The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

There is Such a Thing as a Tesseract: A Wrinkle in Time

Some misunderstood teenagers need to find their own way in life.

Some are fortunate enough to do this while traveling through space and time.

A Wrinkle in Time, probably Madeleine L’Engle’s most famous novel, and certainly one of her most profound and imaginative, begins on a dark and stormy night, as Meg Murry, an overdramatic teenager with Major Issues, is sitting and sulking in her room. (We’ve all been there.) Terrified by the storm outside, she heads downstairs for a snack, to encounter her strange little brother, Charles Wallace, her worried mother, and a tramp. Of sorts. Who calls herself Mrs. Whatsit, and who is later joined by Mrs. Who (who wears glasses and quotes a lot) and Mrs. Witch (who speaks with a lot of extra letters.)

The next day Meg finds herself spinning to other worlds, searching for her missing father.

L’Engle uses a neat narrative trick — a wrinkle, or what she calls a tesser — both to pull off space travel in a flicker of an instant and have the kids return before anyone can ask where they go. She uses a second neat narrative trick to admit that no human can fully understand or control this tessering, but explains it with a nice series of simple geometric drawings and an ant. But, although this is the title of the book, and much of the plot revolves around it, at its heart, this is a book about the painful process of growing up and self acceptance — if one that dazzles as it leaps from world to world.

(And for those who may complain about the convenience of this sort of travel or claim that it’s completely against the laws of physics, let me just note that it’s mastered by former stars here. Not Hollywood type stars, either. Real stars. I’m guessing they learned a bit about physics as they burned their way through the cosmos.)

Joining Meg are Charles Wallace and a new friend, Calvin O’Keefe, who has managed to maintain good grades and popularity and a decent sense of self-esteem despite coming from a poverty-stricken, abusive household. It’s a striking contrast with Meg, part of a well-to-do, loving household, yet deeply lacking in the self-esteem department. (Among the many, many things that went wrong in the Hollywood production was to make Meg pretty and remove the glasses and braces.)

L’Engle whirls the three from planet to planet: to a marvelous place of beauty and peace named Uriel, with an atmosphere thin enough to see evil; to the home of the Happy Medium (a delightful example of L’Engle’s wordplay), to Camazotz, a planet of terrifying uniformity, and the grey planet of Ixchel. L’Engle is a master at painting these alien civilizations with just a few words, although some of her creations are more successful than others. (Uriel, for instance, is perhaps just a bit too perfect, and not altogether convincing.)

The most memorable of their stops is undoubtedly Camazotz, where Meg’s father is imprisoned. Memorable precisely because the population of Camazotz is not alien, but recognizably human (and English-speaking). But, as the three soon realize, something is very wrong here: nearly every child (with one exception) bounces a ball or jumps rope in perfect unison. The doors all open and close at once. Everyone has a place, a part, a cog in a great pulsing machine. In Camazotz, L’Engle presents a genuinely chilling picture of evil: conformity.

Since L’Engle lived through World War II and wrote this book during the Cold War, Camazotz has sometimes been interpreted as a her representation of the Soviet Union and totalitarian societies. I’m not sure that’s correct. It reads rather as a warning about the conformity of American suburbia, the desire to be just like everyone else and not stand out. Not that the desire to conform is confined to American suburbs, but what Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace walk through is a horrific parody of one, with its identical houses and nice neat lawns all outside the city limits.

Not surprisingly, the three kids, who come from a small town with a long history, find this horrifying. And L’Engle, who adored the individuality of New York City and the area of rural Connecticut where she’d been living, had just taken a cross country camping trip across the United States on its relatively new interstate highway system — a system that even then was beginning to inspire the creation of chain restaurants and hotels, allowing tourists to obtain identical, or nearly identical, housing and food wherever they traveled in the United States.

Some of the horror L’Engle felt at this slipped out in a later Vicky Austin book containing more straightforward retelling of the trip. It fit, too, with a central theme of many of her novels: it’s okay to be different. Even beneficial. Not that L’Engle was unaware of or unconcerned about the Cold War, as the next two books in this series would show, but I somehow think, had she been attempting to make a statement about the Soviet Union, she would have chosen different imagery.

Despite the effectiveness and terror of this imagery, however, A Wrinkle in Time does have a few flaws here and there. I have no idea what a two dimensional planet is doing in a four dimensional universe, even if the very concept intrigued me so much as a kid that I began to write (very bad) stories about life in a two dimensional universe. And L’Engle, for all of her poetry and breakneck speed earlier in the book, has a very awkward infodump as Meg awakes on the strange planet of Ixchel. But these are minor criticisms.

Larger criticisms can be made about on the characters, particularly Meg. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: yes, Meg is whiny. Yes, Meg is overdramatic. (And she does not list either of these as flaws.) She’s also angry, impatient, and stubborn, and her self-esteem needs one major booster. But Meg is also a highly realistic teenager. (The impatience with adults and their inability to just stay focused on the things Meg considers important is just classic). And she has reason to be overdramatic and whiny: quite apart from her problems at school, her father is missing (and she’s been harassed by this) and she keeps getting interrupted in her quest to save him and her brother by annoying aliens and talkative stars.

Despite her flaws, I like Meg, a lot. Possibly because, like Meg, I wore glasses and was generally unpopular and awkward in school, and didn’t always think highly of my teachers and what they thought important, making Meg easy for me to identify with. And more probably because even in the midst of the overdramatic whining, Meg never really does lose sight of what’s important: saving her parents.

But it’s just as well that Meg is a fairly realistic teenager and Mrs. Whatsit is a fairly realistic former star (as such things go) since the same cannot be said about the other major characters, particularly Charles Wallace. I get that he is not supposed to be a realistic five year old, and it’s just as well that L’Engle goes out of her way to make this point, because, Charles Wallace, not a realistic five year old. At the same time, he’s often not a particularly realistic anything else, either, largely because L’Engle has moments of suddenly remembering, wait, Charles Wallace isn’t just some new form of super genius human being with telepathy, but, he’s also five! and then proceeding to make him act like a small, terrified little five year old. Most of these moments are near the beginning, but they are still distracting.

And Mr. Murry never manages to come alive either, whether as absentee father, present father, or astrophysicist. (And whatever my cynicism about the federal government, I find myself unable to believe that a second astrophysicist would be testing tessering after the first simply disappeared without a clue. At least try to theorize what happened, first!)

Catherynne Valente, in an insightful essay published earlier this year, also notes some distinct gender issues — including the oddity that the brilliant Mrs. Murry is not allowed to help in the search for her husband, and the way that L’Engle uses more infantilizing language for Meg than for Calvin or the much younger Charles Wallace.

On a language note, this is where I first found myself distracted by L’Engle’s frequent use of the word “moan,” a writing tic that would worsen in later years. One or two moans in a book is fine (more are acceptable if ghosts are around), but L’Engle’s characters, starting here, would do so much moaning that I felt the need to beg them to try just a little groaning or grumbling and grousing.

But despite these flaws, the book has several great moments: Meg’s realization that her father cannot solve everything, and her later realization that to be loved by Mrs. Whatsit is something; the blind aliens who study the stars without knowledge of light or sight; the sheer poetry of Uriel; Mrs. Who’s quotations, which I loved as a child.

And this, my favorite bit:

…“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is entirely up to you.”

Because above all, this is a book that refuses to talk down to its readers, believing them able to grasp the difficult concepts of mathematics, love and the battle between good and evil. And that’s quite something.

 


Mari Ness tried to master the tesseract, but found that the math was completely beyond her. She lives in central Florida, and thinks physicists should get on this practical implementation of space wrinkling, like, now.

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