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Literature: A Wrinkle in Time

"Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."

The first book in the Time Quartet series by Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time opens with the well-honored line "It was a dark and stormy night" and the appearance of a stranger at the Murry household. The stranger, who calls herself Mrs Whatsit, turns out to be much more than the dotty old lady she initially comes across as. Soon, Meg Murry, her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace, and her schoolmate Calvin find themselves on an interplanetary and interdimensional journey with Mrs Whatsit and her equally odd buddies Mrs Who and Mrs Which to rescue Meg's missing father. To tell more would spoil your enjoyment of this unusual and fantastic (in more than one way) book.

Despite the prominent Newbery medal on the cover, A Wrinkle in Time does not follow the Death by Newbery Medal rule; in fact, it's firmly on the Idealism side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Well, sort of.

The further adventures of the Murrys and, especially, Meg are detailed in the sequels: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Many Waters, followed by a series of books centered around Meg and Calvin's daughter Poly.


This book contains the following tropes:

  • The Ace: Calvin O'Keefe. He's intelligent enough to fit right in with the Murry family, but he's also athletic, good with words, and generally socially adept in a way that neither Meg nor Charles Wallace can manage, with the result that he's able to fit in at school much better than either of them does. He's also pretty easy on the eyes. That said, he's not without his own problems, and the Murry children have a much happier family life.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: What the Mrs W's use, with the possible exception of Mrs Which, who has problems materializing fully and doesn't look like much of anything. Even when she does briefly materialize, she's in the form of a "stereotypical witch".
  • All Planets Are Earth-Like: Both averted and played straight. Most of the planets the children visit are at least capable of supporting human life, but at one point the Mrs Ws attempt to visit a two-dimensional world, temporarily forgetting that humans cannot become two-dimensional without unpleasant consequences. And Ixchel, though biochemically similar to Earth, is a world where nothing has eyes and no form of life has color.
  • Another Dimension: The fifth dimension, to be exact. And there's an "amusing" near-stop on a two-dimensional planet. "Amusing" here meaning "the human protagonists nearly died just from being there, because their celestial guides forgot how humans work."
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Excusable in the first book, but becomes progressively worse in the sequels. After Meg has saved her father from being assimilated and Charles Wallace from dying from lack of mitochondria, the twins have traveled to an odd interpretation of the world in Genesis and helped Noah build the Ark, and Charles Wallace has time-traveled throughout history to save the world, you'd think Meg and her parents would be very willing to believe her daughter when she finds a portal to the past.
    • Note though that many of the characters weren't present for a number of those adventures: the twins are in fact the biggest skeptics in the family until their journey back in time, since they had not been a part of (or seemingly particularly aware of, though surely their father reappearing after years of absence was explained) any of the previous adventures, but at the same time none of their family members were aware of THAT adventure either.
  • Assimilation Plot: Camazotz is ruled by a massive, all-controlling psionic brain, IT, which imposes extreme conformity on the whole planet and attempts to absorb and "reprocess" anything outside of itself.
  • Big Bad: IT, the manifestation of the Dark Thing on Camazotz that has imprisoned Meg's father following his tesseract accident.
    • Bigger Bad: The Dark Thing, a malign cosmic force attempting to destroy all creativity and positive emotion in the universe, world by world. Many planets struggle with it, including Earth, but some, like Camazotz, have already fallen.
  • Big Man on Campus: Calvin, though part of the point of his character is pointing out that this doesn't necessarily force him to conform to the stereotypes of his social group.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: The people of Camazotz are all, to the extent that they are capable of emotion, vaguely worried of the consequences of being spotted acting outside their pre-defined roles to help the children. Their concerns are not misplaced: we later see a child whose regimented "ball playing" was out-of-sync being "reconditioned" with pain to put him back on-rhythm.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Meg is very protective of Charles Wallace, is horrified when his Pride drives him to sync with IT, and is only able to save him with The Power of Love.
  • Black Sheep: The twins, Sandy and Dennys, in the Murry family, to a lesser extent. They're normal in a family of misfit intellectuals.
  • Brain in a Jar: IT, though it's JUST big enough that it probably isn't completely human.
  • Care Bear Stare: How Meg saves the day. The Dark Thing, and its servants, such as IT, cannot understand love. Meg isn't quite able to save Camazotz by loving (and thus destroying) IT, but she can love Charles Wallace and save him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: For the series as a whole, Meg's antagonistic school principal, Mr. Jenkins, and Calvin's hard, angry mother Mrs. O'Keefe.
  • Child Prodigy: Charles Wallace, though the novel plays it unusually realistically, focusing on both the social alienation his intelligence causes in his peers and the pride and arrogant certainty of his own abilities that it has given him.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: The Happy Medium comes off as this, but may also be a Bunny-Ears Lawyer (at being a Medium.) Mrs Who and Whatsit also have overtones of this. Charles Wallace has aspects of this, though it is more grounded in reality than your average Cloud Cuckoolander and the probable result of his powerful intellect more than anything else.
  • Creepy Child: Charles Wallace, while under the influence of IT.
  • Cut-and-Paste Suburb: The city on Camazotz is an exaggerated example, where even the people are somehow samey and bland.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Dr. Murry has been away since Charles Wallace was a baby, at least four years, working on secret government project, and hasn't answered the family's letters for more than a year as the novel starts. However, being trapped on a crazy, ultra-controlling planet with no way to get home or communicate with your family is a totally plausible reason.
  • Dark Is Evil: Partly straight, partly averted. The "clear" darkness of space is contrasted with the "fearsome" darkness of the Dark Thing, after the star attacked and wounded it. And on Camazotz, IT's power often manifests as a pulsing, rhythmic light.
  • Disappeared Dad: The search for Meg's father is the main plot for most of the book.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Camazotz comes across as an amalgamation of the worst aspects of the two Cold War superpowers: the rigid conformism and suspicion of outsiders of 1950's America and the equally-rigid state attempts to control the lives and minds of its citizens of Stalinist Russia.
  • The Dragon: The Man with the Red Eyes to IT, as the herald of IT and chief agent of "reprocessing."
  • Dysfunctional Family: Calvin's family is large and unhappy, which is why he loves spending time with the Murrys.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Many examples. In A Wrinkle In Time, we have both IT, a superpowered Mass Hypnosis-inducing Brain in a Jar and the Dark Thing, the malignant cosmic entity behind it which is literally Made of Evil and attempting to stamp out all positive forces in the universe. In the sequels, all we learn about the Echthroi is that they're shapeshifting world-destroyers who wield The Power of the Void and can break laws other beings take for granted.
    • Averted and lampshaded with the Beasts of Ixchel, though they physically resemble Starfish Aliens more than the seemingly-human inhabitants of Camazotz. They're little more then humanoid outlines covered in tentacles and are telepathic, but they are the dead opposite of IT: Warm, gentle, empathic and life-giving, they are totally dedicated to fighting the Dark Thing. They also have no eyes, and have no concept at all of light or sight.
  • Elective Mute: Charles Wallace, who didn't talk until a very late age and still prefers silence in front of people he doesn't trust.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: "And the light shineth forth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not." More mildly, the Mrs Ws comfort Meg and Charles by saying that the townspeople who mock their father's disappearance are demonstrating their small-minded inability to recognize plain, simple love when they see it.
  • Exposition: When Meg is frozen, Calvin and Mr. Murry's conversation starts with a brief discussion of how Meg is starting to recover, even though they've both just seen it happen; then they talk about the research into tessering being done on Earth.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The tesseract, although Mrs Whatsit disclaims moving at any speed. Instead, they "tesser" or "wrinkle."
  • The Fifties: Written in 1959. The most obvious manifestation is in the kids' slang. However, Camazotz does almost directly critique fifties suburbia (see Does This Remind You of Anything? above), and the book is in many ways a protest against the prevailing thought at the time.
  • Funetik Aksent: Kind of. Mrs Which's wwwordss llookkk llikee tthhisss, to indicate that she's speaking very deliberately while shimmering like a light.
  • Goggles Do Something Unusual: Mrs Who's glasses, which help Meg to bypass the Transparent Column and free her father.
  • Good with Numbers: Meg is excellent at calculations and hopeless at all other subjects, because she had a brilliant scientist father whom she adored teaching her. Calvin is conversely best with English, reflecting the highly-developed social skills and ability to communicate and empathize that Meg often lacks.
  • Green Eyes: Meg has them, and Calvin is so dazzled when he sees them that he tells her to keep them hidden behind her glasses.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: They witness a star give up its life (i.e. go supernova) to injure the Dark Thing. A similar incident is revealed to be part of Mrs Whatsit's backstory.
  • Hive Mind: Downplayed on Camazotz. While the people there have their own minds, after a fashion, they have no individuality at all and their wills are ultimately subservient to the will of IT, which, it it implied, contains their collective memories.
  • Human Aliens: The people of Camazotz. They look just like ordinary people on Earth, living in an ordinary suburb... except they all do exactly the same things at the same time. And then our protagonists meet The Man with Red Eyes.
  • Honorary Uncle: Aunt Beast, who picks the terms herself while going through the suggestions in Meg's mind to learn to communicate with her.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: When Meg is among Aunt Beast's people, recuperating from her tessering by her father through the Dark Thing, this is the food she gets. Contrasting with the food on Camazotz, which looks like normal food but tastes like sand without the psychic power of IT to cheat the brain, the food of the beasts is grey and shapeless, since nothing on Ixchel has any color, but so tasty that human language literally cannot describe it.
  • Improbably High IQ: Charles Wallace, who has an IQ that is off conventional charts.
  • Individuality Is Illegal: On Camazotz, where the first signs of it are met with capture and "reprocessing." It is a reflection and amplification of the highly conformist culture of The Fifties, and of the Murry's hometown, where the Murry's are a family of eccentric scientists and are met with suspicion from all the townsfolk who resent and fear their closeness and unwillingness to fit in.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Charles Wallace, although his peers would be more likely to taunt Loners Are Freaks. Admittedly, his (vaguely-defined) mental abilities — like Telepathy, maybe — ain't quite Normal. But the horrors of enforced Normality are what the story's all about. The entire Murry family really. Sandy and Dennys are the only ones to fit in and later books imply that they downplay their intelligence avoid this trope.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: These are the first words of the book, though the storm is more than mere scenery: it is the storm blowing Mrs Whatsit off-course that kicks off the plot.
  • It Was a Gift: The children each receive gifts from the Mrs Ws when they first land on Camazotz to help them find their father. Later, Meg receives three gifts from the three Mrs W's when she returns to rescue Charles Wallace from IT.
  • Karma Houdini: IT gets away scot-free in the original novel. Not so in the movie. Then again, the movie has Meg freeing an entire planet from brain-washing by making one awkward, rambling speech, then winning. Later books imply that IT and the other "forces of evil" out there have not escaped their karma per se; they will get what's coming to them as soon as a "good guy" is able to fight them off. Meg might not have been strong enough to love IT, but next time, who knows?
  • Large Ham: IT in The Film of the Book.
  • Made of Evil: The Dark Thing, literally, according to Mrs Which.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: More subtle than most examples. Calvin, despite being male, is good at English, self-expression, and the traditionally "feminine" and "emotional" virtues of empathy and compassion. Meg, the girl, loves mathematics, and has a traditionally-masculine "rationalist" worldview. For The Fifties, this is some downright subversive criticism, and it remains cogent to many Mars and Venus Gender Contrast stereotypes today.
  • Meaningful Name: The planets Camazotz and Ixchel are named for the Mayan deities of death/sacrifice and birth, rainbows, and medicine, respectively.
  • Meganekko: Played with. Calvin learns to love Meg for herself, glasses and all... when she takes off her glasses, he's amazed by how beautiful her eyes are, and asks her to keep wearing them because he wants to keep their beauty secret. Awww.
  • Mind-Control Eyes: Whenever IT is directly taking over someone, their pupils dilate almost completely.
  • Mind Your Step: A step in the Murry house creaks. Charles Wallace uses that to signal to Meg that he wants to talk.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Calvin finds Meg's intelligence very attractive, though they're still rather young.
  • Official Couple: It's clear from pretty much the moment they meet that Meg and Calvin are made for each other. This assumption will be proven thoroughly correct in subsequent novels.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Played with as far as the Mrs Ws go. We never find out what exactly they are (Mrs Whatsit was a star once, but we don't know what she really is now). At one point, though, Calvin describes them as angels for lack of a better description. Also, the first sequel, A Wind in the Door, features Proginoskes, a cherubim who is much closer to Biblical depictions of angels than anything else you're likely to see in fiction, though he self-identifies as a plural creature.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Similar to the example above, the Echthroi from the sequels. Somewhat averted, though, because they're never called demons, but they very much seem to fulfill that role.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: Meg calls this on a mind-controled Charles Wallace to try and explain to her father that Charles isn't himself; first when he calls her "dear sister" and later when he is rude to his father by calling him "pop".
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Meg's parents are both doctors; her father is a physicist, while her mother is a microbiologist.
  • Paper People: When they try to land on the two-dimensional world, the children are Squashed Flat.
  • Parental Abandonment: Meg's father, first to do long-term government work, then when he stopped answering letters a year ago. Despite the taunts and gossip of the townsfolk, it was an accident.
  • Phlebotinum Analogy: Used to explain how Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and, Mrs Which "tesser" or "wrinkle" through space. Works for both Meg and the audience. Their father can do it too, but he isn't nearly as skilled as the Mrs Ws, which is how he became lost in the first place.
  • The Power of Love: "You have something that IT has not. This something is your only weapon."
  • Pride: The cause of Charles Wallace grabbing the Idiot Ball. His arrogance and confidence in his telepathic abilities and intelligence leads him to willingly put himself under the control of an Eldritch Abomination thinking he can simply break out whenever he wants. Of course, IT promptly takes complete control of his mind and personality. He got warned ahead of time too!
  • Psychic Static: Reciting the digits in the square root of five works, as does the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but not the multiplication table (in fact, the Man With Red Eyes tried to break through their static with it). The trick is throwing off IT's rhythm with a continuous thought that can't easily fall into mental sync with it. Irrational number sequences and prose work temporarily, and love works even better.
  • Punctuation Shaker: An odd inversion: Meg's mother is "Mrs. Murry" but the witches are "Mrs Whatsit" and so forth. I.e., the witches don't have a period at the end of their "Mrs". What this means is up in the air...
  • Really 700 Years Old: Mrs Whatsit is over 2 billion years old, and she's described as being very young compared to her two companions whom she looks up to.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: And how. The Man With Red Eyes is a soulless monster right at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley, as befitting IT's enforcer.
  • Rule of Funny: The two-dimensional planet, to a certain definition of "funny." It's almost instantly fatal to any three-dimensional being (like, say, humans) that find themselves on it, so their visit is quite mercifully cut short.
  • She's a Man in Japan: The Happy Medium is played by a man who claims he's "beyond gender" in The Film of the Book, even though she's clearly a woman in the book.
  • Speaks In Shoutouts: Mrs Who, who finds verbalizing her own thoughts extremely difficult. Borrowing similar thoughts from great thinkers is much easier and quicker.
  • Starfish Aliens: Played with. The peaceful people of Ixchel, who are blind, hairy, tentacled, beasts are much wiser, kinder, and more humane than the humanoid but individuality-free creatures that live on Camazotz.
  • Stepford Suburbia: Camazotz.
  • Superior Species: Played with. Many non-terrestrial species appear beautiful, kind, loving, and in touch with the music of the spheres, while Earth is a "shadowed" world that the Ultimate Evil is trying to corrupt (other worlds, such as Camazotz, have already fallen, and are called "dark planets"). However, the fact that Earth is "shadowed" rather than "dark" implies that humans aren't quite lost yet, and Ixchel is also "shadowed": the protagonists were just lucky enough to end up among the creatures fighting it.
  • Techno Babble: Averted. Mrs Whatsit explains to Calvin that instead of traveling at any speed, they "tesser" or "wrinkle", going from 'here' to 'there' without crossing the space in between, but instead of using random gibberish, she explains it through a variety of models and concepts from ordinary geometry.
  • Twin Telepathy: Notably averted. Sandy and Dennys are the most normal members of the family, though we can see in Charles Wallace that they could have potentially been this.
  • Uncanny Valley: Invoked. The people of Camazotz, and especially the Man With Red Eyes, derive their intense creepiness from their apparently-human shape coupled with their bizarre apparent uniform, rhythmic movements. Inverted with the beasts of Ixchel, whose inhuman bodies belie their more-human minds.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Mrs Whatsit transforms into a winged-centaur being to escort Meg, Charles, and Calvin across the planet Uriel. Also, just for fun, Mrs Which transforms into a witch with a broomstick at one point, though it is about as material as she ever gets.
  • What Beautiful Eyes: Explicitly noted by Calvin, who tells Meg flat out that "I don't want anyone else to see what dreamboat eyes you have," when she removes her glasses.
  • What Happened to the Mouse? / Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: The Dark Thing never appears in the sequels, which instead refer to the beings of evil as the Echthroi. Neither are Mrs Whatsit, Who, and Which, or Progo ever mentioned again, even when later novels involve other cosmic agents of good helping the protagonists.
  • White Sheep: Calvin, the intelligent and sensitive child in a family of hard, loud people who don't even realize he's gone. No wonder he envies the Murrys.
  • Who's on First?: A minor running gag. When Charles mentions Mrs Whatsit for the first time...
    Mrs. Murry: Mrs who?
    Charles: No, that's the other one.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Charles Wallace, though Mrs Whatsit warns him against the trap of Pride and arrogance. He doesn't listen, and it almost spells disaster.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Probably one of the more infamous examples: the definition of "tesseract" in this book has nothing to do with its real meaning. The error is compounded later on in the book when the characters start using "to tesser" as a verb: the root word of "tesser" in Greek actually means "four" and has nothing to with warping space.
    • Well, there is that description about dimensions (a tesseract is a four-dimensional structure similar to a three-dimensional cube, or a two-dimensional square.)
    • Justified: "Mrs Whatsit sighed, 'Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.'"

Alternative Title(s):

A Wrinkle In Time