The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Novel Summary: Part Four - Uncle Pio
Part Four - Uncle Pio
In this section of the novel, the narrator introduces us to the final two victims of the bridge collapse. Only one of these victims, however, occupies most of the narrator's attention: a man called only "Uncle Pio," who is rumored to be Camila Perichole's father. Whether he is or not, he is certainly the Perichole's constant companion, assistant, and manager-although "manipulator" is certainly the better term. The three all-consuming aims of Pio's life have converged in this young woman: "independence," "reverence for beauty and charm" that leads him to keep the company of beautiful ladies, and his passion for the beauty of language and literature. When he met the Perichole, when she was a young girl of twelve, Pio determined "to play Pygmalion" with her-to fashion her into a cultivated, celebrated actress. This task he accomplishes by manipulating the Perichole's affection for and dependence upon him, pushing her toward an unreachable perfection in her craft. Uncle Pio and the Perichole travel far and wide in the world before arriving in Lima, where the Perichole's fame grows.
The Perichole begins an affair with Don Andrs, Viceroy of Peru. Uncle Pio does not care for this relationship, because it takes the Perichole away from the theater. At first, it does not-but it does change her performances. And as the relationship with the Viceroy deteriorates and a string of casual affairs takes its place, the Perichole's performances grow "more and more cursory, not to say embarrassed. [and the Perichole grows] more and more impatient of acting." She eventually gives up the stage altogether, leaving Uncle Pio behind her as she seeks a "fashionable" life. Not far from the shrine of Santa Mara de Cluxambuqua (see Part One), the Perichole raises her son by Don Andrs, Jaime. Jaime, taking after his father, is a sickly child, prone to epileptic seizures. They live together, yet isolated from human society, as the Perichole wonders when the happiness she thought she would find in a higher social rank will actually begin.
Uncle Pio begs for and eventually receives an audience with the Perichole. The Perichole (she reacts badly when Pio dares to address her as the familiar "Camila"; she informs him, "My name is Doa Micaela") tells him she wants nothing more to do with him. Although Pio apologizes for his earlier years of manipulating the Perichole, and professes a romantic and idealized love for her, she rejects him: "How absurd you are. You don't seem to learn as you grow older, Uncle Pio. There is no such thing as that kind of love."
The Perichole-like several hundred other Peruvians to whom society pays no attention-contracts small-pox. Uncle Pio schemes to see the Perichole once more by weeping outside her window in the voice of a little girl. The Perichole declares that her life is over, and expresses frustration and anger that Pio will not leave her be. He promises he will do so, on the condition that he be allowed to take Jaime for a year to live with him in Lima. The Perichole relents-after Uncle Pio makes an empty threat of demanding money she owes him-and Pio and Jaime set out for Lima the next day. As they near the bridge of San Luis Rey, Jaime feels a seizure beginning. Pio assures the boy that he can rest once they have made the crossing-which, of course, they never do.
Readers may be tempted to dismiss Uncle Pio as a mere example of how appearances can be deceiving. Although he has appeared in passing in the text prior to this section, the first time we meet him here is in a letter by the Marquesa. The Marquesa describes Pio as "the most delightful man in the world" (p. 68), and although readers can see how Pio might present that appearance to others, they also know that, like everyone, he is a complicated and often thoroughly undelightful and unappealing human being. His treatment of the Perichole-as exemplified, for instance, in the manipulative argument about "that speech to the prisoner" (p. 75)-is reprehensible. Uncle Pio begins this fourth section of the book as one more character who does not know how to love truly-and therefore, in the text's judgment, does not know how to live truly. His "love" for women-"borrowing for a moment another sense of that word" (p. 71)-is truly self-serving. It fills his need for beauty, as does his passion for literature and language, "the miracle of word order in Caldern and Cervantes" (p. 72). Pio does not love these women for themselves, as fellow human beings. He does not-to all appearances, at any rate-love Camila Perichole for herself, but only as one whom he can make over in his own image.
In truth, though, Uncle Pio's various loves and passions are not altogether without merit, as twisted as they have become. Even in their manipulative and distorted forms, his passions are directed toward transcendence. In other words, even in Pio's selfishness, he is fundamentally oriented beyond himself. For example, note how the narrator tells us, "Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theaters in some Heaven whither Caldern had preceded them" (pp. 76-77). Similar to the way in which the Marquesa used language in her letters to Clara-namely, to love and therefore to live transcendently-Uncle Pio is using language-the "Old Comedy" and plays of the past (p. 88)-to love and therefore to live transcendently. In trying-and, perhaps ultimately, failing-to connect with the Perichole, Uncle Pio is really trying to connect with a fuller, richer existence; it is no accident, surely, that Wilder chose the word "Heaven" in the passage cited above. Again, we are drawn to Wilder's "thesis": that "the whole purport of literature. is the notation of the heart" (p. 16). In recognizing and responding to the beauty of classic drama and comedy, Uncle Pio is really recognizing and responding to the transcendent power of the heart, the transcendent power of love. He does so, of course, imperfectly-as do we all. But Wilder may wish readers to affirm the attempt, nonetheless. As we see in the untimely deaths of his characters, we must move toward life and love today, for tomorrow may not come. As Pio himself tells the Perichole, in a moment of ironic foreshadowing, "There will be time later to be called Doa Micaela. We shall be dead soon" (p. 88).
Yet this message may also be the warning inherent in the Perichole's admonition to Uncle Pio, late in their relationship: "You don't seem to learn as you grow older. There is no such thing as that kind of love [i.e., idealistic and overly romanticized love]. It's in the theater you find such things" (p. 89). The truth of the Perichole's words-which echoes the unsentimental truth discovered by Esteban and Manuel in the book's previous section; namely, that "even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other" (p. 45)-thus tempers whatever appreciation of Uncle Pio's quest for love that readers may have. He seeks transcendence, yes; but he does not achieve it, primarily because he refuses to love real people. Even when there is no further hope of connection with Camila Perichole for him, he chooses, not to love her for who she is-which is, of course, the person that in no small way he has caused her to become; a tragedy compounded that much more if the rumors of his paternity of the Perichole are true-but instead to try and begin again with Jaime, the Perichole's epileptic son ("those moments. [that] separated him [i.e., Jaime] from other people"; i.e., seizures; p. 94; see also the "tendency to convulsions" that Jaime must have inherited from his father, p. 79). Uncle Pio chooses to remain in the theater, metaphorically as well as literally. He chooses to continue play-acting. This choice is why the narrator remarks, significantly, that, after the rebuke of the Perichole quoted above, Pio appears "shamefaced, but unconvinced" (p. 89). Note also that this attachment to the real world is why a relationship, however flawed it too may be, springs up between Don Andrs and the Perichole: unlike Pio, Andrs teaches Camila about real life-"smart slang" as opposed to "beautiful Spanish" (p. 79).
For all that she learns about real life from Don Andrs, however, the Perichole, too, emerges as a character who is limited in her capacity to love, as her "more and more cursory" performances in the theater show (p. 84). Were she able to experience the truly human emotion of love-and Uncle Pio knows this fact to be true-her performances would move beyond the superficiality of gestures (readers should recall the Marquesa's demonstration of just such a superficial gesture, p. 26) into genuine human feeling. This superficial existence that the Perichole leads is also symbolized by the scene in which Uncle Pio catches the ill former actress making herself up gaudily (p. 91). As yet further evidence of superficiality, readers do not sense that much true love exists between the Perichole and Jaime, her own son: "Camila was never cross to Don Jaime and she was never demonstrative" (p. 85). A truly loving relationship would, of course, allow for demonstrations of both affection and anger. Add to this observation the obvious one that the Perichole sends her child to live with Uncle Pio, a man she says she despises. Although she speaks the words, "A mother cannot be separated from her child like that" (p. 93), her actions show that she doesn't truly believe or feel them. Not surprising, then, that the narrator explicitly informs readers that the Perichole "had never realized any love save love as passion. Such love. remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest" (p. 90). She is unable to move beyond self-interest, throughout her life: when Uncle Pio threatens-not, as it turns out, in earnest-to demand the money she owes him, she quickly agrees to send Jaime away with him. Of course, readers must also remember that the Perichole says she will send the boy if he is willing to go (p. 94). Given that no loving relationship with his mother existed, we can understand why Jaime made the choice he did.
No one in this novel perfectly loves; as stated previously in this commentary, all are flawed and fallible human beings. Such is part of the great genius and enduring appeal of Wilder's story. Yet Uncle Pio remains the primary focus of this section, and Uncle Pio, readers are led to conclude, also never learns to love. He clings instead to his "own definition of love that was like no other" (p. 83), regarding love as "a sort of cruel malady" (p. 83) through which all people must pass, and the sooner, the better.
He sees love as preparation for "the business of living" (p. 83) rather than correctly (in the novel's estimation) as the business of living itself. Here, too, we see a sad irony: for Pio correctly determines there are "two groups" of people in the world, "those who had loved and those who had not" (p. 83)-but his definition of love is off the mark. He counts himself, of course, among those who have loved, as though love were something done once and for all, over and placed in the past. In contrast, of course, the novel as a whole argues that love is ongoing; indeed, as Madre Mara will think at the book's conclusion, the only bridge between "a land of the living and a land of the dead. is love, the only survival, the only meaning" (p. 107).