Set in eighteenth-century Lima, Peru, The Bridge of San Luis Rey examines the lives of several characters who die suddenly in a bridge collapse. While the characters live disparate lives and seem to have little in common, many are similar in their obsessive love for a person or an idea. Love is often portrayed as a highly positive emotion, but the novel argues that such feelings can easily lead to obsessive, selfish, and destructive behavior. While some characters, notably Uncle Pio, believe that unbridled passion is necessary for a deeper understanding of the world and oneself, the novel argues that there is a clear difference between obsession, which involves a projection of one’s own desires onto the beloved, and love, which is a disinterested desire for the beloved’s well-being and happiness. It’s only by learning to distinguish these emotions, and cultivating their more altruistic feelings, that most characters are able to attain personal tranquility and form meaningful connections with others.
Most of the novel’s characters experience a form of obsessive love—whether it’s romantic, platonic, or ideological—that blinds them to the flaws of their beloved and reflects a certain selfishness in their own behavior. The most obvious example of this pattern is Doña María, who is obsessed with her daughter, Doña Clara. Doña María’s love makes her a bad judge of character—she’s unable to see that her daughter is a vapid and pretentious social climber. Moreover, her constant fixation on her daughter prevents her from finding satisfaction in anything else and turns her into a prematurely aged eccentric, a laughingstock throughout Lima’s high society. Doña Maria believes her love is well-intentioned, but the novel views it as a desire to control her daughter by persuading or forcing her to reciprocate the same strong emotions.
After seeing Camila Perichole perform in the theater, Manuel, a young orphan and scribe, becomes obsessed with the actress, idolizing her even though she feels such ardor only towards her own beauty and talent, and despite the fact that she repeatedly uses him to write letters to her other lovers. Meanwhile, his twin brother, Esteban, feels the same excessive devotion towards Manuel. Unable to imagine life without his brother, Esteban falls into a deep depression during his brother’s infatuation with the Perichole and later, after Manuel’s early death due to infection, almost commits suicide.
Uncle Pio and the Abbess are obsessively devoted to Spanish drama and charitable works, respectively. Their obsessions lead them to develop problematic relationships with their protégés. Uncle Pio, for instance, molds the Perichole into a great actress and acts as her father figure, but fails to give her the moral guidance she needs to function in the world offstage. Similarly, the Abbess decides that Pepita, a young orphan, is the only person smart and selfless enough to eventually take over the charitable institutions she currently superintends, but in order to prepare the girl for this role, she puts her through harsh trials and prevents her from enjoying a normal childhood.
Even though these experiences of passionate love are a projection of the characters’ own desires rather than genuine a consideration of another’s, they drive most of the novel’s creative endeavors and spurs its creates accomplishments. By putting so much effort into cultivating the Perichole’s talent, Uncle Pio makes a great contribution to Limean culture, allowing citizens of this far-flung colony to experience what he regards as the greatest dramas of all time. Similarly—and perhaps more importantly—the Abbess’s single-minded devotion to her work among the poor allows her to alleviate the suffering she sees around her, despite the general indifference of the city’s wealthy elite. Meanwhile, as he watches the Perichole go through slews of lovers without becoming attached to any of them, Uncle Pio worries that without experiencing total and passionate love, his protégé will never fully access her formidable talent. In his mind, the Perichole’s career is limited by her lack of obsessive love.
Even Doña Maria, in trying to gain her daughter’s favor, channels her own frenetic energy into writing her witty and engaging letters that chronicle and satirize Limean high society. These letters eventually become an acclaimed part of the literary canon, allowing Doña María to transcend her own weakness and obsession and create a beautiful and meaningful work of literature.
However, it’s only by tempering these feelings that some characters eventually achieve tranquility and form deeper and more selfless relationships with others. When she learns of her daughter’s pregnancy, Doña María is thrown into a frenzy of worry for Doña Clara’s health. Just before her death, she makes a pilgrimage to pray for her daughter’s safe delivery; in the church, she has an epiphany realizes both that she can’t influence what happens to Doña Clara by praying and that she must “learn in time to permit both her daughter and her gods to govern their own affairs.” While Doña María dies before she can change her behavior towards her daughter, this episode hints that by learning to control her obsession, she might become a better mother.
Although Esteban’s experience of losing his twin twice—first to his passion for the Perichole and then to death from infection—is deeply traumatic, it forces him to examine his own life and, for the first time, develop an identity that is separate from his connection to his brother. By the time he dies in the bridge collapse, Esteban has grappled with and rejected the temptation to commit suicide. Learning to think for himself even though “it had always been Manuel who had made the decisions,” he is well on the way to becoming an independent man.
After Pepita dies, the Abbess learns to live with the fact that her charitable organizations might collapse after her own death. This realization allows her to find satisfaction in the work she’s doing in the moment, rather than constantly worrying about its future. By the end of the novel, the Abbess has achieved a state of tranquility that allows her to act as a spiritual counselor to others who are bereaved by deaths in the bridge collapse, rather than wallowing in her own grief.
While the novel’s depictions of fervent love form some of its most vivid and engaging moments, it insists that, in order to live meaningful lives, characters must examine even their feelings that initially seem positive, rather than blindly following their dictates. Many characters, from the eccentric Doña María to the wise and generous Abbess, eventually realize that their strong passions lead to essentially selfless behavior; by cultivating instead their more selfless impulses, these characters are able to enjoy better relationships with those around them and be more at peace with themselves.
Love and Obsession ThemeTracker
Love and Obsession Quotes in The Bridge of San Luis Rey
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 talked to Pepita as to an equal. Such speech is troubling and wonderful to an intelligent child and Madre María del Pilar had abused it. She had expanded Pepita’s vision of how she should feel and act beyond the measure of her years.
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 […].
[…] 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.
It was merely that in the heart of one of them there was left room for an elaborate imaginative attachment and in the heart of the other there was not. Manuel could not quite understand this […] but he did understand that Esteban was suffering […] and at once, in one unhesitating stroke of the will, he removed the Perichole from his heart.
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.”
This assumption that she need look for no more devotion now that her beauty had passed proceeded from the fact that she had never realized any love save love as passion. Such love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it give birth to visions and to great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest. Not until it has passed through a long servitude, through its own self-hatred, through mockery, through great doubts, can it take its place among the loyalties.
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.