Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Temptations of the Imagination: A Review of Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia

Katherine Pateron's book Bridge to Terabithia is one that speaks to both adults and children alike. It's a story of the bonds of friendship, family ties, courage, and most importantly, the power of the Imagination. Having seen the newly released film, I realize that the story contains a message that strikes the core of the human conscious: we all search for that elusive "other", who is often refered to as best friend, or most likely, soulmate. Jesse and Leslie not only share a beautiful friendship, but they also share feelings that arise from being "different". Their friendship also remains platonic and I believe that it's this very nature of their frienship that elevates this story from being just another teen boy-meets-girl tale. By abandoning their more adult (sexual) desires, and remaining as children, Leslie and Jesse are able to indulge in their imaginations, and in the process find freedom, courage, and a love that transcends the earthly.

The story revolves around two fifth-grade children: Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke. Leslie and Jesse's friendship forms when Leslie beats Jesse (the then 'fastest boy in fifth-grade') in a school race. Jesse, though mortified at first, later learns that Leslie is far from a Miss Goody Two-Shoes. She is different from the other girls in school and gets just as many insults from the school bullies for dressing differently (in punk/hippie items), not having a television at home, and living with eccentric parents who are both authors. Jesse's interest in Leslie grows when he hears her read an essay she coined for a class assignment. Her desciption of scuba-diving totally wins Jesse, who is himself a talented artist, prone to sketching magical creatures in his sketchbook, much to the chagrin of his father, who would much rather his son didn't have his 'head in the clouds'. Though both Jesse and Leslie are ignored by their parents, Leslie has a closer bond with her father while the only person in his family who seems to value him is his six year-old little sister May Bell. One day, Leslie and Jesse cross over a little stream (with the help of a rope attached to a tree) and find a forest that Leslie names 'Terabithia'. Together, Jesse and Leslie imagine ruling this Kingdom as King and Queen, respectively, strengthening their fort (a tree house), and warding off their enemies, which include large squirrels, trolls, and giants. Then, a tragic event happens, which tests Jesse's faith in Leslie, their friendship, and teaches him about overcoming his fears and making a difference.

Terabithia represents the Imagination. Paterson's choice of title makes a reference to C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia , in which Terabinthia is a land in the vicinity of Narnia. It is important to note that Terabithia exists when the children are in the land that lies beyond the stream. The children have to cross over to that land in order to construct their magical kingdom. In the land of their every day lives, Terabithia does not exist. Even Leslie, in a house with writers for parents, needs to escape to her own world, away from that of her parents, and she needs an accomplice, a friend who will share her visions and allow them to flourish. Whereas both children were lonely in their respective homes, they are no longer the same in Terabithia, for they have each other and their Imaginations to keep them company there. In this sense, the book suggests that one needs a space that would allow one freedom to imagine, in the vein of Virginia Woolf's argument in A Room of One's Own.

The children's friendship blossoms when the two worlds, the World of the Imagination, and Real World, are split. Jesse and Leslie cannot discuss Terabithia in their real worlds. But the book asks the question whether this must always be the case. Can the two worlds coexist, or are they exclusive? Can we build a bridge between the two worlds or are they very distant from each other?

It seems that Paterson is ambigous about answering this question: while it is possible to build a bridge, and Jesse contrives to do that at the end, we also see that the 'bridgeing' comes at a tragic cost. In some sense, Paterson suggests that building a bridge between the Real and the Fantastic, is a task worthy of immense sacrifice. It is the result of a fall from innocence to experience, except that while "They (Adam and Eve) hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,/Through Eden took thir solitarie way," Jesse enters the "New World" without Leslie. However, as he bridges the two worlds, he has his sister's hand to hold onto for support, and so we learn the importance of family. Just as Leslie had taught him to have his 'mind open wide', he applies that and teaches May Bell to do that same.

As humans, we strive to bridge the two worlds. Leslie succumbs to the Imagination more than Jesse. The Imagination, like a temptress, encroaches upon the Rational side of her. She can no longer keep the two aspects of her life (one as a girl in the Real World, and the other as ruler of Terabithia) seperate, and so she attempts to bridge the two first. Thus, Leslie is the first to cross that stream on that fatal day, even though the torrential rain had caused flooding and had probably weakened the rope. She was too eager to escape into her fantasy world, risking her own life in the process. In the absence of a bridge, a safe way of crossing over to the other place, Leslie makes a leap that triggers the events that follow.

Another important detail consists in the fact that on that fateful day, Jesse is out of the country. He is out of the world that foster's his literary imagination. He is out of the dirt and grime of his simple country shack, and the woods of Terabithia. When he embarks on that trip with his teacher, he enters the modern city: he enters Modernity, the World of Rationality. Here, instead of him doing the drawing, he views the exhibits of art by dead painters. Thus, in the modern world, Art is displayed instead of created. The book suggests that while in the city, like the other artists, Jesse the artist, is also dead. He is no longer the one who does the creating, as he did while in Terabithia. In a sense, when Jesse metaphorically dies in the city, Leslie literally interprets this act in the country. As soulmates, Jesse and Leslie need each other to be alive, for their imaginations to soar. Without the other, each feels betrayed, changes, and cannot cope. Incidentally, this idea is also central to love theme in Wuthering Heights.

I could elaborate further about this story, but it would suffice to end this post on this note: Bridge to Terabithia is beyond wonderful. In fact, Wonderful is an understatement. It is one of the best stories I have ever read. With its rich symbolisim, as well as inherant simplicity, Bridge speaks to not only the child, but rather, the human, in all of us. Like the moonbeams Leslie captures in her purse, Katherine Paterson's tale has faithfully captured the essence of what it means to live, love, and endure.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Visual DNA

I found this in another blog and tried it myself. I invite all my readers to try it too! :)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jane Austen - why the fuss?

This interesting article about Jane Austen is worth a read! It contextualizes the discourse in Women's Literature.

Here's an excerpt that mentions the Brontë sisters:

"It's all too graceful and lacks guts, says writer Zoe Williams, who prefers those other 19th Century romantic writers - the Brontë sisters."

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Scarlet Letter and the Elf-Child

As one of the most fascinating characters I've ever come across in Literature, Pearl stands as a symbol of great Art, both through Hawthorne's characterization of her, and her actions through the course of the novel.

We are introduced to Pearl at the very beginning and it could be argued that if it wasn't for her, the novel The Scarlet Letter would not exist. The novel opens with a community of puritans surrounding a scaffold on which stands a young woman, Hester Prynne, Pearl's mother, holding her infant. Hester had been convicted of adultery and had just borne a bastard child. Indeed, Pearl enters the world aware of the scarlet letter A attached to her mother's bosom. When the magistrates of the town demand that she reveal the father of the child so that he too can share the burden, Hester does not comply, but accedes to face the humiliation alone. Later, after her hour of ignominy, Hester takes residence at an isolated cottage, away from the rest of the village, striving to earn a living for her and her child through her handiwork. Thus, from an early age, Hester adorns Pearl in beautiful garments while she remains modestly dressed, her hair covered and the letter A, albeit finely decorated, permanent attached to her bosom.

Removed from the rest of civilization, except on occasional trips to the town with her mother, Pearl is essentialy a child of the forest, for she belongs to Nature. She is allowed to roam freely, make up her own games and playmates, and learn the world anew, a world in which the Nature within is given full rein.

Pearl's external beauty is a result of the innocence and freedom she has within her. She is her mother's companion as well as her savior; she's loving, curious, and brave; she plays with the animals and is one with the plants and flowers. Intrigued by the scarlet letter on her mother's breast, Pearl constantly questions Hester as to its meaning and at one point even tells her she wants to be like her mother. Most of all, Pearl asks for genuine love and affection from Hester and the minister, Arthur Dimmsdale. When the latter refuses to hold her hand in public in the daytime, Pearl is crushed and loses her faith in the minister. To Pearl, who lacks a strong father figure or a happy mother figure, the only symbol of constancy is the scarlet letter. She becomes almost as obsessed with it as the villagers who were responsible for making Hester wear it. She touches it, plays with it, and contructs and imitation of it on the grass during one of her games.

Although the scarlet letter is initially a symbol of punishment, it becomes a source of strength for Hester and Pearl. Hester is able to exert her independence and earn a living of her own because of it. As both Hester and Pearl are marginalized, they have freedom to do things the other townspeaople cannot. Though Hester lacks friends, she is able to form a closer bond with her daughter and learn something from her. Pearl thrives more while being marginalized, for she is able to be 'wild' to her heart's content, just like the reeds that grown on the river bank. Pearl does not govern by Puritan rules but rather, by the laws of Nature. Nature is indeed on her side, for Pearl's existance is a result of love, a feeling that cannot be governed by any law, but the divine. In this sense, Hawthorne equates the Divine with Nature, which translates to Pearl being a symbol of a divine Angel. Further, she is faithful to her feelings, unlike the adults around her, and that is itself admirable. She is passionate and speaks out even if her mother does not. She is protective of her mother and wards off other people who threaten to harm her or her mother.

In a scene riddled with symbolism, Pearl uses the scarlet letter to change her mother. Towards the end of the novel, Arthur and Hester reconcile and Hester convinces him to return to England so that they can live obscure but free lives. In one of the most moving passages of the novel, Hester strips herself of the scarlet letter and hurls it across the ground. She also releases her hair from its clasp so that her rich tresses tumble down in waves about her. She remarks to Arthur that in the forest, at this time, the scarlet letter will no longer burn her even if she wears it, because she is with none other than her companion in 'crime'. As she gets rid of the scarlet letter, she tastes a hint of freedom, even for a brief instance. When Hester calls Pearl, who was playing by herself on the opposite side of the stream, the child refuses to return to her mother's arms. Speechless, and stunned, Pearl points to her mother's chest, and with an understanding sigh, Hester retrieves the scarlet letter, hooks it back in its place and bundles her hair into its previous hairstyle. As she does so, Pearl happily skips over the stream and embraces her mother, for now she recognizes her. Thus, Pearl orders her mother into submission by using the scarlet letter. While it is posession and constancy on Pearl's side, her actions also suggest oedipal tensions, for the child, seeing her mother decked in natural beauty, winning the affection of a man, who is essentially Pearl's father, is roused with jealousy, and so attempts to strip her mother of charms that will win over her own. Hester thus resigns herself to the tribulations associated with wearing the letter A.

It is interesting to note that Pearl is a sparkling character when she is a child. She is repeatedly refered to as elfin, child of the forest, impish, and fairy-like. Through her bright, bubbly, passionate nature, Pearl wins the affections of the townspeople, the minister, and even Roger Chillingworth, the novels antagonist and Hester's legal husband. In the novel's conclusion, we learn that Hester and Pearl leave for England. Pearl is hightly sought-after for she inherits a large sum of money from Roger Chillingworth, upon his death. We are told that she later marries and possibly has a child of her own. Nothing else is mentioned about Pearl, and in fact, we are left to only infer certain facts about her, for she never appears on her own. Why is this so? Why does Pearl assume so little importance towards the end of the novel when she played a prominent role until that point? Does Pearl's transformation into a 'proper woman' in England, her marriage, and motherhood, signify that she is no longer worth talking about?

By taming the elf-child, does Hawthorne applaud Pearl for her sucess, or is he, like the readers, disappointed with her for succumbing to the pressures of a 'modern, rational, ordered' world?

[The insert is from "Pearl and the Scarlet Letter". Wood engraving by George M. Richards. From "The Scarlet Letter" (New York: Macmillan, 1927). ]