A Wrinkle in Time | Study Guide

Madeleine L'Engle

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A Wrinkle in Time | Chapter 1 : Mrs Whatsit | Summary

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Summary

On a "dark and stormy night" teenager Margaret (Meg) Murry shivers in her farmhouse attic bedroom. The storm outside may turn into a hurricane, and Meg can't sleep. She worries about her poor performance in school. Kids tease her for being immature, and tease her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace for being "dumb." When Meg got in a fight defending Charles Wallace, her 10-year-old twin brothers Sandy and Dennys were upset with her.

Meg is also concerned about her father, who has mysteriously disappeared. Meg's mother thinks he is coming back, but townspeople are gossiping about him viciously. Unlike her mother, Meg can't help showing her emotions when people talk about her family.

The family dog, Fortinbras, barks downstairs. Meg remembers there is an intruder in the neighborhood who stole sheets from their neighbor Mrs. Buncombe. Is the intruder in their house? Meg walks downstairs in the dark to find out. Still apprehensive, she joins Charles Wallace in the kitchen for a late-night snack. Charles Wallace has already warmed milk for her cocoa. Meg wonders how her little brother can read minds.

Charles Wallace rarely speaks around others. People think he and Meg aren't very bright, but their mother, Mrs. Murry, a scientist, has reassured Meg she will learn at her own pace. She and Meg's father gave their children IQ tests and know how smart Meg and Charles Wallace are. Charles Wallace proved them right when he spoke in complete sentences the first time he talked.

Mrs. Murry joins Meg and Charles Wallace in the kitchen for sandwiches. The room is warm, dry, and familiar, and Meg feels comforted. But she is bothered she didn't inherit her mother's good looks. Mrs. Murry, looking at Meg's bruises, advises her to find a "happy medium," and avoid fighting at school. Meg wishes she weren't such an "oddball." Mrs. Murry tells Meg to give herself time.

Charles Wallace mentions that he will talk to his friend Mrs Whatsit about Meg. He won't reveal much about Mrs Whatsit, however. He says she lives in an abandoned house in the woods with her two friends. He met them "by accident" while exploring the woods with Fortinbras.

The storm grows louder and Fortinbras begins barking. Someone is at the door. Mrs. Murry lets in a person bundled in a coat, scarves, and a hat. Charles recognizes the visitor as Mrs Whatsit, a pleasant old woman. Mrs. Murry offers Mrs Whatsit a sandwich.

Meg doesn't trust Mrs Whatsit. Did she steal Mrs. Buncombe's sheets? Why is she friends with Charles Wallace? Mrs Whatsit says she has just moved to the neighborhood. Charles Wallace criticizes her for stealing the sheets—he would have given her sheets if she had asked. Mrs Whatsit praises the Murry family for understanding Charles Wallace, and letting him be himself. Mrs. Murry admits no one in the family is "quite up to Charles."

Mrs Whatsit, with help from Mrs. Murry, pulls off her wet boots. She politely declines Mrs. Murry's offer to let her stay the night, saying, "Wild nights are my glory." Mrs Whatsit says she will leave in a moment but tells Mrs. Murry, "There is such a thing as a tesseract."

Mrs. Murry is stunned. As Mrs Whatsit leaves, Mrs. Murry wonders aloud, "How could she have known?"

Analysis

The book begins with a familiar phrase. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a 19th-century novelist, is considered the first to write the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." The phrase is now a well-known and clichéd beginning to scary stories. L'Engle wants to evoke the feeling of a scary tale told around a campfire. The phrase invites the reader in, and warns them about what is to come.

The setting won't move from planet Earth for a few more chapters, but the anxiety of the storm outside creates a feeling of the menacing unknown. Meg sees "wraith-like shadows," and the reader pictures a wraith, spirit, or ghost. Powerful verbs such as "scudded," "ripped," and "raced" describe the storm's progress. Meg feels at the mercy of a force larger than herself, one she cannot control or understand.

Meg's inner state is also tumultuous. Her strong emotions are established as a dominant character trait. So is her aggressive desire to defend her family.

She begins the book as someone who feels she is "doing everything wrong." She has a sense of being judged by "everybody else," and found wanting. She knows what she lacks, not what she has to offer. Although Meg's exact age is never given, she is probably between the ages of 11 and 14. Her social status, academic performance, and outward appearance are all important to her. And she feels she is failing in each area.

There are two main aspects to Meg's journey and growth throughout the book. One is her quest to find her father and to save Charles Wallace. The other is her exploration of her own identity. In Chapter 1 Meg sees herself as a "monster," someone noticeably different. She envies how easily her brothers Sandy and Dennys fit in. She lives in a world where conformity and obedience equal success. If she were like everyone else, she would do well in school and no one would gossip about her. She feels being different is her weakness.

Mrs. Murry tells Meg, "You're much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren't." The theme of identity and appearances begins with Meg's discomfort with her identity. Many characters take on disguises. They may assume different physical forms like Mrs Whatsit does. Or they may alter their actions and personality like Calvin O'Keefe and Charles Wallace do. But Meg cannot alter or hide anything. She is who she is. This genuineness will later prove to be one of her strengths.

The reader also learns how Meg relates to the eccentric, loving Murry family. Fortinbras, the family dog, is named after a character from 16th-century English playwright William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, highlighting the family's love of intellectual pursuits. He was an abandoned stray the family took in, establishing the Murry house as a home for those who don't have homes. The vegetation, bright colors, and glowing lights in the Murry home establish it as a place of comfort and warmth.

Charles Wallace is an "oddball" like Meg. He reveals his most significant character traits—intelligence, sensitivity, vulnerability, and a little too much self-assurance.

The Murrys also deal with a sense of loss. The search for Mr. Murry drives the novel's plot forward. It provides the first motivation for the "quest narrative"—a story in which a hero travels toward a goal. The journey of a quest narrative is both external and internal. Meg travels to many different locations, and goes through changes on the inside.

At the beginning, Meg struggles to curb her overwhelming emotions. The "happy medium" her mother suggests means a more moderate response to stressful situations. A "happy medium" is just the right amount of something—neither too much nor too little. L'Engle will bring up the phrase "happy medium" again with a different meaning in Chapter 5. It's one example of the wordplay or puns she uses throughout the novel. Mrs Whatsit later struggles to get to her feet "with a sprained dignity." The wordplay comes from the idea of dignity, an inner trait, being a physical body part.

Mrs Whatsit's name is also a play on words. Her name returns to the novel's questions about identity. Who or what is Mrs Whatsit? In the book, she will adopt the disguises of an old woman and a winged creature. She will be called a star and a guardian angel. Neighborhood children might fear she is a ghost. With each new identity, she takes on different characteristics. On Earth, she disguises herself as an old woman—an identity representing wisdom, comfort, and sometimes eccentricity. Her unusual outfit and enjoyment of "wild nights" already suggest she is different from other people.

Charles Wallace frequently functions as a go-between with human characters and supernatural characters. His own identity involves a little of both. In Chapter 1 he explains to Mrs Whatsit that in order to navigate the human world, she cannot steal from people. As a member of the human world, Meg feels a natural distrust for the strange visitor. She hasn't yet learned—as her mother has—to accept things she cannot understand.

The reader doesn't yet know what a tesseract is, but Mrs Whatsit's revelation and Mrs. Murry's reaction suggest that a tesseract is something significant. Readers also sense Mrs Whatsit already knows a lot more about the Murrys than they have told her.

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