Thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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October 15, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, Madeleine L'Engle and Hope Larson

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, Madeleine L’Engle and Hope Larson

How much do I love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time? A whole lot. I’ve given countless copies to medium-sized children of my acquaintance, I reread it at least once a year, and when I heard that there was going to be a graphic novel adaptation I couldn’t pre-order a copy fast enough. (My devotion does not extend to watching either film adaptation. EVER.)

Hope Larson does a more than admirable job with the source material. Her depiction of Meg Murry is exactly as I imagined her (I love her unruly hair), and while my mental images of Calvin and Charles Wallace don’t match, Larson’s work well enough.  I really enjoyed some of the visual puns in the book and even though I had some reservations about the limited palette, it ultimately works.

This is a faithful and not too reverently executed adaptation of a much-loved book.

Any problem I have, in fact, are issues with the original text that I hadn’t noticed or had minimized on my many re-readings. Larson’s adaptation really brought some of this stuff to the forefront for me.

I do love this book: it has a smart female protagonist who is good at math and science and who says what she thinks. Meg is loyal and stubborn and opinionated. She knows she doesn’t quite fit in and she’s not willing change to do so even though it makes her upset. I really empathize with Meg, especially on the stubborn and opinionated bits of her character. There’s a lot of good stuff in A Wrinkle in Time.

But there’s some problematic stuff, too.

One of the big ones, for me, is Calvin. He seems to be less into Meg for herself and more into her for her family. I understand that his family of birth is awful and that he feels like a misfit himself but it kind of makes my skin crawl, especially the scene where he’s quizzing Meg to see just how smart she actually is. It’s taken for granted that Calvin is smart (and good at sports), but the reader has to be told and shown repeatedly that Meg is smart. Even Charles Wallace’s intelligence is more or less taken for granted–and he’s only five years old.

Charles Wallace also tells Calvin that his mother is “not one of us, but she’s okay” and then when Calvin asks Charles Wallace what Meg is, he says that she isn’t one thing or another and that it’s hard for her and what the hell is that supposed to mean exactly? That Charles Wallace and Calvin are, in some ineffable way, better than Meg (and Mrs. Murry)?

Then there’s the section near the end, after Meg, her father, and Calvin have escaped from Camazotz and Meg is being cared for by Aunt Beast and they’re trying to figure out who is going to go rescue Charles Wallace. The dialogue makes it extremely clear that if Calvin had known Charles Wallace longer, then he would have been the obvious choice (why? this ineffable thing between them?), but since they’d only just met, then it would have to be Meg. And I’m just WHAT. I don’t even. My brain, seriously, just sort of shorted out when I read that. How is it that the protagonist of the book is the second choice here? I understand that L’Engle is trying to get at the concepts of grace and knowing sacrifice but does she have to make it so explicit throughout the book that Meg is only second or third best? That there is always a boy who is better than her?

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

And finally, check out the cover for the 50th anniversary edition: Calvin’s at the top of the image and is the first figure that one’s eye lands on even though Meg is the protagonist.

I’ve also never quite understood how it was that Meg’s mother managed to get dual doctorates while getting married and having children in the 1940’s (assuming the book is set in the year it was published, that means Meg was born around 1948). And she’s a working scientist but works from home–does she have even an informal association with a university (since women often weren’t allowed to have formal associations)? What kind of experiments is she running–all we know is that it involves Bunsen burners, it’s very nebulous.  Of course, the male Dr. Murry’s research is pretty nebulous, too,  apart from the whole tesseract thing (which, apparently, both Dr. Murrys worked on the concept but only one of them is getting the credit?). Neither of the Dr. Murrys’ careers really work with how I understand academia and civil service to function and now, as an adult, it’s something I really stumble over in the book.

Then there’s what I call “The Problem of Meg”. Her protagging is always in the service of someone else–in this book, she’s saving her father and Charles Wallace, in A Wind in the Door she’s saving Charles Wallace, and in A Swiftly Tilting Planet she’s pretty firmly in a supporting role while Charles Wallace saves the world.  And then she more or less disappears–she has lots of children and supports Calvin in his career and there are intimations that she’s not happy with her life, that she put a lot of things on hold in order to devote herself to her family and I guess I’ve never understood why L’Engle chose to do this to Meg.  It’s always felt like a fundamental betrayal of Meg. In the last years of L’Engle’s life, I’d often read articles about her that indicated that she was working on a book about the adult Meg, perhaps after her children were grown, but as far as I know, she never finished it.

Despite these flaws, I do still have a deep and abiding love for this book–the imagery is fantastic and the horror of forced conformity and the value of each person being truly themselves is a worthwhile message, even if some of L’Engle’s narrative choices are, fifty years after initial publication, revealed to be sexist and troubling.

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5 Comments

  1. Mris

    Oh, the dual doctorate thing in the ’40s is very simple: the Murrys were grad students at a wartime project, possibly in the big three but probably something more like radar/sonar development. They needed nerds. It wasn’t *easy* for a woman to get technical work in the war, but it was a *lot* easier in the ’40s than it would be in the ’50s. Hence the fact that this is apparently a brilliant and accomplished woman…and it’s still her husband who’s always getting consulted, always getting called off to do projects and things, always the one who is recognized.

    Because Dr. Mr. Murry used his wartime work to make a lot of technical contacts, and their impression of him was as a bright young scientist, very serious, on the right track…with a wife he can use for backup if HIS projects get to be too big. But Dr. Ms. Murry used her wartime work to *exist as a scientist at all*, and when the war came to an end, she found that she was about 50-60 years too early for most departments to make dual-career accommodations. If they did, what they’d be offering her would be basically lab assistant positions for someone who was qualified to run the entire thing. No wonder her lab is at home. Better king of a nutshell than washing glassware with an endless series of male grad students who will pinch your ass and patronize you, then move up ahead of you. Better the struggles of an independent researcher looking for recognition than no research at all except a footnote in the paper of some guy who told you that you couldn’t pick your sick kid up from school because you had to finish mixing the samples that you know are going down a blind alley, but he’s the one with the grant you couldn’t get, so he signs your paychecks.

    Very little of this is in the text, but remarkably little of it is contradicted by the text either. I figured it out within the last few years, where Dr. Ms. Murry fits in, um. In my foremothers, is what my hindbrain produced there. And now that it’s out there, I’m not able to argue really.

    • Natalie

      Oh, I like this explanation! I am definitely aware of the difficulties that women had (and have) in scientific pursuits, but my brain just couldn’t make the doctorate thing shake out for some reason, even taking into account war work. This is totally my head canon now.

      I have a very specific idea of what her lab looks like–one of my high school bio teachers had a greenhouse addition coming off the back of her classroom where she stored extra equipment and for whatever reason, that space is what I imagine when I read this book.

  2. Selki

    *is reminded of my book club’s discussion of Louisa May Alcott’s Gothic thrillers and diversion into Jo’s path in Little Women etc.*

  3. Fran W

    Years later, I’m still SO conflicted about Calvin. And I had a major crush on him. Unfair. And yet? Gosh I love this book. So now I must have the graphic novel too.

    • Natalie

      The graphic novel is really wonderful–and I’m glad I read it because it did help me get clarity about Calvin in a way that I don’t think I ever would have with re-reading the source text. I am, in some ways, too close to that version of the story. The graphic novel gave me the distance I needed.

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