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Bridge to Terabithia | Study Guide

Katherine Paterson

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Bridge to Terabithia | Symbols



Terabithia symbolizes the magic and innocence of childhood, as well as an ideal world in which Jess and Leslie can be themselves, imaginative and free. As Leslie says, "We need a place just for us ... and you and I would be the rulers." This idea appeals to Jess, who is ruled by others in all aspects of his life and has little freedom to do what he likes. Jess and Leslie have no responsibilities in Terabithia and answer to no one. In this way the imaginary land serves as a refuge from reality. This escape outlet is especially important for Jess, who is expected to be a "man" instead of a 10-year-old boy. Jess has regular, and sometimes grueling, chores, from milking the cow twice a day to picking beans in the hot sun. Some days Jess even has to make dinner because his mother is "too tired to fix any supper." Leslie, too, has troubles to escape from. Her classmates reject her friendship and find her strange, but in the safety of Terabithia, supported by Jess's friendship, she can express her personality and creativity without bounds.

Although Terabithia may represent the innocence of an idealized childhood, it is also a reminder there is no permanent escape from the real world. Jess sees life from a pragmatic viewpoint and wisely does not want to cross the stream needlessly. He acknowledges the real danger the water presents. Leslie, on the other hand, has a tendency to live too much in a fantasy world. Headstrong and fearless, she believes nothing can harm her despite obvious evidence to the contrary. She ignores the dangers of the stream and dies because of this heedlessness.


When Leslie and Jess create Terabithia, Leslie declares they can get there only by swinging on "this enchanted rope." The rope represents entry into a magical state of mind, a state Leslie finds natural but is foreign to Jess, who must learn it over time. When Jess first swings on the rope, he feels a euphoric sense of floating, "drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud." His imagination is sparked, and he is able to tap into this sense of enchantment because Leslie is there to reinforce it. In Chapter 7 Jess tries to go to Terabithia without Leslie, "but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic." At this point Jess is still dependent on Leslie's leadership in creative visualization. He has not yet given himself permission to let his imagination run free; he does not yet feel the self-confidence that he, too, has the magic inside of him.

The rope also represents objective reality. Obviously it transports Jess and Leslie from the real world into a fantasy world, but there is more to it than that. The rope is described as very old, hung on the crab apple tree by "someone long forgotten." No doubt it is frayed or worn in places, and although Jess and Leslie use their imaginations to transform it into a magic rope, it is still simply an old rope. Like all old ropes, it could eventually break—and it does. The rope is thus in some sense the reality of life's fragility, which cannot be imagined away without danger.


After Leslie's death, Jess crosses the stream on a branch, still unsure of his ability to create the magic. He lands on the other side wondering "if it was still Terabithia. If it could be entered across a branch" instead of on the rope. He finds the land much the same and realizes the magic can live on, even without Leslie. He has grown and changed enough so that the magic is now inside him, and he confirms this thought by making a suitable offering in the sacred grove.

Jess realizes Terabithia will never be the same without Leslie, but it can still be magical for others, and this realization prompts him to build the bridge. The bridge symbolizes Jess's transformation into a leader. He has vowed to bring his own "beauty and caring" to the world, spurred on by the gifts of Leslie's "vision and strength." Just as Leslie has been a role model for him, so Jess will help others by using his natural gifts.

By building the bridge, Jess creates the magic anew for May Belle, whom he realizes he does love and with whom he wants to share this special place. Jess builds the bridge so that reaching Terabithia will be safe. Just as the sturdy wood is more solid than the old rope, so Jess is more down to earth than Leslie. The bridge also serves as a memorial for Leslie because Jess builds it with wood from the Burkes' home; thus the bridge to Terabithia is Jess's caution and creativity—and Leslie's legacy.

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