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Study Guide: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

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The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. He or she must usually overcome some opposing force. The protagonists in this story are the Marquesa, Esteban, and Uncle Pio, all of whom try to find love and meaning during their life times. They are united when they are all killed on the Bridge at San Luis Rey.


The antagonist of a story is the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. The antagonist does not always have to be a single character or even a character at all. The antagonists in this story are fate (in the breaking of the bridge) and the unresponsive relatives (Dona Clara, Manuel, and Camila) who thwart the efforts of the Marquesa, Esteban, and Uncle Pio to give love.


The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. The climax occurs when the Bridge at San Luis Rey breaks, killing the protagonists before they accomplish their goals.


The outcome is the final resolution of the story or the denouement. The book ends as a tragedy for the protagonists. They die before they reach their goals, but their deaths inspire those they leave behind to a more meaningful life.


On July 20, 1714, the famous bridge at San Luis Rey breaks, killing five people. A Franciscan missionary, Brother Juniper, witnesses the accident as he returns from a trip to convert some Peruvian Indians. He decides the accident is a providential act of God. To prove his point about the accident, he studies the lives of the five victims for a period of six years. At the end of his research, he publishes an enormous book, which is rejected by the people of Peru as being inaccurate. In protest, both Brother Juniper and his book are burned. Amazingly, a copy of the book, placed on the shelf of a university library, survives to tell the story of the five victims.

The Marquesa De Montemayor, known as Dona Maria, is one of the victims. She was a colorful personality whose letters to her daughter were published and studied by students throughout Peru. Although Dona Maria was the daughter of a rich merchant who showered her with luxuries, she suffered from a lack of love and developed feelings of alienation at an early age. Unable to accept the love of her many suitors, she marries a “ruined” lord who is insensitive to her feelings and shows her no love. When she has a daughter, Dona Clara, she showers the child with all of her pent-up love and emotion. Unfortunately, the girl resents her mother’s excessive affection and possessiveness. To escape from the suffocating love of the Marquesa, Clara marries a Spanish lord and leaves Peru. Dona Maria, terribly pained by the separation from her daughter, wrote long letters to Dona Clara. The daughter seldom wrote to her mother, and the few letters that the Marquesa did receive were filled with criticism. When Dona Maria learns that Dona Clara is pregnant, she decides goes to the shrine of Santa Maria De Cluxambuqua to offer prayers for her daughter and the baby. She takes with her a lonely orphan girl from the convent named Pepita. The Marquesa had identified with the girl’s loneliness and need for attention and befriended her, hoping to fill both of their empty lives with love. On the return trip to Lima, Dona Maria and Pepita are crossing the bridge when the accident occurs; both lose their lives.

The kind Abbess, Maria del Pilar, had brought up twin brothers, Manuel and Esteban. The boys, finding their lives at the convent to be harsh and confining, take comfort in each other and grow extremely close emotionally. When they become young adults, they escape convent life together in order to go into the world and establish their identities.

After trying out a variety of jobs, they both become copyists in the theatre, where they meet the popular actress, Camila Perichole. Manuel soon falls in love with her, but keeps it a secret, especially from his twin. When Esteban becomes aware of his brother’s feelings for the actress, he questions Manuel about it. He denies having any affection for Camila and stops seeing her. Soon afterwards, he has an accident, injuring his knee, which becomes infected. When the infection spreads, he is bedridden and becomes delirious. Esteban tries to care for him, but Manuel curses him for ruining his love affair with Camila. He later apologizes to his twin, but Esteban still feels miserable and guilty, blaming himself for Manuel’s unhappiness. When Manuel dies, in spite of Esteban’s constant care, Esteban is destroyed. Losing interest in life, he vacates his quarters and wanders around aimlessly. He even contemplates committing suicide. The Abbess who has raised him tries to console him, and Captain Alvarado persuades him to work in a ship going on a voyage to Russia. Esteban accepts the offer and heads to Lima, from where he will begin the journey with the Captain. As he walks over the Bridge at San Luis Rey, it breaks, killing Esteban.

Uncle Pio is a suave, clever, cunning, and successful man who earns the favor of many people, especially the ladies. He has succeeded in a variety of jobs, some of which involved shady deals and some of which involved spying for important people in the government. He also has a passion for the arts, especially theatre. He writes scripts for play and verses for ballads. With a keen eye for talent, he spies Camila Perichole, singing in a café. He takes her under his charge and coaches her to become a stage actress. Camila respects Uncle Pio as her successful guide, guardian, and teacher. Uncle Pio, however, falls in love with her as she grows into a beautiful and successful young lady, but he keeps his feelings a secret. Camila is pursued by many men, but she is attracted to a handsome and wealthy viceroy, who is a widower. She becomes his mistress and bears him three children. Leading a luxurious life with the viceroy, Camila resigns from the theatre and becomes a part of the fashionable, snobbish society. As a result, she has little to do with the adoring Uncle Pio. Then she is struck with small pox and reduced to penury. She becomes reclusive, avoiding visitors and admirers including Uncle Pio, who still loves her.

Shunned by her, Pio asks to take care of Don Jamie, one of her three sons who is sickly. Camila reluctantly grants his request. As Pio and Jamie cross the San Luis Rey Bridge to go home, they are killed in the accident.

A funeral service is held for all five victims of the bridge accident at the Cathedral in Lima. Most of the relatives of the dead are present, and several of them are changed afterwards. Camila goes to the Abbess and offers her services to the convent. A year later, Dona Clara comes to unburden her heart and share her sorrow with the Abbess. She is impressed by the work at the convent and lends her support. The tragedy of the accident thus brings together the loved ones of the dead and makes them realize the value of the deceased and the importance of love. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, therefore, becomes a symbol of love and healing, binding the victims with their living relatives.

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