The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Novel Summary: Part Two - The Marquesa de Montemayor
Part Two - The Marquesa de Montemayor
The second section of the novel serves as our first introduction to a victim of the bridge's collapse. Do�a Mar�a, the Marquesa de Montemayor, dotes on her grown daughter, Clara, who has married and moved to Spain largely in an attempt to escape her eccentric mother's smothering affections. Motivated by an intense, overwhelming desire to connect with her daughter-ostensibly because she loves Clara but more probably because she loves herself and craves attention and affirmation-the Marquesa begins a series of letters to Clara that, the narrator reveals, have become literary classics, "the text-book of schoolboys and the ant-hill of the grammarians." (We also learn that, for her part, Clara paid them only scant attention.) As the narrator tells us, "[S]he loved her daughter not for her daughter's sake, but for her own." Indeed, the Marquesa plays out on the stage of her imagination endless scenes of reconciliation with Clara, miniature dramas in which her daughter whispers to her, "You are the best of all possible mothers. Forgive me."
It is this often envisioned but never enacted drama of reconciliation, in fact, that occupies the Marquesa's mind as she and her young girl companion, Pepita, attend a performance of the famous actress Camila Perichole. "The Perichole" (as she is most often called throughout the novel), seeing that the famous but eccentric noblewoman is in the audience that evening, proceeds to sing farcical songs at the Marquesa's expense. The Marquesa, however, does not notice that she is the subject of this merriment, for she is too busy mentally composing her next letter to Clara. Nevertheless, the Perichole's lover, Don Andr�s, Viceroy of Peru, commands the Perichole to go to the Marquesa to plead for forgiveness. The Marquesa receives the Perichole, but not only does not know about the offensive songs, she has been drinking. Thus the Marquesa treats the Perichole with what the latter interprets as a graciousness and favor the actress did not expect; indeed, the Marquesa relates to the Perichole almost as though the performer were a surrogate daughter, a replacement for distant Clara.
The Marquesa never quite treats Pepita in this way. Pepita, we learn, is an orphan who has been raised in the Lima convent run by the Abbess Do�a Mar�a, "that strange genius" who has dreams of empowering women that run far ahead of her time. Do�a Mar�a has been raising Pepita as her eventual successor, and has, as "a step in this education for greatness," sent Pepita to live as a companion and aide to the Marquesa at the Marquesa's request. Except for occasional and erratic bursts of attention from the Marquesa, however, Pepita spends her days in "an almost morbid obedience" to her mistress, motivated by a greater loyalty to Madre Mar�a.
In one letter from Spain, word arrives that Clara is pregnant. The Marquesa immediately begins adhering to all sorts of superstitions and religious devotions intended to insure a safe delivery, and she makes all in her household do so, as well. These precautions culminate in a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Mar�a de Cluxambuqua, There she intends to offer intercessory prayers for her daughter. Instead, however, she spends time outside the shrine in its gardens, reflecting, surrounded by llamas. While she is thinking that perhaps "she [will] learn in time to permit both her daughter and her gods to govern their own affairs," a messenger brings a letter from Spain, "full of wounding remarks rather brilliantly said." The Marquesa returns to her and Pepita's lodging that evening, where she chances to see a letter that Pepita has written to Do�a Mar�a. In the letter, Pepita asks to be released from the Marquesa's service, but also indicates she is willing to stay if that is what Do�a Mar�a wishes. The Marquesa is affected by the simple and seemingly happy love that Pepita has for the abbess. When she asks Pepita about the letter, however, Pepita indicates that she does not wish to mail it, for it lacks bravery.
Chastened by the example of Pepita, the Marquesa resolves to write new and braver letters to Clara, letters that would be "free and generous." And she does, in fact, write a letter that later generations remember for "its immortal paragraph about love." Whether she would have continued to do so, however, and whether she would have truly begun a new life of brave and generous love, we do not know, for two days later she and Pepita are killed in the collapse of the bridge.
The Marquesa is Wilder's fictionalized presentation of a historical figure. Mme. de S�vign� (the title of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal; 1626-1696), a French letter writer. "She was devoted to her children, and, after her daughter married and moved to Provence, she began writing letters to her, without literary intention, that recounted events, described people and details of daily life, and commented on many topics. The stories and gossip in the 1,700 letters of this correspondence, related in a natural, spontaneous tone, provide a vivid picture of the 17th-century French aristocracy" (Encyclopedia Britannica). Parallels between Marie de Rabutin-Chantal and Do�a Mar�a are thus obvious to even the casual reader of the novel.
The Marquesa's significance for Wilder and his audience, however, lies not in her status as Mme. de S�vign�'s fictional incarnation, but in her dual roles as interpreter of herself-and, in a more limited way, of other characters in the novel-and as an exemplar of what love both is and is not. At the section's outset, we read of the Marquesa's "idolatrous" and "fatiguing" love for her biological daughter, Clara (p. 14). By the section's conclusion, in contrast, we see how the Marquesa grows toward a new understanding of love, inadvertently encouraged by the example of Pepita, the orphan child who could be construed as the Marquesa's "surrogate daughter" (even though Pepita does not view herself as such). On the evening before her death, the Marquesa has resolved to be "brave" (p. 37); that is, she has realized that true love requires courage and honesty. When she picks up her pen to write new letters to Clara, she does so in order to "begin a new life" (p. 37), one marked by honesty and transparency, without the stylistic trappings on which she has so long relied-those "felicitous phrases, phrases (who knows) that might bring a smile to her daughter's face." (p. 21). She has moved from "secretly refus[ing] to believe that anyone (herself excepted) loved anyone" (p. 17) to at least beginning to acknowledge the possibility that love, "free and generous" (pp. 37-38) as she intends her new letters to be, is possible, even though it requires courage.
Appropriately, then, the Marquesa's correspondence with Clara dominates this section of the book and serves not only to characterize the Marquesa-for example, as one who is desperate for "the attention, perhaps the admiration, of her distant child" (p. 16)-but also to introduce one of Wilder's main themes: the function of language. The narrator's insistence that "most readers" (that phrase quickly and cleverly inserted in a parenthetical) miss "the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart" (p. 16) applies, of course, not only to the Marquesa's letters but also to Wilder's own novel, which devotes itself to an examination of love. Readers should bear the narrator's statement in mind as they read the rest of the book, for it will serve to highlight Wilder's purpose in telling the story he does. Unlike Brother Juniper, Wilder is writing, not "to justify the ways of God" (p. 8), but to illuminate the love of human beings. And so we see, in this section about the Marquesa, that one of the lessons Wilder wishes us to learn about love is that love cannot be self-centered. The Marquesa's final epistle to Clara, "the famous Letter LVI" (p. 38), apparently contains a passage reminiscent of the Apostle Paul's famous words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 (strangely, Wilder says history remembers Letter LVI as the Marquesa's "Second Corinthians"). Paul wrote: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends" (1 Cor. 13:4-8). The Marquesa comes to learn this lesson too late. Perhaps Wilder wrote his novel, in part, to help his readers learn these truths before they, metaphorically, fall into "the gulf" (p. 5) of death. In any event, the shift in the Marquesa's letters from self-centered to other-centered demonstrate one way in which literature is "the notation of the heart."
While Wilder uses the Marquesa's correspondence primarily to establish the Marquesa's character, the letters do afford readers a glimpse of Clara's character as well-a significant fact given that Clara will return to Peru and re-enter the plot by the novel's end (see pp. 105-107). Certainly, many readers will sympathize with Clara when, for example, she accuses her mother of "making a cult of sorrow" (p. 17), for our own experience of the Marquesa seems to bear Clara's charge out. On the other hand, the letters may also move readers to some sympathy for the Marquesa; note, for instance, how Clara fails (intentionally?) to thank her mother for the gift of the "perfect gold chain"-Clara's only response, to the readers' knowledge, is the command, "Do not fail to send Him [i.e., the King of Spain] one as like it as possible" (p. 19). Clara's scolding of her mother in the letter that precedes the Marquesa's Letter XXII likewise may induce some sympathy for the Marquesa in readers: e.g., "I continue to be astonished that your indiscretions [in your letters to me] have not long since led to your being ordered to retire to your farm" (p. 20). And, of course, the casual mention Clara makes of her pregnancy in her letter to her mother (p. 31) must make us reflect upon the complicated human dynamics that have led to this situation of estrangement. Wilder thus realistically portrays conflicted human relationships, surely one of the great strengths of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Very rarely is one party entirely to blame.
In Part Two, we first meet some characters who will run as threads in a tapestry throughout the remainder of the book. We learn, in passing, of Uncle Pio (p. 20), and we get to know in some better depth Do�a Mar�a. But chief among these recurring characters is Camila Perichole, or "the Perichole." The Perichole is, like the Marquesa, modeled on an actual figure in history, Maria Micaela Villegas Hurtado, although the historical Perichole lived considerably later than the events in Wilder's novel occur (1748-1819; Wilder places the bridge collapse in 1714). Like Wilder's Perichole, Hurtado was a famous singer and actress; also like Wilder's character, the real Perichole was the mistress of the Viceroy of Peru (who is named Don Andr�s in Jacques Offenbach's opera La Perichole, also based on Hurtado; but who, in reality, was named Manuel de Amat y Juniet). We learn much about the Perichole in her own right in the rest of the novel, particularly in Part Three; here, however, she functions to introduce the metaphor of the theatre into the novel. Readers will note certain similarities between the Perichole and the Marquesa. For example, and perhaps most notably, we see that the Marquesa is a performer no less than the Perichole. Note how Wilder describes the Marquesa's epistles to Clara as "feverish monologues" (p. 22), and how the Marquesa must abstain from drink for the week prior to writing and sending a letter. The letters are, in this regard, a performance no less staged and artificial than the Perichole's performances; it is ironic that, within the world of Wilder's novel, they have become a benchmark of style, grammar, and literary content, for they pale in comparison to the letters that the Marquesa begins to write with her "Second Corinthians" (see p. 38)-or, more accurately, they would have had the Marquesa lived to write them. By using the theater as a metaphor for the Marquesa's life of letter-writing, then, Wilder drives home the urgency of learning to love truly. We dare not, he seems to be positing, live our lives "on stage," behind false masks, "performing."
The Marquesa's inebriated interview with the Perichole continues to develop the theatrical metaphor. For example, not knowing that the noblewoman has been drinking, the actress "could only assume that the Marquesa, out of a sort of fantastic magnanimity, was playing the farce of not having noticed" the offensive songs (p. 25). Furthermore, the exchange with the Perichole enables the Marquesa to act out the longed-for reconciliation with her daughter. The elaborate drama inside the Marquesa's mind begins when she notes that the Perichole (out of fear and at the command of the Viceroy, not, of course, out of any genuine love) is treating her with "such consideration. [and the Marquesa's] very daughter had never approached her thus" (p. 25). Very shortly after this realization, the Marquesa addresses the Perichole as "my daughter" (p. 25)-and then, very shortly after that, even more intimately and warmly as "my child" (p. 26). What could be mere rhetorical phrases in others' mouths take on a special poignancy on the Marquesa's lips, but it is a melancholy one: she is "performing" the reconciliation with Clara that she will never experience. It is, therefore, not by accident that this "reconciliation" really revolves around teaching the Perichole a specific hand gesture that Clara once used, a gesture the Marquesa says the actress may find useful in future performances. (And note that the Perichole does spend a long time afterward before the mirror practicing the gesture!) Even as the Marquesa is laying bare her heart (as much as she is able), she is concerned with "gesture," with performance, with superficial appearance over substantial reality. The outward performance of "the mythical gesture" moves her to "happy tears" (p. 26).
Another instance in which the Marquesa relies on externals is, of course, in her reaction to the news of Clara's pregnancy: "She practiced a degrading system of taboos for her child's protection" (p. 31). The empty rituals and vain superstitions that the Marquesa observes become a performance, a substitute for any real relationship to her daughter. These practices are also important for readers' purposes because they return us to the issues of theodicy with which Brother Juniper concerns himself. They raise the question of what, if anything, determines human fate, and how, if at all, it might be appeased, propitiated, or otherwise manipulated. Often, the Marquesa believes her daughter to be "in the hands of malignant Nature who reserves the right to inflict upon her children the most terrifying jests" (p. 31). At other times, however, the Marquesa experiences something akin to despair, thinking: "Nature is deaf. God is indifferent. Nothing in man's power can alter the course of law" (p. 32). She ultimately, however, clings to "a belief in the great Perhaps" (p. 32)-that is to say, the possibility that she may just be able to effect a safe delivery for Clara; that she may be able to influence her daughter to that degree.
Pepita's never-delivered letter to Do�a Mar�a provides an illuminating parallel to the correspondence between the Marquesa and Clara. Pepita's heartfelt devotion to the reverend mother shows the Marquesa how far from "the simplicity of love" she herself is (p. 35). Pepita has (at least in the Marquesa's mind) found a happiness in love for her "mother" (spiritually, not biologically) that she, the Marquesa, has not found in her "love"-weighed down as it is by the Marquesa's "pride and vanity" (p. 35)-has failed to find. Readers may wonder if Pepita is as truly happy in her love for Do�a Mar�a as the Marquesa thinks her to be; they will certainly need to reflect upon Pepita's claim that her letter to Do�a Mar�a lacks courage.
The fact remains, nevertheless, that happiness is the state that the Marquesa does perceive in Pepita, and this happiness surprises the Marquesa into reevaluating her own love for Clara. Pepita's letter prompts the change of heart in the Marquesa that, unfortunately and poignantly, she does not live to fully embody.
Note that the physical location of the shrine at Cluxambuqua adds a further, final level of poignancy to the impending disaster, for the Marquesa and Pepita successfully cross the bridge of San Luis Rey once (p 32) before attempting to cross it again-unsuccessfully, of course-on their way home.