The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Theme Analysis
Two themes dominate The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although one of these themes finds explicit statement while the other remains largely implicit-at least until the novel's conclusion. Wilder's book begins with Brother Juniper's investigation to determine why this calamity has befallen these five people. "Why did this happen to those five?" the monk asks himself. "Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan" (p. 7). And so the framework within which Brother Juniper discovers the life stories of the bridge collapse's victims is preoccupied with the theme of theodicy-of, as the text says, "justify[ing] the ways of God to man" (p. 8). The question of whether our lives are foreordained or a confluence of random factors has long preoccupied philosophers and theologians, and it undeniably is an important theme in Wilder's work. Importantly, however, readers must note that when Brother Juniper arrives at what have historically been considered "orthodox" conclusions-namely, that he sees in the bridge's fall "pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world. and humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city" (p. 101), he and his long tome are condemned as heretical. He is burned at the stake, for (ostensibly) defending the faith.
Brother Juniper's fate thus offers an insight into the second great theme of the book, the theme recognized and acclaimed by many readers and critics: the theme of love. What is love, and why does it matter to human life? These are the unspoken questions that drive the bulk of Wilder's narrative. Some of the characters learn new lessons about love. The Marquesa, for instance, discovers that love demands courage. Esteban discovers that love is never reciprocated perfectly in this world, as well as that it can survive death. Other characters, in contrast, are marked by their failure to learn about love. Uncle Pio, for example, never discovers that love is more than just "a sort of cruel malady" (p. 83). And Brother Juniper, of course, never learns that the bridge collapse is not the "object lesson" or the "edification," but the lives of its victims are. The five who perished in the abyss on July 20, 1714, were more than specimens to be scientifically studied and callously categorized, as Brother Juniper did. They were real, living, complex human beings-as are all of us-and Wilder's novel, in effect, calls us as readers to do no less than to love them: to recognize our shared humanity with them, to be warned by their vices but also to emulate their virtues, and above all to honor them as unique individuals, as we ourselves would no doubt wish to be so honored.
Such is the paradoxical function of fiction: by presenting us with a portrait of those who never were, it can lead us to a different way of relating to those who are. As the narrator himself states in the text, "the whole purport of literature. is the notation of the heart" (p. 16). Fiction can be worthwhile and valuable if it teaches us to love, for love offers life "the only survival, the only meaning" (p. 107).