Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a very difficult novel to categorize. Its use of scientific terminology and ideas make it science fiction, but it has a lot of elements of fantasy as well, particularly in some of the creatures we meet. Even calling it young adult is a little misleading, because there are a lot of complex ideas that may go over the head of your average sixth grader. No matter how you want to categorize it, though, I found the story wonderful and fascinating, and L'Engle's storytelling and writing style is superior.

The Murry family is not a very ordinary one, except maybe the twins Dennys and Sandy, who are athletes and get good grades in school. Meg is a belligerent girl whose behavior gets her in a lot of trouble. Her youngest brother, Charles Wallace is exceptionally smart for a five-year old, smarter than most adults, in fact. Meg's parents are scientists, and her father has been missing for more than a year, though nobody seems to know why.

Eventually an older boy named Calvin enters her family's life, and Charles Wallace doesn't think it's a coincidence. He takes Meg and Calvin to an old abandoned house that is currently the residence of three strange ladies: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. These three ladies are, in fact, not really ladies, but otherworldly beings whose origins you will learn throughout the course of the story. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are led by these three ladies on a quest to find their father and to learn why he disappeared.

The novel is largely about human limitations, and I think it's important that all of L'Engle's characters are extraordinarily intelligent, especially Charles Wallace. Despite their high intellect, we find their understanding of things limited, and so is ours. L'Engle is interested in the idea that we may understand something, but can't quite put it into words. Mrs. Whatsit is in the habit of saying that there are no words known to mankind that can describe some of the things they encounter, and Mrs. Which is even more fond of pointing out that speech itself is limited in what it conveys, and the three strange ladies rarely use speech to communicate with one another. We also encounter other strange beings that can't see, but yet have a special understanding of their surroundings that causes Meg to realize that even human sight limits our understanding of things. Many things happen in this novel that words cannot describe and our puny minds can hardly fathom, but isn't that what makes our universe so wonderful?

Though Meg is the protagonist of the novel and the focus of the third person viewpoint, I would argue it is Charles Wallace who is the key character. He seems to have an otherworldly understanding of things, which is all the more amazing considering his young age. He's unarguably the leader of the three. Through the course of the novel, particularly after we meet Meg's father and hear what he has to say, I took Charles Wallace as symbolic of humanity. He's exceedingly bright, yet still a child, and his intelligence gets the better of him when it turns into arrogance and he dives into endeavors overconfident of his abilities. I believe L'Engle is trying to say that people, even with their exceptional intelligence, are childlike. We dive into projects and adventures with far less knowledge than we believe we have, and we often make a mess of things, but in the end we still learn from it, and from each other.

Written in 1962, L'Engle was clearly inspired by the Cold War and the red scare. L'Engle provides one overarching threat that is difficult to define or comprehend except that it gives off an aura of evil. She also provides another more clearly defined threat, characterized as a hive mind being that has a rhythmic control over its people. If somebody dares disrupt this rhythm by doing something different from the rest they are cruelly punished. The temptation to give in to this hive mind is very easy, as it frees you of all your burdens, and Communism at the time was viewed as something like a contagious disease. If one person caught it, it might latch onto others until the entire United States fell prey to it. Just look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, 50 years later I think Americans, some at least, have had the chance to view Communism more objectively. Though in practice it turned into a totalitarian system, in theory it had very admirable goals. Stalin just so happened to make it the bogeyman of the Cold War, and L'Engle capitalizes on this bogeyman like Carol Kendall did in the The Gammage Cup before it. I find the idea tiring, and I wish L'Engle wasn't so serious about it.

L'Engle tells her story at a leisurely pace, one that slowly dives deeper and deeper into mystery, and slowly peels away the children's and the reader's sense of protection. Pacing, of course, is very important, and L'Engle shows her mastery over it where other young adult authors would be tempted to plunge into fast-paced, frenetic action and ambiguous romance. In terms of its ideas, it's a very intelligent story. The character development is a little shallow, and her climax, while it's the logical and obvious route, is anti-climatic, but it's in her big ideas and writing style that L'Engle shines, and I doubt we'll come across many stories written quite like this one.

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