The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Essay Q&A
1. How does The Bridge of San Luis Rey address the existential questions of human beings in its opening passage?
Wilder's initial passage perfectly evokes the sense people often have when reacting to bad news that has befallen others, that mixture of fear and relief sometimes (though not in Wilder's text) summed up in the old phrase, "There but for the grace of God, go I"-or, more prosaically, "That could have been me!" As Wilder puts it: "People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf" (p. 5). Wilder's choice of words bears some scrutiny, for it reflects, consciously or not, the existential concerns that came to the forefront of public philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While this novelist was, of course, not an "existentialist writer" in the manner of such writers as Camus or Sartre, Wilder's choice of the image of the collapsing bridge aptly illustrates the existentialist concern with what such thinkers as Nietzsche called "the abyss." Have not all human beings hallucinated about "falling into a gulf" (p. 9)? Have not we all wondered what would happen if the metaphorical "bridges" that support us were to give way beneath our feet? Such thoughts would find a place among the "great searching of hearts" that ensued in Lima after the bridge fell (p. 6). We will see as the novel progresses, however, that some bridges are, perhaps, to be trusted more than others (cf. Madre Maria's reflections on love at the book's close; p. 107).
2. When the Marquesa urges Pepita to send her letter to Dora Maria, Pepita declines, insisting that her letter is "a bad letter." Why does Pepita reach this conclusion, and what is that conclusion's significance for the character development of the Marquesa and the themes of the book as a whole?
Pepita seems to base her belief that her letter is a "bad letter" in the fact that, despite its simple and direct language, it is too much like the Marquesa's letters to Clara. It is "not brave" (p. 37). If the true purpose of literature is, as the narrator earlier claimed, "the notation of the heart" (p. 16), then Pepita's reaction to her own letter highlights the fault at the core of the Marquesa's letters. Pepita's letter hides her heart. She does not wish to stay with the Marquesa, but she conceals that truth as soon as she reveals it, all in the name of love: "I want to do only what you want." (p. 35). Similarly, the Marquesa's letters, for all they teach later generations about language and life in Lima, hide the author's heart. They conceal rather than reveal the Marquesa's heart behind the ornate and elaborate stylings now studied by schoolboys and grammarians. This reliance on style is what separates the Marquesa's other letters from Letter LVI, her "Second Corinthians" (p. 38). Readers may infer that this letter, at last, is courageous because it truly reveals the Marquesa's heart to her daughter. Sadly, the Marquesa is not able to follow through with her resolution to love her daughter bravely and thus "begin a new life" (p. 37) because the next day, on the bridge, her life will end. Wilder seems to be driving home the "carpe diem"-like message: we must love now, for we are not guaranteed we will be alive to love tomorrow.
3. What is significant about the fact that the brothers revert to their "secret language" when arguing about the Perichole in Part Three? What does this episode allow Wilder to say about the potential power of language?
The secret language is the means by which the brothers share their hearts, their souls, with each other-a truth confirmed further when Manuel attempts to convince Esteban that he (that is, Manuel) does not love the Perichole: "He was talking in their secret language and the new pain at his heart gave a greater ring of reality to his assumption of rage" (p. 51). In other words, the pain that Manuel feels in that moment is so real, so intense, it defies conventional language and can only find honest expression in the language he shares with Esteban alone. Wilder thus illustrates the ways in which language can foster intimacy with our fellow human beings.
4. "Now as he sat among the guitarists and watched this awkward girl singing ballads. the determination entered [Uncle Pio's] mind to play Pygmalion" (p. 73). Who is Pygmalion, and why does the narrator choose to invoke him at this point?
Pygmalion is a character in Greek mythology, "a sculptor who at first hated women, but then fell in love with a statue he made of a woman. He prayed to Venus that she would find him a woman like the statue. Instead, Venus made the statue come to life" (Hirsch et al., p. 41). Pygmalion is a perfect allusion for Uncle Pio, since he, in large part, does not love Camila Perichole (the "awkward girl" of the passage cited) for herself, but rather for who he can "sculpt" her to become. She may as well be a statue to him. Pio does not love; he uses, and in that respect he is not much different from the Perichole's lover, Don Andres, who "had collected coins a little, wines, actresses, orders and maps" (p. 79)-people reduced to accessories.
5. What connections exist between the lesson Captain Alvarado teaches Esteban and the experience of Uncle Pio?
Uncle Pio fails to learn the lesson that Captain Alvarado tried to teach to Esteban: that love, though it hurts, stays with us, and continues even as we do: "We push on, Esteban, as best we can. Time keeps going by." (p. 64). This irony, however, is only compounded by another: that both Esteban and Uncle Pio, like the other three victims, perish in the collapse of the bridge. It is as though Wilder has in mind those words of Ecclesiastes: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all" (Eccl. 9:11, KJV).