Follow TV Tropes


Literature / A Wrinkle in Time

Go To

The first book in the Time Quintet 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.

The further adventures of the Murrys and, especially Meg, are detailed in the sequels: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time; the five books are known informally as the "Time Quintet." Subsequent books centered around Meg and Calvin's daughter Polly include The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, and A House Like a Lotus.

Disney made a movie adaptation in 2003, and a different one in 2018.

Followed by A Wind in the Door.

This book contains the following tropes:

  • The '50s: Written in 1959. The most obvious manifestation is in the kids' slang. However, Camazotz does almost directly critique fifties suburbia, and the book is in many ways a protest against the prevailing thought at the time. It even works fairly well today, as the conformist society of the fifties is often seen as a stifling and restrictive society by younger readers who grew up in a more permissive time.
  • 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.
  • Aliens Speaking English: The people of Camazotz and the Mrs Ws. On Uriel, Charles has to translate and the people of Ixchel communicate by telepathy.
  • 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.
  • Ambiguous Situation: We never learn the relationship between IT and the Black Thing. Is IT controlling the Black Thing? Is the Black Thing controlling IT? Is IT something else entirely? We never find out. The most accepted interpretation is that the Black Thing is Made of Evil, and that IT is thus a manifestation / servant of the Black Thing with its own goals, which are of benefit to the Black Thing so long as said goals are evil.
  • 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."
  • 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 Black Thing on Camazotz that has imprisoned Meg's father following his tesseract accident.
  • 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 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 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.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: Meg figures that the blind inhabitants of Ixchel probably have senses that a human couldn't imagine.
  • Black Sheep: The twins, Sandy and Dennys, in the Murry family, to a lesser extent. They're normal in a family of misfit intellectuals.
  • Blind Jump: This is why Meg's father is on Camazotz: He was the second to try out a tessering program that was intended to send people to Mars but didn't work as planned. (The first volunteer, Hank, was never seen or heard from again after the team waited for a year, implying he was stranded in deep space.)
  • Brain in a Jar: IT, though it's JUST big enough that it probably isn't completely human.
  • Brain Monster: The Big Bad IT is a huge disembodied psionic brain. It has Mind Control abilities that involved making the victim think in repetitive patterns.
  • Care-Bear Stare: How Meg saves the day. The Black 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 with 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.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: A graphic novel by Hope Larson.
  • 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: Played with. The "clear" darkness of space is contrasted with the "fearsome" darkness of the Black Thing, after the star attacked and wounded it. And on Camazotz, IT's power often manifests as a pulsing, rhythmic light.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The inhabitants of Camazotz's sister planet Ixchel are scary dark beasts, but also very kind and wise, and are fully engaged in fighting the Black Thing.
  • Death By Newberry Medal: Subverted. A Wrinkle in Time is firmly on the Idealism side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Well, sort of.
  • 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."
  • Dropping the Bombshell: Mrs. Whatsit does it to Meg's mother in the opening chapter, when she drops in for a visit after being blown off course:
    "Speaking of ways, pet, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."
  • Dysfunctional Family: Calvin's family is large and unhappy, which is why he loves spending time with the Murrys.
  • The Echoer: Ms. Who can only speak by quoting other people. She is kind enough to provide proper attribution, and translation when the source quoted was not originally in English.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Many examples.
    • In A Wrinkle In Time, we have IT, a a superpowered Mass Hypnosis-inducing Brain in a Jar. IT is a literal "abomination unto the Lord", absorbing the minds of all who come near IT, and IT has existed for millions of years.
    • We also have the Black Thing, the malignant cosmic entity behind IT. The Black Thing 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.
    • Finally, both Averted and Lampshaded with the Beasts of Ixchel. They physically resemble Starfish Aliens more than the seemingly human inhabitants of Camazotz. They're little more than 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 Black 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.
  • Expositing the Masquerade: Meg and Charles find out that their father went missing because the government had him experimenting with tesseracts, which left him stranded on Camazotz.
  • 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."note .
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Man with Red Eyes talks to the kids he's trying to hypnotize like house guests. Later the hypnotized Charles Wallace talks with Meg and Calvin like a good friend.
  • Fold the Page, Fold the Space: The protagonists are shown an ant walking across a cloth, how it has to travel such a far distance to get from one side to the other. But, by folding the cloth so that the two ends are right beside each other, the ant can travel the whole distance by only going a few steps.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: What the Mrs Ws 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".
  • 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.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Black 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.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: They witness a star give up its life (i.e. go supernova) to injure the Black 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 is 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 are punished/reindoctrinated if they deviate). 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.
  • Imagination Destroyer: The Big Bad IT is trying to enforce complete equality in the Multiverse by erasing everyone's sense of creativity.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: When Meg is among Aunt Beast's people, recuperating from her tessering by her father through the Black 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 I.Q.: 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 '50s, 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 to 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 Ws when she returns to rescue Charles Wallace from IT.
  • Karma Houdini: IT gets away scot-free in the original novel. Not so in the 2003 TV movie. Then again, the TV 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.
  • Light/Darkness Juxtaposition: The fight between good and evil is presented as one between light and dark.
  • Made of Evil: The Black 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 '50s, 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/bats and birth, rainbows and medicine, respectively.
  • Mind-Control Eyes: Whenever IT is directly taking over someone, their pupils contract almost completely, down to mere pinpricks.
  • Mind Your Step: A step in the Murry house creaks. Charles Wallace uses that to signal to Meg that he wants to talk.
  • Mouth of Sauron: IT prefers to communicate through The Man with the Red Eyes.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The Man With Red Eyes, whom few Camazotz natives want to be in the presence of. IT, on the other hand, nobody on Camazotz wants to be in the presence of, as befitting an Eldritch Abomination that calls ITself the Happiest Sadist.
  • Negatives as a Positive: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which give Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin gifts as they prepare to enter Camazotz. Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg "I give you your faults," which initially upsets her. However, those faults—anger, a quick temper, stubbornness, and a general dislike of authority—prove extremely useful when facing IT, the Hive Mind of Camazotz that assimilates all conscious beings; Meg is able to resist being absorbed by calling upon her belligerence and hatred of conformity.
  • 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.
  • Otherworldly Visits Youngest First: Charles Wallace is the youngest of the Murry children, and the first to meet Mrs. Whatsit and her friends, having chased the family dog onto their property. It isn't long before the rest of his family meets them. And it isn't much longer after that that the Mrs. Ws are whisking them off on an interstellar adventure to rescue their father from the planet Camazotz.
  • 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.
  • Painting the Medium: Used several times like when explaining the dimensions (actual lines and cubes show up), explaining tessering (a drawing of the ant used in the explanation is shown)and when describing things on Camazotz (IT and the first central in CENTRAL central Intelligence are in caps)
  • 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."
  • Platonic Declaration of Love
    • Mrs. Whatsit, Meg's helper for the trip, tells her that she gives her "[her] love always."
    • Meg is able to save her brother from IT by thinking her love at him continuously.
  • 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. The first time he tries, Meg has to forcefully break him out of IT'S grasp. Does this close call faze him in the least? Of course not! The second time, he goes even deeper and this time IT takes complete control of his mind and personality. He was repeatedly warned and still practically swallowed the Idiot Ball. This at least partially justified by the fact he's five years old.
  • 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.
  • Pun: On Uriel, the three Ws laugh at some inside joke. Mrs. Which, who normally appears as a shimmer, shapeshifts herself into the stereotypical Wicked Witch.
  • Punctuation Shaker: An odd inversion: Meg's mother is "Mrs. Murry" but the witches are "Mrs Whatsit" and so forth, without the period. According to the author in a note at the end of the first book, she preferred using the British spelling, to indicate the foreignness of the Mrs Ws.
  • 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, as befitting IT's enforcer. Nevertheless, when Meg returns to rescue Charles Wallace, she contemplates him, and considers him a kindly old man, when compared with IT.
  • Riddle for the Ages: At the end, the Mrs. Ws vanish halfway through saying "You see, we have to-" and the children never learn what they have to do.
  • Rule of Funny: The two-dimensional planet, to a certain definition of "funny."note  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.
  • Searching for the Lost Relative: Book is about two siblings named Meg and Charles Wallace Murray looking for their missing father.
  • 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 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.
  • Take a Third Option: Meg can't make herself love IT, even though the act would probably destroy IT and free Camazotz. But she can love and free Charles Wallace, and she does, escaping with him and leaving the rest of the planet to its fate.
  • 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.
  • The Evils of Free Will: The brainwashed Charles Wallace talks about how, "Differences breed problems" and that Camazotz is a utopia because everyone is the same.
  • 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.
  • Unseen Evil: We never learn much about the Black Thing other than it is Made of Evil.
  • 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.
  • Undressing the Unconscious: When Meg wakes in the care of Aunt Beast after her father's bungled attempt at tessering, she finds that she's naked and swaddled in fur. Aunt Beast explains that for a while, Meg will need to let herself be cared for like a little child.
  • Universal Eyeglasses: Played with: Meg is given an explicitly magical pair of glasses near the beginning of the story. Later, when she tries to give them to her father, he at first refuses them, saying her prescription won't work for him, not realizing it's not her normal glasses she's giving him.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Scientists' reaction at the time of this book's first printing. They couldn't understand how something as advanced and theoretical as quantum physics and tesseracts could be accessible to children.
  • 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 Black 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.
  • Witch Classic: Appropriately, this is Mrs. Which's guise, with a pointed hat and a broom.
  • With a Friend and a Stranger: Meg journeys with her beloved brother Charles Wallace, and the stranger is Calvin O'Keefe, whom she knows in passing as the big man on campus, and thinks he's a Jerk Jock. This becomes important when they need to rescue Charles Wallace, and Meg is the only person in the group with a strong enough bond to have a chance of saving him.