The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by

Thornton Wilder

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Part 4: Uncle Pio Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In a letter to Doña Clara, Doña María describes Uncle Pio by comparing him to a messenger ant she sees carrying information between various other worker ants she observes on her balcony. Just like the ants, Uncle Pio travels among the consequential people of Lima and their servants, gathering information and performing mysterious tasks. Doña María writes that she’s laying down a piece of nougat for the aunts, and that she’s summoned Uncle Pio to see her, arranging to give him an antique in exchange for a new popular ballad.
Doña María’s comparison is not very flattering, but it is apt. An outwardly unprepossessing man, Uncle Pio turns social maneuvering into an art form, just as Doña María turns her letters into high literature.
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In her next letter, Doña María writes rapturously of Uncle Pio, saying that he’s “disreputable” but “delightful.” If he wrote her letters, she says, future generations would praise her wit. However, she says that his eyes are “as sad as those of a cow that has been separated from its tenth calf.”
Uncle Pio’s calculating, even unscrupulous, nature contrasts with the psychological depths that Doña María perceives—and her ability to do so proves that she’s not as self-obsessed as the novel often suggests.
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Uncle Pio is the Perichole’s “singing-master, her coiffeur, her masseur, her reader, her errand-boy, her banker”—and, some people say, her father. He helps her learn her parts for each play, and he writes her letters, since she is illiterate.
Uncle Pio and Doña María are the novel’s two major parent figures. Although they are alike in their unconventionality, their approach to their respective charges will be very different.
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In the past fifty years, Peru has developed “from a frontier state to a state in renaissance.” Lima’s elite import the newest settings of the Mass and the newest poetry. Whenever the Archbishop travels to Spain, he brings home some new piece of culture. The most popular art is that of the theater, which captures the imagination of the whole city. Camila Perichole has built a reputation as the city’s most talented actress. Most people assume that she’s nothing compared to Spanish actresses, but Uncle Pio knows she is the among the best in the world.
It’s important to note that Lima’s “renaissance” depends on the complete suppression of indigenous culture, which began when Spanish conquistadors first arrived on the island. The city’s obsession with the latest Spanish trends indicates its conception of itself as essentially peripheral, never able to measure up to the “parent” country it emulates.
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Uncle Pio is born the illegitimate son of a wealthy Spanish landowner. At the age of ten, he runs away to Madrid where he lives “by his wits,” relying on his “inexhaustible invention” and “freedom from conscience” to provide for himself. He runs errands, works for circuses, cooks, and spreads slanders at a price. He becomes legendary for his capability and discretion.
Uncle Pio’s lineage combines high birth and scandalous circumstances—in this way, he’s much like Doña María, who springs from a wealthy family but contributes to that family’s demise with her socially unacceptable behavior.
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Although he is good at every job he does, Uncle Pio is never satisfied with one job for long. As he grows older, he realizes that the things he craves most are the ability to be omniscient and active in the underbelly of society, proximity to beautiful women, and to be near the masterpieces of Spanish theater. He’s come to love drama by working around the theaters and scrounging up copies of different plays for himself.
Uncle Pio’s obsession with the theater is comparable to the Abbess’s charitable fervor—an all-consuming love not for a person, but an idea. This love will spur his greatest accomplishments, but at the same time impair his relationships with others.
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Because of “one of those quarrels that arise so naturally in brothels,” Uncle Pio has to flee Spain for Peru. In South America, he’s even more successful than in Europe, quickly becoming indispensable to Limean society. He performs many tasks for the Viceroy, enriching himself at the hapless official’s expense. Uncle Pio becomes used to coming and going from the palace whenever he wants.
Uncle Pio arrives in Lima under seedy circumstances. His personality and his occupation seem to disqualify him from being a good parent, but the novel will eventually show otherwise.
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However, although Uncle Pio is capable and cunning, he never becomes rich—he’s indifferent to money. He buys a house and fills it with dogs, but he himself lives in solitude, both proud and lonely.
Uncle Pio’s lack of interest in money underscores his fixation on drama.
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One day, Uncle Pio comes across Camila Perichole—who, at the time, was a twelve-year-old girl named Micaela Villegas, working as a café singer. He realizes that she’s extremely talented and decides to take her under his wing. He “buys” her from her master at the café, who keeps her locked up and whips her. At home, he takes good care of her and teaches her how to act, sing, and appreciate good theater.
Although he rescues the Perichole more as an experiment than an act of charity, Uncle Pio does a good deed—he removes her from a terrible situation and provides her both with material security and a greater purpose in life.
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Camila grows up into a beautiful woman, but remains deeply loyal to her first protector—“they loved each other deeply but without passion.” Sometimes Uncle Pio feels attracted to his protégé, but this “ghost of a passion” is the kind of feeling that makes “even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream.”
Although Uncle Pio’s ambiguous feelings towards his young charge seem problematic, they actually make him a cautious and thoughtful parent figure; in this sense, they are more laudable than Doña María’s straightforward but overwhelming passion for her daughter.
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Together, Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole travel across South America, seeking new audiences for her songs. As Camila grows older, Uncle Pio teaches her not only songs and vaudeville, but how to perform challenging theater roles. Although he never beats her, he sometimes exploits her desire for perfection in order to prevent her from becoming complacent in her talent and push her towards greater success. The “suggestion that she was a limited artist” always makes Camila upset and angry, but it also improves her work.
It’s important that Camila is able to improve—even transform—herself through art. Throughout the novel, art offers characters the ability to transcend the sordidness or desperation of their ordinary circumstnaces. Though her success as an actress will only exacerbate her character flaws, Camila is no exception to this trend.
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After each performance, Camila and Uncle Pio talk over the entire play, analyzing what she’s done well and what can improve. Even though the theatergoing population of Lima is already completely satisfied with her work, Camila and Uncle Pio are still trying to fulfill their own impossible standards.
Uncle Pio and Camila work so hard not to make money but out of their devotion to their craft. Even though they both have self-indulgent tendencies, art brings out their earnest and enterprising side.
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As time goes on, Camila becomes less obsessed with artistic perfection than Uncle Pio. In part, this is due to the lack of interesting roles for women in Spanish drama—all the heroic or villainous parts go to men, and she has few opportunities to show off her talent. One day, in order to interest her again in her work, Uncle Pio introduces her to a famous playwright who has recently come to Peru. In awe of the playwright, Camila carefully chooses a play to perform for her. On the night of the performance, Camila peeps through the curtains to gaze worshipfully at the tidy little middle-aged woman. Afterwards, the woman visits Camila’s dressing room, where the actress throws herself at the woman’s feet in tears. For hours, the three of them stay together as the visitor tells them family stories of her grandfather.
The novel will later show Camila’s social snobbery—she wants to associate only with the highest echelon of Limean society, like the Viceroy and his entourage. However, far from socially-motivated, her encounter with this unprepossessing woman is sincere and based on mutual devotion to the same art. As this episode shows, art is a mechanism for meaningful human connection that society, riddled with hypocrisy and convention, often prohibits.
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Uncle Pio is always happy when a new actress arrives in the city, because Camila always performs best when she has to compete. She can always outshine another actor “without any resort to tricks,” just her sincerity. But as her technique becomes stronger, she relies on her innate talent less and less. When she’s absentminded during a performance, only Uncle Pio notices.
Camila’s art relies on its lack of artifice, while Doña María’s is actually predicated on artificiality.
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Camila is very beautiful, except when she rests—then her face seems long and thin, and she looks like “a rather pinched peasant girl,” rather than a woman who can master the greatest dramas.
Even though Camila’s acing is based on her sincerity, onstage she appears as much different than her ordinary self. This remark highlights the inherent artificiality of all art.
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Camila becomes even more distracted from her work in the theater when she attracts the attention of the Viceroy, Don Andrés. After spending his youth gambling and carousing in Spain, he is exiled to Peru, where he spends his time trying to replicate as much of Spanish aristocratic society as possible. Trying to distract himself from his gout and boredom, he invites Camila to midnight dinners at the palace after her performance. Camila begins to adore him and believes he’s going to make her happy forever. The Viceroy teaches Camila how to dress neatly and speak properly to people of high birth.
Her affair with the Viceroy is the beginning of the end for Camila’s acting career. Although the Viceroy is attracted to her because of her exotic air, he wants to imbue her with conventional social graces. As the novel shows, such attention to conventionality doesn’t coexist very easily with a serious commitment to art.
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Uncle Pio doesn’t like Camila’s invitations to the palace, although he’s intrigued that her lessons from Don Andrés add a new sophistication to her performances. He reflects to himself that she would be a success in Spain if he took her there.
Here, Uncle Pio is losing control of a charge who used to be completely under his sway. Although he resents this, he doesn’t react as extremely as Doña María does when faced with the same situation.
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After some time, Don Andrés asks if Camila would mind sharing their dinners with other guests. He offers to introduce her to the Archbishop, which delights her. The Archbishop is an enormously fat man whose body imprisons “a curious and eager soul.” He is very devout, except for his constant indulgence in rich food and his obsession with secular literature. Although he knows that most of the priests in Peru are corrupt and inefficient, he’s too lazy to do anything about them. Instead, he consoles himself with the belief that “the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant,” and that “the poor are insensible to misfortune.” Whenever he hears about priestly abuses, he goes into such a rage that he has to remind himself to ignore these problems in order to keep calm.
Caricatured here, the archbishop is a direct foil to the Abbess, and he demonstrates the height of ecclesiastical corruption and hypocrisy. Although he flaunts the attire and the privileges of his office, he has no empathy for the people he’s supposed to help. In contrast, the Abbess eschews signals of her position and pronouncements of dogma. This allows her to be a much more effective and genuine shepherd of her flock.
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Eventually, Don Andrés invites Uncle Pio to join the dinner parties, as well as Captain Alvarado. All the men gather in the early evening, when the Perichole is still performing; she arrives tired and fantastically dressed after the play, and they treat her like a “great queen.” All night the men talk as Camila leans on Don Andrés’s shoulder. They discuss such issues as whether the soul can be seen at the moment of death, and how long the news would take to reach Peru if Christ returned to Jerusalem. Usually, the dawn breaks to find the conversation still going and the Perichole asleep at the table.
Even though all these characters (with the possible exception of Captain Alvarado) are deeply flawed characters, whom the novel criticizes at other points, here they enjoy profoundly meaningful conversation and relationships. The duality and complexity inherent in all characters is one of the reasons that Brother Juniper’s straightforward biographical project so utterly fails.
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However, Uncle Pio never stops worrying about Camila. In his mind, the world is divided into “those who had loved and those who had not.” People who have not truly loved cannot truly understand the meaning of life. Uncle Pio views love not as a pleasure but a “cruel malady;” still, it’s a necessary process “through which the elect are required to pass” in order to begin “the business of living.” Only this trial can imbue people with real tranquility and the ability to connect meaningfully with others. Uncle Pio knows that this process would make Camila’s acting even better, but he worries that she has never felt the necessary love. Even though she has three children with the Viceroy, she eventually tires of him and begins conducting other affairs on the side.
Here, Uncle Pio makes one of the novel’s most important pronouncements on passionate love. Although the novel has shown that feelings of this nature are often destructive and selfish, he points out that they are also necessary, both for artistic improvement and for greater self-knowledge. Uncle Pio regards love in much the same way as characters like the Abbess do grief—an undesirable event that nevertheless contributes to the development of good character.
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Meanwhile, the Perichole becomes increasingly bored with acting; instead, she’s filled with the desire to become a lady. Craving respectability, she hires a “duenna” and several servants to accompany her to church. She donates to charities, learns to read and write, and challenges anyone who refers to her as a bohemian. She forces the Viceroy to legitimize her children and assumes the delicate air of a great lady. Still, as a disreputable actress, she’ll never truly fit into Limean society.
The Perichole’s ridiculous obsession with social refinement contrasts markedly with her sincere address of the playwright’s granddaughter. Her gradual transition away from art coincides with the growing artificiality and unpleasantness of her own character. Moreover, her use of religion to gain superficial social credibility highlights the extent to which religious principles transform from legitimate convictions to social tools.
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Near the church of Santa María de Cluxambuqua is a fashionable neighborhood where Don Andrés has built an imitation-French palace. The Perichole builds her own villa and retires outside the city for her health, which she claims is declining. In her letters, Doña María writes witty descriptions of the gambling and pretensions that dominate social life at these two ornate houses. Also living with the Perichole is her eldest son, Don Jaime, a beautiful little boy who has inherited his father’s poor health. Occasionally he has seizures in public, but his face is so sensitive that everyone loves and admires him. Dressed in rich velvet, he forms a beautiful picture when placed next to his glamorous mother.
Although the Perichole and Doña María have much in common—and although they shared a meaningful encounter at the novel’s outset—she now becomes fodder for older women’s incisive epistles. By this point, each woman has parodied the other for the purposes of her own art and the satisfaction of her own audience. As the novel has shown before, art may be profound and valuable but it doesn’t always promote kindness or generosity.
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Camila quits acting when she is thirty and spends the next five years obtaining her place in society. She starts overdressing, collecting jewels and scarves, and she wears garish makeup. In her interactions with others, she alternates between furious temper and “unnatural sweetness.” At the beginning of her entrance to society, she forbade Uncle Pio from appearing with her in public; now, she doesn’t even like it when he visits her privately. She speaks to him formally and vaguely, refusing to make eye contact. Still, he determinedly perseveres in his monthly visits.
Camila’s betrayal of Uncle Pio is the worst consequence of her mania for social acceptance. Uncle Pio has been a much better parent than Doña María, yet he’s faced with the same filial ingratitude that she endured. However, his steadfastness in the face of this reveals the genuine character of his love for her.
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One day, Uncle Pio arrives at Camila’s villa and coaxes her into speaking with him in her French gardens. He has been living a very lonely life, and the thought of even spending a short time in her presence, being addressed as “Uncle Pio,” and reliving the “trust and humor” of their former relationship, fills him with anticipation.
Although Uncle Pio usually appears as Camila’s guide and benefactor, his almost childish enthusiasm here reveals how much he himself relies upon her for his own happiness.
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Uncle Pio awaits Camila in the French gardens, which look out onto the Andes. The sun is setting and small animals can be seen throughout the garden. Uncle Pio feels nostalgic, but when Camila arrives, she abruptly asks him what he wants to say to her, insisting that he address her as Doña Micaela.
Here, Camila’s obsession leads her to disown her original name, just as other characters’ passions (like Manuel’s for her) lead them to abandon previous conceptions of their identities.
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Uncle Pio begs Camila to hear him out, but she instantly begins to rail at him that she won’t return to the “filthy” theater, that she’s happy with her new life, and that she doesn’t want to be criticized. She begins to weep, and Uncle Pio doesn’t understand why or what to say. He tells her that the audience is unsatisfied with the performers who have replaced her, and the theaters only show farces instead of real dramas.
Although Camila is adamant in her refusal to return to the theater, she’s clearly not completely happy with her decision. Obviously, her ascension within Lima’s high society hasn’t proved as satisfying as she thought it would be.
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Eventually, Camila relents and begs Uncle Pio to forgive her. She says that Jaime has been ill all afternoon, and she is frustrated at her inability to do anything about it. Still, she says it would “be no good” if she went back to the theater. People would still want to see silly comedies, instead of the meaningful plays they both love.
Although Camila’s children are only auxiliary characters in the novel, this reference to her parental anxiety hints that her identity as a mother is gradually overtaking her identity as an actress. This important transformation is one that the novel never fully explores.
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Uncle Pio says that Camila is “a very great artist” and that she could even succeed in Madrid. He tries to tempt her into going to Spain with him, but she says that “all the world is alike, Madrid or Lima.”
Refusing to consign her to peripheral status, Uncle Pio bestows the greatest artistic commendation possible in colonial Peru.
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Humbly, Uncle Pio says that having known Camila is “enough for my whole life,” and that he is “always ready” to help her if she needs it. Amused at his protestations of love, Camila says he is confusing real life with the theater, which is the only place that such strong emotions exist. Thinking of her son, her lovers, and Uncle Pio at the same time, Camila doesn’t know what to say. She kisses Uncle Pio’s fingers and walks away quickly.
Camila feels that Uncle Pio has taken on the artificiality of the theater. However, in fact he’s being truly sincere, while by repressing her feelings behind a veneer of poise it’s she who is playacting. This paradox shows that sometimes the things that seem artificial are actually the most genuine.
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Soon after this, the news spreads throughout Lima that Camila Perichole has contracted the smallpox. Although her illness is part of a great epidemic, people are especially focused on her because they resent her pretentiousness and social climbing; in fact, “a wild hope ran around the town that the beauty would be impaired that had enabled her to despise the class from which she sprang.” Rumors abound describing her newly “ludicrous” appearance, and everyone mocks her.
Especially in her social ascent, Camila has prospered at the expense of others. Now, however, she’s exposed to the judgment and taunts of exactly those people. Her predicament shows that the wealth and advantages acquired by social advancement don’t provide any real security—much less, in fact, than her previous satisfaction in her art did.
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As soon as she is well enough to move, Camila travels from her home in Lima to her villa in the mountains. She returns all the jewels she has ever received from her lovers, and forbids the Viceroy, the Archbishop, and her other admirers from visiting. No one is allowed to see her appearance except her maids. “Like all beautiful women,” Camila assumes that everyone who has loved her only did so because of her looks, and that now she must “look for no more devotion.” Her erroneous belief stems from the fact that she has experienced no love “save love as passion,” which is “among the sharpest expressions of self-interest” rather than a kind of loyalty.
Uncle Pio’s worries are coming to fruition, although not, as he imagined, regarding Camila’s stage career. The fact that she has never experienced the debilitating passion which so many other characters suffer prevents her from truly esteeming herself, and causes her to see value only in her works. Because of this, she’s unable to cope at all with the trauma of her illness.
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As Camila’s few remaining friends continue to try to see her, she becomes angrier and more insulting in her rejections. Her servants don’t know what to do, as she has given away so many possessions that she’s now approaching poverty, and her temper is getting worse every day.
In fact, Camila should feel lucky to be alive. Her over-the-top reaction to this setback shows the serious character deficiencies that have arisen given her lack of serious connection to other people.
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Undaunted, Uncle Pio worms his way back into her household, managing her affairs and lending her money. However, whenever he comes into Camila’s presence, she becomes convinced that he pities her and comforts herself by yelling at him. Despite all this, he only continues to love her more.
Although Uncle Pio has absolutely nothing to gain (and has every reason to resent his protégé), he sticks by her in this time of crisis. His behavior here redeems him from any of his previous self-interested actions.
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One day, Uncle Pio opens Camila’s door to find her face covered in a “paste of chalk and cream.” She had hoped to devise a new kind of makeup to hide her scars, but it hadn’t worked and she looks ridiculous. She feels humiliated and enraged that Uncle Pio has seen her like this, and she yells at him to “get out of my house forever.” After kicking him out, she forbids her servants to let him enter again. Uncle Pio returns to Lima and strategizes about what to do next.
Camila is unwilling to appear vulnerable in front of anyone—even the man who has always been her most loyal friend. This trait makes her high-handed and difficult to deal with, but more importantly it reflects her crippling lack of self-worth, which in Uncle Pio’s mind springs from her lack of passionate love for anyone around her.
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One morning, Uncle Pio wakes up at dawn and steals onto Camila’s estate. Lying beneath her window, he begins to weep in imitation of a young girl. Eventually, Camila wakes up and asks who is outside. In a falsetto voice, he says he is a girl called “Estrella” and begs for Camila to come down and help her. Eventually, she emerges in a thick cloak, and Uncle Pio reveals himself. Camila calls him a “dreadful person” and says that since “my life is over” she doesn’t need to speak to him anymore, but Uncle Pio begs her to listen to him just once more.
It’s notable that Uncle Pio resorts to art—however primitive and crude—to get Camila to listen to him. Using the playacting that has always defined their bond, he entices her out of her self-absorbed stupor, albeit against her will.
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Uncle Pio entreats Camila to let him take Jaime back to Lima, where he can be the boy’s teacher. Although Jaime is smart and wants to be educated, here he is left to his own devices. Uncle Pio promises to clean his house and hire a housekeeper so that the place is fit for Jaime’s presence. Camila says that, as a mother, she can’t be separated from her child.
Camila is drawing on tropes of motherly love, but she’s not actually in the position to be in a good parent. On the other hand, Uncle Pio seems like a seedy bachelor, but he can provide for Jaime better than she can.
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Trying to force Camila into agreement, Uncle Pio demands that she pay back the money he’s lent her (although he has no intention of actually taking it). Proudly, Camila says she will give him her remaining jewels, but Uncle Pio relents and repeats again that he will love Jaime and take good care of him. He says she should trust him, since he’s never harmed her and was always a good teacher to her.
Although no one else will give him credit for successfully raising Camila, Uncle Pio points out humbly that he’s actually done a good job as a parent. Just like those who spout religious dogma, the people who trumpet their abilities as parents often fall short of those who don’t.
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Camila says Uncle Pio is a cruel man to continually force gratitude on her. For a while, she looks at the stars in silence, but then she concedes that Jaime can go to Lima if he wants it. If so, she says, Uncle Pio will find him at a nearby inn, and disappears.
Camila’s accusations of “cruelty” when Uncle Pio is doing everything in his power to help her reflect the extreme self-pity into which she’s descended as a result of her illness.
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The next day, Jaime appears at the inn, dressed in tattered clothes. He and Uncle Pio set off in a cart, but since Jaime becomes sick from the rough movement, Uncle Pio carries him on his shoulders. As they reach the bridge, they encounter Captain Alvarado, and soon after they 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 bridge, “but it turned out not to be necessary.”
This matter-of-fact passage is especially poignant because it prefaces the death of a small and helpless child. Although Brother Juniper can devise divine reasons for the deaths of any of the adults, it’s impossible to do for the death of a child, who has had no opportunity to distinguish himself by either sin or virtue.
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