Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
a short essay by Jacqui Ghodsi
It was as though he had been made with a great piece missing–one of May Belle’s puzzles with this huge gap where somebody’s eye and cheek and jaw should have been" (93). "Everybody gets scared sometimes, May Belle. You don’t have to be ashamed" (123). Consider the context of this statement. Is this ironic? Of what is he ashamed? Consider the change which has occurred in Jess from page 93 to page 123.
To dwell in a state in which the mechanics to do something are readily available, but the inspiration is blocked because experience has denied opportunity for expression – has even mocked or scolded expression – is like existing “with a great piece missing” (Paterson 93). Despite the availability of all the other pieces, like a puzzle, the missing one renders all the others incoherent, incomplete. It is an emptiness that renders life a two-dimensional experience. This is the burden of the artist who gazes beyond the ordinary and the obvious, and seeks to comprehend different ways of looking at things, to fill in “the missing piece” and make their lives complete.
The various characters, Charlotte, Winnie, Edmund, and Jess, all exhibit the artist in differing hues, each possessesing a void created by various circumstances. Their creative powers are the means by which they search for their “missing piece”, yet all find fulfillment according to their individual experiences.
Charlotte’s instinctive act of building a web to catch flies was, as Wilbur somberly expressed to her, “a miserable inheritance” (White, 39). Like all spiders gone before her, Charlotte is bound to “work the same trick” (40), but she is different. She used her weaving skills to write, and her writing spread a veil over all reader’s eyes. Like a true poet, she selects the perfect words which mesmerize her human audience, deftly casting her “gossamer threads” (Whitman) to catch the imagination of the people. Yet in so doing she fills in the emptiness of her life, which she views as “being something of a mess”. By helping save Wilbur’s life she has been able to “lift up my life a trifle” for “what’s a life anyway?” (164). Charlotte was a true artist because she sought to rise above the confines of her web, and her instincts, to make a difference. This difference resounded beyond the artist’s own need for self-fulfillment.
Winnie was also confined, “cooped up in a cage” (Babbit 15). She is weary of her existence in the “touch-me-not” cottage surrounded by a “capable iron fence” (6). She feels trapped, stifled, by her inherited environment. Her life is tedious and empty. She desires the life of her friend, the toad, “out in the open and making up my own mind” (15). Until she does, there will be “a piece missing”. Her existence is bound, like Charlotte’s by conventionality. There is no spontaneity permitted here. In order to break away from the futility of her existence, Winnie needs to do “something that’s all mine”. This “something” has to be cultivated from within, not imposed from outside. And like a true artist, despite its welling from the self, it needed to be a “something that would make some kind of difference in the world” (15). Winnie gets her chance when she takes the initiative and inventiveness that allows Mae to escape and the Tucks to survive in obscurity. Such courage gains the admiration of her friends, and like the legacy of most artists, she becomes a “figure of romance to them” (130). However, it is not only courage and initiative that define the artist, but their ability to unassumingly perceive what others do not. She saw it in the Tucks; despite their messy home and despite their claim to everlasting life, her attraction to them was an honest one, that took them for what they were – good people. And it is this that opens the way for her to make a difference. Winnie also sees beauty in the toad, a creature that others regard as ugly, and gives it the “precious water” thus capturing its essence in eternity, like a work of art.
Edmund, too, sees in others what others do not, but unlike Winnie, it is a self-deception that covers up the “missing piece” with a false one. It was a legacy of “that horrid school” (180) in which experiences had caused him to deny his own capabilities, his own artistry. That creativity was instead channeled into a web of lies and self-deception. To be able to lie, to deceive, is not without its artistry. Indeed Charlotte had deceived with her words, causing the reader to believe in Wilbur’s great value. Deception creates something out of what it is not; in Edmund’s case he used lies to deceive himself. He saw not in the Witch a “cold and stern” (Lewis ) lady but a generous one that would provide him with what would satisfy the empty space within him – stature and Turkish Delight. But this “piece” does not fit well, and its aggravation waxes greater as Edmund tries to accommodate it. In his gradual realization that others have suffered, have had their lives trapped in stone, have, like him, been denied their reality, he develops empathy, a vital tool of the artist. He relinquishes spite and jealousy, and with his vision cleared he produces his masterpiece: he is the only one to recognize that the power of the Witch resides in her wand and destroys it, thereby making a difference that reverberated throughout Narnia. He had now “become his real old self again and could look you in the face” (180), and with this acknowledgement of his own virtues fills in the “missing piece”. He becomes a grave and quiet man, “great in council and judgment”, the requirement of which are imagination and insight.
Jess’s imagination was suppressed by conventionality. Jess “loved to draw” (Paterson 10) despite his father’s abhorrence of it, and teachers’ scorn of it as a waste of time, paper, and ability (12). Drawing was Jess’s only means of filling in the “missing piece”. The calm that drawing offered would “seep down through his tired and tensed up body” making his thoughts less “muddled” (10) and his life more coherent. But being denied the opportunity to draw was like being handicapped; try as he might he just “can’t get the poetry of the trees” as he explains to Leslie (40).
Miss Edmunds, also an artist, tells Jess that he should not “let anything discourage him” in his pursuit of drawing. Jess’s subconscious empathy with Miss Edmunds, regarding her as a “beautiful wild creature who had been caught for a moment in that dirty old cage of a schoolhouse” (13), causes him to bury her sentiments deep within him “like a pirate treasure” (12), helping him to fill the gap that exists there.
Leslie, whose creativity in inventing Terabithia and honest rendering of the stories she unfolds for Jess, also encourages Jess telling him he “will someday” (40) capture the essence of what he sees on paper. She presents the perfect example of confidence as she fearlessly crosses the turbulent stream to enter the realm of imagination in Terabithia. It was her, (and Miss Edmund’s), belief in him that helped Jess face his fear, giving him the courage to build his own bridge to Terabithia, to not be afraid of reaching across to his own imagination and creativity, thereby finding the “missing piece”. It made a difference to his life, such that he was consequently able to help May Belle in facing her fears, assuring her that “Everybody gets scared sometimes (…) You don’t have to be ashamed” (123).
Each of these artists had the skill to create, be it in writing, drawing, or inventiveness in their approach to comprehending things. Yet its use had been denied by convention, inheritance. Or experience. Consequently, lack, or fear, of use had produced a great void. Only by breaking away the shackles, by finding an outlet for expression, could they fill in the “missing piece’ that added a new dimension to their lives and the effect of which was to reflect beyond their mere selves.