Thornton Wilder captures the sublime in a single tragic, yet meaningless moment in Bridge of San Luis Rey. It was first published in 1927, between the world wars, and was Wilder’s first big breakthrough as a writer. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
The novella is about five individuals who fall to their death while crossing an ancient bridge constructed by the Incas on July 20, 1774 in Peru. It occurs in five short parts, each telling the background of each victim of the bridge. Upon learning of the accident, all of Peru becomes obsessed. One man, in particular, Father Juniper, spends the remainder of his life trying to unveil the mysterious inter-connectedness of God’s purpose in putting these five people together in death on the bridge at the moment it snapped. Ironically, the Church found it blasphemous and burned both the book, as well as Father Juniper. However, one copy of the book was preserved secretly.
It reminds one of the fierce madness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick as he desperately stretches out to discover purpose in a cosmos that is cold and devoid of meaning. The bridge represents different things to people in the novel. The novella reads like a Spanish report and a synopsis of Father Juniper’s intensive research. The audience is left to wonder: was there any meaning behind the collapse of the bridge? The book never fully addresses this question. Each character’s story is a kind of eulogy to their lives, as those among the living desperately search for a reason to the seemingly senseless loss of life.
Apparently, John Hersey used The Bridge of San Luis Rey as the inspiration for Hiroshima, his monumental work of journalism which explores the explosion of the atomic bomb through the perspectives of five different survivors.
I close with the opening words of the novella:
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”