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

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Major Theme

The major theme of the novel is the importance of love. The five people who lose their lives with the fall of the Bridge of San Luis Rey have all sought love during their life times; but all of them feel rejected. After their death, their loved ones realize their worth and try to cherish their memories and do good for others. As a result, even though five people die in a tragic accident, their love lives on.

Minor Theme

The minor theme is that fate plays a great part in life. Five people, trying to make a new life for themselves and find happiness, are walking on the San Luis Bridge at the same time, when it breaks and kills them. All of them are related by the fact that they had sought love in life and been denied it. Although the adults were unknown by each other, they were ironically related by fate and circumstances.

Later, some of their relatives, who have learned to value the deceased, meet one another by chance, proving that fate does play a great part in life. Wilder also indicates that Brother Juniper’s witnessing the accident is also an act of fate. “By a series of coincidences so extraordinary that one almost suspects the presence of some Intention, this little redhaired Franciscan from Northern Italy happened to be in Peru converting the Indians, and happened to witness the accident. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons that moment falling through the air.”


The mood of the novel is largely somber, tragic, and ironic. The Marquesa, Esteban, and Uncle Pio struggle to feel loved throughout the novel. Just as they try to put some new meaning in their existence, they ironically lose their lives on the Bridge at San Luis Rey, intensifying the tragic mood. Wilder does, however, humorously expose some of the personality traits of his characters to break the somber mood.

Thornton Wilder - BIOGRAPHY

Thornton Wilder was born on April 19, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. His father held an important post in the government and often took his family with him to the East. Thornton, therefore, spent some of his childhood in Hong Kong. Most of his early education, however, was in public schools in Berkeley, California. In 1910, his father was sent to China, and Thornton attended the Inland Mission School at Cheffo. When he was sixteen, he wrote his first play, entitled The Russian Princess.

Thornton returned to the United States to pursue his college education, attending Oberlin College and graduating from Yale University. In 1920, he entered the American Academy in Rome, studying there for two years. He also received a master’s degree from Princeton University, where he began to seriously write. He published his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926, the same year that he graduated from Princeton. A year later, in 1927, he published The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which became popular with the public and the critics; he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.

Wilder became a lecturer at the University of Chicago in 1930 and stayed for six years. While working there, he published two novels: The Woman of Andros and Heaven’s My Destination. In 1939, he wrote his now famous play, Our Town, about small town life in America; it was an immediate success. His next drama, The Skin of Our Teeth, was equally popular, and Wilder was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for the two plays.

In 1948, Wilder published The Ides of March. Then in 1955, he published The Match Maker, which became the popular musical, Hello Dolly. Three additional plays, Infancy, Childhood, and Someone from Assisi, were produced in 1962. His next novel, The Eighth Day, won him The National Book Award in 1968. In 1973, he wrote his last book, Theophilus North, a light comedy based on a young man’s summer in Newport.

Thornton Wilder is a well-respected and honored novelist and playwright. In 1960, he was presented with the Edward MacDowell Medal and the Brandies University Creative Arts Award. In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and two years later he received the National Medal for Literature. He also received honorary degrees from New York, Yale, and Harvard Universities. Wilder died on December 7, 1975, in his sleep.


The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which earned Wilder a Pulitzer Prize, is his best-known novel. Thornton based the novel on a factual incident, the breaking of the San Luis Rey Bridge, which occurred at noon on Friday, July 20, 1714, in Lima, Peru, and killed five people. The characters in the book are all fictional although they correctly depict typical Peruvians of the time.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey paints a picture of eighteenth century Peru, which was dominated by religion and theater. Wilder states that the “interest in music and theatre was intense” and that attention to religion was almost fanatical. In fact, The Bridge of San Luis Rey pokes fun at the religious extremes found in eighteenth century South America.

The novel became immediately popular with both the public and critics. In 1928, Wilder was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book. By March 3, 1958, the book had sold two million copies and had been translated into two dozen languages. By November of 1981, paperback sales of the book had climbed to over a million.

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