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A Wrinkle in Time original cover

My recent experience with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was a good reminder of why I should get back into the habit of rereading: my appreciation for the book deepened considerably on a second reading. I enjoyed it a lot the first time around, but this time there was even more to it than I remembered. The characters grabbed me more; the writing stood out in ways that it hadn’t before. This isn’t to say that I found it perfect, but it’s the kind of book I’ll happily spend a long time thinking about and trying to engage with.

I reread it so I could write a post about Mrs Which for the novel’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Revisiting the story while paying particular attention to the role one of the characters plays in it was a new approach for me, and something I really enjoyed doing. But of course, it didn’t exhaust all the things I wanted to say about A Wrinkle in Time, so here you have them: all my extra words.

Another thing I tried to pay attention to this time around was L’Engle’s handling of gender roles. I know this is one of those books that frustrate some readers for being celebrated as revolutionary and yet not going further than they do, but I thought t did some valuable things, even fifty years after it was first published. But I’ll start with something that did bother me a lot: the comparisons between Mrs Murry and Mrs O’Keefe. Calvin’s mother is unfavourably compared to Meg and Charles’ for being slovenly, for not being pretty, and for failing to be a good mother and homemaker. And her presence casts Mrs Murry herself in a more troubling light. I don’t at all mind the existence of a female character who does it all – I don’t for one moment resent her for being both beautiful and smart, for being a flawless mother who has French toast waiting for Meg when she wakes up and a brilliant scientist. This only begins to trouble me when all her achievements are used to cast women who don’t manage to balance their different roles so well in a negative light, and unfortunately the presence of Mrs O’Keefe (in this book, at least) has that effect.

Part of the reason why I was trying to make sense of how the narrative frames Meg’s mother was a post about the book by Catherynne M. Valente that I read last year. Renay included it in one of our Sidetracks posts and paired it with an essay by N.K. Jemisin titled “The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy”. I agree with Renay: both make good points, and it can be very, very tricky to draw the line between resisting the confinement of women to the domestic sphere and buying into the devaluation of anything domestic and feminine. I’m not saying that reading Mrs Murry like Valente does necessarily implies doing the latter, but I do know I’d have been much happier with her role in the story if not for the tricky comparison with Calvin’s mother.

And then there’s Meg herself, who I had loved before and continued to love now. One of the things that I find the most exciting about her is that she challenges the divide between emotions and rationality. She’s both smart and feeling – she’s great at math and interested in science and temperamental, stubborn, and loving. However, what Valente says about the balance between these two sets of traits gave me pause (and btw, I didn’t mean for my post to bounce off her review quite this much, but I went and reread it and there’s so much I want to say, so much I agree and disagree with, not to mention so much I’m not entirely sure how I feel about. It’s a powerful and engaging piece of criticism, that’s for sure):
Meg’s talent is an especially female one—loving her male relatives and...well, I got very tired of how many times she “wailed” “cried” or “stamped her foot.” This is very infantilizing language, removing her feeling from anger or passion into the realm of tantrum.
I take her point about the language, but my reaction to this paragraph as a whole is a big “but”, for reasons best expressed by Jodie’s excellent comment in that old Sidetracks post:
I’m talking about representation arguments where a lady ‘can not’ be a certain way because the characteristics she’s been given could be seen to have negative repercussions for the way women are seen. I’m talking myself in knots, but essentially I want to be able to see evil female characters (who aren’t evil because oh for example they’re super sexy and seduce all the dudes to evil, that I do not want) and not have to hear all about why any kind of evil female character harms all women. Or I want to be able to have traditionally feminine female characters and not have to hear all about how any traditional feminine female character rains negativity impressions down on all our female heads.
I just love the scene where Meg discovers that the antidote to cold rationality is love. I love it because she does that not by departing from rationality altogether, but by rejecting the notion that the two have to be divorced. And yes, by doing so she takes on a traditionally feminine role, but I can’t get behind the idea that this is a bad thing.

I guess that where I depart the most from Valente’s reading is in the fact that I read A Wrinkle in Time entirely as Meg’s own story, and not for a moment as the male characters’. I can’t see her as an accessory to Charles Wallace’s, Calvin’s and her father’s more important stories, simply because they didn’t interest me nearly as much as she did. There’s a lot going on in A Wrinkle in Time, but what always grabs me is Meg’s journey towards acceptance, towards a greater degree of comfort of who she is. The whole adventure leads up to the moment when she has her flaws returned to her, almost more so than to her father and brother’s rescue and to IT’s defeat. Naturally this is not the only valid reading, but it’s what the story looks like through my eyes.

It’s true that Meg is not remarkable in quite the same sense as the male characters are, and I won’t dismiss readings that point out that this is problematic. But to me she’s the human element; she’s the bridge between the reader and the timeless realm where her adventure is taking place. Without Meg, I suspect I might have felt that the story had left me behind, much like I felt that the ending of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms had. This is particularly true of the religious elements of the novel, which are so alien to my worldview. I don’t mind engaging with ideas that are alien to me (this is, in fact, part of why I read), but it’s very easy to be made to feel that a story based on assumptions that completely differ from your own has shut you out.

Meg is the reason why A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t ever make me feel this way. I can’t relate to the theology behind it, but I can relate to the sense of awe before the universe as experience by Meg. I can even relate to her brief flashes of understanding as opposed to Charles Wallace’s insight, which is framed as “superhuman” and therefore loses me. Of course, there’s again a troubling gendered quality to this (women as “instinctive” and men as rational), but if we leave that aside for one moment and take Meg on her own, I’m incredibly grateful that she gives me a way in.

They read it too: The Blue Bookcase, Care’s Online Bookclub, Books Without Any Pictures, In Spring it is the Dawn, The Boston Bibliophile, Regular Rumination


Date: 2012-02-22 03:44 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
'as opposed to Charles Wallace’s insight, which is framed as “superhuman” and therefore loses me'

This is a total tangent sorry, but I want to ask how you feel about super heroes/heroines now.

Date: 2012-02-22 05:01 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
No that totally makes sense to me. Framing your distinction in super hero media Heroes is about regular people with super powers, whereas Hancock is about super beings. Thor is about super hero gods, while X Men is about people who develop super powers. Sound about right? I think those specific examples are complicated by the fact that the super beings in Hancock and Thor have to work out how to function as regular people (and often do not deal very well) but I totally get where you're coming from on Yeine. How does your idea apply to the other gods in that novel do you think? (hijacks discussion! SORRY)

Date: 2012-02-26 08:02 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
There is no such thing as thread hijacking at Lady Business. ;)


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