The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Novel Summary
Part One - Perhaps an Accident
Note: All page numbers in this commentary refer to the Perennial Classics edition of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
In Peru, the celebrated Bridge of San Luis Rey-named for and, it is widely believed, protected by King Louis of France; woven of osier (a general term for a willow with long, flexible reeds suitable for basketry and other forms of weaving)-delicately but solidly spans a wide gorge on the road between Lima (the country's biggest city and capital) and Cuzco (situated amidst the peaks of the Andes Mountains, the former capital of the Incan Empire). Thus, the bridge's sudden collapse on July 20, 1714 takes the local population by surprise. The event is made more troubling because five people who happened to be traversing the bridge at the time died.
A Franciscan monk from Italy, in Peru on an evangelical mission, witnesses the incident and seizes upon it as a chance to "justify the ways of God to man." This monk, Brother Juniper, has made a career of trying to scientifically prove the justice of God in the face of evidence that would seem to argue against it. "But this collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His [i.e., God's] intentions in a pure state." Juniper believes that by assiduously investigating the lives of the five victims, he will unlock the mysteries of God's providence. He believes these five people died for a reason, and he sets about investigating the facts of their biographies and interviewing those who knew them in order to determine, beyond all doubt, what that reason was.
As this brief introductory section draws to its close, however, the narrator makes it clear that he does not believe Brother Juniper, for all his strict and strenuous research and orthodox theological reflection, ever arrived at the heart of the matter. The narrator adds, modestly, "And I, who claim to know so much more, isn't it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring" of these victims' lives?
Wilder's hauntingly lyrical novel begins, ironically, with a stark, objective statement of fact: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke." (p. 5). The fact that the book begins in such a removed, analytical tone and then quickly modulates to a more introspective and reflective key mirrors the way in which Brother Juniper investigates the lives of the accident victims: beginning with their bare biographies but quickly scouring the accounts of their lives for some reason why "those five" (p. 7) should have met with such a fate. This dynamic of the text as a whole may also reflect the way in which many, if not most, human beings tend to live life itself: primarily on the surface, but occasionally prompted to deeper reflection and self-realization-groping toward a more holistic view of our lives that would, no less than the lives of the five victims in Wilder's novel, fill "an enormous book" (p. 9).
Note the care with which Wilder introduces Brother Juniper, whose investigations we will indirectly follow throughout the rest of the novel. First and foremost, Juniper is an outsider. Wilder clearly identifies the "little" monk (p. 6)-does the adjective perhaps modify the cleric's moral character as well as his physical stature?-as hailing from Italy. He is in Peru to win converts to Christianity. He does not belong to the community of Lima, and therefore the deaths he witnesses on the Bridge of San Luis Rey do not move him as they do the friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and loved ones of the five who perished. The five dead people become, to Juniper, no more than his "proper control" in his "scientific examination" (p. 7), his no doubt (in his mind, at any rate) well-intentioned but ultimately callous attempt to "justify the ways of God to man" (p. 8). (That phrase, of course, is not original to Wilder; it is John Milton's stated purpose in his 1667 epic poem, Paradise Lost). Juniper's lack of connection to the victims may account for the negative and ultimately lethal reception that Juniper's book receives, that "enormous book. [that] was publicly burned" (p. 8) and that earned its soon-to-be-late author the brand of heretic (p. 101).
Ironically, however, even as Juniper is not connected to the victims, by virtue of not belonging to the Liman community, he is connected to them by virtue of being a human being. Indeed, readers might argue that it is Juniper's failure to value this connection-to sacrifice it on the altar of supposedly orthodox theology, of his quasi-scientific scheme to prove Providence itself; to be a religious "brother" who is not, at heart, a brother to his fellow man, either the victims on the bridge or the poor natives whom he strives to persuade that they suffer for their own good-that leads to his own death at the novel's close. As Wilder writes, Juniper is present in Peru and at the Bridge of San Luis Rey via "a series of coincidences so extraordinary that one almost suspects the presence of some Intention" (p. 6). Brother Juniper was, readers may be led to infer, present in Peru for a reason-but that reason was not the authorship of his ponderous tome. That reason was not the scrupulous scrutiny of other people's lives-the work, basically, of the Inqusition; and a work which, incidentally, Uncle Pio, for all his own faults, managed to leave behind (p. 71). As we shall see, the connectedness of human beings becomes one of the dominant themes of Wilder's work. It is a theme Juniper fails to recognize. Wilder states this failure plainly as he juxtaposes what "[a]nyone else would have said" after the bridge's collapse-"Within ten minutes myself.!"-against Juniper's reaction: "Why did this happen to those five?" (p. 7). The collapse of the bridge serves to distance Juniper from the rest of humanity, rather than to bind him closer to it; indeed, at the moment of their death, Juniper sees the victims, significantly, as "five gesticulating ants" (p. 7). Surely Wilder's employment of a dehumanizing image for the victims as seen through Juniper's eyes is no accident.
Whether the bridge collapse itself was an accident is, of course, the question with which Juniper occupies himself, as does the novel, albeit to a lesser extent. Although the novel begins by raising the question of why (with apologies to Rabbi Harold Kushner) "bad things happen to good people"-or, in this case, to any people at all-it only does so because it is Juniper's question. It is the question of theodicy: "A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil" (American Heritage Dictionary). But Wilder's novel is no theodicy, no academic exercise in theology. Wilder himself, in his narrative persona, tells us that theodicy is not his purpose: "Some say." this, "and some say." that, when questions of God's justice or injustice arise (p. 9).
Readers must decide these questions for themselves; neither this nor any other novel will settle them. The overarching concern of Wilder's novel is not justifying the ways of God to man, but justifying-presenting, explaining, ultimately vindicating-the way of love to the human heart.
Readers may wish to know that Wilder's bridge was "no doubt inspired by the legendary Peruvian span over the Apurimac River on the celebrated 'royal road' to Cuzco" (Tappan Wilder, "Afterword," 1998 Perennial Classics Edition, p. 113).