A Wrinkle in Time | Study Guide

Madeleine L'Engle

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A Wrinkle in Time | Chapter 4 : The Black Thing | Summary

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Summary

The children and their companions are plunged into complete darkness. Meg reaches for Charles Wallace and Calvin but can't find them. For a moment she can't even feel her body. Her surroundings are "a horrifying void" more empty than darkness or silence. The only movement she feels is the earth turning.

Then she hears Charles Wallace's voice, and light begins to return. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin slowly return to their physical forms. Meg emerges suddenly "as though she had been thrust through a wall of glass." The children find themselves in a grassy field surrounded by mountains and birdsong.

Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which appear giggling. Mrs Which briefly takes the form of a witch with a broomstick just for fun. When Charles Wallace scolds the three women for scaring Calvin and Meg, Mrs Which says they need to keep their sense of humor in dangerous times. Mrs Whatsit reminds them their father's life, and much more, is at stake.

They've arrived at the planet Uriel "in the spiral nebula Messier 101." Calvin doesn't believe it. Even at the speed of light, he says, it would take years to get there. Mrs Whatsit explains, "We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle." Meg wonders if tessering has anything to do with the tesseract.

Mrs Who and Mrs Which criticize Mrs Whatsit, the youngest of the three, for using words to explain the journey. Charles Wallace reminds them that Calvin and Meg need a verbal explanation. Mrs Whatsit says they've stopped at Uriel, a safe planet, to rest. Meg is impatient to see her father, and Mrs Who tells her to learn patience.

To travel around Uriel, Mrs Whatsit transforms into a magnificent winged horse with a clear voice. The children are in awe. Mrs Whatsit invites them to climb on her back. They ride over mountains, rocks, and gardens. Meg hears winged horses and other creatures in the garden singing in a language she doesn't understand. Charles Wallace and Mrs Whatsit translate the words of the song for Calvin and Meg.

Soon Mrs Whatsit says they need to leave. She gives each of the children flowers to hold and use later. They fly further upward toward the clouds and into light. As the atmosphere thins, Mrs Whatsit tells the children to breathe through their flowers for oxygen. They arrive at one of Uriel's moons. Although they want to watch the moon set, Mrs Whatsit makes them look straight ahead.

A shadow darkens the sky. Stars surround the children, more stars than they've ever seen. Mrs Whatsit says the thin atmosphere lets them see more than they would at home. The shadow plunges the children into darkness. They begin to feel terrible fear. Calvin can tell the shadow is "evil," and Meg worries Charles Wallace is too young to see it.

Mrs Whatsit flies the children back to the field on Uriel. Mrs Who and Mrs Which are waiting for them. Meg asks if the "Dark Thing" is what her father is fighting.

Analysis

The reader experiences tessering the way Meg does. They plunge into it before it's fully explained. The close third-person perspective from Meg's point of view allows readers to experience the journey with her.

L'Engle repeatedly challenges human conceptions of sensory experience, forcing readers to stretch their imaginations. The silence and darkness of tessering aren't just the absence of light and sound. They are alienating and divorced from the senses, completely different from the way humans experience the world. Meg isn't even aware of her physical body. Substances, too, aren't what they seem. Meg breaks through what feels like a wall of glass to enter Uriel. Characters will walk through walls and barriers at several points in the book.

L'Engle also drops hints about the relationship between space and time. Calvin takes longer than Charles Wallace to arrive on the new planet fully formed, since he is older. And the three women take even longer. Younger people, who have lived shorter lives thus far, can move through space more quickly.

The children and the reader learn more about the three mysterious women. First of all, they enjoy pretending to be witches. Mrs Who recites, "When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain," a quote from the witches in Shakespeare's play, Macbeth.

The reason Mrs Who speaks in quotes becomes clear. Like the other women, she doesn't find spoken language the ideal form of communication. Since she cannot verbalize her own thoughts, she uses the words of writers and philosophers. The book investigates many kinds of languages, verbal and otherwise. It asks readers to imagine the existence of ideas their language has no words for.

During Mrs Whatsit's transition to her winged form, concrete images help convey abstract concepts to the reader. The metaphors used to describe her voice's "warmth" and "mystery" use music as a comparison. The images of "rainbows" and "light upon water" describe her wings. Although none of these metaphors truly describe what the children are seeing, they create an impression in the reader's mind.

The novel explores translation across different mediums—for instance, translating wordless music into the English language. The descriptions combine sight, sound, and touch, showing the children's sensory experiences on Uriel are out of the ordinary. Meg feels she can "reach out and touch" the words of the creatures' song.

Music can communicate what words can't. The words L'Engle uses for the creatures' song come from Isaiah 42 in the Old Testament. L'Engle uses praise to the Judeo-Christian God to evoke admiration of a wonder beyond human understanding.

The song also reflects a musical and philosophical concept known as the "music of the spheres." Ancient thinkers like Pythagoras and Aristotle believed planets and stars produced musical tones as they rotated through the sky. Music made by human beings was an attempt to imitate the harmony of those tones, or their "participation in the harmony of the universe."

As the children listen, Mrs Whatsit encourages Charles Wallace to use his powers to the fullest extent. Meg sees her brother taking on his true form and becoming "more and more one with whatever kind of being" the women were. Who is the real Charles Wallace? What kind of being is he? His identity is never explained. The reader learns to be content with the mystery.

Like the beauty on Uriel, the Black Thing is something the children cannot fully respond to, or comprehend. They can only feel it on an instinctual, physical level. It is beyond anything they have ever experienced. It is complete darkness, similar to the darkness Meg felt while tessering.

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