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A Wrinkle in Time | Context

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Faith and Religion

L'Engle incorporated many elements of her Christian faith in her work. She identified as an Episcopalian, and her writing often took the form of an allegory—or a story with a symbolic meaning. In A Wrinkle in Time, where good triumphs over evil, many supernatural characters represent spiritual forces of good and evil, and characters frequently quote the Bible.

However, L'Engle said she wasn't trying to write a Christian book: "But, of course, it is [a Christian book]. So is Robin Hood," she said. She believed the characters Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which were "guardian angels." L'Engle felt the best children's books, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and A Wind in the Willows (1908), present universal truths. The Bible, she believed, did the same: "Even the most straightforward tales say far more than they seem to mean," she said about the biblical book of Genesis.

Both Christian and secular readers have criticized A Wrinkle in Time. Some Christian readers think the book encourages witchcraft. They object to the inclusion of Jesus in Chapter 5's list of heroic human leaders. Some secular readers, meanwhile, think the book promotes the Christian religion too heavily.

L'Engle was confused and upset by the criticism at first: "It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it," she said. She was especially puzzled by accusations the book was both too religious and not religious enough. Finally, she decided the controversy was "great publicity."

Several readers think L'Engle uses Christian ideas to represent something more universal and applicable to everyone. For instance, in the Chapter 5 passage where characters name famous people who have fought evil, they list Indian civil rights activist Gandhi, Indian spiritual leader Buddha, and German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, along with Christian leader Jesus. The passage reflects a sort of "happy religious pluralism in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together," according to American writer Lucy Tang.

The book also deals with the limitations of categories, classifications, and names. Meg is described as "not really one thing or the other." Supernatural characters like Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, Mrs Which, and Aunt Beast lack names or physical forms human characters can easily understand. Writer Austin Allen suggests the religious vision behind L'Engle's book is similarly "unclassifiable" and not confined to the category of Christianity. He sees L'Engle's "restless imagination" as larger than the doctrine of her faith.

By using language and concepts familiar to her, L'Engle articulates ideas everyone can relate to. She encourages readers to think about expansive concepts like good and evil. American writer Rebecca Stead, whose book When You Reach Me (2009) is inspired by A Wrinkle in Time, says "a children's book is really the best place to ask big questions." L'Engle agreed, and explained that when young readers encounter myth and fantasy, they're "responding to ... the ... universal language ... that cuts across ... barriers of time, place, race, and culture."

Math and Science

L'Engle liked to consider the big questions. Thus she turned not only to faith but to mathematics and science as well. A Wrinkle in Time includes references to geometry, physics, and astronomy, often as integral parts of the plot. Meg's father, Mr. Murry, is a physicist, working on a way to travel between worlds. Her mother, Mrs. Murry, is a biologist. Meg herself is gifted at math and is able to see the concepts behind the equations. Young Charles Wallace turns to physics to explain the concept of "tessering"—or moving through time and space.

When L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she had dealt with several recent deaths. Searching for perspective and purpose, she began reading about particle physics. Albert Einstein's work on relativity fascinated her. Einstein's theory of special relativity argued that distance and time are not absolute, but depend on the observer. It also determined that no material object could approach the speed of light. Einstein's famous equation E=mc²—or energy equals mass times the speed of light squared—describes the speed of light in mathematical terms. Meg quotes this equation in Chapter 3. Characters later refer to the impossibility of traveling at the speed of light.

L'Engle read a quotation by Einstein in which he described being "lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe" and decided she had found her theologian. Einstein's writing was the inspiration for her book, and she later told her publisher, "I used a lot of [physics and relativity] principles to make a universe that was creative and yet believable." L'Engle was also intrigued by German physicist Max Planck's quantum theory, a theory that explained the behavior of matter on an atomic scale. In Chapters 8 and 9 of A Wrinkle in Time, characters walk through walls by rearranging atoms.

Concepts critical to the book include the tesseract, the fourth and fifth dimensions, and time travel. The "Black Thing," a dark shadow used in the book to represent evil, is similar to the scientific concept of "dark matter." Dark matter is an invisible substance that reveals itself through the gravitational effect of its mass on other objects, like planets. L'Engle probably didn't have dark matter in mind when she wrote the book, since the theory was developed after A Wrinkle in Time was published. She may have drawn on older concepts in science and literature of an invisible substance in the universe affecting other bodies.

The tesseract is a key symbol in A Wrinkle in Time. The book's space travel experts, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, use the tesseract as a portal from planet to planet. They call the process "tessering" or "wrinkling." A "space tesser" helps the characters travel great distances. A "time tesser" allows them to take a long time in space, while only a few minutes pass on Earth. Chapter 5 describes a tesseract as a short cut to traveling at the speed of light.

L'Engle borrowed the name tesseract from an established mathematical concept. The word comes from 19th-century British scientist Charles Howard Hinton. Hinton studied the possibility of a fourth dimension beyond the first, second, and third dimensions of length, width, and depth. To visually represent this dimension, he drew pictures of a tetracube or hypercube. Tetra- is a prefix meaning "four." Hinton's 1888 book A New Era of Thought introduced the word tesseract to describe this cube.

On paper the tetracube is similar to the cube drawn in A Wrinkle in Time. When Charles Wallace explains the concept of the fourth dimension to Meg, he starts by illustrating the first, second, and third dimensions. The first dimension, length, is represented by a straight line. The second dimension, width, is represented by a square. Mrs Who illustrates the movement from the first to the second dimension by moving her skirt. First, she holds the skirt in a one-dimensional line, then brings the two endpoints of the line together to form a two-dimensional curve. This allows the ant on her skirt to walk more easily from point to point.

The third dimension—depth—is represented by a cube. In Hinton's view, the fourth dimension, time, was represented by a tesseract, or tetracube. But since humans live in a three-dimensional world, they cannot visualize a four-dimensional shape. The cube in which Mr. Murry is trapped in Chapter 9 of A Wrinkle in Time resembles a tetracube.

L'Engle's concept of the tesseract resembles what scientists call a wormhole, or "a theoretical passage through space-time." Wormholes provide a shortcut across the universe, similar to the shortcut a tesseract allows in A Wrinkle in Time. Although the wormhole is frequently used as a traveling device in science fiction, none have yet been proven to exist.

L'Engle is one of many writers who interpret scientific concepts in an imaginative way. Time travel is a frequent literary device. And the possibility of traveling to other dimensions or worlds inspired English writer Lewis Carroll and British writer C.S. Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). In Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, for instance, Alice travels to another world through a rabbit hole, and in Through the Looking-Glass (1871) she finds yet another world on the other side of a looking glass, or mirror. Edwin Abbott, a 19th-century English writer, explored the possibility of two-dimensional characters in his book Flatland (1884), in which the main characters are flat shapes. A Wrinkle in Time also includes a brief stop on a two-dimensional planet.

Transcending Boundaries and Enduring Influence

When L'Engle and her agent tried to get A Wrinkle in Time published, they were frequently asked, "Who is the book for?" L'Engle responded, "It's for people; I don't write for an age group, I write for people."

Although she is often classified as a children's writer, L'Engle resisted this classification herself. "I'm a writer," she said. "They think you have to write differently [for children] ... You just have to tell a story." She claimed not to understand the difference between novels for children and novels for adults. In her stories, she said, she was only looking for truth, and she took pains to reflect that truth in her work. In A Wrinkle in Time, for example, she insisted that because Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which were "not ordinary mortals but special creatures," their names should not use a period after "Mrs" (although the period is included in "Mrs. Murry"). This study guide preserves that distinction.

Readers have also had trouble fitting L'Engle's book into a genre. "It's a book. I don't like categorizing," L'Engle said when asked about the genre. However, A Wrinkle in Time is often considered science fiction or fantasy. But the narrative also presents a realistic portrayal of family life in the Murry household, and it presents a coming-of-age story centered on adolescent Meg's growth and maturity.

Because of the book's many fantastical elements, A Wrinkle in Time has become one of the most frequently banned books in the United States. It has been challenged in elementary schools for promoting "witchcraft, crystal balls, and demons." Readers—including religious conservatives—have often accused the book of "undermining religious beliefs" and portraying the Christian God inaccurately.

But for a different group of readers, A Wrinkle in Time has made a positive impact. Among the book's unusual features is a female protagonist in a science fiction plot. In 1962 female writers and female protagonists in science fiction were rare. But A Wrinkle in Time's thoughtful and complex plot transcended genre characteristics, becoming a hit with both male and female readers. The emotional core of Meg's love for her family gives the book an additional resonance.

Many young female readers saw themselves in Meg. L'Engle's biographer, Leonard Marcus, says science "was not perceived ... as a suitable course of study for girls" at the time. But both Meg and her mother, Mrs. Murry, have a passion for science and math. Mrs. Murry is a successful professional scientist, and Meg has a gift for solving math problems. Catherine Hand, who produced a made-for-television version of the book, says, "For some of us, [A Wrinkle in Time] planted the seeds of the women's movement." She notes Meg is "stronger than her father" by the end of the book, providing an inspirational role model for girls.

The novel has been recognized repeatedly for its contributions to literature. In addition to the Newbery Medal, A Wrinkle in Time won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and the Sequoyah Book Award in 1965, and was a finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

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