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The Bridge of San Luis Ray

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Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, presents the ancient dilemma of whether tragedy is the result of chance or a manifestation of divine intervention. It explores the lives of five people and reveals their internal struggles for survival. The sadness that is created by the undying love of the Marquesa de Montemayor for her daughter, Esteban for his twin brother, Manual and Uncle Pio for the vain actress, Camilla Perichole, is so overwhelming in its enormity, that when tragedy strikes, we feel relief that their suffering is finally over.

The scene is set in Lima, Peru, in 1714. One afternoon, an ancient bridge broke sending five people to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses this catastrophe and believes he can prove the existence of divine intervention. The first person is the Marquesa de Montemayor along with her servant and companion, Pepita. The Marquesa's love for her daughter is not returned which sends her into a state of borderline psychosis. She begins to drink heavily and neglects to take care of the most important things in her life. One night while Pepita lay sleeping, the Marquesa is struck with the realization that her love for her daughter is a selfish love and she decides to renounce this love and begin a new life. Esteban and Manuel are orphaned twins found on the steps of a convent and raised by Maria del Pilar. When Manuel dies of an infection, Esteban is in despair and is about to embark on a new life with Captain Alvarado when he crosses the bridge. Camilla Perichole did not die on the bridge but was a victim nonetheless. Uncle Pio, friend and confidant of the Perichole, takes her son to educate him in the Arts and literature. The two never make it across the bridge. The Perichole is a famous actress who plays an important role in the story. "She is the axis, as it were, around which everything turns"(Stresau 23). She weaves the threads of the story together with her "passions and perversities"(Fadiman 338). The Perichole is a very selfish woman who indirectly causes the death of Manuel, Esteban's brother, by destroying his will to live. When Manuel falls in love with the Perichole, the love the brothers' share becomes tainted and is forever destroyed. The only time that Manuel admits this is when he is in a state of such pain, he lashes out:

"Yes, Esteban, may God damn your beastly soul forever,

do you hear that? For coming between me and what was

mine by right. She was mine, do you hear, and what right

had you...."(Wilder 70).

When Manuel dies, Esteban "wanders restlessly about the countryside"(Stresau 22). Captain Alvaredo, a friend of the Maria de Pilar, finds him and convinces him to start a new life aboard his ship. He is on his way to meet the captain when the bridge collapses.

The Marquesa de Montemayor was a lonely old lady. Her obsessive love for her daughter drives her almost to the point of madness. "She had been drinking heavily and had fallen from her traditional religion into a primitive superstition"(Stresau 22). The daughter did not return her mother's love, causing the Marquesa such grief that she could no longer focus on what was really true love; "...love is accompanied by selfishness, confronted by human coldness and lost upon a universe that does not seem to know or care"(Burbank 364). Little Pepita, her travelling companion, possessed a love for everything around her. Though she dearly wanted to be with the Maria del Pilar in the convent, she stayed with the Marquesa because she needed her. In a letter to Maria del Pilar, Pepita writes: "...but all of this is nothing if you like me and wish me to stay with her"(Wilder 45).

When the Marquesa reads the letter, Pepita's unselfish love enlightens her as to how love should be and how it should be returned. She accepts with resignation, that she must let go of her obsessive love for her daughter and her deep yearning to be loved back by her. The next day, the first day of her new life, she and Pepita crossed the bridge. Uncle Pio was friend and confidant to the Perichole. It was his teaching that gave her the successful career she so dearly loved. His love for her ran so deep, that when she threw him out of her home and heart, he still loved her. "...Camilla had outgrown Uncle Pio. And yet he still loved her"(Stresau 23). As Camilla aged, her vanity became a source of great misery. She shut out everyone that loved her so they couldn't see her aging visage. Uncle Pio begs Camilla to let him take her son, Don Jaime, with him to be his mentor. She agrees. In anticipation of a new life, Uncle Pio and Don Jaime crossed the bridge.

All the characters in the book are motivated by one single emotion, the passion of love.

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