The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thornton Wilder

Born in Wisconsin at the turn of the twentieth century, Thornton Wilder spent much of his childhood in China, where his father was an American diplomat. Returning to the United States, he shuttled between private schools in various states; he began college at Oberlin and eventually graduated from Yale University, after which he completed a master’s in French Literature at Princeton University. Subsequently Wilder worked as a high school English teacher until the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, his first novel, brought unexpected royalties, speaking engagements, and a Pulitzer Prize. Following this entrance onto the literary scene, Wilder became one of the most well-known and influential mid-century writers; his friends included Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, and Ernest Hemingway. Wilder served in the military briefly during World War I and extensively during World War II, earning medals for his leadership on the African front. Wilder never married, and most biographers have concluded that he was gay. He lived out his later years in Connecticut with his sister Isabella, and died in the house they shared in 1975.
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Historical Context of The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The novel is set in eighteenth-century colonial Peru. Originally inhabited by the powerful Inca tribe, Peru was first colonized by Spanish Conquistadors under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro in 1532. For the next several centuries, a viceroy (or deputy of the Spanish king) ruled the country from Lima. The indigenous population was decimated by infectious diseases brought by the conquistadors; they were also enslaved, displaced, forcibly converted to Christianity, and murdered in large numbers by conquistadors and subsequent generations of Spanish settlers. Indigenous leaders mounted several rebellions during this period, but none were successful.

Other Books Related to The Bridge of San Luis Rey

In its purposefully stark and sometimes unrealistic style, The Bridge of San Luis Rey resembles other modernist literature of the post-WWI era, such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (notably, Wilder and Hemingway were friends and even considered living together while they were both abroad in Europe). While The Bridge of San Luis was Wilder’s first literary success, his later and better-known plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, both depart from and reflect his first novel. Whereas Wilder set The Bridge of San Luis Rey in a time and place remote to his own life, Wilder’s plays delve into seemingly ordinary small-town American life; Our Town chronicles daily life in a fictional Connecticut town, while The Skin of Our Teeth portrays a middle-class New Jersey family. However, Wilder’s novel and plays share some modern stylistic devices (both San Luis Rey and Our Town feature an omniscient narrator who directly addresses the reader or audience). Moreover, like the plays, San Luis Rey uses the social dynamics of a specific and unique place and time to pose questions that are universally relevant.
Key Facts about The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Full Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • When Written: 1920s
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 1927
  • Literary Period: Twentieth century
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Setting: Eighteenth-century colonial Lima
  • Climax: Five main characters die when a bridge collapses.
  • Antagonist: Random catastrophe
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Moneymaker.  Thornton Wilder made a whopping $87,000 in royalties from the first edition of The Bridge of San Luis Rey—about $1,000,000 today.

Real-Life Implications. At a memorial ceremony shortly after the September 11 attacks in New York City, British Prime Minister Tony Blair chose to read aloud the last paragraph of The Bridge of San Luis Rey.