Part One: Perhaps an Accident
The first few pages of the first chapter of The Bridge of San Luis Rey explain the book’s basic premise: this story centers on an event that happened in Lima, Peru, at noon of Friday, June 12, 1714. A bridge woven by the Incas a century earlier collapsed at that particular moment, while five people were crossing it. The collapse was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was on his way to cross it. Curious about why God would allow such a tragedy, he decides to take a scientific approach to the question. He sets out to interview everyone he can find who knew the five victims. Over the course of six years, he compiles a huge book. Part One foretells the burning of the book that occurs at the end of the novel, but it also says that one copy of Brother Juniper’s book survives and is at the library of the University of San Marco, where it sits neglected.
Part Two: the Marquesa de Montemayor
The second section focuses on one of the victims of the collapse: Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor. She was the daughter of a cloth merchant, an ugly child who eventually entered into an arranged marriage and bore a daughter, Clara, whom she loved dearly. Clara was indifferent to her mother, though, and married a Spanish man and moved across the ocean. Doña María visits her daughter, but when they cannot get along, she returns to Lima. The only way that they can communicate comfortably is by letter, and Doña María pours her heart into her writing, which becomes so polished that her letters will be read in schools for hundreds of years after her death.
Doña María takes as her companion Pepita, a girl raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas. When she learns that her daughter in Spain is pregnant, Doña María decides to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of SantaMaría de Cluxambuqua. Pepita goes along as company and to supervise the staff. When DoñaMaría is out at the shrine, Pepita stays at the inn and writes a letter to her patron, the Abbess, complaining about her misery and loneliness. DoñaMaría sees the letter on the table when she gets back and reads it. Later, she asks Pepita about the letter, and Pepita says she burned it because it was not brave to write it. DoñaMaría has new insight into the ways in which her own life has lacked bravery, but the next morning, returning to Lima, she and Pepita are on the bridge when it collapses.
Part Three: Esteban
Esteban and Manuel are twins who were left at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas as infants. The Abbess of the convent, MadreMaría del Pilar, developed a fondness for them as they grew up. When they became older, they decided to be scribes. They are so close that they have developed a secret language that only they understand. Their closeness becomes strained when Manuel falls in love with Camila Perichole.
The Perichole flirts with Manuel and swears him to secrecy when she retains him to write letters to her lover, the Viceroy. Esteban has no idea of their relationship until she turns up at the twins’ room one night in a hurry and has Manuel write to a bullfighter with whom she is having an affair. Esteban encourages his brother to follow her, but instead Manuel swears that he will never see her again.
Manuel cuts his knee on a piece of metal and it becomes infected. The surgeon instructs Esteban to put cold compresses on the injury: the compresses are so painful that Manuel curses Esteban, though he later remembers nothing of his curses. Esteban offers to send for the Perichole, but Manuel refuses. Soon after, Manuel dies.
When the Abbess comes to prepare the body, she asks Esteban his name, and he says he is Manuel. Gossip about his ensuing strange behavior spreads all over town. He goes to the theater but runs away before the Perichole can talk to him; the Abbess tries to talk to him, but he runs away, so she sends for Captain Alvarado.
Captain Alvarado goes to see Esteban in Cuzco and hires him to sail with him. Esteban agrees. He wants his pay in advance in order to buy a present for the Abbess. The Captain offers to take him back to Lima to buy the present, and at the ravine, the Captain goes down to a boat that is ferrying some materials across the water. Esteban goes to the bridge and is on it when it collapses.
Part Four: Uncle Pio
Uncle Pio acts as Camila Perichole’s maid, and, in addition, "her singing-master, her coiffeur, her masseur, her reader, her errand-boy, her banker; rumor added: her father." The story tells of his background. He has traveled the world engaged in a variety of businesses, most related to the theater or politics, including conducting interrogations for the Inquisition. He came to realize that he had just three interests in the world: independence; the constant presence of beautiful women; and work with the masterpieces of Spanish literature, particularly in the theater.
He becomes rich working for the Viceroy. One day, he discovers a twelve-year-old café singer, Micaela Villegas, and takes her under his protection. Over the course of years, as they travel from country to country, she becomes beautiful and talented. She develops into Camila Perichole, the most honored actress in Lima.
After years of success, Perichole becomes bored with the stage. The Viceroy takes her as his mistress, and she and Uncle Pio and the Archbishop of Peru and, eventually, Captain Alvarado meet frequently at midnight for dinner at the Viceroy’s mansion. Through it all, Uncle Pio is faithfully devoted, but as Camila ages and has three children by the Viceroy she focuses on becoming a lady, not an actress. She avoids Uncle Pio, and when he talks to her she tells him to not use her stage name.
When a small-pox epidemic sweeps through Lima, Camila is disfigured by it. She takes her son Jaime to the country. Uncle Pio sees her one night trying hopelessly to cover her pock-marked face with powder: ashamed, she refuses to ever see him again. He begs her to allow him to take her son and teach the boy as he taught her. They leave the next morning. Uncle Pio and Jaime are the fourth and fifth people on the bridge to Lima when it collapses.
Part Five: Perhaps an Intention
Brother Juniper works for six years on his book about the bridge collapse, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits, with no results. He compiles his huge book of interviews, but a council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.
The story shifts back in time to the day of a service for those who died in the bridge collapse. The Archbishop, the Viceroy, and Captain Alvarado are at the ceremony. At the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, the Abbess feels, having lost Pepita and the twin brothers, that her work will die with her. Camila Perichole comes to ask how she can go on, having lost her son and Uncle Pio. Doña Clara comes: throughout the book she has been in Spain, and no one in Lima knows her. As she views the sick and poor being taken cared for at the convent, she is moved. The novel ends with the Abbess’s observation: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
Search for Knowledge
After witnessing the collapse of the bridge, Brother Juniper does not embark on a quest to find the physical causes that would explain why a structure that has stood for a thousand years would give out at that particular time. He takes such tragedy as a part of life, like disease and old age. Instead of concerning himself with physics, which is not his field of expertise, Brother Juniper takes a theological approach. He is determined to use scientific methods to try to understand God’s will. He creates a scale for measuring such abstract moral values as piety and goodness, and he applies his scale to people who have suffered from tragedy and those who have not, in order to find the proper relation between them. Because the bridge collapse is such a freak accident with a limited number of victims, he feels that the event poses a rare opportunity to conduct his study with a manageable sampling.
Even though the lives of five people represent a small group, Brother Juniper finds out that there are so many minute facets to their lives that nothing can be measured. He compiles thousands of pages of information but is not able to draw any satisfactory conclusions from them. He does not find commonality between the lives of those killed and so is not able to point to any particular characteristic that would mark these individuals for tragedy.
Though Brother Juniper’s line of inquiry is fruitless, the book does not leave the search for knowledge completely unfulfilled. It ends with the suggestion that there is, after all, some reason for an otherwise senseless tragedy: the event brings together people such as Doña Clara, Camila Perichole, and the Abbess of the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, who would otherwise not have any relationship to each other, and it gives hope that the Abbess’s work with the poor and suffering will be continued. Though this knowledge gives meaning to an event after it has happened, it is no good for predicting, as science attempts, when a similar event is going to occur.
Another theme in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the relationship between doting parents and ungrateful children, is established early in the novel, in the story of the Marquesa de Montemayor, who leads a lonesome life in Lima, pining away for attention from her daughter, Doña Clara, even though she receives no love in return. This parental devotion is reflected in the relationship between Camila Perichole and her son, Don Jaime, whom she treats kindly but holds at a distance. Wilder does not show her to be unloving, but she is more concerned with appearances than with expressing her affection.
The fathers in this novel present similar contrasts. Captain Alvarado is explained to be ruled by the memory of his dead daughter, so devoted to her that even in her absence she is the driving force behind his every moment. The Viceroy, on the other hand, is unmoved by the death of his son Don Jaime in the bridge collapse, concerning himself with public appearances at the memorial service, wondering how much sorrow to show.
The story is also filled with symbolic parent-child relationships. The Abbess, of course, since she is in charge of the orphanage, has a parental role in the upbringing of Pepita, Manuel, and Esteban. Uncle Pio behaves like a father to Camila and, at the end of his story, is ready to assume a similar role toward her son Don Jaime: ironically, Camila rejects him as strongly as Doña Clara rejects her own mother, also out of social embarrassment. The orphans attach themselves to parental figures when Esteban lets himself fall under the guidance of Captain Alvarado and Pepita becomes fiercely devoted to the Marquesa, although she treats Pepita badly.
In literature, an epiphany is a sudden realization that allows a character to view the world in a completely new way. Some of the characters in this book have epiphanies before their deaths, and some do not. For instance, just before going to the bridge, Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, realizes that she has not been brave in the past, an insight that cuts through the self-delusions that allowed her to hide her embarrassing lifestyle from herself. Similarly, the novel hints that Captain Alvarado’s explanation to Esteban that "Time keeps passing by" appears to have stopped Esteban’s suicide and given him a reason to go on in spite of his grief for his brother Manuel, even though a catastrophe takes his life just minutes later. Madre María del Pilar, the Abbess, is falling into despair that her life’s work will be for nothing before realizing, in a flash, that the appearances of Doña Clara and Camila Perichole at the convent constitute a sign that there is a connection between all people dead and living.
The one notable exception in this book is Brother Juniper, who devotes his life to the search for understanding and, in the end, receives none. Though he compiles his book with good intention, the accusations of the religious tribunal that finds against him make him doubt his own motives. He prays for someone to believe in him, but dies without knowing that a delegation supporting his views has come. Upon his death, he is even afraid to call out to God, being too unsure of his right to do so because he might be evil.
Captain Alvarado is a world traveler, known to many of the characters in the novel. Uncle Pio brings him into the group that has frequent midnight dinners at the estate of the Viceroy, and the Marquesa de Montemayor writes about him in a letter to her daughter. The Abbess of the Convent Santa María Rosa de la Rosas sends for him when she hears that Esteban is grieving the loss of his twin brother Manuel, knowing that both boys have sailed with the Captain before. The Captain goes to Esteban and convinces him to not commit suicide, consoling him, "It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes."
The force driving Captain Alvarado is that he once had a daughter, who died while he was away at sea. The Marquesa says about him in her letter, "You will laugh at me, but I think he goes about the hemispheres to pass the time between now and his old age."
Archbishop of Lima
The Archbishop is an epicure, more concerned with good food and good wine than with salvation. He is part of the group that meets at the Viceroy’s mansion each evening for long, all-night dinners, to discuss politics and philosophy. He considers himself to be an amateur philologist, so when he hears about the secret language that Manuel and Esteban use for speaking to each other, he calls them to teach it to him, but when he sees how embarrassed they are about it he allows them to leave.
Clara is the daughter of Doña María. DoñaMaría loves her dearly and centers her life on her daughter, though Clara is, for the most part, disinterested in her mother and even somewhat embarrassed by her. When she is old enough to marry, Clara weds a Spanish nobleman and moves to Spain. Her mother visits her there once, but they do not get along, so their primary means of communication is through letters, which take six months in transit each way by ship.
Doña Clara makes her first appearance in the book at the very end, when she shows up at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas on the day that there is to be a memorial for her mother and the other victims of the bridge collapse. Following the Abbess through the convent, she sees the sick and old people who are cared for there. The Abbess expects her to leave, but she stays, looking at the wretched people whom she has never been so near in her privileged life, learning about suffering that she never understood before.
Conde Vincente D’abuirre
The husband of Doña Clara has little to do in this novel. At one point, his amusement at the letters written by his mother-in-law, the Marquesa de Montemayor, is mentioned. Also, the Viceroy forces his mistress, Camila Perichole, to apologize after she has made fun of the Marquesa because he has business in Spain and he knows that Conde Vincente is a very powerful figure there.
Marquesa de Montemayor
Don Andrés de Ribera
The Viceroy, Don Andrés, has had a hard life, and is a broken-down old man with a high title. He is crippled with gout, a widower without children. He hires Uncle Pio to look after secret affairs for him, and through Uncle Pio he meets Camila Perichole and takes her as his mistress. She adores him.
When she sings a song that insults the Marquesa de Montemayor, Don Andrés forces her to apologize for three reasons: to keep peace in Lima; to humble his mistress because he suspects her of cheating on him with a matador; and to curry favor with the Spanish court, to which the Marquesa’s son-in-law belongs.
At the memorial service for the victims of the bridge collapse, the Viceroy is very conscious of people looking at him, expecting for him to grieve for his dead son Don Jaime. He wonders where the boy’s mother, the Perichole, is, having no contact with her.
Abbess Madre María Del Pilar
The Abbess, head of the Convent SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas, is instrumental in the stories of two victims of the bridge collapse. In addition to being in charge of the orphanage, she runs a hospital for the old, sick, and infirm. The narrative refers to her as "that strange genius of Lima."
The Abbess raises the orphan Pepita and decides to give her a chance at a worldly education by sending her off to be the companion of the Marquesa de Montemayor. She also raises the twins, Manuel and Esteban, of whom she is very fond, even though she is not generally fond of men.
After the bridge collapse kills Pepita and Esteban, the Abbess is left forlorn. She has lost two of her favorite people, and she foresees that, once she herself is dead, there will be no one to run the convent and care for the poor. This conclusion becomes uncertain at the end, though, when the previously haughty actress Camila Perichole comes to her for consolation and the rich Doña Clara, who ignored her own mother most of her life, shows an interest in helping the poor. The Abbess sees how a tragedy can bring together people who would otherwise have no connection.
Esteban and Manual are twins who were abandoned at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas as infants. They are inseparable, traveling the world as sailors and developing a secret language that is understood only by them.
One day, when the Perichole comes to their house to request Manuel write a letter for her to her lover, Esteban notices that Manuel is in love with her. This drives a wedge through their close relationship, but Esteban tells his brother to follow her; instead, Manuel declares that his infatuation with her is over and that he will never see her again.
Later, an injury on Manuel’s leg becomes infected. Manuel is in so much pain that he curses Esteban’s efforts to heal the wound, damning him to hell. Manuel eventually dies, and Esteban acts crazy, shunning all people and giving his name as "Manuel" when asked.
An old friend, Captain Alvarado, finds Esteban drinking in a restaurant and invites him to sail the world with him. Esteban agrees, as long as he can be kept constantly busy, so that he will not be reminded with his brother. The next morning, he says that he has changed his mind and that he cannot leave Peru, but the Captain reminds him that he had expressed interest in buying a present for the Abbess of the orphanage who raised him. He goes to his room, and the Captain follows him there just in time to stop him from hanging himself. They leave, and while Esteban is on the bridge it collapses and he is killed.
Don Jaime is the only son of the Perichole. He is a sickly child, which is the main reason that his mother remains at her villa in the mountains, away from Lima. He dies in the bridge collapse when Uncle Pio is taking the boy to Lima to live as his student for a year.
Brother Juniper is the focus of the first and last chapters of the novel. He can be considered the protagonist of the book, even though his appearances are few and brief. He is a Franciscan monk, in Peru to convert Indians to Catholicism when he witnesses the collapse of the bridge. Being a religious man, he wonders why God would make such a tragedy occur, and he sets about to explore the lives of the victims of the collapse so that he can better understand what standards God holds for humanity.
Brother Juniper has a scientific mind, and he believes that theology should be held to the same standards of inquiry as the other sciences. A talk with an old school friend who has become a hardened skeptic leads him to devise a chart that rates people according to goodness, piety, and usefulness, a system that he tries out during a plague at the town of Puerto, calibrating his scale by applying the same standards to people killed by the plague and people who have survived. He finds out that no such standard is helpful in measuring the moral attributes of those who die early.
After his inquiry into the bridge collapse has proven inconclusive, a panel of judges examines Brother Juniper’s work and declares it to be heretical. The book is burned in the town square, and Brother Juniper is sentenced to be burned too. The night before his execution, he thinks about why he is being punished when all he wanted to do was to help the church. He finds no reason for his death, and the narrator says that there were many in the crowd who believed in him. He goes to his death thinking that St. Francis, at least, would support his work.
Manuel and Esteban are twins who were abandoned as infants at the Convent of SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas. In childhood they developed a secret language that no one but the other twin can understand. They are scribes. While copying a script at the theater, Manuel falls in love with Camila Perichole. She has him write letters for her to her lovers.
When his twin brother finds out that Manuel is in love with the Perichole, Manuel is so embarrassed that he swears he will not see her again. He proves good to his word when she sends a servant for him and he refuses to go.
Manuel cuts his knee and it becomes infected. The doctor tells Esteban to treat it with cold compresses. Every time Esteban puts a compress on the wound, the pain is so intense that Manuel curses at Esteban, damning him to hell, even though they have always been inseparable. Eventually, Manuel dies of the infection.
DoñaMaría is the first of the bridge collapse victims to have a section of the book dedicated to her. She is introduced as a legendary figure, famous for her letters, which now, two hundred years after her death, are well-known examples of the writing of her time. The grand obsession in her life is her daughter Clara who, as soon as she is old enough, marries and moves away to Spain.
Doña María is known around Lima as an eccentric. She is a secret drinker. The Abbess Madre María del Pilar looks at her and sees a "grotesque old woman." When the Perichole sings an insulting song about her at the theater and is forced to apologize, she initially thinks that DoñaMaría is being gracious when she claims to know nothing of the incident, but, as the scene continues and Doña María makes a fool of herself, it becomes clear even to the Perichole that the old lady really is oblivious.
Doña María takes a girl from the orphanage, Pepita, as her companion. Pepita can see how the other servants take advantage of the Marquesa, mocking her behind her back and stealing from her, but Doña María remains ignorant of what they think of her until one day, when her entourage is at a shrine in the hills praying for the baby, which she has heard, almost casually, that her daughter had. There, Doña María happens upon a letter Pepita has written, explaining how unhappy she is. Doña María later offers to mail the letter for her, but Pepita says that she burned it because writing such a letter was not courageous: from this, Doña María receives sudden insight into courage, and she realizes just how much her own life has lacked courage. She decides to start living differently just as the bridge collapses beneath her and Pepita, killing them.
Pepita was left as an orphan at the Convent Santa Maria Rosa de la Rosas. The Abbess grooms Pepita to be her successor, and in order to give her a broader education and introduce her into wealthy society the girl is sent to be a companion at the house of the Marquesa de Montemayor. Pepita hates it there. Not only is her mistress a vain, drunken, ignorant woman, but Pepita is left to deal with the household staff’s dishonesty as they steal from the Marquesa, make fun of her behind her back, and use her house for their own pleasures. They pick on Pepita and make her the victim of practical jokes. Still, she remains faithful to her duty.
The day before her death, Pepita is so miserable about her life with the Marquesa that she writes a letter to the Abbess, detailing her complaints. She destroys the letter, but not before the Marquesa has seen it on the table. When the Marquesa asks why she did not send the letter, Pepita holds tight to her suffering and says that the letter betrayed a lack of courage in her.
Wilder bases this character on the title character of La Perichole, a Jacques Offenbach opera that opened in Paris in 1868 (more than a hundred years after The Bridge of San Luis Rey takes place). It concerns a Peruvian street singer who is brought to the palace to amuse the Viceroy. Her last name means "half-breed [b―]." Her first name is taken from the 1848 novel Camille: The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils (the younger).
Throughout the story, the woman born Micaela Villegars is referred to as, alternately, "Camila" or "the Perichole." She is discovered by Uncle Pio at the age of twelve in a café, and he decides to make her a singing star. He trains her and takes her around the world, so she can sing in different countries while honing her craft. When they end up in Lima she is lauded as the best singer and actress in Peru. Through her relationship with him she meets the Viceroy, who is a much older man; she becomes his mistress and has three children, a boy and two girls, with him.
The Perichole is a vain social climber. During a break in a concert, she sings a song making fun of the Marquesa de Montemayor, a rich eccentric, mocking her for the drinking she thinks is secret and her devotion to her daughter. At age thirty, the Perichole decides to quit the stage and be a lady. She stops associating with Uncle Pio, and she makes up family members with classy social backgrounds.
Her vanity is assaulted when she contracts smallpox, which leaves her face pockmarked. She tries unsuccessfully to hide the scars with makeup. She agrees to allow Uncle Pio to take her son Jaime to Lima, to train the boy as he trained her, but they are killed in the bridge collapse.
In the end, the Perichole is humbled, arriving at the Convent SantaMaría Rosa de la Rosas without makeup, kneeling before the Abbess there to ask for religious counsel.
Uncle Pio is the subject of the fourth section of the book. He is a successful, self-made man, having been in a variety of businesses and traveled the world. He does secret work for the Viceroy. Still, nothing makes him happy until he takes young Micaela Villegas under his control and trains her to be the popular singer, Camila Perichole. His association with her allows him to follow his three interests: being a free and independent man; being surrounded by beautiful women; and working in or near the theater.
He brings the Perichole up in society, introducing her to his friends. Eventually, she decides to turn her back on her singing career, and she distances herself from Uncle Pio. He finds excuses to see her. Once, after her looks have been marred by smallpox, he comes upon her trying to cover up her scarred face with makeup, and she tells him that she does not want to ever see him again. He makes up elaborate schemes in order to see her, once hiding in her garden at night and crying like a little girl, hoping that it will affect her subconsciously and make her more compassionate. When that does not work, he asks to take her son Jaime to Lima and train the boy as he trained her. The bridge collapses as they cross it en route to Lima, and Uncle Pio and the boy die.