When Leslie Burke moves to the small town of Lark Creek, Virginia, the self-assured tomboy from the city is decidedly out of place. Jess Aarons is drawn to Leslie but finds himself continually embarrassed by Leslie’s shirking of social norms and devil-may-care attitude when it comes to interacting with their peers—Jess himself has spent his whole life hiding the truth of who he is and what he values from those around him, both at home and at school. As the novel progresses, Jess comes to learn many important lessons about the value of nonconformity and the freedom that comes with asserting one’s uniqueness. Ultimately, Katherine Paterson uses Bridge to Terabithia to suggest that a life lived under the anvil of conformity is no life at all.
From the very start of the novel, Paterson uses the characters of Jess and Leslie to demonstrate the ways in which the pressure to conform weighs upon those who are destined to stand out—especially when those individuals are children, for whom the socially-mandated suppression of one’s true personality is especially cruel. At the start of the novel, Jess Aarons lives a life controlled almost completely by other’s expectations for him—a pressure that leads him to suppress the parts of him that are different. Jess wants to stand out, but in a way that’s socially acceptable, so he chooses to pursue success as a runner rather than as an artist (his true calling). He’s had his passion for drawing scrutinized and steamrolled by his father, Mr. Aarons, and his friends at school, including the brash and competitive Gary Fulcher. Jess draws only in private, though he runs in public—a reflection of his insecurity about the nonconformist aspects of his personality and his desire to only present the conventional, socially-acceptable parts of himself to the world.
Jess, however, seeks refuge in those who encourage his nonconformist tendencies. He has a huge crush on his music teacher Miss Edmunds, the only person who has ever encouraged him to continue drawing or praised his artwork. Miss Edmunds is herself a nonconformist—a self-professed “liberated woman” who dresses like a hippie and disregards others’ opinions of her appearance and actions. When Leslie Burke comes to town, Jess is at first embarrassed or even repulsed by her unwillingness to conform to what’s expected of girls her age—but as their friendship deepens, he comes to respect and even emulate her nonconformist tendencies. Jess plays with Leslie more and more at school rather than his male friends, seemingly oblivious to the taunts they get about being boyfriend and girlfriend. He also helps Leslie establish the imaginary realm of Terabithia in a patch of woods near their houses—a place where they can be rulers rather than followers, setters of precedent and creators of the status quo rather than blind sheep following along with the rules and regulations of the “real” world.
Leslie Burke is, from her very first appearance in the novel, an individual who defies being defined or wrangled. When Jess first meets her, he isn’t even sure whether she’s a boy or a girl—that’s how intensely she resists being boxed in or categorized according to other people’s expectations or the social status quo. At school, she doesn’t play with the girls but instead runs races alongside the boys. Even her family is unusual in the town of Lark Creek—her parents, Bill and Judy, are writers and intellectuals who move to the rural community to escape the societal pressures of Washington, D.C. Though everyone in the neighborhood—including Jess’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Aarons—see them as “hippies,” the Burkes happily carve out a life for themselves, uncaring about what others seem to think of them. Leslie’s imagination is another aspect of her personality in which her nonconformity shines through. Leslie creates Terabithia as a way for her and Jess to escape their schoolmates’ expectations of them, and, within the world of Terabithia, she lets her mind run free. Jess and Leslie are the king and queen of Terabithia, and, as such, they’re the ones who make the rules. Terabithia allows Leslie to dictate the world she lives in rather than having her behavior, gender expression, and friendships constantly policed and monitored.
Though the novel never directly explores Leslie’s point of view, the very existence of Terabithia suggests that Leslie, like Jess, struggles with feelings of being an outcast or a misfit—going against her own advice, she seems to long for a way to keep parts of herself secret. Leslie’s nonconformist tendencies broaden Jess’s horizons and open up his world—but Jess also helps Leslie by giving her, in the form of his love and friendship, a safe, nonjudgmental space to be radically herself. By the end of the novel, Jess is no longer shy about his passion for drawing, his love for Leslie, or his reverence for Terabithia—the things about himself he once kept hidden away are now on full display. For instance, he brings his sister May Belle to Terabithia and accepts a gift of paints and paper from the Burkes in front of his father. Jess even allows his classmates and his teacher Mrs. Myers to witness his grief over Leslie—whom he once avoided even being seen with—when she tragically dies in an accident. This shows that Leslie’s effect on Jess has been to show him the truth of who he is—and, through her true friendship and unconditional love, encourage him to accept himself.
Ultimately, Paterson shows how both Jess and Leslie’s lives are improved by accepting the truth of who they are rather than laboring day in and day out to present to the world a constructed front of a person they are not. Even though Leslie tragically dies, she leaves behind an indelible mark on Jess’s life, having been the first person to show him just how beautiful and full life can be when one lives it for oneself rather than for others.
Individuality vs. Conformity ThemeTracker
Individuality vs. Conformity 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.
He felt it before he saw it. Someone was moving up. He automatically pumped harder. Then the shape was there in his sideways vision. Then suddenly pulling ahead. He forced himself now. His breath was choking him, and the sweat was in his eyes. But he saw the figure anyhow. The faded cutoffs crossed the line a full three feet ahead of him.
Leslie turned to face him with a wide smile on her tanned face.
On the bus that afternoon [Jess] sat down beside May Belle. It was the only way he could make sure that he wouldn’t have Leslie plunking herself down beside him. Lord, the girl had no notion of what you did and didn’t do.
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to [Jess.] […] “We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it. […] It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”
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.
[Jess] wasn’t comfortable having Leslie at his house either. […] Brenda and Ellie always made some remark about “girl friend.” His mother acted stiff and funny [and] later she would refer to Leslie’s “tacky” clothes. […] Her hair was “shorter than a boy’s.” Her parents were “hardly more than hippies.” […] His father had seen Leslie only a few times and had nodded to show that he had noticed her, but his mother said that she was sure he was fretting that his only son did nothing but play with girls, and they both were worried about what would become of it.
“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.
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?”