Many girls got their first taste of science fiction in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The novel, if you haven’t read it, is about a young woman who travels across galaxies via tesseract to save her father. Whether you stayed with Meg Murry because you knew she was going to go on an adventure or you went on the adventure with her because you felt bonded with her, one thing you know pretty quickly when you read A Wrinkle in Time is Meg feels alone, awkward, and alienated from her peers. Don’t we all?
This week, the Wall Street Journal published three pages from A Wrinkle in Time that never made it into the edition readers have been enjoying for decades. The cut passage comes just after the rescue of Dr. Murry. To save him, Meg, love interest Calvin and Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace have traveled to planet Camazotz, all while watching a black cloud devour other planets. The shadow is over Camazotz, and the children soon discover the people there live in extreme and unreal conformity. Bouncing balls hit the pavement in unison. It’s creepy and terrifying. If you knew anything about history when you first read it, you likely understood it as a metaphor for communism.
In the cut passage, Meg asks her father how Camazotz came to be the way it was. He talks a little bit about communism but then he says it can happen in democracies, too. He lambasts a love of security. Pursuing security over other values can have terrible consequences.
In the Wall Street Journal article, it’s posited that the pages were cut because they contain references that would date the novel (Mussolini, Khrushchev etc) and that the lecture slowed down the pace a little. Yes, to both.
And yet the passage is quintessential Madeleine L’Engle. In her subsequent books (see all the Vicky Austin novels), you get heavy doses of philosophy mixed in with references to history and literature. L’Engle’s books are a prime example of why you want to encourage kids to read fiction. It’s the trickle-down theory of reading; you hook the pre-teen girl with a character who is Just Like Them; gawky and awkward. Then maybe throw in a dream boyfriend (Calvin is an early manic pixie dream boy—-he’s tall, wicked smart, popular, and he likes Meg even though she’s surly and doesn’t give him much reason to) and then slip in a few references to things they don’t know anything about. Then maybe the reader’s curiosity is piqued. Today, she’d click over to Wikipedia. Or maybe she decides that if the Austin family is reading Twelfth Night, she wants to read it, too even though the only Shakespeare her school assigns is a few passages from Romeo and Juliet. Whatever the process, the basic ingredients are the same. Curiosity plus a good book equals Things Learned.
What we don’t know is where it leads. Does the young Madeleine L’Engle reader take heart to see a female protagonist interested in math and science? Does she read about limb regeneration, gene splicing? Does she decide to find out how tesseracts work, then sign up for college-prep physics instead of the “just trying to graduate these kids” course? Or maybe she’s interested in the social sciences and looks up Khrushchev, then and decides she also wants to bang her shoe on a table and then signs up for Model United Nations.
A 2004 New Yorker article about L’Engle talks about the influence she had on girls:
It wasn’t just me. When I was in college, I remember a friend saying to me, “There are really two kinds of girls. Those who read Madeleine L’Engle when they were small, and those who didn’t.”
But when I read L’Engle now, I no longer feel bonded to Meg or even Vicky. Their lives are unreal. Meg Murry will marry her high school sweetheart, have a million kids and then plan to on-ramp back into a mathematics PhD after raising them. The person she fell in love with when she was a teenager will also be a successful research scientist. She gets hotter with age. Meg has the kind of life you can have when you’ve got really good resources. Smart parents who answer your questions and own a nice big farmhouse with an indoor pool. Parents who stay healthy and well-off enough in their later years so you can send your teenager off to be with them when she’s having bit of a moment. And Vicky Austin is no worse off. Vicky’s dad is a doctor and they have rich friends and a beachside place they can visit in summer. Vicky Austin doesn’t like her juice from concentrate. She likes the real thing.
Don’t we all?
L’Engle calls for goodness from people. We’re supposed to give a damn about others. Be purposeful, be kind, be intelligent, be curious. But her heroes are all people from a certain socio-economic class with the ability to regularly drop out of their lives without suffering any consequences, other than to feel even less like their peers than they did before. That starts to read more like a benefit; the special snowflake-ification of oneself by way of space-time travel.
When Dr. Murry tells Meg in these three “new” pages that the search for security is one of the greatest known evils, he’s not wrong. We now know searching for security has put the government inside our phones and email, sent us to wars that only made things worse and hindered the spread of medicines as corporations look to defend their profits.
L’Engle’s granddaughter manages L’Engle’s estate and released the pages to the Wall Street Journal:
Ms. Voiklis said she wanted readers to know the book wasn’t a simple allegory of communism. Instead, it’s about the risk of any country—including a democracy—placing too much value on security. The tension between safety and personal freedom is an idea that resonates in today’s politics.
The central idea in these new pages is that the search for security leads to government control of individuals. But that’s not what has Meg worried. It’s the end result, the conformity, that scares her.
“A wonderful aspect of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is its celebration of the different,” author Katherine Paterson wrote in the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition. “In fact, hell, as it is embodied on Camazotz, is being exactly like everyone else.”
Meg feels alienated from her peers, but being forced to be just like them terrifies her. You could call it a quirk of Western individualism that crops up in L’Engle’s books because that fear of conformity is almost entirely the concern of people who have everything else they could possibly need. Meg is afraid of being exactly like everyone else, but for the most part, she *is* like everybody else. That’s why we love her and why we can see ourselves in her. Except for those of us who can’t, who look at Meg and see a whiny white girl who thinks she’s special because she can do math and doesn’t know jack about TV programs.
L’Engle doesn’t write punk-rock characters. L’Engle writes characters who read the NYT trend piece about punk rock and then do the crossword before doing some gardening and going to bed early. Everybody’s free to do and think as they please, but they’ll mostly choose the same things other people would choose. Just better things, because they can.
Image via madeleinelengle.com / Macmillan