Critical Assessment

“Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey is as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature. Written near the end of the Roaring Twenties by a man barely out of his own twenties, it nonetheless feels, in its exquisite universality and ease of timeless application, ancient, classical, almost biblical. When we read the novel today, seventy-five years after its first publication, we nod in admiration, and we wonder at its uncanny ability to describe ourselves to ourselves in terms that are both essential to our species and particular to our times.  One merely has to consider the central question raised by the novel, which, according to Wilder himself, was simply: ‘Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?’ It is perhaps the largest and most profoundly personal philosophical inquiry that we can undertake. It is the question that defines us as human beings.”

Russell Banks, Foreword to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 2003.

First Excerpt

“There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop. Between the rolls of flesh that surrounded them looked out two black eyes speaking discomfort, kindliness and wit. A curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard, but by dint of never refusing himself a pheasant or a goose or his daily procession of Roman wines, he was his own bitter jailer. He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties; he was very devout. Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he was presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to the certain salad that will follow it. And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect.”

t100_novels_bridge-of-san-luis-rey_copy.jpg?w=260Second Excerpt

“Like all beautiful women who have been brought up amid continual tributes to her beauty she assumed without cynicism that it must necessarily be the basis for anyone’s attachment to herself; henceforth any attention paid to her must spring from a pity full of condescension and faintly perfumed with satisfaction at so complete a reversal. The assumption that she need look for no more devotion now that her beauty had passed proceeded from the fact that she had never realized any love save love as passion. Such love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it give birth to visions and to great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest. Not until it has passed through a long servitude, through its own self-hatred, through mockery, through great doubts, can it take its place among the loyalties. Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.”