The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel about a group of people who, in the summer of 1714, happen to be crossing a Peruvian rope bridge when it collapses. A scientifically inclined friar witnessing the disaster, is so traumatised that he sets out to research the victims’ biographies for reasons explaining their seemingly random fate.
Novels have a contradictory history when it comes to morality. There is a tradition where fictional characters are rewarded or punished according to their choices. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded of 1740 is an early example. But authors are not always fussy school teachers giving marks for good behaviour. In 1748 John Cleland published Fanny Hill, an exact reversal of novels which emphasise virtue – describing the life of a prostitute, who learns to enjoy her work, and use it to find freedom and financial independence.
So, is the God of Thornton Wilder’s book more of a Samuel Richardson or a John Cleland? The Bridge Of San Luis Rey suggests the Almighty could be both or neither. For a start, the vices or virtues of an individual often depend on who you talk to, or what particular aspects of an individual you are considering. And the ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is equally ambivalent. Are the victims of disaster good people called to heaven early, or bad people cast into the abyss? Judgement of people is never as straightforward as it seems. The image of the bridge in Thornton Wilder’s novel is an apt one, since instead of easy categories we get a sense of opposites existing together, with a fragile link spanning the gap between them. In a figurative kind of way, maybe the bridge collapses when people stop trying to make a leap of understanding. The Catholic Inquisition looms behind the action in this book, an illustration of human behaviour at its most cruelly judgemental.
This all makes for an intelligent and moving novel, relevant for our own times when there is still a temptation to judge behaviour rather than seek to understand it.