This semester, I’m teaching a course on the 1960s, and one of the readings I assigned was Madeleine L’Engle’s classic (and 1963 Newberry award-winner) A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve returned to A Wrinkle in Time often through the years, noticing something new each time and falling more in love with the characters and the novel’s inventive cosmology, but I had never before read the book as a reflection of its time, and my students and I enjoyed picking apart Cold War references and hints of feminism and anti-conformity all peeking beneath the surface of this “children’s” book. The majority of my students had never read the book before (perhaps it’s fallen out of use in elementary school curriculums) so I was curious to hear their reactions, but I was wholly unprepared for their first impressions:
“It was SO Weird!!”
“What was up with Charles Wallace? He’s this annoying kid, but he’s only five; he shouldn’t be that smart!”
“What was the point??”
“It doesn’t make any sense!”
I suppressed my bafflement and tried to help them trace their impressions back to causes, locating clues in the text about the novel’s purpose for boy-genius Charles Wallace and the whole odd-ball Murray clan, and we ended up having a nice discussion about the book’s counter-cultural messages. Pressed to apply the lens of the 1960s to the text, we moved on, so I didn’t have time to talk about all the things the novel doesn’t actually explain. Here’s an incomplete list of questions A Wrinkle in Time does not answer:
Why is Charles Wallace sort of psychic?
Why is Calvin sort of psychic?
Are the Mrs. Ws angels or stars or aliens or all three?
Is Uriel heaven or a planet? Or is heaven really a planet?
What, exactly, is “the darkness” covering the universe?
How does tessering work?
How does Love save the day? Is it spiritual or scientific or both?
My students come to me searching for answers to questions like these for all kinds of texts — usually texts more difficult than a little children’s sci-fi adventure novel. Literature so often seems opaque to them until a “moral” or “theme” or “lesson” shines down on them from the wise teacher, who tells them what they need to know in order to pass the test. What they do not yet understand is that the greatest literature invites us into a conversation and often leaves us asking more questions than we had when we started. There are all sorts of reasons for this technique in Wrinkle. Our questions about Charles Wallace may lead us to want to read the next book, A Wind in the Door, in hopes of finding out more. Our questions about tessering may lead us to study physics. Our questions about love and darkness and angels may guide us to those same spiritual questions in our own lives. These multiple resonances are exactly what make great literature great.
But perhaps most importantly of all, the residual questions of good fiction teach us how to be okay with uncertainty. Of all the “lessons” about faith that I’ve gleaned from Wrinkle in Time through the years, I think this growing comfort with mystery — with not knowing answers — has been the most influential on me. And this lesson is one of the few that L’Engle does spell out for her readers, in a conversation between Meg and her mother: “Do you think things always have an explanation?” Meg asks. Mrs Murray responds that she does, but that “just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” Applying this logic to Charles Wallace’s unexplained differences, Meg says she has to “accept it without understanding it.” Her mother replies, both to her daughter and to any frustrated readers, “Maybe that’s really the point I was trying to put across.”