Chapter 6: “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder (1928)

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Wilder-BridgeI have fallen woefully behind in my blogging, but not behind in my reading, which is peculiar in and of itself. The most recent novel I finished (which was last week) was Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the Pulitzer in 1928. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but despite my interest in the book, the chiefest reason I elected to read this one when I did was because I was falling behind in my reading schedule and this book, being a light 110 or so pages, promised to be a quick read. However, this book also happened to be one that took me much longer to finish than I originally planned (I figured I’d finish it in a day or two, but instead it took almost a week) as I wrestled with it quite a lot .

For the past year or so, Joshua and I have been at odds with Calvinism—a theology with the basic belief that God has all of creation on a set time-line; that free will is non-existent; that the fate of all of creation has already been determined. Wilder, it seems, also was at odds with this theology, or at least wrestled with it enough to feel urged to write about it at length. When asked about his inspirations for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder related:

…the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist. Strict Puritansimagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s ‘Caritas’ which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way.

Wilder also said that, with this book, he was posing the question Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will? In other words, is there a third party which has just as much of an effect on lives as a first party? That, of course, is the same question that Joshua and I have been struggling with since we came into each others’ lives last January.

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The book tells the story of five interrelated people who happen to find themselves on a suspension bridge in Peru at the same time, and this bridge happens to collapse, sending all five to their deaths. A friar, Brother Juniper, witnesses the event, then proceeds to launch an investigation into the lives of each person to determine whether or not there is some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each individual dies. Because, surely, there must be some sort of a reason for such a travesty. Curious about why God would allow such a tragedy, he decides to take a scientific approach to the question. He works for six years on his book about the bridge collapse, trying various mathematical formulas to measure the spiritual traits of each victim and the results?

Inconclusive.

He compiles his huge book of interviews, but a council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.

The emotional reaction I got from The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

Also inconclusive.

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Let me first say, I didn’t dislike this book. On the contrary, I actually found it to be wildly fascinating and I really enjoyed reading it. So far, along this Pulitzer journey, it seems as though this book was the first one that wasn’t filled with inauthenticity and meaningless bugaboo. Wilder knew which direction he wanted to take the book and he got there without spoiling the story with a bunch of verbal nonsense. As much as I love the written word, I’ll be the first to admit that, sometimes, some words just aren’t necessary; as much as I love Charles Dickens and will defend his writings to my death, I’ll be the first to admit that he had a really bad habit of meandering aimlessly (seemingly). Wilder, on the other hand, jumped right into the story without wasting any time. I mean, the climax of the book happens in the first two or three pages.

The next three sections of the book are (what I assume to be) his notes from his interviews. They contain the histories of all five people—Doña María; her maiden, Pepita; Esteban; Uncle Pio and his student, Jaime—and the events that led them to the bridge that day and, ultimately, their deaths.

The fifth section of the book, however, is where Wilder loses me—it’s just one curious event after another. First of all, as aforementioned, Brother Juniper’s work is deemed heretical and so he and his book are burned at the stake. Why? I have no idea. Wilder completely neglects to explain why his work was such a heresy; instead, the reader is expected to say to himself, “Oh, of course it’s heretical—that makes perfect sense.” What’s more baffling to me than this whole heresy thing is why Wilder decides to kill Father Juniper off in the first place; I was actually even offended by Wilder’s choice. It’s strange because Father Juniper is the main character in this novel, but plays a very small role in the book—in fact, with the proper amount of reworking the story, his character could have been eliminated all together. It really seemed as though his research was merely the catalyst that drove the story along, rather than being the story itself—which I thought was an interesting and daring move on Wilder’s part. But because of his lack of contribution to the actual story, I’ll admit that I felt a little betrayed by his unjustified death.

Then again, maybe, in some ironic way, that was meant to be the point of the story—that death is, oftentimes, unfair and unjust. The five people who fell to their deaths when the bridge collapsed didn’t do anything to deserve such deaths, and Father Juniper didn’t deserve such a death. All six of these characters were merely on their own journeys—literally and figuratively—that were concluded tragically and prematurely.

Perhaps what Wilder was trying to convey was that, because God has already made up His mind about their deaths, there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. The five characters who were crossing the bridge were crossing the bridge because, in light of God’s set trajectories for their lives, they had to. They had no choice in the matter. They were going to die on that bridge because there was no other possibility. They couldn’t have decided to do anything but attempt to cross the bridge because their assumed free will didn’t even enter into the equation. The same is true of Brother Juniper—he had to compile his book and his book had to be found heretical and he had to be burned at the stake because that’s the destiny God had mapped out for him before he was even born.

Then again, maybe that’s not what Wilder was trying to convey at all. Maybe, rather, Wilder was saying that we’ll never know what might have happened to these people had they decided not to cross the bridge; that the reason they fell to their untimely deaths wasn’t because that was how God predestined it, but because they made a series of decisions (of their own free will) that guided them to that place.

And, of course, we, as the readers, will never know what Wilder intended with this book. As aforementioned, he even stated, “But in my novel I have left this question unanswered.” He poses two possibilities and allows the reader to decide for himself which one he will align with.

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I, for one, am not sure. I’m no Calvinist, but the whole argument of free will versus predestination does intrigue me—particularly when it comes to everyday situations. I’ve made it well known that I don’t believe in all of the pillars of TULIP (Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistable grace; Perseverance of the saints), but that doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle with them from time to time.

For instance, I made a conscious decision to stay up late and write a blog tonight… Or did I? Am I only fooling myself in believing that I made this decision? Did God mandate at the beginning of time that Drew Moody would be writing this very blog at this very time on this very day? And what if I had decided instead to go to bed? Either way, a devout Calvinist would be able to say, “That’s the way it was meant to be, because that’s the destiny God chose for you.”

After a while, you just come to a ridiculous chicken/egg situation…

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There is one quote in the book that has been haunting me since I finished it last week: it (and I’m going to misquote, since I don’t have the book sitting in front of me) essentially states that Father Juniper witnessed the collapse of the bridge and instead of sensing that shameful excitement of How lucky I am, for that could have been me!, he instead thought Why did that happen to them?

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had that very same reaction—I’ll see a car accident happen right in front of me and I’ll get this relieved excitement and wonder If I hadn’t spent the two seconds it took to bend over and pick up my car keys when I was walking to my car this morning, I would’ve been the one in that accident! And I almost never wonder about the person that was actually in the accident—I’m too preoccupied thanking my lucky stars. I have a feeling this might say something about my personality, but I’m not sure. Am I really that egocentric that even other people’s misfortunes, somehow, revolve around me?

Maybe it’s time I try to make it a point to be more concerned or empathetic with other people’s lives.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 6: “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder (1928)

  1. Very good point in conclusion Drew. And isn't that one of the chief issues with society – the constant focus on self. How different would our world be if our selfish desires didn't win the majority of the time?

  2. Fascinating reflections — I didn't know about Wilder and Calvinism, so I didn't have that lens to view the book through. I'm no Calvinist either (I can't remember enough about Arminius to recall if I'm in his camp), but I agree that there does seem to be an inevitability, almost an unexpressed logic, to the deaths of these five (which I talk about, less eloquently than you, in the review I posted today of the novel).I wasn't anywhere near as blind-sided as you were by Juniper's death — not that I saw it coming, but he didn't really matter to me, I guess. I don't think he's our narrator (I felt like Wilder had really criticized Juniper's book in the intro, and suggested that the book I was reading was a rejoinder to Juniper). I agree that the heresy thing doesn't make as much sense as it should. I thought it was interesting to unify the grieving parties at the end, and that there was something good and restorative about that, but that Wilder tries to hard to "send a message" at the end after having been wisely mysterious about message all the way through the novel. Anyway, great review: it's helping me see the book in some different lights. I think I liked it more than you did, but I need to go back (at some point) and look at that conclusion again.

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