Jan 31, 2012

On Mrs Whatsit: Celebrating 50 Years of A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: 50th Anniversary Edition

This post contains minor spoilers for A Wrinkle in Time.

The fact that the first chapter of A Wrinkle in Time is titled “Mrs Whatsit” should give you an idea of one of the key roles this memorable character plays in the story: she introduces the first notes of mystery and magic in what initially appears to be an everyday scenario.

The opening chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic introduce us to Meg Murry and her many worries: she’s worried about her missing physicist father, and also worried that the effect of his absence on her mother is far greater than what Mrs Murry allows her children to see; she’s worried about her school performance and what this may say about her intelligence; she’s worried about the inescapable fact of her difference; she’s worried that her prodigious little brother, Charles Wallace, will also not fit in and will be bullied once he starts school. Meg’s troubles are rooted in the everyday (and this is, of course, part of the novel’s appeal), but they gain a mythical proportion in the “dark and storm night” when Mrs Whatsit first knocks at the Murrys’ door.

Mrs Whatsit visits the Murrys under the guise of an eccentric old lady, though at first Meg isn’t sure of what she is, exactly:
The age or sex was impossible to tell, for it was completely bundled up in clothes. Several scarves of assorted colors were tied about the head, and a man’s felt hat perched atop. A shocking-pink stole was knotted about a rough overcoat, and black rubber boots covered the feet.
Later, when Meg gets a look at what’s under the bundle of clothes, this is what she sees:
Under all this a sparse quantity of grayish hair was tied in a small but tidy knot on top of her head. Her eyes were bright, her nose a round, soft blob, her mouth puckered like an autumn apple.
Mrs Whatsit picked a disguise that smart literary heroines, much like Miss Marple, have always known how to use: that of the harmless, easy to underestimate older lady. These characters use our culture’s sexism and troubled relationship with age to their advantage. They become invisible; they take others by surprise. Mrs Whatsit’s eccentricity only adds another layer to her camouflage: as we’re told, “the very oddness of it was what made her seem so comforting”.

Mrs Whatsit’s cryptic parting words to Mrs Murry that first night, “there is such a thing as a tesseract”, are the first unmistakeable sign that something momentous and unusual is about to happen. Soon, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are whisked away on an intergalactic journey to battle the forces of darkness and rescue Mr Murry; by then, Meg’s initial suspicion has given place to the certainty that her new friend is “someone in whom one could put complete trust”.

Mrs Whatsit by ~mheuston on DeviantArt
Mrs Whatsit transformed: fan art by ~mheuston on DeviantArt.

Part of Mrs Whatsit’s appeal is that for all her knowledge and power, we see her as far more vulnerable and human than her two companions. She’s the youngest, too – we’re told she’s “only” 2,379,152,497 years and 8 months old, and that this explains a lot about her. But it is also what allows her to become a bridge between the children and the more all-knowing and remote Mrs Which and Mrs Who.

Meg eventually comes to perceive this more accessible persona as “a game Mrs Whatsit was playing; it was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be.” But the thing is, it works — not only on Meg, but also on the reader. We’re not left with the feeling that Mrs Whatsit is beyond our reach. Her relative inexperience humanises her; it draws her near.

The gifts she gives Meg before she goes off to fight the forces of darkness at Camazotz are also very human: first she gives Meg her faults, then she gives her her love. Both of these gifts highlight the simple yet powerful ideas at the heart of A Wrinkle in Time: the humanising power of love, the importance of embracing difference, the value of resourcefulness and creativity, of taking risks even when you’re afraid. To have the love of one such as Mrs Whatsit gives Meg strength when she’s alone in Camazotz; to have her faults given back to her allows her to begin to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Mrs Whatsit is a fine addition to the great literary tradition of magical helpers. But one of the most important things about her is that she’s a helper who knows when to steps back: she allows our very human, very uncertain and very frightened heroine to come into her own.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal winning A Wrinkle in Time celebrates its 50 anniversary this year, and this post is part of a fifty days celebration around the blogosphere to mark the occasion. You can follow the link to find out more about the commemorative edition of the book, and also about other 50th anniversary related events both in the blogging world and offline.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a copy of the 50th Anniversary edition of the book from the publisher.

27 comments:

  1. Beautiful post! I loved this book, I still hate I didn't meet it until I was an adult. I mourn for my younger self, who would have been obsessed with it. Still, I'm glad I did read it. I need to read it again AND since I don't have a copy, I think this is the perfect opportunity to get a beautiful 50th anniversary edition.

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  2. I only skimmed cause I saw your warning of minor spoilers - I am yet to read this but it has made a few best sci-fi/fantasy series lists and that's how I found out about it. I'm really excited to read to for it's 50th!

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  3. Oh my, I can't tell you how much this post has made me want to reread this book. You made me fall in love with Mrs Whatsit all over again. Such a gorgeous post on a truly truly lovely book.

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  4. I feel terrible that I have never heard of it let alone read it. It sounds like such a delight.

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  5. Fantastic post Ana!! I really love this book and you've highlighted some great reasons why Mrs. Whatsit was so great. Thanks!

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  6. Mrs. Who was always my favorite, as she spoke entirely in quotations.

    Great post!

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  7. I can't believe it's been 50 years! This book is so wonderful and has such great lessons. Your review has made me add one more book to my growing re-read list.

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  8. I feel so silly for never having read this one! I need to rectify that and get to it now!

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  9. Awesome post, as everyone has said. I did not read this book as a child, and when I read it several years ago for the first time, I didn't love it. Maybe I needed you to hold my hand! The book receives so much love, it makes me feel like I have missed something very critical.

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  10. Wonderful post! I remember loving this book when I was young but in reading your post I realized I had forgotten everything in it. Every single thing. I'll have to re-read it one of these days.

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  11. I am so enjoying these posts... I loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was younger. It largely influenced what I read today. I still reread it from time to time. :)

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  12. I read these books so long ago that I barely remember them, but you've made me want to reread at least this one. I do remember loving it - such incredible characters. Thanks for the reminder!

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  13. How have I not read this! Getting added to the reading list right now.

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  14. How beautifully you put this, Ana. You've made me want to visit Mrs. Whatsit again. It kills me when I think I could have read this lovely book when I was a child...but was put off by its title and cover illustrations. Oh well. Reading it as an adult is delightful too.

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  15. Fifty years, wow! And it's so wonderful and completely cracked-out crazy! I need to read it again -- I read it so much as a kid I had it practically memorized and then I went on a break from it for a while. But time to reconvene our relationship. :p

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  16. Like Bookswithoutanypictures, I was fascinated with Mrs. Who and have made it my life's ambition to communicate more in quotations. But you're right about Mrs. Whatsit.
    The early scene where she pours water out of her boots and eats a tuna sandwich is so good.

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  17. Great post, Ana! Can you believe I've never read A Wrinkle In Time? Or at least I don't remember reading it, my mom claims that I did. :P

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  18. Thank you so much for this great blog post! I loved 'A Wrinkle in Time' when I was a kid but haven't read it in a very long time. I must dig it out and read it again!

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  19. Wonderful post, Ana! I discovered 'A Wrinkle in Time' quite late, but I loved it when I read it. I wish I had read it when I was younger. The one thing that stuck with me about the book was the mention of four-dimensional-space (tesseract) which is different from the four-dimensional space-time that Einstein proposed. It inspired me to do more research into four-dimensional-space and I discovered that a lot of study and thought has gone into this topic in the late 19th / early 20th centuries. Can't believe that this book is 50 years old! The cover of the commemorative edition looks quite interesting.

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  20. I'm going to have to re-read this this year, as it was one of my favorites growing up.

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  21. Sadly, I have never read A WRINKLE IN TIME. Gasp. I know. But there is no time like the present, particularly when the present happens to be the 50th anniversary.

    I've also been meaning to read it and then reread WHEN YOU REACH ME, as I'll be meeting Rebecca Stead next week. Squee!

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  22. I read this one in my teens. I've always had a peculiar relationship with M-L'E's books and I once read of her being described as a good/bad writer. I suspect I concur, but trying to explain this precisely is too difficult to do today.

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  23. This is not a book I had heard of before, but from your review I can't wait to try it! Definitely going on my wishlist!

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  24. Beautiful artistic rendering! I remember seeing book posters of A Wrinkle in Time when I was in fifth grade and so wishing that I was part of the "smart" class who got to read the story. Sadly for years and years I associated it with being smart and never felt worthy of reading the book. Now years later it sits on my shelf but I haven't gotten to it yet. Definitely need to do that soon!

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  25. This was one of the books that made my childhood so magical. Harry Potter hadn't been born back then, but I did have Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which!

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  26. What a beautiful post! I really want to reread A WRINKLE IN TIME now. Can't wait until my son is old enough to appreciate it with me :)

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  27. I love Mrs. Whatsit, and mostly because she says one of my all-time favorite literary lines: "Wild nights are my glory." Love it!

    Great post, Ana. And Happy Birthday to A Wrinkle in Time!

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