National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town

by Thornton Wilder

It seems to me that my books are about: what is the worst thing that the world can do to you, and what are the last resources one has to oppose it.


Thornton Wilder in the role of George Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

  1. Was Brother Juniper’s quest to prove God’s plan noble or foolish? Was the collapse of the bridge an accident, or was there intention? What is the narrator’s conclusion?
  2. How does the framing of the novel—a story examining an event 200 years prior—affect your reading? What does the passage of time add to our understanding of the characters? Why might Wilder choose not to tell the story from Brother Juniper’s point of view?
  3. Wilder had not been to Peru when he wrote The Bridge. How does his choice of detail and language heighten the sense of atmosphere and the believability of the characters?
  4. Why might Wilder have written The Bridge as a novel rather than a play? What aspects of the story are more appropriate to fiction than to drama?
  5. In what ways is The Bridge of San Luis Rey a fable? Does it teach a lesson? If so, what are we supposed to learn from the book?
  6. Does The Bridge have a hero? A villain? If so, what characteristics define these roles? Which characters were “good” and which were “bad” by Brother Juniper’s standards?
  7. Wilder’s Lima is populated by orphans, brothers, uncles, mothers, and matrons. How do these relationships conform to or deviate from your idea of family?
  8. Why does Doña Clara reject the Marquesa? Why does the Perichole reject Uncle Pio? Are they justified in their rejections? How might they feel after the deaths of the Marquesa and Uncle Pio?
  9. The Bridge is known for its aphoristic writing. What are some passages that stick in your mind? What makes them so memorable? What does this kind of writing add to the overall tone of the novel?
  10. In many ways, The Bridge is about love. What different forms of love can be found in the novel?

Our Town

  1. How is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, like or unlike the town where you grew up?
  2. In Act I, the Stage Manager mentions that a new bank is being built in Grover’s Corners, and things will be put in the cornerstone for people to “dig up a thousand years from now.” What objects do they put in it? What would you put in a time capsule?
  3. In Act I, Emily’s successful speech at school on the Louisiana Purchase encourages her dreams of greatness, and she tells her mother that she “wants to make speeches all [her] life.” How is that goal realized? How is it not?
  4. In Act II, the Stage Manager focuses on love and marriage. Why does he choose to show one particular conversation between Emily and George? What does it reveal about their relationship? What might this suggest about love?
  5. Discuss the portrayal of marriage in Our Town. Compare the marriages between Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs. What does Mrs. Webb mean when she says that sending girls into marriage is “cruel”?
  6. If you were in charge of the play’s lighting, how would you direct Emily’s return to Grover’s Corners in Act III—as a realistic scene, or as a dream?
  7. Simon Stimson opines in Act III, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance . . . To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
  8. How would you answer Emily’s question: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
  9. If you could revisit one “ordinary day” from your past, which would it be?
  10. Our Town accelerates time, looking back and forward at major events while also describing what happens in mundane, daily life. What might Wilder be suggesting by this?
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