The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by

Thornton Wilder

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Doña María is a Limean noblewoman and eventual victim of the bridge collapse. Doña María’s defining quality is her obsessive devotion to her daughter, Doña Clara, a passion she channels all her energies into. Although Doña María sees her feelings as well-intentioned, the novel shows that they are actually selfish, reflecting a desire to control her daughter rather than a clear-minded concern for the girl’s well-being. Paradoxically, Doña María’s devotion proves oppressive to Doña Clara and drives her daughter away from her, preventing them from sharing a close relationship. It’s self-destructive as well—Doña María’s single-minded obsession with her daughter leads her to neglect all other aspects of her life, turning her into a prematurely aged eccentric and laughingstock across Lima. However, the letters that Doña María writes her daughter, full of witty anecdotes and social satire that she hopes will gain her daughter’s attention and respect, eventually become a highly acclaimed work of literature and record of colonial Limean society. This shows how art can help characters transcend their flaws to create works of deep beauty and understanding. Eventually, Doña María makes a pilgrimage to pray for her daughter’s health during her pregnancy; in the church, she realizes that she’ll never be able to control what happens to her daughter or how her daughter feels about her, and achieves a new feeling of tranquility. Although Doña María seems on the verge of improving her character and leading a better life, she dies in the bridge collapse the next day, unable to pursue her good intentions.

Doña María Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The The Bridge of San Luis Rey quotes below are all either spoken by Doña María or refer to Doña María. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of The Bridge of San Luis Rey published in 1927.
Part 2: The Marquesa de Montemayor Quotes

But her biographers have erred in one direction as greatly as the Franciscan did in another; they have tried to invest her with a host of graces, to read back into her life and person some of the beauties that abound in her letters, whereas all real knowledge of this wonderful woman must proceed from the act of humiliating her and divesting her of all beauties save one.

Related Characters: Doña María
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

At times, after a day’s frantic resort to such invocations, a revulsion would sweep over her. Nature is deaf. God is indifferent. Nothing in man’s power can alter the course of law. Then on some street-corner she would stop, dizzy with despair, and lean against a wall would long to be taken from a world that had no plan in it.

Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

She was listening to the new tide of resignation that was rising within her. Perhaps she would learn in time to permit both her daughter and her gods to govern their own affairs.

Related Symbols: Churches and Abbeys
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

She had never brought courage to either life or love. Her eyes ransacked her heart. She thought of the amulets and her beads, her drunkenness […] she thought of her daughter. She remembered the long relationship, crowded with the wreckage of exhumed conversations, of fancied slights, of inopportune confidences […].

Related Characters: Doña María, Pepita
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Bridge of San Luis Rey LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey PDF

Doña María Character Timeline in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The timeline below shows where the character Doña María appears in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2: The Marquesa de Montemayor
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Every Spanish schoolchild is now familiar with Doña Maria, Marquesa de Montemayor ; since her death, her letters have become “one of the monuments of Spanish literature,”... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...Limean merchant. As a child, her ugliness and her persistent stutter make her unhappy; her mother constantly berates her and tries to “improve” the girl’s appearance. Doña María resists marriage for... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...daughter, Clara, she “fastened upon her with an idolatrous love.” However, Clara responds to her mother’s love with “astonishment and repulsion,” and tries to avoid her mother as much as possible.... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Now that she’s alone again, Doña María ’s dress becomes even shabbier than normal and her habits more erratic. She talks to... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Four years after Doña Clara’s marriage, Doña María visits Spain. Both women vow to behave well, and both fail; the visit is punctuated... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Art and Memory Theme Icon
From this point on, Doña María confines her love to the letters she writes Doña Clara. Even though she’s strange and... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Many modern critics have accused Doña María of “keeping one eye to posterity” while writing the letters, but in fact Doña María... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Moreover, although the letters are lighthearted and funny, in fact Doña María is sad most of the time. She even wonders if the “constant pain in her... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...God, because she doesn’t think He would create a world where daughters don’t love their mothers. Moreover, she becomes convinced that, besides herself, no one in the world truly loves anyone.... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
The narrator then paraphrases one of Doña María ’s letters to Doña Clara. In it, she writes of a gold chain that she’s... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Doña María then reports that the Viceroy of Lima is sick with gout, which incapacitates him most... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Finally, Doña María writes that she and her maid, Pepita, are planning on going to the theater to... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
That night, Doña María does indeed bring Pepita to the theater. However, in her absent-mindedness she doesn’t pay much... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
...theater,” he forces Camila Perichole to apologize to her personally. He doesn’t care much about Doña María , but he wants everyone to respect and fear the provincial aristocracy of which he... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Doña María is not only surprised by Camila Perichole’s visit, she’s also drunk. At first, Doña María... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
...up close, Camila Perichole is surprised by her dignity. She softly says that she hopes Doña María didn’t “misunderstand” anything she said at the theater. Doña María has no idea what’s happening,... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
It’s Pepita who bears the brunt of Doña María ’s eccentricities. She’s an orphan, brought up under the care of the Abbess Madre María... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
...Pepita the most difficult tasks and takes her on her own errands. Pepita’s work for Doña María is simply the latest of these tests. Pepita doesn’t like caring for the difficult woman,... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Pepita’s life as Doña María ’s servant is very difficult. She’s isolated from the other servants, who all steal from... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
One day, Doña Clara writes that she is pregnant, hoping to forestall her mother’s worry and advice by announcing it casually. Despite her daughter’s efforts, Doña María goes into... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
In the midst of her worries, Doña María is often struck by the fear that “God is indifferent” and “nothing in man’s power... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
At last, Doña María decides to fulfill an old Peruvian tradition and make a pilgrimage to the shrine of... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...her Doña Clara. The letter is “full of wounding remarks rather brilliantly said,” but the mother simply reads it and then gently folds it away. (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Pepita prepares their rooms in the hotel and tells the cooks how to make Doña Maria ’s special porridge. Then she begins writing a letter to the Abbess, whom she remembers... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
When Pepita goes downstairs to look after the dinner, Doña María arrives at the hotel, sees the unfinished letter, and reads it. The letter hints at... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
When Pepita returns, Doña María invites her to share the meal. When Pepita politely declines, the older woman feels rejected.... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Sitting alone, Doña María reflects that she had “never brought courage to either life or love.” She decides that,... (full context)
Part 3: Esteban
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Art and Memory Theme Icon
...secret language that they made up as boys. Just as the word “resignation” understates what Doña María felt after her pilgrimage to the shrine, so “love” inadequately describes the brothers’ bond. (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...a seasoned traveler accustomed to making expeditions throughout the world. He’s famous throughout Lima, and Doña María has even introduced him by letter to her daughter. She intuits that his passion for... (full context)
Part 4: Uncle Pio
Art and Memory Theme Icon
In a letter to Doña Clara, Doña María describes Uncle Pio by comparing him to a messenger ant she sees carrying information between... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
In her next letter, Doña María writes rapturously of Uncle Pio, saying that he’s “disreputable” but “delightful.” If he wrote her... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
...Dressed in rich velvet, he forms a beautiful picture when placed next to his glamorous mother. (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
...stop to speak to “an old lady who was travelling with a little girl,” clearly Doña María and Pepita. Uncle Pio promises Jaime that they will take a rest after crossing the... (full context)
Part 5: Perhaps an Intention
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Art and Memory Theme Icon
...It’s very difficult to arrive at cohesive character portraits—for example, one man tells him that Doña María used to come to his parties in order to steal the spoons, while a bookseller... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...explains that she is Doña Clara, and has traveled across the ocean to mourn her mother’s death. She immediately makes “long [and] passionate” speech about Doña María, reproaching herself for failing... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...says gently that they have all failed the people they loved. Doña Clara produces her mother’s last letter, which to the Abbess is astonishingly beautiful and wise. She reminds herself that... (full context)