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.