The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Metaphor Analysis

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The bridge is the dominant symbol in the book-not in terms of the amount of textual space it occupies, which is very little, and most notably in the book's memorable, bare, opening sentence; but in terms of the weight it bears at the book's end. In much world myth and literature, a bridge symbolizes "transition or passage. The bridge between the secular world and the divine is so significant that it requires a special bridge-builder (pontifex in Latin, also 'priest') to bring the two realms into communication" (Biedermann, p. 50). These archetypal associations ring no less true for the bridge of San Luis Rey. As a physical bridge, it serves to represent the tenuous nature of human life; it becomes, both symbolically and literally in this case, the place of transition from life to death for the five people who are crossing it when it collapses. Metaphorically, however, the bridge is also a transition from "the secular world"-or, in the terms of Wilder's novel, the "land of the living"-and "the divine"-or, again in Wilder's terms, the "land of the dead"-"and the bridge is love" (p. 107). Wilder's book argues, in effect, that we are all to become our own priestly bridge-builders, creating meaning by building bridges of love.
Letters are another dominant metaphor in the text. Manuel, for example, is hired by the Perichole to write letters for her; and, of course, no reader of the novel can fail to recognize the importance of the letters that the Marquesa writes to her estranged daughter, Clara. Wilder tells us early on that "the whole purport of literature. is the notation of the heart" (p. 16). Ironically, perhaps, the clandestine love letters to Don Andres that the Perichole dicates for Manuel achieve this aim better than the eloquent letters studied for years to come by scholars that the Marquesa writes, for the Perichole is at least expressing her true feelings in the moment, whether of passion or fury, while the Marquesa is-at least until her final missive-more concerned with manipulating her daughter, attempting to procure her love by making her feel guilty. Only two days before she dies does the Marquesa, inspired by the example of Pepita's sincere and courageous letter, discover how to truly express herself through her language. Written correspondence between people is, therefore, in Wilder's text a recurring metaphor for relationships. Some are honest and true, while others are not.
The theater becomes another metaphor that highlights the distinction between honesty and dishonesty. For example, note the scene in Part Two in which the Marquesa attempts to teach the Perichole "the beatific gesture" (p. 26) that she believes the actress can use in her performances-a gesture that was made, honestly, by Clara once.

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The Marquesa has become more concerned with the superficial expressions of love than of love itself; and the Perichole is, at this point in the book, a kindred spirit, for she later sits "for a long time gazing into her eyes in the mirror, her palms pressed against her cheeks" (p. 27). On the other hand, Uncle Pio is able to appreciate glimpses of true beauty in the great theatrical works of Calderon, the "old comedy" that he trains the Perichole to perform; but he is unable to convey these literary works' true meaning to his own emotional life. The theater, then, is a metaphor which, like the letters, can show either genuine human emotional involvement-which, time and again, Wilder reminds us is all that gives meaning to this life-or the lack of such genuine connection, such real love.

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