collapsed twice, Temelcoff attaches his rope to the permanent structure of the bridge. His movements are so sharp and forceful that he soon feels as if all of his bones are broken.
Although not much is said about individual workers’ relationships with each other, the workers demonstrate solidarity and a shared desire for protection. The fog serves as a symbolic element that both unites workers and emphasizes their separation from the rest of society, which they cannot see and which cannot see them. Temelcoff’s actions once again highlight how dangerous his work is, and how skilled he needs to be not only to work well, but to survive.
From his hanging position, Temelcoff calls out to the driver handling steel. Once, he was doing this when a traveler collapsed and he was forced to swing in various directions to avoid heavy pieces of wood and metal. The person working before Temelcoff was killed by such flying objects, his body sliced in two by a sharp piece of steel. At eight in the morning, after working for two hours, Temelcoff looks down at the river, the railway tracks, and the valley, while speaking English to himself.
The horrific fate of Temelcoff’s predecessor provides a terrifying visual image of the life-and-death situations workers find themselves in. The fact that Temelcoff speaks English to himself, even though English is not his native language, reveals his eagerness to learn the local language and integrate society—a desire common to many new European immigrants.
When the nun leaves Ohrida Lake Restaurant at dawn, she abandons her former identity. Although, a few years earlier or later, the woman would have smelled the flour in Temelcoff’s hair, what she now remembers is the roughness of the man’s callused hands.
This mysterious reference to Alice’s past and future remains largely unexplained, since it remains ambiguous whether Alice was ever romantically involved with him, but the mention of flour in Nicholas’s hair refers to his past and future life as a baker.
Even though Commissioner Harris has never spoken to Nicholas Temelcoff directly, he sees how Temelcoff listens attentively to the engineer’s instructions, never looking the engineer directly in the eye but focusing instead on tools. Nicholas seems oblivious to the people around him and does not realize that many workers watch him in awe, as though Nicholas were an extraordinary being, as fearless as a child.
Despite Harris’s usual indifference to his workers’ lives, he is curious about Nicholas, who is such an extraordinarily fearless and talented worker. Nicholas’s humble attitude and enormous talent contrasts with Harris’s goals, which are more self-centered, aiming to promote his own achievements even if he is never directly involved in the construction itself.
Tied to a rope, Nicholas steps off the bridge without marking a pause, feeling the pressure of the rope against his chest. Sometimes men can hear him hum songs to himself, as though Nicholas were not aware that other people could hear him. Nicholas enjoys learning English, even though it feels more difficult to him that performing physical tasks. He also proves particularly knowledgeable about people’s movements, recognizing Commissioner Harris by his walk and his expensive coat, which costs more than the sum of five bridge workers’ weekly salaries.
The contrast between the ease Nicholas experiences at the bridge and his difficulties with English is symbolic, suggesting that participating in the local economy, where he represents cheap labor, might prove easier than his integration into Canadian society. The difference between Harris’s wealth and the workers’ precarious situation denounces a class-based injustice, according to which workers are forced to toil to finance other people’s wealth.
In Macedonia, Daniel Stoyanoff, a member of Nicholas’s village of Oschima, bragged about his experience in North America. After losing an arm in a factory, he received financial compensation from the company that has allowed him to come back home and live a wealthy life. Although no stitches can be seen on Stoyanoff’s good arm, he tells everyone that that one too was cut off but that one of his colleagues, a tailor, sowed it back for him. His stories make him a hero to the children in the region.
Daniel Stoyanoff’s positive assessment of his experience in America relies only on financial compensation, whereas his body has literally been destroyed by the work he was made to do there—an irony that he, like others, seems entirely aware of. This situation reveals the poverty of the regions from which many immigrants come, as they—like Stoyanoff—will prove willing to sacrifice their own physical health and put their lives at risk to earn money.
When war erupts in the Balkans, Nicholas is twenty-five. After his village is destroyed, he leaves with three friends to reach Switzerland through Greece. All of them dream of reaching America and, although they have to spend a week in a factory basement to recover from illness (since no ill person is allowed to cross Switzerland into France), they finally reach Le Havre, a port where they find a boat travelling to New Brunswick, a Canadian province.
The difficulty of the journey only highlights many of these immigrants’ desperation and hope, as they assess that the possibility of living a better life in Canada and the dangers of life at home are more important than the insecurity such a voyage entails. The young people’s determination also overcomes the fear of the unknown, as their expectations of Canada might prove at odds with the reality there.
When Nicholas finally arrives, after two of his friends died on the journey, he sees Canada as a wild, primitive land. After the passengers pick lice off each other, Nicholas is finally admitted into Canada, showing a few coins to prove that he will not be dependent. He initially works in a bakery in Toronto while going to school to learn English.
Paradoxically, even though Canada treats its immigrants as second-class citizens, Nicholas is not initially impressed by Canada’s sophistication or superiority but, rather, by its bareness, which might open the door to many possibilities.
Most immigrants learned English by imitating songs or actors on stage, to the point that knowledgeable immigrants could play an entire actor’s part. When Nicholas began working on the bridge, he kept to himself, muttering sentences in English to himself to practice, according to his model, the jazz musician Fats Waller.
The fact that immigrants can imitate famous actors’ speeches is ironic and symbolic. Unlike these rich, famous actors, workers are largely invisible in Canadian society. This emphasizes the economic and social gap between workers and actors, even though they might share similar skills.
In the restaurant, Nicholas is woken up by a doctor taking care of his arm, while Kosta watches on. As the doctor comments that Nicholas somehow managed to put his shoulder back into its socket, he looks at the veil that the nun has left. As Nicholas chats with Kosta about the girl and discovers that she told Kosta to call a doctor for him, Nicholas is curious about the girl’s speech, wanting to know how her voice sounds. When Kosta asks what Nicholas knows about her, Nicholas mentions her black skirt. Later, he sees a piece of clothing and realizes that she cut off her habit to make a dress for herself.
The nun’s appearance and disappearance make her seem quasi magical, as she seems constantly out of reach. Her decision to cut off her habit confirms that she no longer wants to live life as a nun but is ready to integrate society. In this way, her situation is similar to many immigrants’, as she needs to give up on some of her former customs to become a new member of society. In fact, for a long time, Patrick will remain entirely unaware that Alice even had a former life as a nun.
The day after his accident, Nicholas feels that the city’s streets look new to him and he searches for the nun everywhere in the city. Nicholas’s “courtship” with the girl remains a silent one. When he remembers being asleep in the restaurant—since he always needs to drink himself to sleep, being terrified of the act of falling asleep—he recalls the woman asking him about his name.
The results of Nicholas’s courtship with the nun, Alice, remain mysterious, as there is a time gap between this period and Alice’s reappearance in the story. Nicholas’s fear of sleep, surprising since there is much more danger in working on the bridge than in sleeping, makes him partially irrational and, therefore, more complex and human as a character.
A week later, once his shoulder is healed, Nicholas returns to the bridge. He ignores people’s stories about the nun who vanished and, instead, focuses on his work. He knows the landscape of the valley better than anyone else, even the engineer, the architect, and Commissioner Harris, as though Nicholas were a bird. He looks around him and longs for the absent nun. One year from then, he will open a bakery with his savings.
Nicholas’s lack of participation in people’s conversations reveals his desire to keep his private life separate from his public life. This episode also shows that seemingly magical events such as the nun’s disappearance—and others throughout the novel—often have a more rational explanation, which might not be immediately visible.