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

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THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY: BOOK NOTES / STUDY NOTES

CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES / ANALYSIS

PART ONE: Perhaps An Accident

Summary

The novel opens with the news of the fall of the famous Bridge of San Luis Rey in Lima, Peru, on July 20, 1714. Five people are killed in the accident, and a funeral service for them is held in the Cathedral at Lima. The bridge had been in a delicate condition for a long time, and horses and coaches were not allowed to travel over it. The news of the accident stirs memories in the minds of many Peruvians who had traveled over the bridge in the past.


Brother Juniper, a missionary to the Peruvian Indians, is a witness to the accident. Tired after a hard day’s work trying to convert Indians, he halts to stretch his limbs and admire the scenery around him. He looks across to the San Luis Rey Bridge and sees it falling, with five human beings on it. A religious man, he thinks the accident is an act of God and wonders why these five creatures have been chosen to die on that particular day. He decides he will study the lives of the five victims and write a book about his findings.

When his book is presented, after six years of research, the book is criticized for its inaccuracies, and he is charged as a heretic. Both the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the public square. A copy of the book, however, has been placed without detection on the shelves of the university library at San Martin.

Notes

Part One of the novel serves as the introductory chapter, telling about the fall of the bridge and the five lives lost in the accident. Brother Juniper is an eyewitness of the accident. Using vivid sensory images, Wilder explains that Juniper’s “glance fell upon the bridge, and at that moment a twanging noise filled the air, as when the string of some musical instrument snaps in a disused room, and he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.” It is significant to note that Wilder says that the five victims appeared no larger than ants in comparison to the vast immensity of nature that surrounded them. Juniper, however, is very affected by the deaths of these five unknown victims and decides to research their lives. As a result, the book will be told as a flashback, presenting the lives of deceased people.

Brother Juniper’s character is interestingly sketched in this initial chapter. He is portrayed as a “little red-haired Franciscan from Northern Italy” who comes to Peru to convert the Indians. He is a dedicated missionary who walks miles in the heat to persuade the Indians to embrace his Christian faith and prove to them the providence of God. He has always been curious about earthly events and tried to link them to God’s intervention. After witnessing the breaking of the bridge, he decides to trace the lives of the dead and prove the accident was an act of God, as proof of his theories to the obstinate Indians. The patient Juniper spends six years travelling around the country questioning people about the deceased; he gathers the information into an enormous book.

Wilder depicts how the accident has a great positive affect on many Peruvians, who feel blessed that they were not on the bridge. “Servant girls returned the bracelets which they had stolen from their mistresses, and usurers harangued their wives angrily in defense of usury.” It is obvious that the consciences of the guilty citizens of Lima are stirred by the calamity. As a result, a large crowd gathers on the day of the funeral at the Cathedral of Lima.


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