Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Bridge Is Love

Thornton Wilder's acclaimed novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the tenth book on our list, the tenth book to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a book that asks a very difficult question - a question that many human beings asked before he wrote the book, and one that they will continue to ask for years to come.

Why do we die?

So you know, it's obviously another lighthearted prizewinner. (Sarcasm.)

This story feels heavy from the very first page. I echo Louise's sentiments that it's hard to care about almost any of the characters (who all die at the beginning of the novel in the terrible and accidental collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey, which is in Peru), with the exception of Esteban. The book functions rather like a collection of short stories, in that the principal chapters each tell the story of one of the victims. The chapter about Esteban's short life was, for me, filled to overflowing with beautiful prose, profound observations, and deep emotion.

Esteban has a twin brother, Manuel, and they are raised by nuns and other charitable individuals and grow up strong and silent and a bit mysterious. My words are far clumsier than Mr. Wilder's, who says this, "Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent."

The twins grow into men and Manuel falls in love with a woman who does not love him in return, but my description is poor compared with what Mr. Wilder has to say, "He discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well."

Later, after the death of his brother Manuel, Esteban is distraught, and Mr. Wilder puts these comforting words into the mouth of a friend, "We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn't for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You'll be surprised at the way time passes."

It is shortly after being comforted by these simple and true words that Esteban crosses that forsaken bridge and falls to his death.

Thornton Wilder's narrator is a monk who, in a quest to uncover the meaning behind the tragedy of the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey, has chronicled the lives of all the victims. Brother Juniper is the one seeking a reason for the tragedy, he is the one seeking answers. At the end of the novel he is described as creating a system for evaluating an individual person's worth based on the important factors of GOODNESS, PIETY and USEFULNESS. Using this scale he evaluates the worth of the victims of a disease epidemic in his home village, only "to discover that the dead were five times worth saving." Brother Juniper is frustrated by these results, unable to see or understand why God would allow the more valuable people to perish, but Mr. Wilder sums it up for us: "The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally assumed."

In the end, I believe that Thornton Wilder's answer to the question, "Why do we die? Is it by chance? It is part of a plan?" is that it does not matter how or when or why we die, so long as we have loved while we were alive. Each of his characters experiences love of some kind, romantic, paternal, filial, what have you, but they love. This is clear to me from the novel's closing sentences, in which he evokes bridge imagery at the very close:

"But soon we shall die and all the 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."

With the exception of Esteban's story, I disliked this book. Many of my favorite authors, including Russell Banks and Kurt Vonnegut, hold Thornton Wilder in high regard. Mr. Wilder has said of his own works that all of them are very different from one another. Perhaps in the future I'll try another novel of his. Esteban's chapter was a remarkable 25 pages.

The next three books on the list are still in the mail on their way to me or unattainable (ahem, Years of Grace), so I'll be skipping ahead a few years to Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth while I await their arrival.

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