A Wrinkle in Time



A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle

Age: 9+

Interests: fantasy, science fiction, time travel, family, magic, science, math, strong girls, siblings, religion, politics

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1962

211 pages

1st volume in Time Quintet series:
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

To Read Next: When You Reach Me – another time travel novel in which the book A Wrinkle in Time plays a part

At her school both students and teachers regard thirteen-year-old Meg Murry as stubborn and unfriendly. She is very clever at math and science, but is unable to apply herself to her schoolwork, preoccupied as she is with the mysterious disappearance of her scientist father. On one stormy night she, her mother, and her younger brother Charles Wallace – a child prodigy and apparent psychic – are visited by the very odd Mrs. Whatsit, who mentions in passing that tesseracts are real, at which news Mrs. Murry nearly faints.

It turns out that tesseracts – wrinkles in time that allow time travel – are what Mr. Murry was working on when he disappeared. Determined to find out more about them, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a new friend Calvin are drawn to Mrs. Whatsit’s ramshackle house. They meet her friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, and embark with the three ladies across the universe on a quest to rescue Mr. Murry.

After a visit to the idyllic planet of Uriel, populated by centaurs, they travel to consult the “Happy Medium”, and finally venture to the planet Camazotz. The citizens there, controlled by a disembodied brain, live in perfect, serene conformity – individuality or difference of any kind is not tolerated. The brain in charge tries to take over the children’s brains, and Charles Wallace succumbs in order to find out where their father is located. Mr. Murry is rescued but Charles Wallace needs rescuing next, and in the end Meg is the only person who can accomplish this.

This is a very complex and mind-bending story, with overtones of quantum physics and Catholicism played out in a fantasy-sci-fi hodge-podge of bizarre characters and surreal settings. Add to that the anti-totalitarian message, the battle cry of nonconformity, and the message of loyalty and love for family and friends, and you have a pretty potent combination for preadolescent readers. (Oh, and there’s a budding romance in the mix as well.) This is a true classic for young readers, in all the best ways – it challenges them intellectually and introduces them to new vistas of imagination. Not surprisingly, this book is often cited as a life-changing read.

L’Engle wrote later about how difficult it was to find a publisher for this novel, as it ran against the grain in many ways: it had a female protagonist in a sci-fi story (gasp), it dealt too directly with the idea of good vs. evil, it was just too weird and too difficult, with challenging concepts mined from math and quantum physics, and above all felt more like a book for adults than youth. In the end it took a publisher who had never dealt with children’s books before to publish it for young readers, a fact which does not reflect very well on the ‘expertise’ of the children’s publishers of that time. (The manuscript was rejected twenty-six times.)

Much like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, L’Engle’s work is informed by her Catholicism, particularly in the all-encompassing battle of good vs evil. Evil here is embodied by the Black Thing, a darkness which threatens to blot out the universe. The author’s religious belief, however, is well on the liberal side, and the novel’s wild mix of magical, pagan, and sci-fi elements drew criticism from conservative Catholic circles.

Politically, the mind-control dystopia of Camazotz is a parallel for Soviet communism, but – according to a passage that was deleted from the first printing – it was also intended as a warning against democracies with an excessive desire for security, a desire which could lead them to act like authoritarian states. (McCarthyism was still a recent and shameful memory when this book was being written.)

Aside from ethical and political issues, another major theme is the high price of conformity and going along with the crowd, which is of course a major concern for preteens and teenagers. Meg is the very model of an adolescent outsider: self-conscious, clumsy, troubled, stubborn, unpopular at school, anxious and moody, hot-tempered, and labouring under a serious inferiority complex. While disaffected, nerdy female protagonists are fairly common these days, they were rare to nonexistent in the YA novels of 1962, especially in the realm of science fiction. The fact that both Meg’s mother and father are brilliant scientists is also important. Meg’s fascination with math and science is normalized and turned into an asset. Her mother more than anyone else recognizes that Meg’s emotional immaturity is masking great strength. As is often the case for young people, Meg is her own worst enemy.

More could be written about this book, but I’ll leave it here. It’s all heady stuff, and this book can really open up new worlds for young readers. Philosophy, religion, politics and science are all included in a gripping story with fully developed and relatable young characters. (Well, relatable except for Charles Wallace. He’s just freaky.) This is rightfully regarded as a classic and will be a thrilling challenge for any young reader to dive into. Even those who find it “just too weird!” will have benefitted from reading it.

One last bit of trivia: L’Engle begins this book with a first line that was largely regarded at the time as the hallmark of bad writing and cliché – It was a dark and stormy night. The phrase in itself may not seem so bad, but consider it here in its full context as written Edward Bulwer-Lytton to open his novel Paul Clifford (1830):

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This over-florid style resulted in a competition of bad writing being named after Bulwer-Lytton. Writing in the 1960s, L’Engle undoubtedly used this opening as a bit of “a wink to the reader”, as her biographer Leonard Marcus puts it. A few years later Snoopy in the Peanuts comic strip, sitting on top of his doghouse with his typewriter, began every story with the same phrase.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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