A Wrinkle in Time | Study Guide

Madeleine L'Engle

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A Wrinkle in Time | Chapter 5 : The Tesseract | Summary

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Summary

Mrs Which tells the children Mr. Murry is fighting the Black Thing. He is hidden behind it so no one can see him. Mrs Whatsit tells a crying Meg that saving her father will be difficult but she can do it, because her father may be able to do for his children what he cannot do for himself.

Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit tell the children they will travel behind the Black Thing in short stages by tessering, or wrinkling. Mrs Whatsit says traveling at the speed of light would take too long. Thankfully, they have a shortcut. The women demonstrate how an ant can take a long time to walk across a straight line. But if someone brings the two ends of the line together, the ant is simply there without having to make the journey through space.

"We travel in the fifth dimension," Mrs Whatsit explains to Meg. Humans, Mrs Whatsit says, are used to thinking of space in only three dimensions. Mr. and Mrs. Murry were working on a way to travel from the fourth to the fifth dimension. Charles Wallace had asked his mother about the process. He tells Meg to picture the first, second, and third dimensions. The first dimension is a straight line. To illustrate the second dimension, one would "square the line." Thus, the second dimension becomes a square. The third dimension is a square with "a bottom, and sides, and a top." Meg isn't sure how to picture the fourth dimension. She knows it has "something to do with Einstein and time." She calls the fourth dimension "Time."

Charles explains the fifth dimension is a tesseract. It enables them "to travel through space without having to go the long way around." Meg has a brief flash of understanding.

They begin the process of tessering. The women go first. Meg is prepared for her body to dissolve this time, but then she feels herself squeezed, "flattened out," and unable to breathe. She hears words resembling "printed words on paper," saying they're on a two-dimensional planet where the children can't survive. She returns to nothingness, and feels relief.

The travelers arrive at a planet on Orion's belt. Charles Wallace is angry at Mrs Which for endangering their lives on a two-dimensional planet. Mrs Whatsit explains that because Mrs Which has no physical body herself, she cannot always "think in a corporeal way"—a way related to physical bodies.

The women have a friend on this planet. They want the children to see the friend's home. Meg is afraid the rest of her family will worry about their absence. Mrs Whatsit assures her, "We took a time wrinkle as well as a space wrinkle." The travelers will be back a few minutes before they left.

The planet they are on is gray and foggy with no plant life. They enter a deep cave in a stone hill to visit the Happy Medium, a friend of the three women. When Mrs Which calls Mrs Whatsit young, the children ask about Mrs Whatsit's age. She is over two billion years old according to Earth's calendar. Mrs Whatsit says she was honored to be chosen for their mission despite her young age.

Inside the cave a woman in a purple gown and turban sits near a bonfire. She is staring into a crystal ball, and laughing with delight. The women introduce themselves and the children to the cave-dweller, the Happy Medium. Mrs Whatsit explains they want to see planet Earth. The Medium complains she doesn't want to look at "unpleasant things." Mrs Which reminds her there will be more unpleasant things unless responsible people can fix them.

The children look into the crystal ball and see the Milky Way galaxy. The Happy Medium focuses on Mars, and then reluctantly moves the view toward Earth. A "smoky haze" covers planet Earth, and Charles Wallace guesses correctly the haze is the "Dark Thing." Mrs Whatsit explains the Dark Thing, or Black Thing, has surrounded Earth for a long time, adding "That is why your planet is such a troubled one." The women prepared the children for the Dark Thing on Uriel, not wanting to introduce them to it through their home planet.

Mrs Which refers to the Dark Thing as the "Powers of Darkness" and says they will continue to fight it. Mrs Whatsit adds that the battle has been going on throughout the cosmos. Some of the strongest fighters have come from Earth. Calvin asks who the fighters are. As the women prompt them, Calvin and Charles Wallace excitedly name historical and religious figures as fighters. They name Jesus, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Madame Curie, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, and more. Mrs Whatsit asks Meg to think of some. She names Euclid and Copernicus, but she is distracted by thinking of her father. Mrs Whatsit says Mr. Murry is "on a planet that has given in."

The Happy Medium is weeping as she looks into the crystal ball. She implores the children to watch.

Analysis

The use of illustrations in the text gives the book another dimension of language. Images make complex and forbidding concepts simpler.

A tesseract in mathematics is a four-dimensional hypercube. The illustrations of a line, a square, and a cube reveal the first three dimensions—length, width, and depth. A cube in the fourth dimension would be a tesseract, tetracube, or hypercube. As Meg explains, it cannot be drawn on paper. Humans can't even conceptualize the fourth dimension.

The idea of the fourth dimension as time is a common one in physics. Einstein discovered that space and time are relative to the observer. Hermann Minkowski, a 19th-century German mathematician, clarified the concept of space-time—the union of time and space. The first three dimensions can describe a person or object's physical location. But to determine when a person or an object occupies the location, a sense of time is needed. Minkowski's theories introduced the possibility of an object moving through time the same way it moves through space.

L'Engle's version of a tesseract resembles something scientists call a wormhole, or a portal connecting two different points in time and space.

Charles Wallace tells Meg she will need to think outside of "old-fashioned plane geometry." Greek mathematician Euclid's geometry deals with shapes in two dimensions, on a flat surface—or "plane"—like a piece of paper. In two dimensions, a straight line is the shortest distance between two different points. But in Mrs Who's demonstration with the ant on the skirt, the straight line actually takes longer to travel. When she brings the points on the line together she creates a two-dimensional curve. Meg gets the idea: the more dimensions, the more possibilities for movement.

L'Engle introduces the idea that time can "wrinkle," or fold in on itself. The "time tesser" or "time wrinkle" the women use means time doesn't pass on planet Earth the way it does in space. Only five minutes will go by in the Murry household while the children travel. Time is represented as a substance with physical movement. In Chapter 10 Mr. Murry will describe time in Camazotz as "inverted, turned in on itself" until time has no meaning.

As objects move into different dimensions, they can also change forms. L'Engle imagines what traveling to a two-dimensional planet would be like for people who are used to existing in three dimensions. For Mrs Which, two dimensions are easy. She is not made of "protoplasm," or cells, but from a different substance, which explains why she can't physically materialize the way the other women can. No one is quite sure "which" form she is.

Mrs Which is the oldest of the three women. Her advanced age and flexible physical form means she can travel easily between planets and galaxies. Each of the three women has a weakness she can turn into a strength. Mrs Whatsit is the youngest. Her youth helps her communicate in spoken English more easily. Mrs Who finds it hard to talk without using famous sayings. Her ideas depend on "who" she is quoting, but her knowledge gives her a world of wisdom. Mrs Whatsit tells the children the strengths themselves don't mean much, but "it's how we use them that counts." She gives the children valuable advice for the next chapter.

Shakespeare's play The Tempest, quoted by Mrs Who in this chapter, will return as a reference in Chapter 6. The Tempest includes inhabitants of the spirit, or supernatural world, particularly the angelic spirit Ariel. The quote, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," emphasizes the fleeting nature of life, which can soon dissolve into "dreams." In A Wrinkle in Time the quote shows humans are more expansive than their physical bodies.

The three women show how humor and joy help them cope. Practical jokes and lightheartedness—like dressing up as witches—give them the spirit they need to take on serious responsibilities. Genuine happiness can be a refuge and a weapon against evil.

Despite their jokes the women know they are facing danger. While they want to be honest with the children about the risks they're up against, they do not want to encourage despair. Mrs Which warns them all "responsible people" need to take action.

The name of the "Happy Medium" is another play on words. In Chapters 1 and 2 Meg's family wanted her to find a "happy medium," or the ability to be moderate in her behavior. "Medium" is also a word to describe a psychic or fortuneteller. And the first time the children meet the Happy Medium, she truly is happy.

The Medium's mood changes when she faces darkness. Mrs Which uses the term "the Powers of Darkness" to describe the shadow. This term is often associated with a moral idea of the universe, and concrete concepts of good and evil. Religions such as Christianity often use this language. But the scene makes the characters' quest universal. Mrs Whatsit tells the children they are in a "grand and exciting battle." She empowers them to be warriors actively engaged in the fight. The term also raises the stakes. Now the Murrys aren't just searching for their father—they're helping save the planet.

The list of great "fighters" on Earth begins with a biblical quote referencing the "light" of the Christian deity, Jesus. The children also name Buddha, the religious figure at the center of the Buddhist spiritual practice. Other spiritual leaders like Gandhi and St. Francis earn recognition as well. So do artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and mathematicians. Meg, who respects mathematical and scientific knowledge, names the mathematician Euclid and the scientist Copernicus.

What do all these people have in common? They all forged revolutionary paths. Their discoveries changed the world forever. Several presented ideas unpopular at the time. It takes moral courage to go against the prevailing thought of a culture, or field of study. The list of fighters prepares the children to display this kind of moral courage.

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