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. – From The Bridge of San Luis Rey, page 9 –
Thornton Wilder earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which has been called his masterpiece. The novella (only 107 pages) begins in the summer of 1714 when a bridge of great construction fails and plunges five people to their deaths in the gorge below. A witness to the tragedy, Brother Juniper, embarks on a quest to prove divine intervention by exploring (in great depth) the lives of the people killed.
The book is essentially a lesson in philosophy – exploring the meaning of love, the twists and turns of one’s life amid the greater scheme of things, and whether death is fate or God’s plan. There are not any real answers to any of the questions – just the questions.
Wilder writes in old fashioned language and the novella is set in a foreign country with all the subtle references to politics and religion of the time. I admit to getting dragged down in it all and struggled to slog through and finish the book.
Wilder’s character development is one of the strengths of the book; and Wilder does this within a very few pages which speaks to his gift as a writer. My favorite characters were the twins Esteban and Manual and I think Wilder does an apt job of presenting their relationship to each other and the devastation of loss that occurs between them. Wilder connects all the central characters to each other…something that took me by surprise…sort of like the six degrees of separation theory. Because of this I expected a resolution to the ultimate question: Could it have been fate that plunged these people to their deaths? Or something larger? But, Wilder apparently never intended to provide an answer. In the afterword of the book I read, the publisher shares a letter from Wilder to one of his readers:
Perhaps had this been a non fiction philosophy text, I could accept Wilder’s cop out on this issue. But, this is a work of fiction and I wanted the character of Brother Juniper to at least come to his own conclusion. Instead, the reader is left with an odd feeling of detachment.
Because this has been touted as a great work of literature, I wanted not only to like it, but to “get it.” I’m sorry to say, neither of those things happened.