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Bridge to Terabithia is a novel by Katherine Paterson that describes the unique friendship between a boy and a girl. The relationship transforms the protagonists as they engage in a journey of self-exploration and development, challenging societal pressures and expectations. The theme of gender roles is consistently present in the novel, starting with character origins and becoming the central concept as they mature to defy archetypal perceptions of feminine and masculine expectations in order to formulate their identity.
The protagonists, Jess and Leslie, face an uphill battle against the standards of gender convention in the context of societal pressure, adolescence, and their platonic friendship. Leslie is unique and unusual, defying “ladylike” expectations and becoming a symbol of rebellion and nonconformity for girls. Meanwhile, Jess is torn apart by gender identity due to his familial situation as well as his passion for art that is ridiculed as feminine by his own father. The primary theme and moral lesson of Bridge to Terabithia are that gender role do not define identity, and not everyone can or must adhere to the rigid barriers created by society. The characters dispel their gender-based archetypes in favor of uniqueness and self-exploration.
The characterization of Leslie in the novel is a direct challenge to social gender norms. While most women in the novel are described as obsessed with fashion and romance, Leslie completely condemns this femininity in pursuit of exploration and knowledge. She dresses like a tomboy, in a manner that is comfortable for her. She reads books about scuba diving and spends her time exploring the creek near her house. Jess sees Leslie as “one of those people who sat quietly at her desk, never whispering or daydreaming or chewing gum, doing beautiful school work, and yet her brain was so full of mischief…” (Paterson 55).
Leslie rejects judgment and pressure to adhere to gender norms. The way that Paterson characterizes Leslie is that her perspective on the world stimulates the unorthodox and mature wisdom that she possesses for a teenage girl.
Jess is facing the struggle of living to his father’s expectations while lacking traditional masculine character traits. He is sensitive, loves art, and is also observant for his age. He sees the absurdity of certain arbitrary societal rules such as girls not being allowed to run races at school. At the beginning of the novel, Jess has an understanding that the world only operates within gender-based codes of behavior, either you are male or female.
However, he struggles with gender neutrality which contributed to his isolation, being afraid of certain things, or wanting affection from his father. Meeting and befriending Leslie makes him realize that the rules can be broken, and it is inherently impossible to fulfill societal standards of gender roles. In a manner, both teach each other how to build an existence apart from gender expectations and failure to fulfill them.
The make-believe world of Terabithia that Jess and Leslie create in their imagination is ideal in a way that there is a lack of these archetypal gender roles. It is an environment that is distant from masculinist institutions and the negative oppression of women. While they are king and queen, neither exactly attempts to take upon predetermined responsibilities assigned by gender. Jess considers himself as a half of a whole team and does not impose a masculine perspective of power and “know it all” attitudes. Instead, they view each other as unique individuals, free to be themselves, that both contribute to the magic world they fantasize about. Terabithia is protected from the harsh realities of society which does not support their individualities, rebellion, and platonic friendship.
Family traditions and beliefs have a significant role in Bridge to Terabithia in influencing the gender roles of the protagonists. For Jess, his family structure portrays females as shallow and obsessed with physical appearance while being overbearing like his mother. Meanwhile, males are stoic and must become the breadwinners for the family. Jess describes his experiences, “when you were the only boy smashed between four sisters, and the older two had despised you ever since you stopped letting them dress you up and wheel you around in their rusty old doll carriage…” (Paterson 2).
Meanwhile, the parents are mostly absent in forming his character, both literally and figuratively. Instead, they appear in moments to punish or judge him. His responsibilities of working on the farm as well as inside the house and sharing a room with little sisters most likely had contributed to his sensitive and caring nature. As a result, Jess feels lonely as he continuously struggles between societal expectations and natural instinct in the preconceptions that his family had defined.
Meanwhile, Leslie’s family is also absent from her life for most of the novel, involved in their writing. However, their family is intelligent and open-minded, which reflects on Leslie’s values of acceptance. The Burke family supports creativity and exploration, which encourages Leslie to explore the local surroundings as well as engage in a path of personal self-exploration on an emotional and spiritual level. Her parents do not seem to condemn the tomboyish attitude or her questioning of religious principles. Despite her wanting closeness with her family, the lack of judgmental attitudes contributes to the carefree and independent character of Leslie.
Relating to Conformity
The setting of the book occurs in a small rural town of Lark Creek in the 1970s. It is a community that is relatively conservative, and its members are expected to conform to certain roles and principles. Any leeway is widely criticized and mocked by society, such as Miss Edmunds who is more liberal in her life and political perspectives. Leslie’s family is more open-minded, willing to reassess values and provide their daughter with autonomy.
In a way, they encourage her to strive for exploration and identity. This begins to contrast with social expectations in public places. At school, the way of life for Leslie and her family stirs disbelief and anger. Throughout the novel, Leslie refuses to conform to societal expectations, taking an example for the likes of Miss Edmunds as both of them fail to meet the traditional expectations of female gender roles.
Meanwhile, Jess fails to conform because he is unable to fit within masculine perceptions of society. He despises himself for this and actively attempts to hide his passion for art as it would garner disapproval from his father that sees it as a feminine pastime. The community and society around both protagonists are inherently conformist to traditional behaviors, gender roles, and precedents of their time and setting. The protagonists increasingly felt this pressure in daily life. The protagonists increasingly felt this pressure in daily life, reflecting “We’re alike, Jess would tell himself, me and Miss Edmunds… We don’t belong at Lark Creek, Julia and me” (Paterson 17). Conformity was overwhelming and directly contrasted with their efforts to foster their unique identities.
Searching for Identity
Identity is an underlying theme of the plot and the relationship between the protagonists. Through finding each other and building their friendship, Jess and Leslie are able to defy social expectations and develop both emotionally and spiritually as they discover their identity. After Leslie’s death, Jess values the support that she provided for him in this aspect, “It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength” (Paterson 161). Psychologically, Jess and Leslie undergo a process of psychosocial development, transforming from feeling inferior to the beginning of questioning their gender roles.
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Eventually, this begins to empower them as they discover emotional independence from societal and familial influences. They use their newly discovered strengths and autonomy to openly express their identities and stand up for their beliefs in the school and community. Their persistence in adversity, ranging from the dangerous crossing of the creek to standing up to the school bully is parallel to their development. When Jess is faced with the overwhelming grief of Leslie’s death, he emerges as an individual that is self-assured and fearless.
Jess and Leslie were individuals that were shaped by their familial values and affected by societal perceptions of gender roles. It influenced their beliefs and judgments as people. However, by forming their friendship and trusting each other with unique qualities, both realized the arbitrary boundaries of social gender roles do not have to define them. Through the plot, they undergo psychosocial development and become stronger and mature individuals who forge self-identities contrasting to what their families and society expect from them. Leslie’s death inherent cements this perspective in Jess as he achieves a new understanding of himself a foundational relationship with his father.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. Crowell, 1977.