A Wrinkle in Time | Study Guide

Madeleine L'Engle

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A Wrinkle in Time | Chapter 6 : The Happy Medium | Summary

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Summary

In the crystal ball a light bursts through the Darkness. The Dark Thing disappears, revealing a starry sky. The Happy Medium says this is proof the Dark Thing can be overcome. Mrs Whatsit sadly explains what they saw was a star "giving up its life in battle with the Thing." The star won, but died in the process. Charles Wallace guesses, and Mrs Whatsit confirms, that she was once a star and died in a similar way. Meg realizes Mrs Whatsit's true self is "beyond human understanding."

Meg is eager to go to her father, and the Happy Medium is getting tired. Before they leave, the Happy Medium asks if Meg and Charles Wallace want to see their mother. Meg asks if Calvin can see his mother too. The view from the crystal ball focuses on Calvin's mother, who is screaming and hitting her children. Meg holds Calvin's hand to comfort him.

The ball then focuses on Mrs. Murry, who is writing her husband a letter. She is sad in a way she never allows her children to see. Meg becomes angry and desperate to take action, but she is grateful to the Happy Medium, since now she feels too mad to be scared. The Happy Medium asks where the travelers are headed. Mrs Whatsit says they are going to the planet Camazotz. The word sounds ominous to Meg.

As they leave the cave, Mrs Which tells the children not to be frightened. Mrs Whatsit tells Meg to stay angry, as she will need her anger.

The children go through the process of tessering again. This time they arrive on a hill in the middle of autumn. The town they see below resembles a suburban town on Earth. Everything looks normal.

Mr. Murry is on Camazotz, but the children will have to wait until the right moment to see him. The women can't stay with or help the children on Camazotz, although they will be watching. Mrs Whatsit gives each child a "talisman," or gift. Calvin's gift is his ability to communicate. Meg's gift is her faults, which Mrs Whatsit promises will come in handy. Charles Wallace's gift is "the resilience of [his] childhood."

To help Calvin, Mrs Who quotes a passage from Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the passage, a delicate spirit is confined to a "cloven pine." Mrs Who reminds Charles Wallace he doesn't know everything. She gives Meg her glasses but tells her to use them only as a last resort.

Mrs Which advises the children to go into the town together and not to separate. Mrs Whatsit tells Calvin to take care of Meg. Charles Wallace protests he can take care of Meg himself. Mrs Whatsit warns Charles Wallace he will be in the most danger "because of what you are." He should watch out for "pride and arrogance," and shouldn't go off on his own. The women disappear, and the children start down the hill.

The houses in the Camazotz town are identical. Children play in the front yard of each house. Meg senses something is wrong. Charles Wallace notices what it is. The children are all skipping rope and bouncing balls in rhythm. The doors of all the houses open simultaneously. Women come out of the houses simultaneously to call the children inside. Meg wonders what this rhythm means. Calvin has seen enough and wants to go back, but Meg urges him on.

In front of one house a boy bounces a ball awkwardly without rhythm. His mother runs out of the house, horrified, and pulls him inside. The boy's ball rolls into the street. Charles Wallace suggests taking the ball back, and the children go up to the house together.

The woman who answers their knock is confused. What do they want? It's not paper time, milk time, or time for a donation. Charles Wallace says her little boy dropped his ball. The woman protests. The children on the block are all trained, and "haven't had an Aberration for three years." She says she can't let the children in unless they have papers. The boy, standing behind his mother, sees the ball in Charles Wallace's hand. He runs out to grab it and runs back inside.

The children walk further into the city. They start to see apartment buildings instead of houses. A boy on a paper route rides a bicycle and throws papers in rhythm. The paper boy stops them, and says only route boys are allowed outside. He is bewildered by the presence of newcomers. Charles Wallace asks the boy to tell him more about the town.

The boy says their city's Central Intelligence Center is the planet's best, with the most productive factories and machines. They also have several artists "all perfectly channeled." He is quoting statistics from a book called the "Manual." The city's perfect record makes them the capital city of Camazotz, home of CENTRAL Central Intelligence and IT.

The boy rides off, worried he will have to explain his delay to "the explainer." Charles Wallace points out the boy talked in a strange way, "as though he weren't really doing the talking." The children continue into the city. They notice the purposeful way adult residents walk.

In a row of office buildings, the children see the largest, tallest building they have ever seen. Charles Wallace suggests this is CENTRAL Central Intelligence. He thinks they should enter. Meg would rather avoid the building, but Charles Wallace thinks going in is the only way to find the information they are looking for. Calvin thinks they need proper paperwork. When Charles Wallace protests that Mrs Whatsit would have given them papers if necessary, Calvin replies that Mrs Whatsit doesn't know much about the human world. The Camazotz residents are unusual, but they know more about "ordinary people." Meg asks if they are robots. Charles Wallace doesn't think so. He can feel minds within the residents, even if he can't read them.

The children watch Camazotz residents enter and exit the rhythmic doors of the office buildings. Charles Wallace is scared because he can't read anyone's mind. He worries he won't recognize his father, since he was a baby when his father left. Meg assures Charles Wallace he will know his father. Charles Wallace decides they should go to CENTRAL Central Intelligence, but Calvin has another compulsion. This time he feels they are headed toward danger.

Analysis

Despair in A Wrinkle in Time is always counterbalanced by hope. A supernova—the fiery death of a star—shows the Happy Medium that good can triumph over evil. Supernovas do have a scientific purpose. They release carbon and oxygen, elements that allow for life on Earth. In fact, the elements in the core of stars compose a lot of matter—including the matter that make up human beings. Stars give people life, but only after their own deaths.

Charles Wallace can handle the mystery of Mrs Whatsit's true identity. His instinctive reaction is one of love and physical comfort. Meg doesn't fully understand what Mrs Whatsit's experienced, but now she can accept something "beyond human understanding," and be awestruck by the possibilities. She is still impatient and eager, however. She and Calvin are still learning to be comfortable with the unknown. Mrs Whatsit and the other women refuse to tell the children what will happen next.

Another important change happens early in this chapter. Meg feels an urge "to help and protect Calvin" the way she helps Charles Wallace. Calvin is on his way to being included in the Murry family. Calvin and Meg realize their surface identities don't reveal who they truly are. Even though Calvin is "popular and important," he has doubts and insecurities like Meg. And Meg has more to offer Calvin than she thought she did.

The overwhelming emotions Meg wanted to get rid of in Chapter 3 are becoming her strong points. Her anger rids her of any apprehension, and mobilizes her to action. Her fear is acceptable. Even Mrs Whatsit felt fear when she died. Mrs Whatsit adds, "Only a fool is not afraid," pointing out fear is a natural, normal reaction. When Mrs Whatsit gives Meg her faults, she implies that perceived weaknesses can become strengths if they are used correctly.

Calvin is the expert on verbal communication and literature. Mrs Who gives him another quote from Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. This quote refers to the supernatural spirit Ariel being imprisoned in a "cloven pine"—or tree—by a witch. The character of Ariel often represents the "creative imagination." The Tempest quote alludes to the way creative and inventive minds—like the exploratory scientist Mr. Murry—are restricted by oppressive regimes.

Charles Wallace learns his strength—his brilliant mind and confidence—may actually be a weakness. His self-assurance comes with a tendency toward "pride and arrogance." Meg and Charles Wallace's roles are reversed. Charles Wallace is used to protecting Meg. Now Meg will protect her little brother.

The symbolism of the planet Camazotz can be interpreted in several ways. It is often understood to be a warning against totalitarianism, an oppressive form of government in which a ruling state doesn't allow individual freedom. The Cold War, a military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, was still in full force when L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time. Americans feared the encroachment of Soviet communism, a government system with "public ownership and communal control." Americans feared Communism meant the loss of personal liberty.

Camazotz illustrates what a totalitarian state might look like. The goals of this type of government include "to rule unimpeded by legal restraint ... and to refashion human nature itself." The odd behavior of Camazotz residents shows how human nature has changed. Residents appear human, but they are fearful, robotic, and seem controlled by something other than themselves.

Even in a free society, Camazotz can serve as a warning. Pressure to conform to social standards is very strong. Those who stand out face exclusion and gossip, like the gossip the Murry family had to endure at the beginning of the book. As a result, people lose a sense of who they are. The absence of individual expression restricts honesty, compassion, and genuine human connection.

The Camazotz neighborhood is unnerving because it's so recognizable. The children have a vague sense of unease. The setting looks normal and comforting, but something is not quite right. The language immediately makes readers wary. The houses have "harsh angular patterns" and "dull-looking flowers." The neighborhood is designed to instill nervous obedience. Child's play is regulated and orderly, not chaotic and free. The rhythm of L'Engle's short, similar sentences, such as, "All in rhythm. All identical," depicts a recurring process similar to a machine and reinforces the unnatural behaviors.

Most disturbing of all, the people in Camazotz look human, and speak English. Calvin points out that the Camazotz citizens are "lots more like ordinary people than the [creatures] on Uriel." They are not robots. Charles Wallace can tell they are human—or life forms similar to humans—but they are trapped. They could be the children's neighbors, or friends back home. The children sense whatever happened to Camazotz could also happen to Earth.

Despite their human identities, the people on Camazotz are treated like machines. As a result, they begin to operate like machines. The emphasis on regularity leaves no room for the unexpected. Identities in Camazotz are defined by paperwork, performance, and regulation. Everyone has a role to play. Even people's movements are choreographed with an "odd, automatic stride," possibly reminiscent of goose-stepping Nazis. The idea of Aberrations—mistakes—isn't permissible. The children learn the things they see as negative—like mistakes or faults—might be what makes them human.

Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace all feel they are "sports," or biological variations. They would never fit in on Camazotz. Charles Wallace is less guarded than the older children. He is driven by compassion and an eagerness to learn more. He reminds Meg and Calvin they've come "to help [Mr. Murry], not just to find him." Their task is bigger than they imagine.

As the children venture into the city, they see more cues indicating a totalitarian government. None of the people in Camazotz have their own voice. The paperboy who describes the city's virtues seems to be speaking from a recorded script. He is delivering propaganda—misleading information used to promote a political cause. Totalitarian governments frequently use propaganda to influence what people think.

Through the machines on Camazotz, L'Engle reveals a lingering anxiety in 1960s America about government secrecy and technology. The United States and the Soviet Union threatened each other with powerful but secretive nuclear weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA—possibly the basis for CENTRAL Central Intelligence—was created in 1947. In the 1960s the CIA was fairly new. The agency governed information crucial to national security. Citizens were nervous about the authority the CIA might have. If important data on national security was kept secret from the public, it could be used to control the public by inducing fear.

CENTRAL Central intelligence is also shrouded in secrecy. Mr. Murry, the children know, is working for the government. Because of the nature of his work, they can't know much. On Camazotz there is an "unseen source of power" guiding the paperboy's bicycle. Where does this power come from? What is the object or who is the person mysteriously named IT?

The children can still use their gifts to negotiate their new situation. Calvin is the most attuned and flexible to the guidelines of whatever world he is in. He points out in this society the rules are different. He recognizes that Mrs Whatsit's human appearance set her apart when she needed to blend in.

Meg uses her knowledge of her family to help her. She feels identity can be defined in the way family knows and loves each other. Meg assures Charles Wallace a father will know his son even if they haven't met in years.

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