Bridge to Terabithia : Theme
Leslie Burke introduces contemporary ideas into Jesse Aarons's life and backward community in rural Virginia. Leslie comes from a suburban upper middle class with liberal ideas about gender roles, for instance. The girls at the rural school wear their Sunday best dresses, while Leslie looks like a boy with short hair and jeans. She is faster than all the boys at running. She is the smartest, most imaginative student in class, a favorite with the teacher, though not with the other students. Her parents raised her to be independent and self-sufficient, and she is the one who takes the initiative in the relationship with Jess. She is the one with the book knowledge. She is the one who is unafraid, while Jess is fearful.
Leslie's mother is not a housewife, but an author. Jess's mother, on the other hand, is a drudge with five children, endless work, and no money or help. She is constantly nagging and complaining. Jess's father tries to enforce a stereotyped gender role on his son when he ridicules his artistic talent and only comments on his ability to do the farm chores. He himself is a day laborer and does not see anything different for his son. He lavishes affection on the little girls, but not on the boy. After Leslie's death, however, the father changes. He is tender with Jess, holding him in his arms and comforting him.
Jess learns to live beyond the gender divisions. He himself sees the arbitrary nature of certain rules, such as that only the boys can run races. He defends Leslie's right to run though it destroys his chance to be the champion. Jess and Leslie may pretend to be king and queen, but they create an equal world, where each of them has a gift to give. He does not have to play the role of the male who knows everything, for he admits that he cannot create the magic by himself; he needs Leslie's inspiration. Bill is Leslie's intellectual father, a contrast to Jess's laborer father. Bill, however, is impressed by Jess's physical handyman ability, and Jess learns the harmony of working in a family where both the men and women contribute their talents without conflict.
Paterson presents a tough world where the rule of survival of the fittest generally prevails. The children at school have their pecking orders based on power. Jess's lower-class family also operates daily on a survival level without much left over energy for love or sensitivity. Jess likes his sister May Belle, but there is no one in his family who understands him or even sees him as a person. Both Leslie and Jess are outsiders in their worlds. Leslie is happy at home but is too strange for anyone at school to like her. They make fun of her because her family does not have a TV.
Until Leslie's arrival, Jess's only friend was an adult, Miss Edmunds, the music teacher. He has a crush on her because she is young and beautiful, and she can see his talent at drawing. Her friendship, however, is a distant thing, while the one with Leslie becomes Jess's daily bread. Despite gender and class differences, Jess and Leslie are like-minded in their imaginative and humorous response to life. Jess draws cartoon animals who say silly things, and Leslie inhabits the noble world of books and stories. Their talents and points of view come together to create Terabithia. Jess sees their friendship, symbolized in their secret world of Terabithia, as the most important thing in his life, and the only way he sees to make it through the dreary days of school and family. After Leslie's death, her father tells Jess that Leslie had said his friendship was also the only way she could cope with her new surroundings. Paterson shows that friendship is not only for survival, but also for bringing the best out in the other person. Jess is a different person after Leslie, and it is apparent that he will be more successful in his world because of her. He sees Leslie as “his other, more exciting self” (p. 46).
Paterson presents imagination not only as a tool for survival in a dark world, but also as the gift that can turn darkness to light. First Jess and Leslie share their imaginative fantasies about school with each other as a joke to lighten the day. Of a more noble nature is the invention of Terabithia, a place where the best part of the two children can emerge, their hidden selves that cannot find outlet in the social world. Jess and Leslie are creative people who cannot be satisfied with the way things are. They want justice, fairness, and beauty. Since the world is less than perfect, the children try to make it better with imagination. Leslie is thrilled to find a boy in this backward place who can keep up with her. She primes him with the books and background he could not get for himself, and he responds. He longs to put into pictures the stories she tells, like the one about Moby Dick. Their imaginative world is a joint production and sustains them. Jess shows the immortal nature of the imagination by carrying on Terabithia after Leslie dies, sharing it with May Belle.
The book has become popular because for a long time, it was one of the few children's books to treat death realistically. Many lessons are taught in this book about tolerance, love, and friendship. Death, however, is a harder lesson, and one most adults cannot explain to themselves, let alone to a child. Paterson comes from a religious point of view, and yet she treats Leslie's death without sentiment or dogma. The full weight of Jess's grief is felt in the brief scenes at the end of the story. She does not sugar coat for the child what it feels like to lose someone. There is the paradox of the tragedy of death, especially the loss of a child who held such promise, and yet the consolation that brings mourners closer together. Jess loses Leslie but gains a new closeness with his family, his teachers, and himself. Jess grows in character because Leslie leaves him a legacy to trust his imagination. The religious angle is referred to but not pushed. Leslie herself tells the Aarons children how to take death. After church, she tells them she loves the story of Jesus though she is not forced to subscribe to it. She also does not believe that God puts people in hell. This message injects a spiritual dimension to the lesson on death, without insisting on a particular doctrine. Jess demonstrates he has imbibed Leslie's faith when he has a ceremony in the forest commending her spirit to God and letting her go. Jess is shown as a child who has to deal with death but who overcomes his grief.