Throughout The Bridge of San Luis Rey, characters try to justify catastrophes—namely, the fatal collapse of the titular bridge—using both religious and quasi-scientific explanations. Moreover, they try to foster connection with others through platonic and romantic relationships that often become obsessive in nature. The novel posits that these are unhealthy and often unsuccessful means to living a meaningful life and responding to trauma. In contrast, the novel highlights experiences of profound grief—especially when this grief is shared with another person—as an emotion that allows characters to move past tragedy and to connect meaningfully and unselfishly with others. Ultimately, the novel argues that grief is a much more formative and even beneficial experience than the search for understanding and the passionate interpersonal relationships that define so much of the novel.
Before and after the bridge collapse, many characters’ lives are defined by grief. Esteban is derailed by his twin brother Manuel’s death from an infection, and almost commits suicide because of his inability to conceive of a life without him. Captain Alvarado, a minor character who narrowly escapes the collapse, is defined by the loss of his young daughter; Doña María posits that he’s such an adventurous explorer because he’s trying to distract himself from grief.
In one of the novel’s last scenes, two grief-stricken women arrive at Lima’s convent to see spiritual guidance from the Abbess, who herself is distraught by the loss of Esteban and Pepita (who had both been under her care as orphans); Camila Perichole, who has lost her young son, Jaime; and Doña Clara, who has arrived from Spain to mourn her mother. The fact that these three disparate but important characters first meet at such a moment emphasizes the centrality of grief within the narrative.
Shared grief contrasts with the search for answers, both religious and scientific, with which so many characters try to respond to tragic events; although grief doesn’t provide any explanations, it proves a better method to accept—and, in turn, overcome—trauma. Despite being a devout Christian, Esteban is unable to derive any comfort from religious tenets after Manuel’s death. Instead, he begins to recover from this life-shattering event by his newfound friendship with Captain Alvarado. The older man is able to commiserate with him based on his own experiences with loss. Although he can’t explain why Manuel died so young and so suddenly, he helps Esteban pick up the pieces of his life.
Similarly, when the Abbess comforts Doña Clara and Camila Perichole, she doesn’t attempt to explain the tragic bridge collapse, but instead focuses on highlighting the fact that all three women share similar emotions. After this meeting, the Abbess is able to go about her work and contemplate the coming days with more tranquility than she possessed previously.
Moreover, while the obsessive love which dominates so many characters’ lives is usually an introspective emotion, causing characters to focus exclusively on their own problems and behave selfishly towards others, grief almost always emerges as an outward-looking emotion, which allows characters to connect meaningfully with others and help them. Captain Alvarado’s long-standing grief for his lost daughter makes him uniquely suited to help Esteban through his own loss. His grief becomes a mechanism to foster empathy, rather than causing him to pity himself.
In order to comfort Camila Perichole and Doña Clara, the Abbess gives them a thorough tour of her abbey, showing them all the projects she’s undertaken to help the poor, ill, and orphaned. Her implication is that charitable works are not only a distraction but a meaningful way through which individuals can overcome grief. Even though her good works have exposed her to sadness—she became attached to Esteban and Pepita by caring for them as orphans, only to lose them in the bridge collapse—her experiences of grief only make her more determined to help others.
Doña Clara is especially interested and attentive during this tour, and her sudden empathy is notable. Her mother’s excessive love for her, and her extreme aversion to these emotions, caused her to become self-centered and pretentious. In contrast, grief over her mother’s sudden loss sparks her interest in other people’s troubles for the first time in the novel. The last chapter hints that while her mother’s excessive love cultivated Doña Clara’s worst traits, her grief now will bring about a character transformation and a new commitment to altruism.
Throughout the novel, characters try to find meaning in their lives through various unsuccessful methods—namely, by trying to rationalize everything that happens to them and by becoming excessively attached to other characters. While grief is obviously an unpleasant emotion that all the characters hope to avoid, it stands in contrast to these mindsets as an experience that allows characters to process the traumas that befall them and connect meaningfully with others.
Grief and Loss ThemeTracker
Grief and Loss Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
He was the awkwardest speaker in the world apart from the lore of the sea, but there are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal. He could not be sure the figure on the floor was listening, but he said, “We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can.”
“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?”