The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by

Thornton Wilder

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Bridge of San Luis Rey can help.

The Abbess Character Analysis

The Abbess, Madre María del Pilar, is a highly principled and formidable nun who superintends most of the city’s charitable works. In her hopes for women’s rights and a more equal society, she’s centuries ahead of her time. Moreover, her ceaseless and unselfish industry on behalf of the city’s poor and powerless differentiates herself from other church officials (namely, the Archbishop and Brother Juniper) who preach religious dogma without really caring about the people they supposedly serve, and from other members of the city’s elite (like Doña María and Camila Perichole) who are motivated exclusively by selfish, rather than altruistic, desires. The Abbess’s one worry is that she knows no one capable of continuing her work after she dies. In order to fill this gap, she grooms one of her young charges, Pepita, to be her successor by giving her difficult jobs (like caring for Doña María). Pepita’s death in the bridge collapse forces the Abbess to acknowledge that she can’t decide what happens after her death, but by relinquishing her desire for control she manages to gain some tranquility despite her sadness.

The Abbess Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The The Bridge of San Luis Rey quotes below are all either spoken by The Abbess or refer to The Abbess . 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

She was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women.

Related Characters: The Abbess
Related Symbols: Churches and Abbeys
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

She had talked to Pepita as to an equal. Such speech is troubling and wonderful to an intelligent child and Madre María del Pilar had abused it. She had expanded Pepita’s vision of how she should feel and act beyond the measure of her years.

Related Characters: Pepita, The Abbess
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5: Perhaps an Intention Quotes

“All, all of us have failed. One wishes to be punished. One is willing to assume all kinds of penance, but do you know, my daughter, that in love—I scarcely dare say it—but in love our very mistakes don’t seem to be able to last long?”

Related Symbols: Churches and Abbeys
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Related Characters: The Abbess
Related Symbols: Churches and Abbeys
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Bridge of San Luis Rey LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey PDF

The Abbess Character Timeline in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The timeline below shows where the character The Abbess 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
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
...brunt of Doña María’s eccentricities. She’s an orphan, brought up under the care of the Abbess Madre María del Pilar. One day Doña María had visited the convent to ask for... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
The Abbess, one of the “great women of Peru,” has “fallen in love with an idea several... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
The Abbess exercises her idealism by running her abbey in addition to hospitals and orphanages throughout the... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
As the Abbess gets older, she begins to fear for the continuation of her work. None of the... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...hurtful to Pepita. She only remains with Doña María out of her loyalty to the Abbess. (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
...how to make Doña Maria’s special porridge. Then she begins writing a letter to the Abbess, whom she remembers lovingly and respectfully. The narrator says that by treating Pepita as a... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...hints at Pepita’s dissatisfaction and loneliness, but also reiterates her willingness to do whatever the Abbess wants. She’s struck by the humility and devotion Pepita expresses, and wishes that she were... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
...the next post, and even admits that she knows Pepita has been writing to the Abbess. Blushing, Pepita says that the letter wasn’t “brave” and that she doesn’t want to send... (full context)
Part 3: Esteban
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
One morning, two foundlings appear at the door of the Abbess’s convent. The nuns take them in and name them Manuel and Esteban. Although their parents... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Although she’s generally suspicious of men, the Abbess grows fond of Manuel and Esteban, treating them to cakes and telling them biblical stories.... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...back. He goes on long walks and stares vacantly at passersby. The landlord summons the Abbess, who tracks down Esteban and asks him to come view his brother’s body before the... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...rarely keeps a job for long. Once he lingers outside the convent, but when the Abbess hurries out and tries to convince him to come inside, he runs away. The Abbess... (full context)
Art and Memory Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
After thinking long and hard, the Abbess summons Captain Alvarado. He is a seasoned traveler accustomed to making expeditions throughout the world.... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
...respected Captain Alvarado and even done some work for him in the past, so the Abbess knows he is the one person who might be able to talk to Esteban. She... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
Esteban says that he wants to give the Abbess a present before he sets out. Once, she told him that she suffered a “serious... (full context)
Part 5: Perhaps an Intention
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Brother Juniper learns to concentrate on those who knew the victims best. The Abbess tells him in detail about Pepita, but not about her hopes for the young girl.... (full context)
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
The Abbess sits among her nuns, “pale but firm.” She’s finally had to accept that she can’t... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
One day, Camila learns that the Abbess, like her, has lost two loved ones in the bridge collapse. She wants to visit,... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
The Abbess takes Camila into the convent’s garden, speaking soothingly of her previous acting career. Camila protests,... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
A long time later, a nun enters the Abbess’s office and says that the Condesa d’Abuirre, newly arrived from Spain, wishes to see the... (full context)
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
The Abbess speaks to Doña Clara of her own grief, and of Camila’s simultaneous visit. She says... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
The Abbess asks permission to show Doña Clara her work and leads her around the abbey, showing... (full context)
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
At last, the Abbess says she must go and speak to the sick people before they go to sleep.... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Dogma vs. Altruism Theme Icon
After Doña Clara leaves, the Abbess visits the sick people. Thinking of Esteban and Pepita, she talks to them of people... (full context)
Acts of God and Individual Will Theme Icon
Love and Obsession Theme Icon
Grief and Loss Theme Icon
While she is talking, the Abbess reflects that almost no one else on earth even remembers Esteban and Pepita. After she... (full context)