Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Review: Gaslighting for Kids
So Last night, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. This is supposed to a children’s classic, it has a Newbery award, I had heard about it being one of those childhood books that’s awesome, but my reading of the text left me uncomfortable and deeply disappointed.
A Wrinkle in Time sends some extremely problematic messages about gender roles, intelligence, and who is important or valuable to society and what makes them valuable. At its core, the book is the story of thirteen year old Meg, her five year old brother Charles Wallace and their newly made friend Calvin O’Keefe’s quest to find Meg and Charles’ scientist father, who disappeared roughly a year ago doing a government experiment, leaving Meg and her three younger brothers (she has ten year old twin brothers Sandy and Denny, who do not come along for the adventure) with their scientist mother who is the picture of composure around her children. Sounds promising doesn’t it? Well, the trouble’s in the execution and following there will be spoilers.
Throughout the novel, Meg is constantly belittled for her intelligence and her attitude. She performs poorly in school where her teachers call her stupid and lazy, she is told by her principal she has a bad attitude when she is angered at his suggestion that her father abandoned her family for another woman, and the entire town gossips about her father’s absence and how her two intellectual parents had two “moron” children, Meg and Charles Wallace. The twins call her a moron for fighting a boy who calls Charles a moron, saying that girls shouldn’t fight. Her sudden love interest Calvin repeatedly insists he will take care of her and at one point exclaims that she’s “backwards” and is no match for the big bad. Possibly worst of all though is baby Charles, who at five years old, is not actually a “moron” as the town calls him, but is extremely intelligent and possesses a kind of psychic gift (His father and Calvin have this gift to a lesser extent, which also creates problematic implications) which he uses to “take care of” his sister Meg and mother, because they cannot take care of themselves. Yes, this five year old outright says that his mother “Can take care of herself, Physically, that is.” Implying that his mother lacks the psychological and intellectual capacity to care for herself so he takes up the slack.
Meg and her mother are the only human women that this text deals with in depth and the texts treatment of them both is exceedingly patronizing. The mother is a scientist, with two doctorates in the sciences and she is infantilized by her five year old son as well as the alien who comes to take Meg and Charles on their quest, who refers to the woman as a lamb and makes her pull off their boots. Regarding Meg, she feels like an outcast from the town and from her home for being a “moron” as she is repeatedly referred to, but the text makes it clear she isn’t. She understands complex mathematics far past her age and helps Calvin, who is several grades above her, with his homework, but this ability is never used constructively in the text to empower her and in fact is attributed to her father teaching her math at a young age, rather than her interest and inclination towards the subject. Even in her field of expertise, she is robbed of agency, while her male plotmates intelligence is an innate gift in them that is vital to the plot. Similarly, her mother’s intelligence is never valuable to the plot and she ceases being anything more than character motivation for her children after they leave on their quest for their father. We see her doing experiments, but they are never given any value other than to show she is a scientist, much like we see Meg doing math, but only to show that she is good at it. These character traits are set up, but never used, which is poor plot planning and creates the implication that women’s intelligence is not important in this world that places a lot of value upon intelligence.
Which brings me to the theme of intelligence in this novel and how intelligence is used as a signifier of who is important and who has agency in this story. In a conversation about Charles, Meg’s mother tells her Charles is special, that he is more involved and gifted in intelligence, even more so than their father. When Meg, in awe, asks if her mother is also different in that way, her mother laughs and says no, that she just has a little more brains than most. The only characters in Wrinkle who are this special kind of superintelligent are male: Charles Wallace, Calvin, and Mr. Murry, Charles and Meg’s father. Meg, Charles says is neither like Charles nor an ordinary person, somewhere inbetween, but throughout the novel she is portrayed as lost, scared, and above all confused in comparison to her male travel companions. This divides the text’s power dynamic not only by intelligence, but by gender because Meg is only female human on this journey and she is also the only ungifted one. This means throughout the novel as the characters are led by the aliens through the fifth dimension, Meg is the only one to suffer pain because her brain is not advanced enough to move through the fifth dimension without pain, she is also the one who struggles the most to understand what the aliens are telling the children, and Charles frequently must explain things to her. Then she is possessed by evil and nearly killed because her brain is not advanced enough for this kind of travel—and when she is terrified and angry over this, her anger and fear are scorned and treated as irrational. The novel builds a world where those who are not super intelligent suffer, are more susceptible to control, and are dependent on those who are super intelligent for their survival and guidance. This creates a disturbingly elitist power dynamic that becomes additionally insulting when it is only applied along gender lines.
Furthermore, Meg has internalized this kind of rationale and repeatedly berates herself for being a moron, for being ugly and for being angry as opposed to pretty and serene like her mother and smart like her family and Calvin. And the text does nothing to correct this. Meg is never empowered by her own ideas or thoughts, she is never reassured that her intelligence is not subpar and even her love interest calls her “backward,” meaning unintelligent. At the end of the novel, she is the one to save her little brother from the evil, but not through her own plan, or her skills with math, but because she loves him and the evil cannot stand that. Now her saving the day through love is not in itself a bad moral, but the way its carried out does nothing to correct everyone’s assertion (the aliens, Charles, Calvin, the evil, her own father) that she lacks the intellectual might to outsmart the evil. The story ends with her saving the day through the power of love, sending the message that her love is her power and everyone was right to say she lacked intelligence and worst of all: that it was acceptable behavior for her five year old brother to patronize her, for her father to say she lacks intellectual power, and for her love interest to call her moron and backwards.
On top of the repeated dismissal of Meg’s intelligence, her emotional validity is also repeatedly dismissed. In school, she is charged with being angry and stubborn and having a bad attitude, despite the fact that her teachers have already dismissed her as unintelligent and now pick on her in class and her principal and several adults in the town make repeated implications that her father is an adulterer who’s abandoned their family. Rather than attribute Meg’s anger to her peers bullying, the town’s gossiping, and her teacher’s disinterest, she is instead deemed a problem student with a bad attitude. Yes, the text makes it clear that Meg is flawed, she’s dogmatic, impatient and stubborn, but the text uses these character flaws to dismiss her valid feelings of disorientation, anxiety and anger over the possibility of losing her father and then her baby brother all while traipsing through an alien galaxy fighting a primordial evil she never knew existed. Then when she is almost killed by the evil when her father escapes with her and Calvin to an alien planet whose inhabitants nurse her back to health, she is scolded for her anger and her terror. She blames her father for leaving Charles behind and is filled with anger at her lack of power and disappointment at her father’s fallibility and both the aliens who initiated the journey and those who cared for her are cold and scornful in the face of her anger and blame it on the lingering effects of being possessed by evil. Forgive me if I think a little fear and anger are valid for a thirteen year old, or anybody when they nearly die and lose their baby brother after being thrown into an intergalactic quest with little guidance from their alien benefactors.
That its acceptable to call anyone a moron or to condescend to them because they aren’t as intelligent and that it is acceptable to dismiss someone’s feelings as irrational or invalid when they are afraid or in pain is a terrible message to send to young children. The fact that this is all done to a female character can be even more damaging considering the frequent dismissals and verbal abuse young girls and adult women face in everyday life. A book that sends the message that this is loving behavior, that insisting a girl must be taken care of by her male family members and that she is less intelligent and irrational than her male peers, is incredibly damaging.
EDIT: THE GOOD
Forgive me, yesterday I was in such a hurry, I forgot to go into what I enjoyed about A Wrinkle in Time, which made this review rather brutal.
Before the children go into the town on the evil ruled planet, their alien guides give them each a blessing and a word of caution. To Charles, the aliens warn him that he is the most vulnerable to the evil’s attacks because of his youth and his arrogance, that he should not assume he is safe and too smart to be caught. They explicitly tell him this. And Charles does not listen, he stubbornly leads the children straight into the evil’s lair and then walks his mind directly into the evil’s power, because he believes he can come back and he ends up trapped in there, possessed by the evil. I really enjoy this moment because it is really the only time this character is shown as fallible and is called out on his arrogance. It’s also the only time he really feels like an actual five year old, with his snootiness. I actually would have liked to see this carried a little further when Meg saves him and see him eat some humble pie and apologize for ignoring her plea for him not to do it and remember the warning, because he assumed he knew better.
While Charles is possessed, he tries to win Meg and Calvin over to the evil’s side and at one point says to Meg that the evil’s world is everyone like everyone else, they are all equal and that Meg hates being different. Meg’s comeback is what’s brilliant, she acknowledges the truth in the statement, that she hates how she’s treated for being different, but that doesn’t mean she wants everyone to be the same and that everyone being alike is not the same as everyone being equal. Meg doesn’t magically become okay with everyone bullying her or think her unusualness is fantastic in the face of this argument, but she clarifies her beliefs about what’s important about life and what bothers her about her treatment. She doesn’t defend against the evil’s argument by dismissing it, but by acknowledging where it deviates from what’s true for her, coming to a realization herself about what she wants to be, accepted, not the same as everyone. It’s a small moment, but it’s a strong one that I think feels more believable than her going into some kind of “You’re wrong, I never felt bad about being different/I realize I was wrong to hate feeling different” speech.
I like the fact that religion and science coexist in this text, for all the awkward implications that come with every alien planet believing in the same god. I’m not religious at all, so there may be tons of symbolism that I missed out on in this, but I was able to handle the bible references and alien angels because this book is primarily focused on science and the truths science brings. Meg repeatedly says she trusts her mother’s judgment because her mother is a scientist, living in a world of facts. Even when the text is heavy with religious context, the science parts, atoms, experiments, scientific theory are not compromised, Meg does not have blind faith in what she can’t explain, she has faith in what can be proven. I appreciate that representation of Christianity when the one I personally come across and the one the media loves to promote, focuses on fundamentalism and is strongly antiscience, a different representation is refreshing.
Finally, my favourite moment in this text is between Meg and her father before she goes away to defeat the big bad. Apparently purged of the evil, Meg apologizes to her father for blaming him, saying she wanted him to be able to fix everything and now realizes he can’t. Her father in turn says that it’s okay and that he wanted to fix everything for her, that every parent wants to do that for their child and he volunteers to go in her place. The aliens refuse his volunteering, saying he will not deprive his child of this privilege. This for me is an important moment in Meg’s life and one I kind of wanted a little more of. This is the moment where she acknowledges, understands, and accepts that her parents are human, are fallible, and will not always be able to fix everything for her. That is a big moment in a child’s life, it’s a part of that movement towards adulthood and independence and at least in mine, occurred when I was around Meg’s age. Her father acknowledging his own desire as a parent to fix everything is also important, he’s saying he wishes he could do that, be that super person and I think that’s a desire many parents can have, sometimes to the detriment of their children and the aliens intervention points this out. The aliens call Meg’s going to defeat the evil a “privilege” that her father would be wrong to deny her, I don’t know if I agree with the word choice, but the meaning is there. Meg’s father going in her place would do her a disservice, it would undo the understanding that there are some things she must do for herself and rob her of the one moment of empowerment she really gets in this book. And that moment of empowerment is very important in stepping away from her childhood vision and dependence upon her parents and towards her adulthood. The alien’s intervention and word choice acknowledge the weight this fight has and how her father does not have a place in it.
From a structural standpoint, the novel’s pacing is terrible. A Wrinkle in Time was L’Engle’s first novel and it shows. Everything is rushed, within twenty minutes of meeting Calvin and Meg are romantically connected with little dialogue between them other than Calvin clarifying that she and her brother are supposed to be a morons and showing surprise at her mathematical prowess and her brother’s hyper intelligence. The final confrontational scene is equally rushed, happening in the last three pages of the novel without explaining the consequences of Meg’s actions, leaving the reader with the implication that either an entire planet has been left enslaved by evil, or an entire planet was murdered in evil’s destruction. We don’t know and apparently shouldn’t care as our protagonists are whisked home for a happy ending.