A Wrinkle in Time Essay - Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series A Wrinkle in Time Analysis

Madeleine L'Engle

Masterpieces of Women's Literature A Wrinkle in Time Analysis

L’Engle’s primary audience consists of children in the elementary and middle grades, those to whom appearance and “fitting in” are of utmost importance. Her themes, therefore, offer these readers a different perspective.

The novel’s foremost theme is the value of nonconformity. Neither Meg nor Charles Wallace fits the stereotype of the “typical” teenager or five-year-old. Charles Wallace’s linguistic precocity and Meg’s mathematical skills place them far above the norm, but because few people hear Charles Wallace’s speech or see Meg’s mind at work, the general public regards both children as odd and slightly subnormal in intellect. Recalling the years when her father was at home, Meg remembers referring to herself as “dumb.” Dr. Murry corrected his daughter’s self-assessment by reminding her that everyone develops at a different pace: She will eventually “catch on” to math (with the help of the shortcuts he promised to teach her), just as Charles Wallace (then a toddler) will learn to talk.

Later, when she visits Camazotz, Meg realizes the horror of life in a community where everyone is exactly like everyone else. On Camazotz, there is a “right” way to bounce a ball, a “right” time to turn on a light, a “right” way to think. It is this extreme conformity, supposedly affording security and happiness, that Dr. Murry has attempted to conquer. It is significant that his rescue is effected not by the supposedly well-rounded twins, Sandy and Dennys, but by his “different” children, Charles Wallace and Meg. The fact that the “strange” characters perform a major and positive function attests L’Engle’s belief in the worth of individuality.

In A Wrinkle in Time, things are not always as they seem. Meg and Charles Wallace’s “slowness” is superficial. In addition, the Murrys’ fellow townspeople assume that Dr. Murry has abandoned his wife, but both Mrs. Murry and Meg suspect—correctly—that he is on a secret mission involving grave danger. Even Mrs. Murry is likely to make quick judgments based on outer appearances. When Mrs. Whatsit arrives at the door in an array of ragged, mismatching sweaters and scarves, Mrs. Murry takes her for a bag lady. Her hasty assessment of her comically clad neighbor receives a jolt, however, when the latter calmly remarks that there is actually such a thing as a “tesseract.” Far from being a simple squatter, Mrs. Whatsit is a supernatural being whose understanding exceeds that of the most gifted mortals.

While the Murry children seem to accept the Mrs. W’s as benevolent helpers, some religious groups have attempted to ban A Wrinkle in Time on the grounds that these three ladies resemble witches. If readers look only at the W’s outer appearance, this objection is justifiable; if they look at the characters behind the guises, however, it is without substance. It seems possible, in fact, that L’Engle has given the Mrs. W’s a witchlike description in order to advance her theme of discrepancy between appearance and reality.

The purpose of the Mrs. W’s in transporting the children to outer space is twofold: They wish to help them find their father and deliver him from the evil of Camazotz; and they intend to enlighten them—Meg in particular—to the worth of individuality. Even though her physical appearance is less attractive than she desires, Meg realizes from seeing the people of Camazotz that there is nothing enviable in being a copy of someone else. Thus the mission of the “witches” is essentially good.

Mrs. Whatsit tells the children that she and the other Mrs. W’s are not the first to fight against evil; leaders, such as Jesus, have striven to elucidate minds clouded by ignorance and crippled by blind obedience to dictators of collective thinking. Furthermore, she and Mrs. Who frequently quote passages from the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, the appearance of the Mrs. W’s notwithstanding, A Wrinkle in Time can be considered a Christian, rather than a satanic, novel.

Effective children’s writers educate as they entertain. L’Engle indirectly introduces her audience to mathematics, physics, foreign languages, Greek mythology, and English literature. Assisting Calvin O’Keefe with his homework, Meg makes casual reference to algebraic and physical equations; Mrs. Who quotes lines from writings in Latin, French, and German; and Mrs. Whatsit assumes the form of a flying horse on which the children ride to their first stop in outer space, the planet Uriel. The horse is reminiscent of Pegasus, while L’Engle may have named the planet for the archangel of the sun in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Through such references, L’Engle teaches her audience within the context of a quickly moving, suspenseful fantasy.