The Bridge of San Luis Rey portrays the vibrant but highly flawed society of eighteenth-century Lima, Peru. One of the social problems the novel addresses is the tension between people who loudly promote (while not actually practicing) dogmatic principles and people who behave altruistically in everyday life. On a broad level, this dichotomy is represented by Brother Juniper, a missionary who is intent on “saving” the souls of the Peruvian heathens but does little to actually help them, and the Abbess, who rarely speaks about dogma but succeeds in improving the lives of the city’s sick and poor. In terms of personal relationships, there’s a notable contrast between Doña Maria, whose overwrought demonstrations of love for her daughter prevents her from being a good mother, and Uncle Pio, who at times behaves unscrupulously towards his protégé, the Perichole, but eventually cares for her when she suffers a devastating illness at the end of the novel. Based on these contrasts, the novel argues that pragmatic goodwill always trumps dogmatic principles, and urges wariness of those who identify too strongly with any particular dogma.
Though both Brother Juniper and the Abbess are Christian missionaries, their interpretation of their mandates is vastly different. Brother Juniper has good intentions and is determined to save what he sees as the imperiled souls of Lima’s Native Americans, yet he does not provide them with any practical, concrete help. Instead, he devises far-fetched strategies to prove to them that God exists—for example, writing a book about the bridge collapse in order to prove it was a divine act. The novel treats his efforts with skepticism and sometimes ridicule—at the end of the novel, the narrator scornfully describes an episode during which Brother Juniper’s parish suffers an outbreak of disease and, instead of ministering to the sick, the monk tries unsuccessfully to tabulate the villagers’ piety and see who most deserved to die.
On the other hand, the Abbess rarely discusses her beliefs in God or tries to impose them on other people. Instead, she focuses on running hospitals and orphanages, providing tangible help to those in the city who need it most. The Abbess has much better relationships with her parishioners and even inspires more Christian piety than Brother Juniper—for example, Pepita, Manuel, and Esteban are all devoutly religious because of their gratitude and admiration for the Abbess. Notably, the novel portrays Brother Juniper’s ridiculous behavior as consistent with the religious establishment, while the Abbess’s humanitarian endeavors are highly unorthodox (the extravagant Archbishop mentions his dread of the Abbess and her frequent pleas for funds). Through his often-humorous satire of church politics and his elevation of the Abbess, Wilder argues that people should be suspicious of those who profess dogma and reserve their admiration for those who actually practice good works.
In their attitudes toward their daughter and protégé respectively, Doña María and Uncle Pio echo the behavior of the Christian missionaries: like Brother Juniper, Doña María obsessively fulfills motherly conventions without providing real guidance or support to Doña Clara. In contrast, while Uncle Pio often seems disreputable and seedy, he proves a bulwark of assistance and loyalty when the Perichole most needs it. Doña María is obsessed with the idea of loving her daughter—she always addresses her with over-the-top endearments and spends her mornings embroidering her slippers—but her eagerness to see herself and to be perceived as an ideal mother actually impair her judgment and make her an overwhelming parent, driving her daughter away rather than fostering a close relationship. Doña Clara reacts to her mother’s eccentricity by becoming unpleasantly conventional and pretentious, and she leaves home as soon as possible to marry a Spanish husband.
On the other hand, Uncle Pio’s relationship to his acting protégé, Camila Perichole, initially seems problematic. In order to transform her into a great actress, he forces her to work hard from a very young age and often manipulates her. However, when the Perichole contracts smallpox, loses her famous beauty, and falls into depression, Uncle Pio takes over her household affairs and helps raise her children, preventing her from falling into poverty. Uncle Pio doesn’t derive any social recognition by caring for the Perichole, and he doesn’t think of himself as defined or elevated by his role as a parent. However, he provides the guidance and care that Doña María can’t actually give her own daughter.
Throughout the novel, the assertion of dogmatic principles—namely, Brother Juniper’s missionary fervor and Doña Maria’s motherly zeal—contrast with the quiet efforts of others, like Uncle Pio and the Abbess, to improve the lives of those around them. In this way. the novel suggests that those who profess strong principles are often the least likely to observe them.
Dogma vs. Altruism ThemeTracker
Dogma vs. Altruism Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
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.
The Archbishop knew that most of the priests of Peru were scoundrels. It required all his delicate Epicurean education to prevent his doing something about it; he had to repeat over to himself his favorite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness of the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune. Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes) could really suffer.
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.
“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?”
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.