The Bridge Of San Luis Rey Summary

Thornton Wilder

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

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The Bridge Of San Luis Rey Summary

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Thornton Wilder is a triple Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and novelist. Two of his awards were for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and the other was for his 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The novel was the second of his career and in addition to the Pulitzer it has been named as one of the best novels of the twentieth century by Time magazine and by the American Modern Library. The focal point of the story is the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, the events that led the people to perish in the accident, and how theyfound themselves on the bridge in the first place. A friar who was witness to the disaster looks into the lives of those who died with the hope of finding some answer as to why it had to happen to each of them.The Bridge of San Luis Rey is thought to be a work that served as a major contributor to the birth of the “disaster” genre where disparate people have their lives brought together by some sort of catastrophe. The plot of Wilder’s novel might have been inspired, it is believed, by a play written by Prosper Merimee.

When Wilder’s story opens, it is the eighteenth century and Brother Juniper, a priest of the Franciscan order, is a witness when a bridge across a mountain pass in Peru gives way. In the disaster, five people fall to their deaths. Brother Juniper decides to use the occurrence as an opportunity to apply scientific inquiry to the event to determine why they were chosen to be the victims. He spends the next six years compiling information about their lives. His resolve to find an answer ultimately leads to his own downfall.The failure of the bridge in 1714 comes as a surprise to everyone in Lima, the capital city, since although the bridge was made of crude materials, it had been completely reliable up to that time. At this point, the narrative turns to the personal backgrounds and histories of the five victims. It also examines what becomes of their friends and the relatives they left behind.

Brother Juniper’s primary goal was to prove his hypothesis that theology is a science like any other, and thus could be supported by material from the actual lives of people and not just be fully attributed to faith. Upon seeing the collapse of the bridge he realizes that he now has experimental subjects—the people who died—and also a control group subjects in those who did not die. His investigation into their lives determines their value to society. With painstaking detail, Brother Juniper amasses copious amounts of information about the people who died and their relationships with people who were close to them. Those who died in the accident include a rich woman named Dona Maria, her servant Pepita, Uncle Pio who is an actress’s former manager, the actress’s son Jaime, and a man named Estaban who was on his way from Cuzco to Lima for a job. Characters in the novel who did not perish in the incident were the actress Micaela Villegas and Maria del Pilar, the abbess of a convent and orphanage. Esteban was an orphan who was cared for by Maria del Pilar. Pepita was also an orphan, but she was raised by Dona Maria. Some of the material in the plot is presented through letters that Dona Maria had written to her daughter Clara.

As the years go on following the accident, Brother Juniper continues to collect information about the victims and the survivors, but no matter how much he compiles, he is not able to find the information he had hoped for to support his hypothesis that worthy people had a better chance of survival than those less worthy. Although he did not find that personal worth was a factor in explaining the deaths, he did reveal a lot about the role of love in people’s lives, especially with respect to rejecting love and losing a loved one. Brother Juniper’s research led him to an untimely end as the church found his work to be heretical. As a result, Brother Juniper was burned at the stake and his writings destroyed, save for a copy later found in the ancient University of San Marcos in Lima.  In subsequent years the actress Micaela Villegas goes to work at the abbey for Maria del Pilar. It is the abbess’sthoughts whichbring the story to a conclusion as she ponders the concept that humans all have a finite life and the bridge of San Luis Rey is symbolic of love being stronger than death.