Longtime Hamden resident Thornton Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize 75 years ago this month for his play, 'Our Town', but 85 years ago he received a Pulitzer for his novel, 'The Bridge Of San Luis Rey' — a book that continues to speak to us.
In the wake of recent terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and last month’s Boston Marathon bombing, questions often arise about why innocent people die or get maimed. Why are some spared and others not? Is there any rhyme or reason to it? These questions are front and center in Thornton Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning novel,The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
The novel’s famous opening sentence plunges us right into a disaster: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses the sudden violent deaths of these five people. He spends six years researching their lives in order to try to understand why they died. His research forms the bulk of the narrative of the story.
Among the five victims was the Marquesa de Montemayor, a rich, unhappy aristocratic woman who has centered her life around her daughter Clara, a young woman from whom she has long been alienated. She was walking on the bridge with her young servant, Pepita, when it collapsed. Another victim is a young man named Esteban who recently lost his twin brother, Manuel, to whom he was devoted. On the brink of suicide, Esteban had just decided to join a sea captain and go on a long voyage. He was on his way to meet the captain when the bridge collapsed. The final two victims are an old man named Uncle Pio and a boy named Don Jaime. Uncle Pio had managed the career of the actress Camila Perichole, who had recently suffered from smallpox, a disease that has adversely affected her personal appearance. Uncle Pio had convinced Camila to allow her son, Don Jaime, to go to Lima with him for an education. They were headed there when the bridge suddenly collapsed.
Early in the novel, the narrator poses the central question raised by the sudden, unexpected deaths of five people: ““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.” It is Brother Juniper’s intent to prove there was a divine purpose in the five deaths. It is the narrator’s intent to pose other possible explanations.
It is interesting to note that love is a common theme central to the victims’ lives. Dona Maria (the Marquesa de Montemayor) was reared by parents who were more interested in material things, and so she was starved for love. Her arranged marriage at 26 to an unfeeling man compounded her predicament. When she delivered her baby — Dona Clara — her pent-up need for affection resulted in an obsession for the child that went unrequited. Pepita, the orphan who was sent by the Abbess to serve Dona Maria, ironically becomes the source of Dona Maria’s salvation. The Marquesa accidentally discovers a letter written by Pepita to the Abbess in which the young girl reveals her love for Dona Maria. Realizing that someone cares for her, Dona Maria feels more settled and fulfilled and heads back to Lima with Pepita. While en route, they fall from the bridge.
Esteban is another character who experiences unrequited love. His deep affection for his twin brother, Manuel, is not equally reciprocated. He feels hurt when Manuel falls for the vain actress Camila Perichole. Manuel then dies from an infection, inducing thoughts of suicide into the mind of Esteban. At his low point, a sea captain whom he respects, sent by the Abbess, reaches out to help Esteban and offers to take him on a long sea voyage. Captain Alvarado, who lost his little daughter to death, states, “"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." He is on his way to join the captain when the bridge falls.
Uncle Pio has also experienced unrequited love. He managed the career of Camila Perichole, whom he secretly adored. When her vanity led her to an unhappy affair with a nobleman and, later, to a disfiguring bout with smallpox, Uncle Pio was attempting to take her sickly son, Don Jaime, to Lima for an education when they both fell off of the bridge.Their deaths bring despair to Camila Perichole who says, "I have no heart. I fail everybody. They love me and I fail them." Broken, she, too, is nevertheless redeemed by the love of the Abbess.
In the end, the narrator informs us that the community rejects Brother Juniper’s explanation of divine purpose and labels him as a heretic: “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.”
The community burns Brother Juniper at the stake, along with a copy of his book. We are left, finally, with the words of the Abbess — Madre Maria del Pilar — on the power and meaning of love: “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.” Following the 9/11 tragedy of 2001, it was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who inspired many by quoting this very passage from Wilder’s novel.
The words of the Abbess steer us away from the simplistic generalizations of Brother Juniper’s calculations of good getting rewarded and evil getting punished through the intercession of divine Providence and toward a deeper appreciation of the enduring and redemptive power of love to give meaning to human experience, even in the face of disaster and tragedy. This is why the words of longtime Hamden, CT, resident Thornton Wilder from 85 years ago especially resonate following the sudden, horrible maiming and loss of life in incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombing.