A Wrinkle in Time

At first this seemed like a nice, easy start for this blog. L’Engle is one of my favorite authors, and Meg Murry is one of my favorite characters. But loving the novel doesn’t erase the issues inherent in it- which is basically the purpose of this blog in a nutshell.

EDIT: Alaska has a great counter-argument in the comments, if you’re interested.

Title: A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle

Brief summary: Meg, her young brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin travel to Camazotz and revolutionize via individualist thinking

Triggers: I can’t think of any offhand, although freedom of speech is seriously limited, and it’s definitely a product of the time in which it was written.

Why I Think It’s On the List: A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery, and it deserved it. Meg is an iconic female children’s lit protagonist for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that she’s a girl who’s interested in science and math and gets into fights, and both of her parents are famous scientists who encourage her to be herself.

It’s worth noting some of the other female characters as well. Meg’s mother is a brilliant scientist who goes on to win a Nobel Prize, and the three Mrs.’s (Whatsit, Which, and Who), who could choose any form, present themselves as older women, and even as they retain other shapes (and acknowledge that they’re really genderless and, in fact, used to be stars), they are still referred to as Mrs.

Wait, But… First of all, this isn’t a young adult novel. This is squarely middle grade/independent reader. L’Engle has written plenty of great YA, some of which has Meg Murry as a character (although not the protagonist- we’ll get to that later), and the two categories are different. Meg’s problems are the nuanced problems of a complex, thoughtful middle grade book, but a young adult novel carries with it different types of complexities. For example, her relationship with Calvin is chaste, not just in action but also in desire. Moreover, while Meg is ultimately the one to successfully break IT’s control over both her father and Charles Wallace, she’s consistently given help and support by adults she trusts, which doesn’t fit the young adult model of protagonist/adult interaction:

[A]lthough children’s novels often have absent parents so that the child protagonist is free to have an adventure… the child often returns to some sort of parent-based home by the end of the narrative. […] Parents of teenagers constitute a more problematic presence in the adolescent novel because parent-figures in YA novels usually serve more as sources of conflict than as sources of support. They are more likely to repress than to empower. (Trites, 55-56)

Meg is fighting against the system (as symbolized by Charles Wallace and IT), but the adults that matter in her life- her parents, the three Mrs.’s, Aunt Beast- are fighting alongside her.

Secondly, I’m not sure this is feminist by today’s standards. It’s certainly a feminist children’s lit touchstone, but a lot of what Meg does is pretty standard in today’s middle grade. Young girl who feels like she doesn’t fit in, and gets into fights defending her family? This does not surprise me. Tomboys are fairly common protagonists for middle-grade novels. I love Meg, but I wouldn’t hand this book to someone saying “Check it out, feminism!” without at least a brief explanation of the historical context of the novel- which, I should note, is copyright 1962.

Not that Meg doesn’t kick ass, because she does. How many preteen girls do you see in books, even today, who are brilliant in science and math? But that doesn’t erase the problems. After all, Meg ends up succeeding not with her stubbornness or with her math and science skills, but with love. Calvin, Charles Wallace, and Dr. Murry are able to out-think her on a lot of logical problems, but Meg manages to get past IT by relying on her grasp of feelings that IT cannot experience by ITself. That connection with how you feel about others provides a great message, but it coming from a female character is fairly common, and I wouldn’t think to label Meg doing that as explicitly feminist.

Third, there’s the problematic aspect of Meg’s future. I’ve always wanted to be like Meg Murry when I grow up- except that I don’t, because we’ve seen how she grows up, and it’s pretty bleak. Over several other books by L’Engle, we learn the fate of all of these characters. Calvin works overseas. Calvin is involved with foreign governments, protecting the underprivileged. Calvin has labs on an island near Portugal and then an island near South Carolina, where he does paradigm-shifting work regenerating starfish limbs and then human ones. Calvin goes on a boat ride to Dragon Lake to deal with oil spills and the way they’re hurting the local animals. Charles Wallace grows up to go on secret spy missions no one can even talk about. Meg… has babies. And sometimes she helps Calvin in the lab. And maybe when her seventh child starts school, she’ll be able to finish her PhD. In A House Like a Lotus (1984- and trust me, when I’m done with the 103 books on the list, WE WILL GET TO THE STRENGTHS AND SERIOUS INHERENT FLAWS *cough*homophobia*cough* OF THIS NOVEL), Max specifically notices that Meg isn’t happy: “She’s been a good mother to all of you, but it’s beginning to wear on her. She’s got a fine brain, and not enough chance to use it” (81).

I remember being upset when I learned that Narnia was an allegory for Christianity, but I think the moment of putting things together in children’s books that hit me hardest was when I realized that red-headed Polly O’Keefe, with her twin uncles Sandy and Dennys and her mathematician mother and scientist father, was the daughter of Meg Murry. Meg Murry was full of potential. She was smart and kind and brave and loyal and stubborn and not-particularly-pretty and basically the perfect stand-in for every fourth-grade girl who didn’t quite fit in… and then she grew up to be dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

If it weren’t for Lotus, I could give plenty of extra-textual logic for why Meg is portrayed as she is in those books. After all, she’s not the protagonist; she’s the mother of the protagonist in a YA novel, and that means she has to not be front and center. I can even excuse the way that in Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), which takes place about ten years after A Wrinkle in Time, Meg only participates by kything with Charles Wallace. After all, he didn’t get to go on the adventure in A Wind in the Door (1973) and this was his turn, and also because she’s pregnant during that novel. But Lotus IS a part of L’Engle’s canon, and it explicitly identifies Meg as unhappy. I think it takes away from some of what makes Wrinkle feminist when you factor in that Meg grows up and loses the part of herself that makes her that great icon.

I love love love A Wrinkle in Time, and Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace are fantastic characters. But as a 16-year-old who read a lot of L’Engle’s work I was suspicious, and as a 26-year-old who has a background in children’s literature criticism I’m disappointed at how much less perfect it is than I remember it being when I first read it when I was eight.

P.S. A post-colonial reading of this novel would be EPIC. Is anyone else in, or should I put this on my to-do list?

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City. 2000.

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About Amy S.

I have my bachelor's from Bryn Mawr College and my masters' from Simmons. I enjoy children's literature, reality television, cut-paper art, naps, and Comic-Con. When I grow up I want to live in the giant library from Beauty and the Beast, especially if they install wi-fi in there.
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48 Responses to A Wrinkle in Time

  1. PK says:

    This is a really good synopsis of the issues at hand, and…well, ‘The Problem With Meg’. (And why didn’t Neil Gaiman write that too?) Bravo.

    And yeah, NOT YA, middle-grade.

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  3. KT says:

    The fact that Meg is described as unhappy, would that be considered an indirect form of feminism? “Look, this woman had potential, didn’t fulfill it, and is now unhappy because of it. So, young ladies, don’t do that.” Would that be the kind of message this is getting at?

    • Amy S. says:

      It very possibly is. I remember reading that L’Engle had been working on an adult book about Meg in her 50s; she clearly hadn’t forgotten Meg or abandoned her. It’s an interesting contrast with characters like Victoria Austin (older), who abandoned a successful career in music to marry and have children and didn’t regret it. It may well subtly be saying that for some people, that IS the right choice, and for some it isn’t- which is definitely an important concept in feminism.

      At the same time, I can’t shake my gut instinct reaction of betrayal from the text (well, the body of work; I don’t feel it for any book INDIVIDUALLY, just L’Engle’s Kairos series as a whole), and I feel like I have to put more effort in to making that reading work.

      I think it’s far more complicated than identifying this text on the binary of feminist or not (and I really did not mean to be saying either definitively; I hope it didn’t come across that way!), but there’s something kind of miserable about your adored feminist heroine becoming dissatisfied with her life.

      • Amy, could you remind me in which book we learn about the older Vicky Austin? I’m blanking on that (and am suddenly hoping that there might be one I HAVEN’T READ yet).

        This is a really great discussion.

        • Amy S. says:

          I feel like it was mentioned in more detail in one of the other books, but I know that in Young Unicorns (which I just reread, because of my ongoing commitment to pretending to be Emily Gregory) they discuss how Mrs. Austin made a record. And somewhere else (I want to say Meet the Austins) there’s a discussion about how that’s where she met Mr. Austin, when he was working in a hospital and she was singing to patients or something.

          I haven’t reread Meet the Austins in a while. I might have to go do that! Er, for research. To answer this comment. Yes.

        • Jasmine says:

          To clarify — We don’t learn about the older Vicky Austin (or, a grown up form of Vicky), Amy is talking about Victoria Austin, Vicky’s mom.

      • Have you read Necklace of Kisses, the book where Weetzie Bat is an adult? This exchange reminds me of that book, because Weetzie is so miserable as an adult, and the book undercuts all of the hopeful queer-positive gender confusion of Weetzie Bat itself. I haven’t read that book or Lotus recently, but in neither one of those did I at the time get the sense that there was a message of “don’t do this, because it will destroy your adolescent awesomeness”. I feel like I came away from both of those books feeling like “your adolescent awesomeness is doomed, so enjoy it while you have it.”

        Actually, it’s a bit why I was not particularly fond of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks: I felt that in a much shorter timeframe (the development of middle grade 2 young adult, rather than the development of middle grade/young adult to middle age), we saw the devolution of useful adolescent girl awesomeness into the reality of existing in the patriarchy.

        Amy, I know I told you about this off-line, but I feel like there is a Reviving Ophelia issue going on here, paralleling the United States reality (I’m can’t remember if this is true in other Western countries) that girls are awesome, smart, good at math, good at school — and then they turn 13.

        Thus Meg Murry. And Weetzie. And Frankie. And Lyra. And Katniss.

        I’m depressing myself. Possibly I need to go back and reread the first Trickster book to remind myself that Alanna of Trebond, at least, remains irrepressible.

        • Amy S. says:

          I am loving this Reviving Ophelia theory SO MUCH. Seriously, I want to break out my shelf of psych literature about adolescent girls and use it to soothe myself through all of the sequels where characters grow up and depress me.

        • I thought of Necklace of Kisses as well. Not only does adult Weetzie lose her awesome, she loses all her magic — as symbolized by the fact that “My Secret Agent Lover Man” turns out to just be a nickname. I get that Block was probably writing for a mainstream adult female audience, but “magic is only for teenagers; then your life becomes Oprah’s Book Club” is a far too depressing message for me to accept.

    • erin says:

      I just got done reading “A Wrinkle in Time” and “A Wind in the Door” to my 9 year old daughter. I am a late bloomer when it comes to reading, I had some learning disabilities when I was younger, and now at 43, with a B.A in Fine Art, I am once again going back to school to be a grade school teacher! So, now I am going crazy trying to read everything I can get my hands on! I love it! Anyway, back to the reason why I am responding, my daughter and I love these two books, and I had planned to read the rest of the series. I am constantly looking for books with feminine heroes because my daughter is a strong individual that has a distaste for the helpless princess. She loves Meg because she is smart, stuborn but also very compasionate. These traits are ones in which my daughter shares with Meg. When I read that in later books, Meg ends up disatisfied, I was a bit troubled about reading the rest of the books, however, I think it would be crazy not to. Life isn’t always the way we think it should turn out. Sometimes a person has to adapt to the choices that are made. What is important, is that we have choices, and I believe that reading all kinds of literature, whether it be a woman that waits for her prince, or one that kicks ass fighting evil knights, (I can’t say dragons because my daughter loves them) shows young girls that there are all sorts of paths to be taken. It’s just a matter of what they want in life and how they want to live it. Just a thought.

  4. alaska says:

    So, I *think* I agree on a lot of counts. However, I think that it’s important to separate Meg in “Wrinkle” from Meg in the entire Kairos canon.

    It still isn’t “proper” for a girl to beat up boys for making fun of her younger brother. And it’s still pretty revolutionary for a girl to be better in math and science than those around her – and have that be one of her defining characteristics. (When battling IT, Calvin recites the Declaration of Independence, Meg does math.) And it is very important to put this book in the context of the time. Camazotz (check out those z’s!) is an important parallel to the Soviet Block and the idea of communism and how great things would be if everyone were the same. Not only that, but L’Engle is very clearly a spiritual (if not down right religious) author, and by having Meg conquer through love, she is saying that spirituality and religion do have a place in the world – that love can be more powerful than threatening violence and bombs. (This is a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all.) In a sense, we have a female Ghandi in Meg – and in Aunt Beast, and the Mrs. W’s.

    Meg Murray was the prototype for how many awesome kick ass female characters? Meg was allowed to be scared, brave, and very much a kid in middle grade missing her father. Calvin was also scared, as was Charles Wallace, and if you want to go into the canon, Mr. Jenkins is absolutely terrified for most of Wind in the Door.

    The only issue that I really have with the book (and this book as a stand alone, as it was conceived), is that Meg does beat IT with love, and that falls squarely into the female/male paradigm of the time. And in Rousseau’s classic separation of the gender spheres, women were in charge of the private – and religious – safety and sanctity of the family/society while men went to work in the public – and political – realm. However, Meg escapes IT the first time with her math, and I think that’s significant. In the end, she is the one that has to rescue Charles Wallace. Even then, she is flawed – she “can’t love IT, but she can love Charles Wallace”. He is her brother (and her bother, as Olivia was would say) and she is willing to risk everything for that.

    Also, when you put into context how much family *does* mean to Meg in the first three books of the trilogy (why do we care if Meg is regulated to kything in “Planet”? She (and Charles Wallace and Calvin) don’t appear at all in Many Waters), to me it makes perfect sense that she would want to have a family. Don’t forget all the comparisons Meg constantly made between her and her mother – I think that Meg’s future is actually a lot more true and honest to her character than people would like to believe. Meg doesn’t like to be alone, really. Meg loves her family fiercely and will do anything to protect it. Meg doesn’t understand why a boy like Calvin would like her. Meg’s mother sets a pretty high standard – not that she ever told Meg that – but Meg was always the type to measure herself against those standards. This also shows up when the elder Murrays talk to Poly in An Acceptable Time.

    Also, she does most of the complex math for Calvin in Arm of the Starfish. It’s a throw away line there, but. Sometimes I think we forget that it’s okay, as feminists, to want to have seven children. Calvin certainly never held her back. And I also think, as critical readers, we have to remember the focus of “Lotus” and Max’s own agendas.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as it can be read. I also think what is feminist is the idea that women can change in their desires and what fulfills them – certainly in “Starfish” Meg is happy and fulfilled. As time went on, she realized she wanted more than just being a mother, and that perhaps, it was time for her to finally stop the fear never living up to her mother. “Lotus” is such a problematic book for so many reasons within the canon and alone, that I don’t think it’s fair to judge Meg’s life through the lens of “Lotus”. And at least, definitely not when talking about “Wrinkle”.

    She still has all the potential in the world in this book – if she can control her temper!

    • Amy S. says:

      I love this comment so much.

      And I think you make a lot of awesome and important points. I feel like my ridiculous level of emotional investment in L’Engle makes it hard for me to do some things- like read this book separate from the rest of L’Engle’s canon, and consider it in the full context of when it was written. And your point about LOTUS being the outlier is well-taken; I have a tendency to identify ten million of its flaws and then be like “BUT IT’S STILL FANTASTIC AND SHOULD BE CENTRAL TO EVERYTHING WE CONSIDER.”

      Would you mind if I link comment this in the main post?

      • alaska says:

        Of course not! Link away! 🙂

        • Margaret says:

          I am of two minds about the glimpses that we are given in to Meg’s adult life but I have also always felt that it was true to her character too. There are hints in the books about Polly, though I can’t remember which and I don’t have time to go look, that part of Meg’s motivation was to allow her children to become themselves without being in her shadow. Meg was always her mother’s daughter. Its a fact of her life that her mother is brilliant and I think that Meg always was challenged about how to be herself when compared to her mother. Its a pretty natural response though not really one that leaves me personally happy.

          I remember thinking about Meg Murray as an adult when I was reading Ellen Emerson White’s President’s Daughter books. I was wondering who her Meg would grow up to be and couldn’t help but think of the Meg Murray trap. I can really see Meg Powers growing up to be a politician but I also wonder how much time she would spend wondering if that choice was dictated by her mother. The feeling of the books was that Meg was headed in her mother’s direction but I like to think that if she choses that its because its what she wants.

          Someone above mentioned that Alanna stays true to herself but think about how difficult her relationship with Aly is because she wants her daughter to be like her. Obviously Aly is very much like her mother but she also has to establish herself as the person she wants to be in a place that her mother is basically the hero of a ballad and not a real person.

          What if Aly had wanted to go to convent, marry a nobleman and manage a noble household? Would Alanna have supported her choice? I like to hope so because I think that good parenting is supporting your children even when they chose to be people that are different then what you dreamed for them but I personally think Alanna would have had a really very hard time with that choice. At the beginning Kerowyn’s Tale (not YA but it fits with the discussion) where Kethry and Tarma explain that Keth’s youngest daughter wasn’t a mage, a fighter or a scholar. She wanted to be lady so thats what they let her be. I always like that while Kethry and Tarma didn’t understand her that let her be that.

          Its been awhile since I talk feminist theory (oh how I miss you Smith) but personally I have always thought that feminism in a nutshell is about letting people chose what is right for them personally, their relationship with their partner, and their family without judgment. Meg Murray chose to prioritize parenting over her own career. It makes me sad because of her potential but its her choice and I am not going to judge it because I don’t want people judging the choices that I make. So in the end I guess I do think that Meg Murray’s adult life is an example of feminism if she was given the choice to chose.

          (Anyone else notice that Meg Murray, Meg Powers, and Aly are all the only daughters of successful women?)

    • I think it’s important to determine what you are trying to accomplish by putting something on a list of feminist books. It’s absolutely true that Wrinkle was revolutionary when it was written, and if that’s why the list exists, that’s incredibly valuable. On the other hand, Podkayne of Mars was revolutionary when it was written (science fiction story with a female protagonist! Who goes to space and is smart and wants to be a ship captain!), but when I give it to my current students it fills them with rage for its reactionary attitudes towards gender, and I would never even think about putting it on a contemporary list of feminist books.

      Now, obviously Wrinkle is a long way from Podkayne. It unfortunately is still revolutionary to have a girl who likes math. But still, there is a big difference between making a list of books which were groundbreaking and revolutionary at the time and help shaped feminism, and a list of the books which you you hand to a 21st-century 10-year-old in the hopes of turning her or him into a fourth wave feminist. Podkayne of Mars, again, is arguably why we even got Wrinkle or any science fiction heroines, and I’m grateful to it in its place.

      Honestly, one of my problems with the Bitch list is it I didn’t get the impression they knew what the list was for themselves. If you’re looking to buy a book for your favorite teenage girl or just looking to cuddle up with a powerful story featuring teenage characters, they said. Those are pretty different goals, to me. And for that matter, were they looking for books for feminists, books about feminists, or books that turn young readers in the feminists? (I come back to my frustration with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks; that book might make a reader into a feminist out of sheer frustration with how much Frankie fails at the same journey.)

      • Deborah, I’ve been thinking all day about how cool it would be if you and I each wrote opposing reactions to Frankie Landau-Banks. It breaks my heart that I just don’t have the time right now (and of course, I’m not assuming that you do either ^_^). But I’ll say briefly here that when I got to the end of that book, I didn’t feel that it was the end of Frankie’s journey AT ALL. I felt like she’d just gotten started and she was going to be a serious power to be reckoned with for the rest of her life. Nor did I feel that she failed. It certainly wasn’t a traditional kind of success, but she shook up some things that, at the outset, seemed pretty unshakable.

    • Gilly says:

      I love love love this comment too.

      I think it gets at a really troubling element of the dialogue about women’s choices. For example, often the discussion between working and non-working mothers (which I don’t think maps exactly to “feminist” and “not-feminist” so I won’t use those markers for this example), neither side seems capable to respecting the other’s choice. Perhaps out of a need to justify own own choices to work or not work, we denigrate the other camp – women who work may belittle those who stay at home and vice versa.

      But neither choice is inherently right or wrong for a feminist, as you point out above. That misses the idea that feminism might be about having the ability to make, and then making, the choices that are right for you, that it’s okay for feminists to want kids (and maybe even stay home to raise them, maybe not), that what fulfills you might change over time.

      Awesome comment!

      • Deborah Kaplan says:

        The thing is, though, there’s a difference between life and art. In real life, we should be supporting individual choices (which is quite tricky to navigate in a world which pressures young women and young men into believing that young women should and young men shouldn’t stay home with their children, and in a world where staying home with your children can have financial implications for the rest of your life).

        But Meg Murry isn’t a real person, she’s a literary construct created by an author. If I say “I wish that Meg Murry hadn’t given up her dream career in order to raise children,” I’m not criticizing a real woman and her individual life choices. I’m criticizing a text for being just one more voice that reinforces the overwhelming cultural hegemonic view that women should give up their dream careers in order to raise children. That’s very different from saying it the wrong choice for a real person.

        While individual women on both side of the career-first/family-first divide may choose to denigrate each other’s choices (which is, as you say, not a good thing to do), society overwhelmingly comes down on the family-first side. If I say “I wish more of the books we give to young women on lists labeled as ‘feminist’ supported them in believing that putting their careers before family is a valid choice, or believing that their husbands should be doing 50% of the family care, that’s not denigrating women who put family first. That’s believing that feminist art for young women should show a multitude of different options.

        In contemporary young adult literature (which Wrinkle isn’t, I know), even the most kick-ass heroines are still choosing to give up all their power. God, poor Lyra. Only Tally Youngblood seems to have chosen to have the guy and her career as well. And, oh, fine, maybe Katsa, as if anyone in this thread had read that book. Hmph.

        • OTOH, when it comes down to it, the writer needs to write about the individual who presents herself. The character needs to be an actual real person to the writer, with all the problematic things that means, or else the book will be wooden. By which I mean that the writer is not in complete control of the character’s choices. I try to think about the messages I’m putting out into the world when I’m writing, but when it comes down to it, if I find myself in a situation where I have to choose between the message I prefer and the icky behavior my character is asking me to let her exhibit, my character wins.

          I don’t know how convincing an argument that is for anything, but I know it’s true (and sometimes exhausting).

          BTW, don’t forget MWT’s queens! :o)

          • Oh, yes! I don’t think of them because they are the protagonists, but Helen and Irene are AWESOME.

            As far as character versus message, yes, of course. I come back to wondering what the purpose is of the Bitch list. You write the characters as they make you write them — but Bitch (or Amy, or any of us) recommended books for specific purposes regardless of that. The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass may well have been a case of Lyra overwhelming Pullman’s political desires for what he wanted to have happen with the character, but that doesn’t change the fact that it will be a cold day in hell before I would put either of those books on a list of “feminist young adult titles”. Does that make sense? I’m not sure if I’m making sense.

        • alaska says:

          But Meg Murry isn’t a real person, she’s a literary construct created by an author. If I say “I wish that Meg Murry hadn’t given up her dream career in order to raise children,” I’m not criticizing a real woman and her individual life choices. I’m criticizing a text for being just one more voice that reinforces the overwhelming cultural hegemonic view that women should give up their dream careers in order to raise children.

          The issue that seems to be the most pertinent to everyone’s discussion is inherent in the statement above – that Meg is “giving up her dream career in order to raise children”.

          Here we have an example of readers putting their own hopes and dreams on a character. Nowhere in “Wrinkle” (and this is a review of A Wrinkle in Time, not the entire L’Engle canon as obviously things like Many Waters would not make the list, and, I would argue, either would something like Camilla or A Coal in the Sea. Certain Women on the other hand . . .) does Meg state that she wants to be a famous mathematician.* In fact, the most common “dream” Meg has is to grow up and be as beautiful as her mother.

          There is nothing wrong with wanting to grow up and have children, as you said. But even in fiction, the point remains that we cannot force the characters to make the decision we would like them to make. Or be as brave as we’d want them to be, or make different decisions.

          I understand and have been frustrated by texts that have characters give everything up to have kids for no apparent reason (::coughkatnisscough:: though an argument could be made there as well, I suppose). However, as I mentioned in another comment, I firmly believe that Meg’s future wasn’t a failure of feminism but rather something, in fact, that was very true to her character. And maybe that makes us a little uncomfortable, because we WANT Meg to realize she’s smart and brilliant and beautiful and change the world just as much as Calvin is, using math like he uses marine biology. But Meg doesn’t like challenges, Meg likes stability, Meg is insecure. This is part of what makes her so relate-able as a 10 year old, and what makes her such a great character. Despite her fears and being taken outside her comfort zone (quite literally), Meg still succeeds. She doesn’t give up. But she doesn’t do it for glory, or for a prize, or even for the nobility of a discipline – she does it because she loves, and she loves her family, and she can’t leave her baby brother in the hands of IT anymore than she can’t not choose a Mr. Jenkins in A Wind in the Door.

          Everything that we see later of Meg is true to her capacity for love. She might be excellent at math, but she is also someone who can love in ways that other people can’t – think about how easy it is for her to kythe – she can open herself so fully to Calvin and Charles Wallace and Progo because she loves them, and she loves them fiercely. She manages to have seven children and each of them feels special and loved.

          But this is my understanding of the character, and my definition of feminism is informed by different things than others. This is why I think this blog is such a good idea, and also why there are always going to be inherent problems with lists like the Bitch list.

          In terms of books that I would hand a 10 year old budding feminist, this would be something I would give her, happily. It would go on my list of classic books, and it would also go on my list of contemporary feminists, because for me, they are especially feminist when the characters stay true to themselves even if we might not like where they end up. There is an honesty to Meg that we rarely see, and I appreciate that about her, in all her incarnations.

          *I don’t have the text with me, so I could be wrong, but I am sure it’s not the driving force behind her character. And later, it’s the smell of hot chocolate on her mother’s bunsen burner that brings her comfort, not the actual science. As I said, Meg likes stability. She likes math because 1+1=2, and she can *know* these things. Even the experimental math is guided by rules, the “universal language”.

          • this is a review of A Wrinkle in Time, not the entire L’Engle canon

            This thread of the conversation is about the entire thread of Meg’s life, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. We can’t talk about Meg’s decision to raise a family unless we are talking about the books where she makes that decision, and once we are talking about those books, we are also talking about the books where become clear it’s not her choice.

            We can restrict the discussion to being above the one book, but once we are talking about the character’s adult choices, we are talking about all her adult choices.

            I admit, I’m a little bit frustrated you turned this from being a discussion about the book and our different reactions to the character into a discussion about your fellow commenters on this blog: Here we have an example of readers putting their own hopes and dreams on a character. I don’t think that’s a fruitful line of argument, any more than it would be a fruitful line of argument if I said “people who think Meg Murray made a feminist choice are trying to justify their own similar choices as feminist and are using her to do so.” That would be unfair, invalid, and untrue. I’d rather stick speaking about the books.

            • alaska says:

              I am sorry if I took the discussion in a place that you didn’t like. However, the original post itself doesn’t restrict itself to just a review of “Wrinkle” – immediately Amy brings up “Lotus” and Meg’s adult decisions.

              In my first comment, I wanted to point out how I thought “Wrinkle” should be separated from the rest of the L’Engle canon in the context of reviewing the books on the Bitch list, and how alone, it has feminist merits.

              When I said that “an example of people’s hopes and dreams” of a character, I was mostly talking about myself, and other people that I had talked to in regards to the book. They mentioned that they were disappointed with Meg’s choices – and it’s happened in this thread – that people wanted Meg to be a mathematician, when I don’t think the text supports the fact that Meg wants to be a mathematician when she grows up. That was my only point- that we, as readers, want certain things from the characters we read and love and it’s not always the way things work – because of author choices, or because of the way we want to read things.

              I apologize if it came across as if I was attacking/taking away from the conversation. I don’t, however, apologize for my opinions and thoughts on the books, and Meg Murray. We all have our own perspectives, and that is what makes the discussion great.

          • rebecca says:

            Here we have an example of readers putting their own hopes and dreams on a character.

            I don’t think this is right, alaska. If you want to get nitty gritty into which readings of Meg are backed by textual support and which aren’t, go to town, but use quotes and textual evidence, not a general assertion that one “side” of this debate — which actually has many sides, not two — is simply projecting their own hopes and dreams.

            I’m one of the few commenters here who doesn’t adore Meg; I don’t dislike her at all, I like her plenty, but I’ve never had a special heart-connection with her as a character, even just in Wrinkle. But still, what we need to remember is that Meg is a created character. If you read her as a character who would actually not have been happy as an adult scientist/mathematician, by all means, show us the textual evidence for that; I’d read it and be interested! But some of us might then go on and analyze that trait of Meg — the trait of being a person who wouldn’t have been happy as an adult scientist/mathematician, were you to convince us — under a feminist lens too. Because that trait, too, is created. It’s all created.

            • alaska says:

              I mentioned that I didn’t have the texts in front of me. (hence my asterisk note!) So instead, I tried to use the scenes that I was thinking of so if people wanted to go look at them, they could. I would love to do a line by line critical analysis of “Wrinkle” – but frankly, I don’t have the time, and this has become a discussion of all the books in which Meg Murray appears.

              I agree that Meg is created and a product of her time – hence the reason I pointed out in my first comment that this is prime Red Communist fear time, that her decisions and actions could be seen as radical and, yes, feminist, for the time – even if it doesn’t meet some standards today.

              Also, I am very aware – and very happy! – that there are more than one “side” to any conversation. I am of the mind that each person brings their own perspectives to the table, and its those perspectives that make discussions interesting and important.

              But I do apologize if I seemed to minimize someone’s perspective. That is the last thing I hoped to do.

          • (heh, I can actually make a far BETTER argument for Katniss than I can for Meg, and I AGREE with you about Meg! But that’s another book/discussion…)

  5. Everyone else has said everything I had to say. I just wanted to pat you on the back for recognizing that this (as well as many other titles on the Bitch Magazine list) simply doesn’t qualify as YA. It’s an important distinction, and I appreciate that you got that discussion started right. Cheers!

    • Amy S. says:

      Thank you! I have to admit, even before all of the controversy, I was all up in arms about the list for exactly that reason. It’s very rare that you’ll find a single reader, no matter how much of a feminist he or she is, who would enjoy both Harriet the Spy and Wintergirls at the same time. Two good books, but part of two very different worlds.

      • Sasha says:

        Isn’t that us and people we know?

        Well, no. Because we like The Long Secret and Sport, and , well, not Wintergirls. But that is the [social] world we get to be in.

        Which goes back to what Deborah Kaplan says. Are you looking for feminism for the age target group of the text? Or for the adult reader looking to reread some old favorites and find some new ones?

        Clarity of language and defining your terms people.

  6. I’ve always thought the conversation Polly has with her grandparents about Meg in An Acceptible Time is the most telling glimpse of why Meg has done what she’s done with her life. It helped ME accept that, even though I was a bit PUT OUT as a child to discover that Meg had not grown up to become an award-winning scientist/mathematician in her own right, what she did do was her own choice, and whether that was the right choice or not is not only not really the question, but the answer is that it’s probably seemed both right and wrong to her at different times in her life since. It’s realistic, really– I often look back at my own choices (I’m only 32, but dang, the Beatles BROKE UP when their oldest member had not yet turned 30. Sometimes I feel BEHIND) and wonder if I would have been happier had I done this or that differently. But in the end, who can say?

    (About me: A Wrinkle in Time is my FAVORITE BOOK EVER to the extent that my daughter is named Madeleine, after L’Engle. I popped over here when Kristin Cashore linked to this today, because SOMEBODY IS TALKING ABOUT MY FAVORITE BOOK. Seriously).

    • Amy S. says:

      Yay! This isn’t my favorite of her books- I’m partial to Young Unicorns, aka the EMILY GREGORY HOW ARE YOU SO AWESOME manifesto- but I do feel super-defensive about and protective of L’Engle’s work, so I’m glad that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

      Reading the Drs Murrys’ explanation of Meg was bittersweet for me, because for me Meg is both a character and a symbol. As a character, Meg seems to have done what she felt was best for her and it seems to have WORKED for her. And in that way, it IS a feminist decision, and I’m glad that Meg got to be who she wanted. As a symbol, though, it makes me ache that she made that choice, because of everything she meant- and still means- to me.

      Possibly I am overinvested in Meg Murry’s happiness?

      • alaska says:

        I think the really critical point here is that Meg had a *choice*. What is more feminist than that? She could have had a brilliant career in math and science, she could have been an astronaut, she could have worked to make tessering a normal form of transportation, she could have had seven babies and a happy marriage – even in the early 60s. She had all the potential in the world, and she did choose. She didn’t let anyone decide for her.

        Also, from a psychological point of view? Think about Meg’s childhood. She travels in different dimensions to save her father, and then her baby brother. Then she has to complete three very difficult tasks – and face the reality of what happens when someone dies – by traveling inside her brother’s mitochondria and saving Charles Wallace again. Meg never liked the pressure. She was always asking Progo if there was a way out of the task, if she really had to choose between the three Mr. Jenkins.

        Personally, I can’t say that I wouldn’t want a stereotypical “normal” life after all that. Not to mention that through Calvin’s work, she’s still doing important stuff – she is integral in getting the Temis papers off in Arm of the Starfish. There is always an element of danger to Meg’s life. She is trying to create a childhood for her kids she and Calvin never had – but can’t quite get out of the Kairos world. Remember how Calvin never had shoes that fit? And completely absent parents, and siblings who didn’t care about each other?

        Meg is doing something kind of radically feminist, in my opinion – she’s trying to change a generation, and leave the world a better place. Calvin’s work is important, but Meg allows him to have the freedom to do that work. Holding down the fort isn’t always easy. Being alone for long periods of time isn’t easy either. Meg is fighting for good in her role as a mother the best she knows how – and I suspect, a bit for Calvin also, so they can have children who grow up knowing unconditional love (absent from the O’Keefes) and safe (arguably absent from the Murrays).

        • Ooo, this comment made me teary-eyed! I mean that in a good way. 🙂

          I agree that the critical part is the choice. It really bugs me when people assume that motherhood is automatically some Giving-In-To-The-Patriarchy sort of situation. I always thought it was funny, after my first child was born, it actually felt to ME like everyone I knew was pressuring me to find a new JOB when I wasn’t ready for that and just WANTED to stay home with the baby! The complete opposite!

        • Lance says:

          I apologize for coming to this discussion (a) late and (b) relatively uninformed (I’m a linguist, not a literary theorist, never mind one with any expertise in children’s/YA books). Mostly I’ve been happy to read the post and its comments, which have all been very enlightening, but there’s one thing I couldn’t quite let pass. It came, to some extent, out of a discussion with Deborah about the Bitch list and about another literature argument (not relevant here):

          I think the really critical point here is that Meg had a *choice*. What is more feminist than that? She could have had a brilliant career in math and science, she could have been an astronaut, she could have worked to make tessering a normal form of transportation, she could have had seven babies and a happy marriage – even in the early 60s. She had all the potential in the world, and she did choose.

          The thing this reminds me most of—”she was brilliant and competent but she chose marriage/babies”—is roughly every female character in Robert Heinlein. And Heinlein is not the first author I’d put on a list of feminist books; nor the second, or fifth, or I’m going to run out of numbers before I get there.

          Now, I really hate to compare L’Engle (whose books I adored, and still do in retrospect) with Heinlein (whose books I adored until I grew up and started finding them somewhat revolting). But this ties into Deborah’s comment above. In Heinlein’s work, it’s striking to the point of overwhelming that every single woman is brilliant but happens to make the choice to have children instead of a career. In the case of Meg Murray, of course, she’s a single datapoint rather than an entire universe, but it’s exactly the kind of datapoint that I’d look to literature for counterexamples to, rather than examples of.

        • Katie says:

          Except at the same time, those are also all reasons Calvin would have wanted to create a strong family life and raise his children instead of focus on his career. And he didn’t and if he did, that would likely be the central focus of the book and would be a really controversial thing. It’s not that women shouldn’t make the choices that are best for them; it’s that society pushes those choices in one direction and so when a book reinforces that, it can feel like more of the same as much (or more) than it feels like “Hey, this character is making the choice that’s right for them.”

          For me, when I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, it seemed like the book just assumed that Calvin would have a career and Meg wouldn’t when they married, which I did have a problem with. It sounds like that got more nuance later on, which is good.

  7. I just wanted to say that I am REALLY enjoying this conversation–it is smart, thoughtful, and insightful–basically everything the Bitch commentary wasn’t, although I hope they will redeem themselves with their book club, and that their commenters will behave themselves a bit better. Seriously, as a huge L’Engle fan, this discussion has made me think about Wrinkle in new and interesting ways. I just wanted to link to this charming Open Letter to Madeleine L’Engle which is related, though not entirely on the topic of feminism.

    Also, Fiction Writers Review will be hosting a discussion of the five books on the Bitch reading list (and a discussion of their discussion, if you can stand to get that meta) and it would be fabulous to have so many smart readers weighing in…

  8. hope says:

    I would agree with Alaska that A Wrinkle in Time is as feminist now as it was when it was written.

    Not only that, but L’Engle is very clearly a spiritual (if not down right religious) author, and by having Meg conquer through love, she is saying that spirituality and religion do have a place in the world – that love can be more powerful than threatening violence and bombs. (This is a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all.) In a sense, we have a female Ghandi in Meg – and in Aunt Beast, and the Mrs. W’s.

    I am disturbed by the many recent books that suggest that what a female ya character really needs to be to succeed . . . is a guy. Or at least be better at all prototypically male stuff than the males are. She needs to kick ass like a guy, mess with machines, shoot guns, blow stuff up, kill people. More than just being a Ghandi figure, I think Meg is a Renaissance woman because she is accomplished in typically male fields of science and math, but she is not made to repudiate her typically female aspects in order to succeed. She uses math to escape IT the first time, but sees that her love can defeat IT where nothing else will. All these years later we are still glorifying the idea that bigger, badder, and stronger will save the day. I wish we had more stories where we really glorify those qualities typically in the women’s half of the gender division.

    • alaska says:

      The first thing that jumped to my mind was Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where the main female character pretends to be a boy in order to get on the ship. Of course, women are not allowed on the ship, and seeing as how this is kind of an alternate-WWI reality, it makes historical sense. Many women did dress up as men in order to be considered equal, and the right to vote didn’t come until after the war, and many people still believed that women were governed by their “female” organs, would vote for the person they found more attractive not necessarily the better candidate, etc.

      But yes, I agree. However I do find it frustrating when we have instances of women seemingly subverting the gender norm (I don’t know if you ever saw the new Battlestar Galactica, but President Laura Roslin is in charge at the beginning and was hailed as radically feminist – until you realize that as President, she is still in charge of the stereotypical female realm (family, religion) while Admiral Adama is stereotypically male (the military, politics) and they have to come to a compromise, but Roslin never controls the military alone.). I’m all for having women in the political sphere, or having women rule the roost from home (I would point to Elizabeth C. Bunce’s A Curse as Dark as Gold as an excellent example) where they are women, capable women, but still considered women.

      I have a feeling this will make the Luna discussion even more interesting . . .

  9. Pingback: Intersectionality

  10. Janni says:

    I’m chiming in late here, but just wanted to say it’s great to see this discussion happening. A Wrinkle In Time is one of my touchstone books, I was troubled by Meg as an adult (and somewhat, but not fully, mollified by the explanation in An Acceptable Time), and … I just reread Wrinkle and realized that in a way, a lot of this is set up from the start.

    Because it’s made clear that Meg is smart, but in a mundane way, and that Calvin and Charles are the ones who are actively gifted in a beyond-the-world-we-live-in sort of way. Charles even says at one point–to Calvin, in front of Meg–that unlike the two boys, Meg “isn’t really one thing or the other,” and that that makes it hard for her. I missed this in my earlier readings, but it’s so true to what often happens in the sciences even now: men are told they are gifted and have brilliance, while women are told they work hard but lack some intrinsic (but conveniently hard to pin down) talent and spark

    There’s also this strange subtext where everyone feels the need to protect Meg and is convinced she can’t be allowed to go off and face things on her own. She does in the end anyway, and that may be what matters, but there’s no explanation of why everyone’s so fearful for her, and the only reason I can think of is that it was assumed then, more strongly than now (not that we’re free of it), that we simply do have to be more protective of girls.

    I still love this book. I was empowered by it, saw myself in it, decided having a scientist mother would be the coolest thing ever because of it, and was helped through high school (though I agree it’s really a middle grade book) by it.

    But it’s fascinating to see, on this last reading, just how much I didn’t see before.

    And I still want Meg to go on to be brilliant in the external world.

    (Actually, my reaction to her not doing so was similar to my reaction to meeting Tenar again in Tehanu. Yet in Tehanu, it bothered me less and I loved the book more as I got older, while with Meg, I’m more bothered with time rather than less. I may need to keep thinking about that.)

  11. Heather Richard says:

    What a great find – I’m bookmarking the site and linking the P.S. of the article into my Simmons elearning Crit board for all us crit-lit geeks who love this stuff. Still trying to choose my third lens for my final paper on WiT and this week is post-colonial studies. Perhaps that challenge was what I needed?!?!?!

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