As the novel progresses, Katherine Paterson demonstrates the frequent disconnect between constructed appearances and private human struggle, as many of her characters quietly deal with problems, feelings, and fears they feel unable to express. By having Jess and Leslie encounter several secondary characters who are much deeper and more complicated than they first seem to be, Paterson suggests that one should always be kind to others, since it is impossible to know the realities of a person’s inner demons or burdens from the appearance or behavior they present to the world.
Bridge to Terabithia is saturated with instances in which things are revealed to be other than what they seem—and most often, these things involve an individual presenting one front to the world while struggling behind closed doors with a reality that sometimes tragically contradicts the appearance they’ve worked so hard to construct. Janice Avery, a terrible seventh-grade bully, is a large and imposing girl who terrorizes anyone who gets in her way. She frequently stands outside the girls’ bathroom, demanding lunch money from younger students in exchange for entry. Along with her sidekicks Wilma and Bobby Sue, she intimidates and controls the other students through cruelty, theft, and physical threats. Janice presents a front of malice and aggression—which is soon revealed to be masking something much deeper. About halfway through the novel, Leslie and Jess have found a way to get back at Janice for her cruelty to May Belle by writing Janice a fake love note from Willard Hughes, a popular boy in the seventh grade. However, Leslie discovers that perhaps their retaliatory move on Janice was unnecessarily cruel. After finding Janice crying in the bathroom one afternoon, Leslie learns that Janice is alone in the world. Her father beats her violently, and when she confided in her friends about this secret, they blabbed it to the whole school—spreading a rumor that now threatens Janice’s tough exterior. This is just one example of the ways in which Paterson suggests that even the most unlikely of people are often dealing with serious, unimaginable private problems, and often they create a constructed persona to mask the truths of their lives.
The second major run-in with a character whose appearance belies their reality is Mrs. Myers, the overweight, strict and unpopular fifth-grade teacher. Mrs. Myers is a tough, unsmiling, and unpleasant woman whose students dislike her intensely. Everyone makes fun of her behind her back—but Jess and Leslie are especially cruel, coming up with nicknames that are dehumanizing (such as “Monster Mouth Myers” and “Mrs. Double-Chinned Myers”). Mrs. Meyers is notorious for smiling only once a year—on the first day of school—in order to keep her students from getting too comfortable with her. Jess and Leslie both fear and dislike Mrs. Myers, but their hatred of her is founded entirely on the appearance she has constructed—and their classmates’ opinions about it. Toward the end of the novel, on the first day Jess returns to school following Leslie’s sudden accidental death, he is too sad to even stand for the pledge of allegiance. Mrs. Myers calls him out to the hall, where Jess believes she is going to yell at him—instead, with tears in her eyes, she tells him that she understands his grief, as her husband died several years ago. She urges Jess not to let anyone tell him that it’s time to move on or forget Leslie, but rather to keep her alive in his heart. She offers him the chance to work together over the rest of the school year to help each other cope—she, too, has been deeply affected by Leslie’s death. Jess immediately feels terrible guilt—he had no idea about the private and difficult reality of Mrs. Myers’s life, and he mocked the appearance of toughness and disaffectedness that she likely presents to the world for her own self-preservation.
Because Leslie and Jess are at the forefront of the novel, readers are privy to the behaviors and ideas they affect and construct to protect themselves from the world. In peeling back the curtain, then, on the lives of minor characters like Janice and Mrs. Myers, Paterson hammers home her point that everyone—even the most unlikely individuals—struggle to hide their private realities.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in Bridge to Terabithia
The person had jaggedy brown hair cut close to its face and wore one of those blue undershirtlike tops with faded jeans cut off above the knees. [Jess] couldn’t honestly tell whether it was a girl or a boy.
There in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess’s own fears and insufficiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them.
“What are you giving your girl friend, Jess?” Brenda screwed her face up in that ugly way she had. [Jess] tried to ignore her. […]
“Don’t you know, Brenda?” Ellie joined in. “Jess ain’t got no girl friend.”
“Well, you’re right for once. Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl.” […] Something huge and hot swelled right up inside of him. […] Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that […] he and Leslie were not related at all. Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories.
Jess tried going to Terabithia alone, but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic. He was afraid he would destroy everything by trying to force the magic on his own, when it was plain that the magic was reluctant to come for him.
“Janice Avery is a very unfortunate person. Do you realize that?”
“What was she crying about, for heaven’s sake?”
“It’s a very complicated situation. I can understand now why Janice has so many problems related to people. […] Did you know her father beats her?”
All March it poured. For the first time in many years the creek bed held water, not just a trickle either, enough so that when they swung across, it was a little scary looking down at the rushing water below. Jess took Prince Terrien across inside his jacket, but the puppy was growing so fast he might pop the zipper any time and fall into the water and drown.
For Jess the fear of the crossing rose with the height of the creek. Leslie never seemed to hesitate, so Jess could not hang back. But even though he could force his body to follow after, his mind hung back, wanting to cling to the crab apple tree the way Joyce Ann might cling to Momma’s skirt.
“Well, Momma, he’s just sitting there eating pancakes like nothing happened. I’d be crying my eyes out.”
Ellie was looking first at Mrs. Aarons and then at Brenda. “Boys ain’t supposed to cry at times like this. Are they, Momma?”
Jess raced to the sound of May Belle’s cry. She had gotten halfway across on the tree bridge and now stood there grabbing the upper branches, terrified to move either forward or backward.
When [Jess] finished, he put flowers in [May Belle’s] hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully.
“Shhh,” he said. “Look.”
“Can’t you see ‘um?” he whispered. “All the Terabithians standing on tiptoe to see you. […] There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.”