Time Quintet: She Wouldn't Be Able To Hold Out

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: Charles Wallace has "allowed" himself to be hypnotized and is now being piloted by IT. Meg and Calvin have been led to see her father.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 9: IT

A lot has happened since the last post, and I'm sorry it's been so long. First there were all the Storify threads to get through and then, well, I've been having a lot of surgeries and I'm in pain. But let's do this.

When we last left off, Father was wearing Meg's borrowed magical glasses.

   “Please try them, Father. Please!” She waited while she felt him fumbling in the dark. “Can you see now?” she asked. “Can you see now, Father?”
   “Yes,” he said. “Yes. The wall is transparent, now. How extraordinary! I could almost see the atoms rearranging!” His voice had its old, familiar sound of excitement and discovery. It was the way he sounded sometimes when he came home from his laboratory after a good day and began to tell his wife about his work. Then he cried out, “Charles! Charles Wallace!” And then, “Meg, what’s happened to him? What’s wrong? That is Charles, isn’t it?”

I'm struggling with the tone of this passage. I think partly it's because decades of genre conventions weren't in place to dodge around the "useless parent" problem of YA. This is not a new problem, but it's one that YA writers since L'Engle have had a long time to come up with solutions for. When, say, Katniss' mother fails to help in The Hunger Games, we understand that she can't help because the narrative has expended a great deal of effort to disenfranchise her. Done well, this can be chilling; done poorly, it can be... chilling in the wrong direction. (See: epic internet fights about the adults in Harry Potter being useless and/or evil depending on point of view and reader suspension of belief.)

Here we have Mr Murry, who ought not to be useless; he is one of the smartest people on earth, one of the great Light-Side Fighters who the angels treasure, and he has more practical experience resisting IT and knowing how IT thinks than anyone else alive. (Or, at least, anyone else who isn't a god or angel.) He is also meant to be a bit of an absent-minded professor trope, and I respect that.

But his emotions are so over the map that it's hard to know how to hang on to the bucking mechanical bull that is this passage. He seems to have passively accepted Meg's presence here, despite the fact that Meg's presence in his prison cell ought to be a very bad thing. And we know it's not because he's incapable of feeling concern for his children, because he's able to express concern over a little boy who he last saw as an infant. It's just that he manages to express that concern after (a) not really seeming to worry about Meg at all and (b) being distracted by the "fascinating" glasses that you'd think wouldn't be quite so fascinating after years of being trapped on another planet and having his consciousness forcibly expanded by IT as IT tried to invade his mind. After tessering to a new planet, "magic glasses" seem cool but not so distracting that they would reasonably be a priority right now.

   “IT has him, Father,” she explained tensely. “He’s gone into IT. Father, we have to help him.”
   For a long moment Mr. Murry was silent. The silence was filled with the words he was thinking and would not speak out loud to his daughter. Then he said, “Meg, I’m in prison here. I have been for—”
   “Father, these walls. You can go through them. I came through the column to get in to you. It was Mrs Who’s glasses.”
   Mr. Murry did not stop to ask who Mrs Who was. He slapped his hand against the translucent column. “It seems solid enough.”
   “But I got in,” Meg repeated. “I’m here. Maybe the glasses help the atoms rearrange. Try it, Father.”

Then there's this. Mr Murry just said he could see the atoms in the walls rearranging and now Meg has to be the one to suggest that, hey, maybe the thing that lets you see atoms rearranging actually rearranges atoms, huh? I really do feel like L'Engle did that writing thing where she knew she wanted to establish [Thing] so she established [Thing] two or three times in a sitting and needed to go back over with an editor to gather up all those establishing moments into one big establishment of [Thing] for the most impact. That's a normal part of the writing process for me and I guess it's heartening to see how other writers struggle with the same brain-repetition.

   She waited, breathlessly, and after a moment she realized that she was alone in the column. She put out her hands in the darkness and felt its smooth surface curving about her on all sides. She seemed utterly alone, the silence and darkness impenetrable forever. She fought down panic until she heard her father’s voice coming to her very faintly.
   “I’m coming back in for you, Meg.”

Mr Murry can carry Meg out--and will do so in a moment--so instead of carrying his daughter or even just holding her hand, he left her in the torture cube he'd spent untold moments of agony alone inside in order to... what? scout ahead?

Meanwhile, what is Charles Wallace doing during all this? We know he can see inside the column where Mr Murry was standing, so what is he doing? Has he gone into stasis? Charles was trying to snatch the glasses and keep Meg from Murry. Now he's... stopped? Why?

   “Put your arms around my neck, Meg,” Mr. Murry said. “Hold on to me tightly. Close your eyes and don’t be afraid.” He picked her up and she wrapped her long legs around his waist and clung to his neck. With Mrs Who’s spectacles on she had felt only a faint darkness and coldness as she moved through the column. Without the glasses she felt the same awful clamminess she had felt when they tessered through the outer darkness of Camazotz. Whatever the Black Thing was to which Camazotz had submitted, it was within as well as without the planet. For a moment it seemed that the chill darkness would tear her from her father’s arms. [...]
   Then they were outside. The column rose up in the middle of the room, crystal clear and empty.

Well, okay. Glad we had those glasses to get Mr Murry out of a prison that no one seems too keen on shoving him back into. Whatever happened to all those guards? I know that IT's fatal flaw is that IT is unaccustomed to people resisting, so Mr Murry has been able to present an impossible puzzle to crack, but I feel like the point at which you now have three times as many resistors (Murry plus Meg plus Calvin) on your planet is the point at which a disembodied brain likes the comforting heft of a little hired muscle.

   Meg blinked at the blurred figures of Charles and her father, and wondered why they did not clear. Then she grabbed her own glasses out of her pocket and put them on, and her myopic eyes were able to focus.
   Charles Wallace was tapping one foot impatiently against the floor. “IT is not pleased,” he said. “IT is not pleased at all.”
   Mr. Murry released Meg and knelt in front of the little boy. “Charles,” his voice was tender. “Charles Wallace.”
   “What do you want?”
   “I’m your father, Charles. Look at me.”
   The pale blue eyes seemed to focus on Mr. Murry’s face. “Hi, Pop,” came an insolent voice.
   “That isn’t Charles!” Meg cried. “Oh, Father, Charles isn’t like that. IT has him.”
   “Yes.” Mr. Murry sounded tired. “I see.” He held his arms out. “Charles. Come here.”
   Father will make it all right, Meg thought. Everything will be all right now.
   Charles did not move toward the outstretched arms. He stood a few feet away from his father, and he did not look at him.
   “Look at me,” Mr. Murry commanded.
   Mr. Murry’s voice became harsh. “When you speak to me you will say ‘No, Father,’ or ‘No, sir.’”
   “Come off it, Pop,” came the cold voice from Charles Wallace—Charles Wallace who, outside Camazotz, had been strange, had been different, but never rude. “You’re not the boss around here.”

Is... is Mr Murry supposed to be particularly not smart? Because he's been on this planet a while. He's seen people controlled by IT. He should at this point recognize that there are layers of control from a glancing surface control (like what we believe the children outside are experiencing) and a direct "yes, hi, I am a conduit for IT and you can speak to IT directly through me". We recognize this and we've been here for less than a day and still haven't even met IT thus far!

Again: Murry is supposed to canonically understand IT better than anyone else (or, well, anyone who isn't a mind-controlled puppet of IT) but he can't recognize IT when IT is speaking from inside a little boy who Mr Murry last saw as an actual infant.

Murry is apparently disregarding Meg's statements that Charles has "gone into IT" which is odd because he has the necessary information to put together what that means. He talks to Charles as though Charles were mentally present rather than acting as IT's mouthpiece, which means... he thinks Meg is lying or wrong about the severity of the situation? Or he doesn't know that IT can control people to that degree? And what the hell is this whole "I think you mean 'no, sir' young man" going to accomplish? Not only is authoritarianism entirely within IT's bailiwick, that wasn't how the Murry household was at home! If anything, that line makes me worried that Murry has gone into IT as well.

The thing is, I'm okay with Murry fucking all this up! I'm just discombobulated by the many varied directions in which he's fucking this up multiple times over. "Oh gosh, ATOMS!" absent-minded enthusiasm sits badly beside Christian Grey explaining that in this house we look people in the eye and say sir when we speak. And here I point out that this "look at me when I talk to you" stuff is yet another autism symptom and it's increasingly uncomfortable to me how much this sequence in which a little canonically neuroatypical boy is taken over by Satan has become a rummaging through of real-life autism symptoms for said possessed boy. Remembering once again that Charles Wallace was based on an actual person is making me retroactively worried for that kid.

   Meg could see Calvin pounding again on the glass wall. “Calvin!” she called.
   “He can’t hear you,” Charles said. He made a horrible face at Calvin, and then he thumbed his nose.

Oh, right, there were multiple layers of prison for... some reason. So Calvin hasn't been weirdly quiet, he's just been *waves hand vaguely* over there. Why? So Meg wouldn't have someone to back up her "Charles has gone into IT" story to Murry?

   “Who’s Calvin?” Mr. Murry asked.
   “He’s—” Meg started, but Charles Wallace cut her short.
   “You’ll have to defer your explanations. Let’s go.”
   “Go where?”
   “To IT.”
   “No,” Mr. Murry said. “You can’t take Meg there.”
   “Oh, can’t I!”
   “No, you cannot. You’re my son, Charles, and I’m afraid you will have to do as I say.”
   “But he isn’t Charles!” Meg cried in anguish. Why didn’t her father understand? “Charles is nothing like that, Father! You know he’s nothing like that!”

Why, Murry? Why can't Meg be taken to IT? Specifically, how much do you know about IT and what IT does to people? Because if you know "Meg can't be taken to IT because IT will crack open her brain like a nut and control her like a puppet", then it really should not be taking you this long to recognize that's what has happened to Charles, what with Meg point-blank telling you that's what happened to Charles!

It's just. Deeply frustrating when a narrative recognizes that something is wrong ("Why didn't her father understand?") and then just keep going rather than dwell or explain. Why doesn't Murry understand? Is he in denial? Is his fatal flaw a total unwillingness to face difficult facts? Because, I mean, okay, score one for characterization but we have to sit his "la la la I can't hear you" alongside his characterization of having eighteen Ph.Ds and being the smartest man on planet earth.

   “He was only a baby when I left,” Mr. Murry said heavily.


   “Father, it’s IT talking through Charles. IT isn’t Charles. He’s—he’s bewitched.”
   “Fairy tales again,” Charles said.
   “You know IT, Father?” Meg asked.
   “Have you seen IT?”
   “Yes, Meg.” Again his voice sounded exhausted. “Yes. I have.” He turned to Charles. “You know she wouldn’t be able to hold out.”
   “Exactly,” Charles said.
   “Father, you can’t talk to him as though he were Charles! Ask Calvin! Calvin will tell you.”

"Hold out"? So you do know that IT takes people over? And you're still talking to Charles like that hasn't happened even though (a) you know that it can happen and (b) Meg says that it did happen... because why? My god, at this point I don't even want Mr Murry rescued because it's plain that the only thing Meg has been missing out on back home is paternal gaslighting.

Also: How the fuck are you so sure your teenage daughter can't "hold out"? You held out, you crusty piece of used kleenex, for actual years because you were stubborn. Have you ever met your daughter? Well, no, you haven't seen her for several years; let me rephrase: have you ever met a teenage girl? Particularly one blessed with your and Mrs Murry's genetic smartalecks? Way to show not even a shred of confidence in your own kids for being as good at something as you are!

I totally understand why he wouldn't be skipping to see the wizard here, but Murry doesn't express concern that she might not be able to hold out; he says she won't. While... apparently thinking the son he hasn't seen from infancy did hold out somehow and that the massive personality shift Meg says he's experiencing is just... a coincidence. Because Meg couldn't possibly be right, I guess.

Gwen from Galaxy Quest: "This episode was badly written!"

ANYWAY. Charles leads them out and "there was nothing for Meg and Mr. Murry to do but to follow" because the plot says so.

   “Does your father know about the Mrs W’s?” Calvin asked Meg.
   “There hasn’t been time for anything. Everything’s awful.” Despair settled like a stone in the pit of Meg’s stomach. She had been so certain that the moment she found her father everything would be all right. Everything would be settled. All the problems would be taken out of her hands. She would no longer be responsible for anything.
   And instead of this happy and expected outcome, they seemed to be encountering all kinds of new troubles.
   “He doesn’t understand about Charles,” she whispered to Calvin, looking unhappily at her father’s back as he walked behind the little boy.

I said at the beginning of all this that Calvin is a wish-fulfillment character. He's smart and athletic, strong and attractive, with the popularity of a rich kid but the frugal wholesome character of a poor one. He loves Meg from the first moment they meet, considers her pretty even when she doesn't, and brags about how smart she is even as she feels like the dud in a family of geniuses. What I had forgotten is that he also acts as anti-gaslighting validation: while Murry continues to treat Charles like he's not a puppet for IT, Calvin at least understands that Meg is right. He "understands" because he was there for the possession, but it's... something.

It's so little of something that it breaks my heart a bit.

   “Where are we going?” Calvin asked.
   “To IT. Calvin, I don’t want to go! I can’t!” She stopped, but Charles continued his jerky pace.
   “We can’t leave Charles,” Calvin said. “They wouldn’t like it.”
   “Who wouldn’t?”
   “Mrs Whatsit & Co.”
   “But they’ve betrayed us! They brought us here to this terrible place and abandoned us!”
   Calvin looked at her in surprise. “You sit down and give up if you like,” he said. “I’m sticking with Charles.” He ran to keep up with Charles Wallace and Mr. Murry.
   “I didn’t mean—” Meg started, and pounded after them.

Then I'm right back to disliking Calvin because... okay? Don't leave Charles! But maybe don't just follow him to your certain dooms? Maybe bonk him over the head, pick him up, and run off with him? (There are no guards, the guards are nowhere to be found, you are an athlete, you could at least try.)

Oh, and for all this shaming of Meg for "giving up" and "leaving him", Calvin and Murry will leave Charles in short order a few pages from now--and they'll shame Meg for being upset about them leaving Charles behind. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't.

   —Do something, Meg implored her father silently.—Do something. Help. Save us.

He does not.

Again, this is realistic. I don't expect Mr Murry to pull a lightsaber out of his robes. I even think it's brutally effective to have the young protagonist reach their father and realize that their father is just another powerless human and that if he had the magic to fix all this he would have already done so. It's a fascinating look at YA themes of growing up and realizing that parents aren't gods.

But! Is he comforting his child? Sharing with Meg the secret of resisting IT, the secret that has kept his mind free for years? Is he doing literally anything other than speed-walking towards the next plot set-piece because L'Engle realized the page count was getting kind of high and the alternative was to cut out the "Happy Medium" or the flying centaurs singing Isaiah? No, he is not.

In that sense, Mr Murry is a failure as both a father and a character. Meg thought he was Mr Fix-It (lol, see what I did there) and she was wrong, but he should be Mr Exposition. Now is the part where he catches up his child (and the reader) on what he knows: where they are, what IT is, how to resist, how to prepare for this meeting they're being taken to. This would additionally heighten the reader's tension--will Meg be able to hold out?--when right now that's in short supply. There's such a thing as too "vaguely doomed" and we've been coasting on vague doom for a bit too long to keep its impact.

Hell, even if one doesn't care about tension and pacing, this is still a novel about Christian themes that L'Engle wanted to explore. This was a perfect chance to talk about how to resist evil when surrounded by it. In that sense, Murry isn't just failing as a character, he's failing in an evangelical sense. His own daughter is about to meet Space Satan, and the full sum of his thoughts on the matter are that she won't be able to keep her eyes fixed on the light. Thanks, Space Dad.

In a few pages, Mr Murry will try to give Meg real-time training on resistance in the actual presence of IT. Unsurprisingly, his tutelage is too little and too late, and Murry will end up temporarily losing one of his children to the darkness and nearly killing another one in the attempt to get away.

We'll pick that up next time.


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