The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Novel Summary: Part Five - Perhaps an Intention
Part Five - Perhaps an Intention
Having introduced us to the victims of the bridge's fall, the narrator now tells us how Brother Juniper-the outsider concerned who desires to make a "scientific investigation" (p. 7) of faith-arrived at his method of investigating the incident. It seems Juniper knew a student who viewed life with cynicism and bitterness, who was convinced that existence was meaningless and entirely random. Juniper, therefore, makes it his mission to provide empirical proof of divine providence. His first such undertaking is a tabulation of the value of those who have died in a pestilence in a small village, his own "dear village of Puerto." Brother Juniper calculates each person's "goodness," "piety," and "usefulness" in an effort to prove that God used the disease to those who did not deserve to live. To his surprise however, the "saddening data" shows the opposite: "the dead were five times more worth saving."
Refusing to allow this result to deter him, however, Brother Juniper applies his methods to the victims of the collapse of the bridge. Prompted by the student's story of hearing a deceased woman's family, friends, and acquaintances relate nothing but positive things about her, Juniper begins interviewing those who knew the five victims. He is determined to discover, in the stories of their lives, some reason why they were (as he believes) chosen by God to die in that place, on that day. When he finishes his book about the victims, Juniper "thought he saw in the accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." To his surprise, however, ecclesiastical judges condemn his book as heretical, and Juniper is sentenced to die. Calling twice on the name of St. Francis, Brother Juniper is burned at the stake.
The narrator elects to tell about only a few portions of the aftermath of the fall of the bridge of San Luis Rey. First, we learn that, a year later, Camila Perichole visits Madre Mar�a when she learns that the Abbess lost people she loved in the accident. The Perichole seeks love, for she knows that she failed to love Uncle Pio and Jaime. Madre Mar�a greets the former actress warmly, and offers her consolation.
Second, and finally, we learn that Clara, daughter of the Marquesa, also visits the Abbess, bringing with her the Marquesa's final letter, with its stirring passage on love. Madre Mar�a is stunned by the words, and is reminded that grace may be discovered in unexpected ways. Seizing the moment, she shows Clara the good work that she is doing at her convent for the sick. The novel ends with the Abbess' dawning realization that love is what unites the living and the dead, and is what gives the world meaning, "the only meaning."
With a few deft word choices, Wilder presents the student at the University of San Mart�n who "inspires" Brother Juniper as nearly an agent of Satan. What reader familiar with the Bible, for instance (as Wilder certainly was) would not think of the serpent tempting Eve-notably, to "the knowledge of good and evil" that makes one "as God"-when reading how this student "whispered into the Franciscan's ear such thoughts and anecdotes as belied the notion of a guided world" (p. 97). Readers should not assume that Wilder wants us to literally believe the university scholar to be a demonic actor, but the allusion is strong and does allow us to view Brother Juniper, like Eve, as placed in a situation where a clear choice between right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, grace and sin, life and death exists. The irony of Brother Juniper's case, as outlined in this final section of the novel, is that, by responding as he does to "many such sneers at faith" (p. 98), he proves himself to be faithless-for, as the letter to the Hebrews states, what is faith if not "belief in what is not seen" (Heb. 1:1)? How can faith be given empirical, scientific, unassailable proof that leaves no room for honest human doubt? In seeking to justify God's ways to humanity, and even in arriving at conclusions that have all too often been accepted as "orthodox," Juniper seals his fate in being condemned by the church as a "heretic." In choosing what Juniper thought was life-his self-satisfied, superior quest for scientific proof of providence, a quest that sets himself up as a judge of his fellows and (the great "sin" in Wilder's book) isolates himself from his fellow human beings-Juniper finds death: both literal (he is burned at the stake) and metaphorical. He, too, reduces real, human people to objects-fit merely for placement in his tables of "value," things merely to be studied and scrutinized. He, too, no less than those who died on the bridge of San Luis Rey, ultimately fails to love. (Unlike some of the victims, however, Juniper gives no indication that he is on the cusp of learning how to love before he perishes.) Notably, Juniper calls only on the name of Saint Francis-"not daring," the narrator informs us, "to call upon a greater name, since he seemed so open to error in these matters" (p. 102); that is, matters of religion. As the epistle of James (with which, as we have already seen, Wilder's novel shares some thematic concerns) could have instructed Juniper, true religion is a matter of love: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27). True religion is connection with fellow human beings while remaining apart from worldly attitudes and presuppositions. Brother Juniper's religion does not meet these criteria.
In sharp contrast, then, Madre Mar�a emerges in the remainder of this section as one who does satisfy James' definition of true religion. Certainly, for Wilder, she exemplifies love. She shows love to the Perichole: "the whole tide of Camila's long despair, her lonely obstinate despair since her girlhood, found its rest on [the Abbess'] dusty friendly lap" (p. 105). And she shows Clara the works of love that she is doing for the ill who lie in the Abbey. They would be alone were it not for her; those who would otherwise have to be counted among those "out in the dark. who had no one to turn to, for whom the world perhaps was more than difficult, without meaning" (p. 107).
It is shortly after this point that Wilder leaves us with the memorable, eloquent final lines of his book-lines that teach readers that meaning is to be made, not by ultimately futile exercises in academic theology or scientific examination such as those attempted by Brother Juniper, but by the works of love done by Madre Mar�a and those like her (indeed, readers may be left with the suggestion that Clara will fulfill the role the Abbess once intended for Pepita, the task of carrying on the Abbess' works of love when she is gone), for, as Wilder states, "the love will have been enough. [and will be] the only survival, the only meaning" (p. 107).