The Bridge of San Luis Rey portrays eighteenth-century colonial Lima through the lens of five different characters who are involved in a sudden bridge collapse. In chronicling their lives prior to this catastrophe, the novel presents various kinds of art and artistry—from Doña María’s witty letters, to the Perichole’s legendary acting, to Brother Juniper’s unfinished book. The novel establishes art as an elevating and dignifying force, especially because of its role in crafting memory: art allows characters to create works that are beautiful and that endure far longer than their own lives, ultimately helping them transcend the accident in which they perish. At the same time, however, the novel remains firm in its belief about the limitations of art. By its end, it becomes clear that despite its beauty and profundity, art is unable to rationalize the catastrophe of the bridge collapse and won’t prevent the memories of its victims from slipping away with time.
Throughout the novel, art helps flawed characters access the best parts of their nature and to leave positive legacies after their deaths. During her lifetime, Doña María is unhappy, widely mocked, and often foolish. However, she channels her emotions into an articulate correspondence with her daughter that becomes widely acclaimed both as a historical testimony and a work of literature. In this way, art helps Doña María transcend both her own flaws and the unfortunate circumstances of her life.
Camila Perichole begins life as a poor and abused street urchin singing in rowdy taverns. However, her real talent for acting (and Uncle Pio’s coaching) elevates her socially, giving her security and prosperity. Just as importantly, it allows her to develop a meaningful craft and become passionate about her work. While the Perichole becomes an archetypal actress in many ways—she’s vain, self-centered, and often selfish in her behavior towards others—her work ensures that she will be remembered as a beacon of high culture in a far-flung Spanish colony.
While the novel often ridicules Brother Juniper’s literalist attempts to prove and rationalize God’s existence, it looks kindly on his final project, an enormous compendium of information about the bridge collapse and those who died in it. In fact, the novel’s omniscient narrator ostensibly draws on Brother Juniper’s work to construct his own retelling of the incident. Therefore, it’s Brother Juniper who is partly responsible for bringing this compassionate chronicle to fruition and preserving the memory of its characters.
While it may seem problematic that art allows people to leave behind legacies that don’t quite align with who they were during life, the novel argues that such artificiality can function as another means through which to examine character, rather than a sign of untruth. For example, the novel argues that Doña María exists both as the crazy old lady and the consummately witty letter writer. Her legacy doesn’t falsify her character during life, but rather adds depth to it. The novel itself is written as a moral fable with an omniscient narrator—a highly artificial style. The lack of naturalism in its composition is a constant reminder that the reader is taking part in a work of art. Through its own structure as well as the characters it depicts, the novel thus argues that art need not be entirely realistic to be meaningful and truthful.
However, the novel also remains clear-eyed about the limitations of art. After the bridge collapses, leading to the tragic deaths of five characters, it become clear that art can’t provide any explanation or rationalization for this catastrophe. This is especially evident through Brother Juniper’s work—although he does his utmost to collect details and form a history, his work remains incomplete and he never comes to any meaningful conclusions. His failure to accomplish his initial goal reflects the inability of art to provide black-and-white answers to complex philosophical dilemmas.
Moreover, the last chapter asserts that even the legacies which various characters have achieved through their art aren’t unassailable. In the last paragraph, the narrator says that “soon we all shall die and the memory of these five will have left the earth.” After encouraging the reader throughout the novel to view art as a means to preserve a good legacy, the novel eventually casts doubt on its own message by asserting that time will always triumph over memory.
The novel’s final uncertainty about the power of art is especially interesting given that such doubt comes at the end of a very compelling work of art. Ultimately, the novel both reaffirms and pokes fun at its own medium. By emphasizing the artificiality of all art and its limitations while also demonstrating its many possibilities, it encourages the reader to appreciate art despite its shortcomings.
Art and Memory ThemeTracker
Art and Memory Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
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.
[…] for just as resignation was a word insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over the Marquesa de Montemayor on that night in the inn in Cluxambuqua, so love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers […] there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lightning.
Pleasure was no longer as simple as eating; it was being complicated by love. Now was beginning that crazy loss of one’s self, that neglect of everything but one’s dramatic thoughts about the beloved, that feverish inner life all turning upon the Perichole and which would so have astonished and disgusted her had she been permitted to divine it.
In the third place he wanted to be near those that loved Spanish literature and its masterpieces, especially in the theater. He had discovered all that treasure for himself, borrowing or stealing from the libraries of his patrons, feeding himself upon it in secrecy […].
Her whole nature became gentle and mysterious and oddly wise; and it all turned to him. She could find no fault in him and she was sturdily loyal. They loved one another deeply but without passion. He respected the slight nervous shadow that crossed her face when he came too near her. But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in the most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream.
“How absurd you are,” she said smiling. “You said that as boys say it. You don’t seem to learn as you grow older, Uncle Pio. There is no such thing as that kind of love and that kind of island. It’s in the theater you find such things.”
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.