NEA 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 discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

Students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel or the play, or both. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. In the beginning of Part Two, Wilder speaks of the Marquesa’s son-in-law enjoying her letters but “missing (as most readers do) the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.” How well can this statement be applied to The Bridge of San Luis Rey?
  2. Which character in the novel or play do you admire most? Which one do you like least? Explain the reasons for your choices, with supporting references from the text.
  3. In The Bridge, how is the Marquesa regarded by the people of Lima, and why? What does she think of herself? How valid is either of these opinions of her?
  4. In The Bridge, why does Esteban, after Manuel’s death, tell people that he is Manuel? Why does he admit his true identity to Captain Alvarado?
  5. In The Bridge, why does Uncle Pio love Camila Perichole? Why does she love him? Would you characterize their relationship as a satisfactory one? Why or why not?
  6. There are various love relationships in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but none of them involves a pair of traditional romantic partners. Why, in terms of the novel’s thematic concerns, do you think this might be?
  7. In the beginning Act I of Our Town, the Stage Manager says of Joe Crowell, “Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.—all that education for nothing.” In the larger context of the play and its themes, do you think that the author agrees with this conclusion? Is education “wasted” if a person doesn’t use it?
  8. Who, in your judgment, is the protagonist of Our Town? Is there an antagonist? If so, who is it, and why?
  9. In Act III of Our Town, when Emily insists on going back, Mrs. Gibbs tells her: “at least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” What does she mean by this? How does Emily learn the wisdom of Mrs. Gibbs’s advice?
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