- On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below (p. 5).
This is the famous, opening sentence of Wilder's novel. Its stark, objective quality belies the rich and complicated nature of the narrative that follows.
- Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God (pp. 7, 9).
The first part of this quote represents Brother Juniper's thesis, which he will attempt to prove in his examination of the lives of the victims of the bridge collapse. The second part of this quote is the narrator's reflections on the two extremes of opinions regarding the role divine providence does or does not play in human life-a significant theme in Wilder's book.
- [Clara's husband in Spain, the Marquesa's son-in-law] delighted in her letters, but he thought that when he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart (p. 16).
The idea that the "whole purport of literature. is the notation of the heart" forms an important interpretive key to the novel, especially given its recurring focus on the power of literature and language. For Wilder, language must communicate love, or it becomes meaningless and empty.
- [Dora Maria] was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization (p. 27).
This sentence establishes the Abbess as a saintly figure in the world of Wilder's narrative. She represents, in a real sense, transcendence, as she is the person who arrives at the realization, when the novel closes, that love forms the bridge between the dead and the living and imbues life with meaning.
- Now [Esteban] discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well (pp. 45-46).
In this moment, Esteban learns one of the painful lessons all who love must learn: that no perfect human love exists in the world. This admission, however, does not negate the importance of loving-i.e., the imperfection of human love does not give us license not to love.
- [Captain Alvarado] was the awkwardest speaker in the world apart from the lore of the sea, but there are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal. "We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn't for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You'll be surprised at the way time passes" (pp. 63-64).
Captain Alvardo's words are the second painful lesson about life and love that Esteban must learn. True love goes on. True love endures hardship and loss.
- Whom were these two seeking to please? Not the audiences of Lima. They had long since been satisfied. We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world. Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theaters in some Heaven whither Calderon had preceded them. The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth (pp. 76-77).
This moment reveals that, for all of their limitations and their imperfect ways of loving each other, Camila and Uncle Pio are nonetheless (as we all are) creatures who seek transcendence. They love beauty because it calls them to an existence that is higher than themselves.
- The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed. The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed (pp. 99-100).
These words are the narrator's comment on why Brother Juniper is condemned as a heretic. Brother Juniper dares a "scientific examination" of the facts concerning the collapse of the bridge, but his conclusions run afoul of the faith of the Limeans-not so much in a loving god, perhaps, but their faith that human love gives life its meaning. The monk's conclusions are therefore branded heresy.
- I shall spare you Brother Juniper's generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven (p. 101).
Here, again, the narrator summarizes Juniper's conclusions. Although these and similar ideas have often been presented as "orthodox," Wilder seems to be suggesting that, when placed alongside the experience of human love, they are blasphemous and heretical.
- But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning (p. 107).
The final passage in the novel is the Abbess' great insight into the power and meaning of love in life. Incidentally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair read these words at a memorial service honoring those whose lives were lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Top Ten Quotes