The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Novel Summary: Part Three – Esteban

Part Three – EstebanSummary
Esteban and Manuel are twins who were abandoned on the doorstep of Madre Maras convent as infants. The abbess raises the boys until they reach early adolescence. As young men, they find work as copyists, “transcribing comedies for the theater, ballads for the crowds, and advertisements for the merchants.” They do some copying work for the theater in which the Perichole performs; Esteban quickly tires of it, but Manuel stays on. He does so, however, in large part because he is falling in love-idealized, irrational, romantic love-with the Perichole. The Perichole, who has noticed Manuels frequent presence around her, procures his services to write letters for her-secret love letters to her paramour, Don Andrs. She is hiring Manuel to write these letters because she wishes to keep them a secret from her “uncle Pio” who usually writes her mail; and she makes Manuel promise to keep these letters secret even from Esteban.
The secret emerges, however, when, late one night, the Perichole comes to Manuel and Estebans room in order to have Manuel write an urgent letter for her. After the Perichole leaves, Esteban-realizing that Manuels “imaginative attachment” to the actress must, nonetheless, necessarily reduce his brothers attachment to him-urges Manuel to follow her, to go with her. Recognizing the sorrow he has caused his brother, Manuel announces he will write no more letters for the Perichole and protests (rather too loudly) that she means nothing to him. Esteban says in reply, “Im in your way.”
One night, Manuel wounds his knee. Esteban must tend to the wound, changing the wet towels used for dressing it on an hourly basis. These changes prove torturous for Manuel, who, in a loud delirium, curses Esteban as he ministers to him. In one of these rages, Manuel invokes the Perichole: “She was mine, do you hear, what right had you.” When Manuel has recovered from this outburst and is again in his right mind, Esteban asks Manuel if he would like for him to send for the Perichole, that Manuel might see her again. Manuel again protests that he does not love the Perichole. He pleads with Esteban to skip the next scheduled changing of the wounds dressing, but Esteban refuses, knowing that his brothers recovery is too important. The change of dressing occurs, as does the verbal abuse. Three nights into this routine, however, Manuel dies.
Esteban adopts his dead twins name for a time and isolates himself from others in his grief. Concerned about her former charge, Madre Mara enlists Captain Alvarado, the celebrated explorer, to recruit Esteban for a sea voyage. At first reluctant, Esteban eventually agrees, deciding he wants his wages in advance that he might buy a gift for the Abbess-a gift from both him and his dead brother. At the last minute, before the expedition departs, Esteban tries to back out of his commitment to Captain Alvarado, but the captain prevails upon him, reminding him of his plan to give Madre Mara that present. Esteban agrees to go with Captain Alvardo. Sadly, of course, he never will do so; for while the captain descends the gorge with the expeditions supplies, Esteban goes across it on the doomed bridge of San Luis Rey.
Some readers have suggested that Wilders choice of twins as his protagonists in this section stems from the authors own experience of being a twin. April 17, 1897 “should have added two children to [Wilders parents] growing brood, but Thorntons twin died a few hours after his birth” (Schumacher, p. 24). Whatever Wilders inspiration in creating the characters of Esteban and Manuel, his purposes in using them seem clear. One of the twins primary purposes is to illuminate further the authors reflections on the nature and power of language. Not only do the boys eke out their meager living as scribes, but also they communicate with each other in a language all their own. As the narrator suggests, the boys relationship chafes against the limitations of conventional language: “love,” the narrator tells us, “is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers” (p. 43). Wilder has already established within this novel that literature, or written language, exists to communicate the human heart; in this section, readers learn that such a purpose may properly be assigned to spoken language, as well. That purpose is precisely why the brothers metaphorically bleed as the Archbishop tries to “extract from them” their private vocabulary (p. 43). In a sense, the brothers experience the quality of connection through words that the Marquesa seeks to achieve, but does not until too late, with her estranged daughter. Their language is in contrast to the artificial language of the Pericholes theater, that “poetry which is a debased form of speech” (p. 44). Note also, however, that the narrator explicitly tells us, “Even speech was for [the twins] a debased form of silence” (p. 44); and that theirs is a relationship “in which few words are exchanged” (p. 43). Their closeness is articulated in language, but language does not create it. The brothers know what the Marquesa does not: words cannot give birth to feeling-they exist and are properly used only to give voice to feelings already present.
In addition to allowing readers to explore further Wilders ideas about language, the brothers serve to allow readers to explore further Wilders ideas about love. Again, the nature of love is the other dominant theme of the work as a whole, and this section affords several new insights into that subject. Manuel and Estebans close connection is one kind of love, whereas Manuels infatuation with the Perichole is quite another. In this section of the book, these two types of love come into conflict, a conflict through which Esteban learns the hard truth, “that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other” (p. 45). Wilder here eloquently and succinctly articulates a truth that anyone who has loved-and that is, of course, virtually everyone-discovers sooner or later in life. Here, Wilder is practicing his own philosophy of literature notating the human heart. Secrets arise (the Pericholes letters to Don Andrs, secret from both Uncle Pio and Esteban); unequal degrees of attachment form; thus, the total heart is not given. It is a bitter lesson that love, by its very nature, can never be fully reciprocated (although note that this is not necessarily a pessimistic or cynical statement on the narrators part, since the possibility of approximate reciprocity is explicitly left open), but it is a lesson that all humans must learn in order to live and to love-for, as the novel affirms, love is necessary to life.
If love is necessary to life, then, Wilders novel suggests, so is loss. Part of the lesson with which Esteban comes to grips in this section of the book is the inevitability of pain caused when we lose what and who we love. At first, this pain, this heartache, threatens to isolate Esteban from the rest of humanity; indeed, it threatens his very identity, as Esteban willingly sublimates himself to the identity of his dead brother, even to the point of adopting Manuels name as his own (p. 56). By the end of the section, however, Esteban seems to have reconciled himself to living with the pain of loss. Surely, his use of his own name with Captain Alvarado signifies this hard-won acceptance. “You are Esteban or Manuel,” Alvarado says to the surviving brother (p. 59)-and the words seem, in the larger context of this section, more of a challenge (albeit unintentional on Alvarados part) than a mere statement of fact. Facing a future without the brother to whom he was so closely connected, Esteban is faced with the choice, truly, of being either “Esteban or Manuel”-that is, of being alive or being dead. For a time, it seems as though he will choose to be “Manuel”-that is, he will choose death. Note his somewhat tortured justification of the risky behaviors he has been contemplating: “But if you jump into a burning house to save somebody, that wouldnt be killing yourself. And if you become a matador and the bull caught you that wouldnt be killing yourself.” (p. 61).
His admission of his true name, then, takes on that much more import: “Which are you? Whats your name?” “Esteban” (p. 60). The exchange is thus symbolic of Estebans acceptance of the loss that is an inexorable part of love. It symbolizes his acceptance of life. Not that this acceptance is over all at once; as noted in the summary above, Esteban tries to back out of the sea voyage at the last minute. But Captain Alvarado-who, in Wilders wonderful phrasing, summons the “high courage to speak the banal” (p. 63)-articulates the acceptance so that Esteban might again embrace it: “We push on, Esteban, as best we can” (p. 64). Interestingly, the text suggests, by way of the Marquesas letter about him, that Captain Alvarado knows this same pain firsthand, for he had a beloved daughter who died. The Marquesas letter to Clara about Captain Alvarado contains much material for reflection on the novels overarching themes, as the Marquesa ruminates about the effect his daughters death had on the captain: “We have no way of knowing whether she was more beautiful or intelligent than the thousands of other girls that lived about him, but she was his” (p. 59). The Marquesas letter cannot help but remind readers of Brother Junipers investigation into the victims of the bridge collapse that is the frame story of the novel. Ultimately, Brother Junipers efforts to determine empirically that the five who die in the bridge disaster were more (or less) anything than anyone else earn him the brand of heretic. Wilder seems to be suggesting that what matters is the final phrase: “but she was his.” As part of his extended meditation on the nature of love, Wilder is claiming that what distinguishes us is love-whether or not we are loved and do love.
At any rate, Captain Alvarado has acknowledged the potential of living beyond loss, as has Madre Mar?a, who tells Esteban (notably, after he has lied to her about his name), “I, too, Manuel have lost. I too. once. We know that God has taken them into His hands.” (p. 57). As readers of that moment, we are not sure whether the Abbess believes Estebans lie or not; we do not know whom the Abbess has lost; we do not know whether Wilders auctorial intent is that we believe the pious theology she posits or not. We know only, in that instant, that Madre Mara has found a way, in spite of pain caused by lost love, to go on living. It is the same pain that the Marquesa had to confront and overcome (as seen in her resolution to write new, more honest, more courageous letters to Clara); it is the same pain that Esteban confronts and overcomes, as seen in his ultimate decision to journey with Captain Alvarado-significantly, in order to give a gift, a gift motivated by love, to Madre Mara who, as she quite rightly points out, has done so much out of love for him and his brother.
The tragedy, of course, is that, no less than the Marquesa, Esteban confronts and overcomes this pain-the inexorable pain of true love, bound up in inevitable loss-only on the eve of his death on the bridge of San Luis Rey. Once more, Wilder is sounding an almost “carpe diem”-like, clarion call to live and love today, for tomorrow may not come for us.advertisementWhile Wilder acknowledged Luke 13 as a Scriptural inspiration for his work, he may also have had in mind the admonishments found in the letter of James: “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:13-14, 17, KJV). (Wilder may also have this Scripture in mind when he notes, in the novels final section, that the bridges collapse has “passed into proverbial expressions: I may see you Tuesday, says a Limean, unless the bridge falls”, p. 97). For Wilder, those who know the good of loving their fellow human beings, to whom they are interconnected, but “doeth it not,” are guilty, if not of sin, then at the least of lives emptier than they might have been.