The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by

Thornton Wilder

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Part 5: Perhaps an Intention Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Some time after the bridge collapse, the city builds a new bridge out of stone. Meanwhile, the event enters the community’s lexicon of slang: people say that they will see each other soon “unless the bridge falls.”
While Brother Juniper wants to use the bridge collapse to justify and understand God’s plan, other people interpret it as a sign of the utter unpredictability of life and death.
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However, the real “monument” to the catastrophe is Brother Juniper’s book. He comes up with this idea from a friend who is filled with bitterness because his wife has run away with a soldier, leaving him to care for two small children. He continually shares with Brother Juniper “such thoughts as belied the notion of a guided world”—for example, repeating an old story about a sick queen who died despite the fact that all her subjects prayed for her sincerely.
Although Brother Juniper and his friend hold diametrically opposed religious convictions, they are united by their literalist approach to philosophical issues: the friend thinks that because prayer doesn’t always have tangible results God must not exist, while Brother Juniper believes that the existence of God means that an intelligible plan must exist somewhere.
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Hearing skepticism like this, Brother Juniper becomes sure that it’s time to produce “tabulated proof” of his own contrasting beliefs. He has tried to arrive at such proof before—when an epidemic struck his own village, he surreptitiously made numerical charts in which he rated his villagers based on “goodness, piety, and usefulness.” However, this method proved unsuccessful, both because of the difficulty of rating the villagers and because Brother Juniper’s calculations eventually revealed that “the dead were five times more worth saving.”
Brother Juniper’s ridiculous experiment is one of the novel’s funniest passages. Its humor (and Brother Juniper’s use of super-scientific jargon) emphasizes the complete futility of trying to address philosophical and theological issues through such experiments, and the hubris of believing that man can definitively answer such questions.
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After this failure, Brother Juniper tears up his papers and casts them into the ocean; watching them float away, he “extracted from their beauty a resignation he did not permit his reason to examine.”
While facts and experiments baffle Brother Juniper, he’s able to gain greater understanding and tranquility simply from an appreciation of aesthetic beauty.
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Brother Juniper also draws inspiration from a fellow cleric who one day stopped in Lima’s cathedral to read an epitaph over a woman’s gravestone. The epitaph paints a glowing picture of the woman’s beauty and virtues as a wife and friend. He becomes enraged, saying that it must be an exaggeration that “perpetuates a legend of selflessness” rather than painting a true picture. Since the woman has been dead only twelve years, he decides to interview all her family and friends to prove the epitaph wrong; however, everyone she knows unanimously agrees that she was just as good in life as she was portrayed after death.
This woman’s life and biography prove very straightforward—her character was so unblemished (and uncomplicated) that the simple gravestone is able to represent her faithfully. However, Brother Juniper will encounter far more complex characters in his own project, and will be unable to fully “explain” them even after compiling a massive trove of facts and analysis.
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Brother Juniper works hard on his book, determined to include even the most seemingly insignificant details. He hopes that eventually someone will be able to read this information and piece it together into meaningful conclusions. 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 describes her as “one of the three most cultivated persons in Lima.”
Brother Juniper’s predicament is especially important given that many characters—for instance, Doña María and the Perichole—have always displayed different personalities through their art and their real-life behavior. Brother Juniper wants to discover which is the “real” character, but the novel suggests that any single character necessarily contains different and even contradictory personas.
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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. The Perichole contradicts the “unsavory testimonies” that others give about Uncle Pio.
While these characters give the most sympathetic portraits of their loved ones, they aren’t very helpful in reducing them to easily understandable portraits for Brother Juniper’s work.
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The few conclusions at which Brother Juniper arrives aren’t very useful—his work leads him to believe that the same catastrophe has punished wrongdoers and summoned the righteous to heaven. Eventually, the book attracts the attention of the Inquisition; it’s declared heretical, and both the book and Brother Juniper are sentenced to be burned at the stake.
The earnestness with which Brother Juniper approaches this work contrasts with the humorous way in which the novel describes it. By trying too hard to understand the catastrophe, Brother Juniper is driven to nonsensical interpretations.
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Orthodox to the end, Brother Juniper accepts the conclusion that “the devil had made use of him to effect a brilliant campaign in Peru.” The night before his execution, he stays awake in his cell trying to understand the meaning in his own life, even though he’s been unable to discern that meaning for so many others. He is willing to die for the church, but he wishes people could understand that his intentions were good. In the morning his villagers, who feel genuine affection for him, come to Lima to watch in puzzlement as he is burned. Brother Juniper calls on St. Francis to protect him and dies.
Even though Brother Juniper was doing his utmost to assist the church, he still gets punished. Brother Juniper’s persecution and death show the utter hypocrisy of ecclesiastical institutions and their blind promotion of religious dogma, which ends up harming the true believers as much as anyone else.
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The day of the memorial service for victims of the bridge collapse is sunny and warm. The Archbishop sits sweating on his throne, while Don Andrés feels ill and self-conscious in the church, knowing that everyone is watching as he mourns his only son; he wonders if Camila is in attendance. Captain Alvarado stands in the square and thinks about “how false, how unreal” the whole affair is before leaving early to sit on his boat and reflect on Esteban.
Even though the church is supposed to help people mourn, the ceremony feels very false and no one derives any comfort from it. Rather, true closure will come from solitary reflection (like Captain Alvarado’s here) or shared experiences of grief between characters.
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The Abbess sits among her nuns, “pale but firm.” She’s finally had to accept that she can’t control the continuance of her work after her death, and must learn to take satisfaction in what she’s doing now. She wishes that her relationship with Pepita had been one of “disinterested love,” rather than a result of her worry and ambition.
Although the Abbess is the novel’s most altruistic character, even she has to accept that her ideological fervor contains a tinge of obsession and has harmed her relationships with those she loves most.
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Camila Perichole has finally left her villa to attend the service. She feels that God has spoken and punished her through her illness and Jaime’s death. However, as she travels to the city, she imagines the overwhelming crowds looking at the bodies of Jaime and Uncle Pio, and the meaningless rituals of the church. As she nears the church of San Luis Rey, she goes inside and sits down to rest. She wants to feel some meaningful emotion but can’t, and concludes that she has “no heart.” Just as she has this thought, a “terrible and incommunicable pain” comes over her and she wishes fervently that she could see her two loved ones again. She returns to her farm and spends a year in despair and seclusion.
Even though the church ceremony in Lima proves meaningless and unsatisfactory, Camila Perichole has a profound spiritual experience while sitting in a church by herself. The novel doesn’t condemn Christianity and even suggests that religion can help individual characters grow spiritually (as Camila does here)—rather, it objects to the corruption and abuses of power that often occur within religious institutions.
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One day, Camila learns that the Abbess, like her, has lost two loved ones in the bridge collapse. She wants to visit, but is almost ashamed to appear before such a venerable woman. Still, she goes to Lima and lurks about the convent, eventually summoning enough confidence to introduce herself to the Abbess. She asks the older woman what she should do, now that she is all alone and has no one to love.
Even Camila understands that she will benefit less from religious ceremonies than from a meaningful conference with someone else who is suffering the same pain that she is.
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The Abbess takes Camila into the convent’s garden, speaking soothingly of her previous acting career. Camila protests, saying that she is a “sinner” and doesn’t deserve praise. The Abbess asks about Jaime and Uncle Pio, and Camila pours out the entire story of her life, from her lonely childhood to her current predicament.
It’s important that the Abbess is so non-judgmental and accepting, even though Camila’s life and career might not agree with her religious principles. Her willingness to look beyond religious dogma allows her to truly connect with those around her.
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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 Abbess. The Abbess has no idea who this is, but allows her into the garden. Tall and beautiful, the stranger 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 as a daughter.
Clara was never able to appreciate her mother in life as she does after her death. This reflects the flaws in Clara’s character, but also her ability to change and grow as a result of grief.
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The Abbess speaks to Doña Clara of her own grief, and of Camila’s simultaneous visit. She 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 she should “expect grace” everywhere, even out of this self-centered old woman.
The Abbess is able to build connection and understanding between three very different women as a result of the same feelings of loss. Here, grief connects people more than other forms of love did throughout the rest of the novel.
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The Abbess asks permission to show Doña Clara her work and leads her around the abbey, showing her the orphans and the ill. As she looks over these people, the Abbess becomes full of energy and speculation, asking Doña Clara if the Spanish are any better than the Limeans at caring for the insane or the deaf. Doña Clara is impressed and touched by her fervor.
Charity and good works help the Abbess overcome her feelings of personal loss—even though Doña Clara has less experience in this area, it proves helpful for her as well.
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At last, the Abbess says she must go and speak to the sick people before they go to sleep. One of the Abbess’s helpers appears to consult with her about some problem, and the Abbess explains that this woman used to be an actress and was also involved in the bridge collapse.
It becomes apparent that Camila Perichole has become a nun. Eschewing her self-centered past, she has found true tranquility in a life centered around helping others.
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After Doña Clara leaves, the Abbess visits the sick people. Thinking of Esteban and Pepita, she talks to them of people who are left in the dark with no one to help them. However, the sick people in their beds feel secure and warm under the Abbess’s watch even though they know they may soon die.
The bridge collapse may have tested the Abbess’s religious convictions, reminding her that meaningless death can threaten anyone she loves. At the same time, it has strengthened her commitment to good works.
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While she is talking, the Abbess reflects that almost no one else on earth even remembers Esteban and Pepita. After she and Camila and Doña Clara die, no one will remember those who died on the bridge. However, it seems to her that “the love will have been enough,” because “even memory is not necessary for love.” The only thing that connects the living and the dead, and the only thing that provides meaning to life, is love.
Brother Juniper believes that an understanding of the divine plan is crucial to living a good life, but the Abbess argues the opposite; rather than rational thought, it’s the feeling of selfless love that allows people to live well and to grow spiritually, even though they may never understand God’s plan or even believe in its existence.
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