The Bridge of San Luis Rey centers around the collapse of an ancient bridge outside Lima that sends five very different characters plummeting to their deaths. Because the calamity seems to defy rational explanation or moral understanding, it becomes a touchstone in the community, forcing observers to wonder if such events are a reflection of divine will or simply the result of random individual actions. The question of God’s presence, or lack thereof, in everyday life is especially important in eighteenth-century Lima, a society predicated on faith and influenced by the Spanish Inquisition yet teetering on the edge of the Enlightenment, when thinkers would begin to insist on scientific explanations for worldly events and assert the role of individuals, rather than divine will, in shaping their own lives. While the novel doesn’t come to any conclusion regarding the origins of disasters like the bridge collapse, it does argue that such dilemmas become more central to societies’ conception of faith and reason as they move into increasingly modern eras.
The bridge collapse claims the lives of five people from vastly different walks of life. Therefore, it’s extremely difficult to determine if they “deserved” to die, or to retrospectively find meaning in the event. Doña María had made a pilgrimage to a church in order to pray for her daughter’s safe pregnancy; her maid, Pepita, accompanied her out of duty. Esteban was preparing to begin a sea voyage with Captain Alvarado (who managed to escape the calamity because he was handling the luggage). Uncle Pio, who had been taking care of Camila Perichole’s (usually referred to as “the Perichole”) house during her illness, was bringing her eldest son, Jaime, to live with him in the city.
In trying to understand the calamity, Brother Juniper applies the principle that God causes every individual death for a reason. This requires him to see “in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven.” Besides leading him into extremely convoluted thinking, this belief requires him to make black-and-white character judgment about the victims. Brother Juniper seems to believe that Doña María and Uncle Pio are deserving of punishment, while the others are being rewarded with early entrance to heaven; however, the novel’s compassionate examination of all the characters insists that none of them can be reduced to these simplistic images, and thus refutes Brother Juniper’s reasoning.
While Brother Juniper firmly believes that the bridge collapse is an act of God and simply wants to prove it, his inability to do so causes the reader to doubt that there is any divine meaning in catastrophes like these. Either possibility leads to troubling conclusions. If the bridge collapse is the will of Brother Juniper’s omniscient and omnipotent God, this deity seems to be impersonal and possibly even cruel. He lets Doña María perish right as she’s had a spiritual epiphany and is on the brink of transforming her character for the better, and he allows Pepita to die young instead of continuing the Abbess’s charitable works. He even allows Jaime, a young child who cannot have done anything wrong, to die as well. On the other hand, if the bridge collapse is a random tragedy that stands apart from God’s influence, then human lives seem alarmingly irrational. Dependent solely on random choices—Doña Maria’s impetuous desire to go on a pilgrimage, or Uncle Pio’s decision to cross the bridge at a certain time—the characters’ deaths are not part of some larger and potentially comforting pattern, but are wholly meaningless.
This question reflects central anxieties in a society torn between religious faith and new scientific possibilities. Colonial Lima is defined by its rigid Catholicism. Clergymen are among the most powerful officials, and the Spanish Inquisition is a frightening presence (ironically, despite his piety, Brother Juniper’s investigation of the bridge collapse is eventually deemed heretical, and he is burned at the stake). However, the new atmosphere of scientific inquiry cultivated by the Enlightenment is also implicitly at play. The novel’s setting in South America reflects this, as scientific developments in areas like navigation and engineering allowed Spain and other European countries to explore and eventually subjugate other continents.
Brother Juniper, who always tries to prove religious tenets with scientific methods, exemplifies the tension between these two modes of thinking. Besides attempting to explain God’s will through his chronicle of the bridge collapse, he embarks on even more ridiculous projects, like devising numerical scales on which to tabulate his parishioners’ piety and goodness. His inability to come to any meaningful conclusions represents the inability of both religious and scientific thinking to satisfactorily justify complicated worldly events.
The tension between the presence of God and the power of individual will is central to eighteenth-century Lima, but it was also important in the early 1900s, when Wilder wrote San Luis Rey. Stunned and shaken by World War I, societies around the world struggled to rationalize the carnage that had dominated the first part of the century. At the same time, they were witnessing rapid scientific development and economic globalization that seemed to emphasize the power of humans to define their own future and refute the possibility that divine will provides meaning to everyday lives. Although Wilder situates his narrative in a seemingly remote time and place, he wrangles with existential dilemmas of great import to his own environment.
Acts of God and Individual Will ThemeTracker
Acts of God and Individual Will Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.
It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences and he had long intended putting it there. What he had lacked hitherto was a laboratory […] but this collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state.
Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
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.
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.
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 […].
And on that afternoon Brother Juniper took a walk along the edge of the Pacific. He tore up his findings and cast them into the waves; he gazed for an hour upon the great clouds of pearl that hang forever upon the horizon of the sea, and extracted from their beauty a resignation that he did not permit his reason to examine. The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed.
I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city.
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.