Tuesday, 17 August 1999

Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

Edition: Longmans, 1934
Review number: 313

In 1714, a bridge collapsed in Peru, and five people were killed. This may seem fairly trivial on the scale of human tragedy, but Thornton Wilder uses it as the peg around which his best known work is hung. He explores the lives of these five people up to the point where they came to this sudden stop; the small scale of the disaster means it can be given a human dimension rather than being reduced to statistics.

Thus each part, except for the introductory and concluding sections setting things up and dealing with later events, occurs simultaneously with all the others. Since Lima was a fairly small town in the eighteenth century, the same characters appear over and over again, and we gain further insights into the fatalities on top of what we see of them in their own sections.

One of the most remarkable properties of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is its brevity. Wilder manages to pack his portraits of these five people, as well as a fairly complicated structure, into only one hundred and forty pages. He does it so skilfully, too, that his prose does not seem overly densely packed with information, nor his portraits sketchy.

Wilder makes you see something interesting in each of the people who died on the bridge (with the possible exception of Don Jaime, who is so young that his most interesting features are his relatives). You really feel that each was a loss to the human race. And yet, as we are reminded at the end of the book, their fate is to be forgotten within a few years of their deaths. Thus while Wilder is saying that there is something worth preserving in us all, he is reminding us that (in the vast majority of cases) nothing will preserved of ourselves for long after we die.

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