The selfishness of parenthood in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis ReyI’m sure any reader of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey would put himself in the role of Brother Juniper, looking for connections and commonalities between the five people who fell to their deaths when the bridge collapsed—or at least, between any of the characters that reappear throughout the three main sections of the novel. The one that struck me was the number of parent-child relationships between the characters (really the overwhelming type of relationship), and the fact that so many of those relationships were similar.

The first victim of the bridge examined falls the most clearly into this category: the Marquesa de Montemayor. Her defining trait is her relationship with her daughter, Doña Clara. The Marquesa loves her daughter desperately, needily, and she has been rejected by Clara, who went so far as to accept a marriage that would take her from Peru to Spain to get away from her mother. Left alone in Lima the Marquesa becomes a joke among the aristocracy, a lonely drunk who talks to herself, whose only activity is writing beautiful letters to Clara hoping for some return of affection. She knows her feelings are unfair, but she can’t help it:

…[S]he knew that she too sinned and that though her love for her daughter was vast enough to include all the colors of love, it was not without a shade of tyranny: she loved her daughter not for her daughter’s sake, but for her own. She longed to free herself from this ignoble bond; but the passion was too fierce to cope with. And then on that green balcony a strange warfare would shake the hideous old lady, a singularly futile struggle against a temptation to which she would never have the opportunity of succumbing. How could she rule her daughter when her daughter saw to it that four thousand miles lay between them? Nevertheless Doña María wrestled with the ghost of her temptation and was worsted on every occasion. She wanted her daughter for herself; she wanted to hear her say: “You are the best of all possible mothers”; she longed to hear her whisper: “Forgive me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read “this ignoble bond” described like this elsewhere, and I was impressed. The Marquesa’s behavior regarding her daughter is so extraordinary, and so immoderate, that it quickly becomes grotesque, making her emotions seem aberrant. But how different is she from other parents?

Uncle Pio is not actually the Perichole’s father, but he has adopted and raised her. He’s molded her into a great actress—into exactly what he most values—through emotional tyranny. Later, when she’s renounced the stage, he won’t stop trying to bring her back. Of course, he thinks it is for her own good, but really it is what he wants, and not what she wants at all. But he uses their relationship to remain in her life and persist in his encouragement, and even asks to take her son Don Jaime and be allowed to train him up as well. The Perichole, a different kind of parent entirely—one who cannot really feel love, that ignoble bond, until she has lost Jaime and Pio to the bridge—lets her son go.

And the final selfish parent, also not a true parent, is Madre María del Pilar, the abbess who takes care of orphans. She sends Pepita to live with the Marquesa as her companion, but jealously wants to train Pepita up to take over her own work someday. She can’t bear the thought that her work on this earth will go to waste when she dies, and needs someone to carry it on—the selfish reason to have children par excellence. It weighs on Pepita, who longs to return to the convent but must be “brave.” And when the abbess confronts Esteban after the death of his twin (thinking he is the late Manuel):

“Manuel, won’t you come and sit with me up there for just a short time?”

After a long pause: “No.”

“But Manuel, dear Manuel, can’t you remember as children how you did so many things for me? You were willing to go across the town on some little errand. When I was ill you made the cook let you bring me my soup?” Another woman would have said: “Do you remember how much I did for you?”

Esteban, though not a parent at all, is also the perpetrator of a jealous, selfish love, which definitely seems like a larger theme Wilder had in mind. But I felt like the parental bond was raised up in importance, especially because of the prominence of the Marquesa. Not only is hers the first story to appear, and thus the first story to introduce us to virtually all of the other characters in the novel, it is also her selfish parental love that tells the whole story of Lima—her letters to her daughter have become, centuries later, a primary historical source and work of great Spanish literature, putting the whole of Limean society in the context of her obsession with Doña Clara.


“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.”
—Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey