7.11.2010

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder successfully fictionalizes some universal core questions in his brief, but densely packed philosophic/religiously themed novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.



Why do bad things happen in general?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Is there a plan or purpose behind the bad happenings?

Are bad happenings such as the one depicted in the novel -- the collapse of a bridge, a "ladder of thin slats swung out over a gorge, with handrails of dried vine" -- or other bad happenings such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or BP oil catastrophes; are these events "acts of God" or acts of fate or neither or something else entirely?

If the events are not "acts of God," does that then mean that the deaths served no purpose and the victim's lives had no meaning, or could the disaster, in it's aftermath, somehow, be it by God or by fate or whatever, be used for good in the lives left grieving behind? Complicated, labyrinthine questions.

Wilder, of course, doesn't explicitly answer these questions, though by the end, his narrator, Brother Juniper, eyewitness to the bridge collapse: "He saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below..." certainly has.

Brother Juniper, devout Catholic, was curious about those lives he saw fall. So he does some investigating, searching for clues in the character of the victims in order to determine, in essence, were these victims good or bad, had they deserved to die that day on the San Luis Rey River.

But after Brother Juniper has investigated the lives of the fallen, in a brilliant twist of breath taking irony (kudos to the intricate, narrative skills of Thornton Wilder -- perhaps a trick he incorporated from his more famous stage dramas) he ultimately becomes the sixth and final victim of the bridge's collapse. How so? Why? Because Brother Juniper dared, as a monk, to "scientifically investigate" (how his inquiries into the victim's lives were defined by his religious superiors) the religious, faith based questions delineated above. By investigating the lives and character of the five fallen, he dared assert (albeit unintentionally) that a different kind of bridge, a bridge built between faith and reason, between God and science, could in fact, be built, and exist in theory just as surely as the Bridge of San Luis Rey once did before its horrific (and if we're to believe the Jesuits, "God ordained") collapse. And for this "blasphemous," early 18th century faux pas of Brother Junipers -- an "heretical" inquiry -- he paid the ultimate price.

So ... The Bridge of San Luis Rey, on the surface, is a simple story about the collapse of a simply constructed, makeshift bridge -- and can be read and enjoyed simply as such, as an entertainment imbued with philosophy and religion.

A little excavating beneath the surface, following doomed Brother Juniper's daring lead, however, reveals a depth of drama as religiously, psychologically and philosophically ornate (and astute) as Shakespearean Tragedy. And when I consider the collapse of that highway bridge in Minnesota a few years back, or those poor people who found themselves trapped in the Twin Towers; or when I hear the stories of people who missed their airplane flight, only to find out later that the flight they barely missed crashed and everybody aboard died, I can't help but find myself asking the same questions that Brother Juniper asked:

Who were these people?

Why were they on that bridge, or in that tower, or on that plane, that moment it fell to pieces?

Why them and not me?

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