Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The conceit of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (by Thorton Wilder, #37 on The Modern Library’s list) is that it’s written by a scholar 200 years after an incident—the collapse of a rope foot bridge—that had been explored and recounted at the time by a monk whose work was subsequently largely (but not entirely) lost. Five people died when the bridge collapsed and the monk’s exploration of these lives was meant to reveal the meaning behind their deaths. Why these five people? Why together on this bridge?
The monk, as would be expected, approaches from the premise of Catholicism, and with that bias seeks to confirm that God’s hand guides all events. The question he wants to answer is whether death is foretold in a person’s life. The questions the narrator (and the writer) seeks to answer are a bit more complicated. One is, can we in this modern age accept the relatively easy premise of the first scholar’s work?
The novel is constructed in five parts. The first explains the circumstance of the story and the intent of the narrative. The next three tell the stories of the five people. The last examines the scientific inquiry that the monk brought to his analysis of the event.
There is something in the tone of the first and last sections that seems to be baiting our skepticism. Even the titles of each section convey this: “Perhaps an Accident,” and “Perhaps an Intention.” The middle sections read as short stories in their own right, each standing on its own. They are old-fashioned in style, not of the style of the modern short story, but in the style of an old tale of people and events that are of interest to later generations.
The five people who died are connected in various ways in life. There are family relationships among some of them, and mentorship and patronage relationships among others. Their stories are largely sad and plagued by dissatisfactions, but in the telling of them, they are all normal human stories, with nothing melodramatic to them. They are not overtly pointed toward the support of the monk’s theory, as might be the temptation in a less skilled writer’s hands. This collection of stories builds a philosophical inquiry told in considered and gentle prose. The key to this story is expressed in the last section: “The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally presumed.”
Why read this book? Like Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, this novel presents an intriguing view of Catholicism not just as a religion but as a cultural influence in the New World. The story takes place in Peru, and some of the characters are natives while others still have ties to old Spain. The characters span a range of classes. The novel presents a world that is in setting, customs, and time foreign to American readers. It keeps its distance with its overlay of modern perspective, but at the same time immerses the reader in the telling of the victims’ lives. It is linguistically rich without a word going to waste. It is a tiny book, easy to read, readable in one sitting, that leads us into a state contemplation, pondering questions of cosmic significance.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.