90th Anniversary of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” That is the opening line of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Makes you want to read more, does it not? In Wilder’s story, five people were walking on a century-old Inca rope bridge, a bridge which many in Peru thought would never collapse. Well, collapse it did, killing the five people who were walking across. The incident was witnessed by a Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, who began to wonder if the accident occurred due to a divine plan, or if it was simply a random tragedy. His curiosity led him to investigate the lives of the five victims in order to prove that God intended those people to die together at that moment in time. After his research, he wrote an enormous book about the subject that was found to be heretical by the Church, resulting in both Brother Juniper and his book being burned in a town square. But, in a creative device used by Wilder, one copy of the monk’s book survived, which is supposedly the basis of the novel.
A year after “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was published, Wilder wrote to a friend: “It seems to me that my books are about: what is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it. In other words: when a human being is made to bear more than human beings can bear—what then? . . . The Bridge asked the question whether the intention that lies behind love was sufficient to justify the desperation of living.” What makes Wilder’s book the enduring novel it is has everything to do with the questions it poses about our purpose on Earth. It begins as a book about truth, and ends as a book about love. The end of the novel goes as follows: “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
The year 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s novel. Even after all this time, it is still read in many high schools, often assigned along with a reading of Wilder’s play “Our Town.” The novel has appeared on TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels since 1923, and it ranked 37 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century. I recommend blocking off a few hours this year (the novel is very short: I remember my brother’s copy was around 125 pages) to read Wilder’s excellent story. And while you are at it, please use eLibrary to brush up on Thornton Wilder and his other famous works.
Thornton Wilder was the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes: for his novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (1928); for his play “Our Town” (1938) and for the play “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942).
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” has been filmed three times: in 1929, 1944 and in 1994. The latest version starred Robert De Niro, F. Murray Abraham, Kathy Bates and Harvey Keitel.
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