Time Quintet: Two Father Figures for the Price of One

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: After their confrontation with IT went badly, Mr Murry teleported himself, Meg, and Calvin away. Charles Wallace was left behind (but we don't know that yet).

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 10: Absolute Zero

We continue the scene in which Meg is unconscious while Calvin and her father infodump over her. I'm struggling with this section. It is bad, but it's the kind of bad that even really good writers can succumb to in a first draft: it's often so much easier to let your protagonist idle while everyone else does things around her. It's in the editing that you remember people prefer protagonists do stuff and you edit them walking and talking instead of being spectators to their own life. We've just about reached the point where L'Engle remembered that and pokes Meg awake.

   With a desperate effort Meg made a sound. It wasn’t a very loud sound, but it was a sound. Mr. Murry stopped. “Hush. Listen.”
   Meg made a strange, croaking noise. She found that she could pull open her eyelids. They felt heavier than marble but she managed to raise them. Her father and Calvin were hovering over her. She did not see Charles Wallace. Where was he?
   She was lying in an open field of what looked like rusty, stubby grass. She blinked, slowly, and with difficulty.
   “Meg,” her father said. “Meg. Are you all right?”
   Her tongue felt like a stone tongue in her mouth, but she managed to croak, “I can’t move.”
   “Try,” Calvin urged. He sounded now as though he were very angry with her. “Wiggle your toes. Wiggle your fingers.”

Why does Calvin sound angry? I think this is supposed to mean he's worried and speaking with urgency and being heard by Meg as 'angry', but it should be impossible for Calvin to sound angry even in error: his entire talent is a near-magical ability to communicate with people and make himself be understood. Either his talent is not working or this is supposed to be a subtle dig at Meg not being able to tell that Calvin cares about her. She's so insensible of it that she misunderstands him in spite of his magical communication skills. Probably intended to be funny, but it feels a little twee.

   “I can’t. Where’s Charles Wallace?” Her words were blunted by the stone tongue. Perhaps they could not understand her, for there was no answer.
   “We were knocked out for a minute, too,” Calvin was saying. “You’ll be all right, Meg. Don’t get panicky.” He was crouched over her, and though his voice continued to sound cross he was peering at her with anxious eyes. She knew that she must still have her glasses on because she could see him clearly, his freckles, his stubby black lashes, the bright blue of his eyes.

She could also see the frames of her glasses, so that was a good clue. 

   Her father was kneeling on her other side. The round lenses of Mrs Who’s glasses still blurred his eyes. He took one of her hands and rubbed it between his. “Can you feel my fingers?” He sounded quite calm, as though there were nothing extraordinary in having her completely paralyzed. At the quiet of his voice she felt calmer. Then she saw that there were great drops of sweat standing out on his forehead, and she noticed vaguely that the gentle breeze that touched her cheeks was cool. At first his words had been frozen and now the wind was mild: was it icy cold here or warm? “Can you feel my fingers?” he asked again.
   Yes, now she could feel a pressure against her wrist, but she could not nod. “Where’s Charles Wallace?” 

We go through this "Where's Charles Wallace?" rigmarole several times with no one answering, and I must say I'm judging Murry and Calvin. One of them is a father and the other has a magical communication skill: they need to be broaching this topic gently rather than just... what? hoping Meg will forget she has a little brother and stop asking? Maybe they don't want to stress her more after what was already a shock to her system, but ignoring her question is going to compound her stress far more than the truth.

   “I’m frozen—” she said faintly. Camazotz hadn’t been this cold, a cold that cut deeper than the wind on the bitterest of winter days at home. She was away from IT, but this unexplained iciness was almost as bad. Her father had not saved her.
   Now she was able to look around a little, and everything she could see was rusty and gray. There were trees edging the field in which she lay, and their leaves were the same brown as the grass. There were plants that might have been flowers, except that they were dull and gray. In contrast to the drabness of color, to the cold that numbed her, the air was filled with a delicate, springlike fragrance, almost imperceptible as it blew softly against her face. She looked at her father and Calvin. They were both in their shirt sleeves and they looked perfectly comfortable. It was she, wrapped in their clothes, who was frozen too solid even to shiver.

I'm pretty sure that Meg's temperature is supposed to be a side-effect of nearly being consumed by IT and being yanked abruptly away, but my first thought as her father would be that he screwed up the tesser in some way and harmed her. In light of that possibility, it's a interesting characterization decision that he's so chill and calm right now. Does he not care that he may have seriously injured his child? That the injury could be permanent or deadly? That his incompetence may have killed her? Even if he accepts that he's done everything he could reasonably do, that's not how parenting works for most of us. My cats were sick last week and I knew I didn't cause their illness and yet I was still a wreck of messy irrational emotions.

I think L'Engle was going for a capable competent father-figure who doesn't fluster or panic, but we could just as easily read him as someone who doesn't care. Several of you pointed out in the comments last time that he really ought to be frantic right now: years have passed since he last saw his wife and children. Are they alive? What do they think of his absence? Has his wife remarried? How much has he missed?

   “Why am I so cold?” she asked. “Where’s Charles Wallace?” They did not answer. “Father, where are we?”
   Mr. Murry looked at her soberly. “I don’t know, Meg. I don’t tesser very well. I must have overshot, somehow. We’re not on Camazotz. I don’t know where we are. I think you’re so cold because we went through the Black Thing, and I thought for a moment it was going to tear you away from me.”

First: Yes. Murry doesn't tesser well. We know that. He has tessered exactly once in his life, aimed for Mars on the first attempt (with no practice!), and ended up on Camazotz by accident. Then he never tessered again, either because he couldn't or because IT prevented him in some way. Now he's tessered for the second time ever and he "overshot"... what? Where was he aiming for them to land? Earth? I assume? He doesn't know of any other safe landing points with breathable atmosphere, right? So unless he was aiming for somewhere on Camazotz, the only other option is Earth. Why assume he "overshot" rather than "undershot" or "went entirely in a random direction because I don't know how to aim a tesser"? Why assume anything?

Second: "I think you're so cold because we went through the Black Thing" doesn't make sense. They all three went through the Black Thing. Unless we're going to assume that Meg is uniquely weak against the Black Thing, that doesn't make a plausible explanation for her condition. Murry is a scientist, goddammit! Three people went through the Black Thing, one of them became ill. The first and best explanation for that illness is therefore not the Black Thing.

Third: On the subject of Murry being a scientist, would he not have a working word for "Black Thing" that isn't "Black Thing"? If he learned about it on his first tesser to Camazotz (and he seemingly did), then he's known about it for years and had plenty of time in solitary confinement to ponder on it. "The Black Thing" is undescriptive and unhelpful; surely he would have called it "cosmic dusk" or "orbital contagion" or something that actually conveys an image or concept?

This is a nitpick, but it bothers me that Murry--who is supposed to be the scienciest scientist to ever science--is so profoundly unscientific. He has no curiosity about the natural world around him. He has no concept of testing a hypothesis. He jumps to conclusions which are supposed to be right but are leaps of faith rather than of logic. He clings to meaningless religious-esque language which invokes emotion rather than defining the limits of a concept. "The Black Thing". Why not just call it "sin" and go whole hog at that point?

   “Is this a dark planet?” Slowly her tongue was beginning to thaw; her words were less blurred.
   “I don’t think so,” Mr. Murry said, “but I know so little about anything that I can’t be sure.”
   “You shouldn’t have tried to tesser, then.” She had never spoken to her father in this way before. The words seemed hardly to be hers.

Meg is going to be a jerk for the rest of the chapter and the reason is supposed to be demon possession science hangover after having her brain invaded by IT.

The fact that demon possession sciencey hangover is invoked here makes me sad. Meg has been established as someone who impulsively mouths off, even to her loved ones, and I think this is a legitimate situation in which to mouth off to her father: she's dealing with understandable anger at him leaving them alone (which was shitty of him! he thought the guy who went before him died! and he didn't even warn his family that he thought he was about to die!) and him leaving Charles Wallace behind (again) could reasonably trigger that anger and bring it to the forefront.

I suspect there was a first draft of this scene wherein Meg was simply grumpy and all this demon possession 'lingering personality changes after being touched by IT' was added later. Did someone tell L'Engle that Meg wasn't likeable enough if she snarked at her crappy father? It would not surprise me in the least, and that makes me solemnly ponder how even today it's a fine line to walk for authors who want to write an "unlikeable" female protagonists without audiences losing their affection for them. We've come so far and yet have so much farther to go.

   Calvin looked at her, shaking his head. “It was the only thing to do. At least it got us off Camazotz.”
   “Why did we go without Charles Wallace? Did we just leave him there?” The words that were not really hers came out cold and accusing.
   “We didn’t ‘just leave him,’ ” her father said. “Remember that the human brain is a very delicate organism, and it can be easily damaged.”

No one has said they left without Charles; Murry and Calvin have just repeatedly not answered Meg. It's impressive that she intuits they left him behind, rather than Murry trying his best but IT was stronger--or that Charles Wallace died in the process and his body is a few feet away from hers.

The intuition that Murry left Charles behind is correct! Murry defends his decision not to include Charles in his Mass Teleport spell, and Calvin explicitly confirms that in his next dialogue. Murry made a decision to leave Charles behind. Meg is factually correct and Murry is quibbling over her word choice. 'We didn't just leave him behind,' he is arguing. 'We thoughtfully left him behind.' This is such a gaslighting tactic that I want to hurl him to the next planet over; Meg's issue is clearly with the leaving him behind part, not with whether Murry's choice was carefully considered or not.

   “See, Meg,” Calvin crouched over her, tense and worried, “if your father had tried to yank Charles away when he tessered us, and if IT had kept grabbing hold of Charles, it might have been too much for him, and we’d have lost him forever. And we had to do something right then.”


This is what I mean about the "scientists" in this novel just asserting things out of faith! "The human brain is a very delicate organism," Murry says, and this is true! Calvin then piggy-backs something which is sheer fantasy: if they'd tried to tesser Charles away, his delicate brain would've been damaged. Says who? Why? Based on what? Show me your data! Show me what you built this hypothesis upon!

Okay, sure, it would have been a risk! They don't know what would happen to a mind-control victim if he's tessered away. They don't know that in the same way they don't know what would happen to a pregnant person if they tessered away. They don't know these things because they simply have no data on such a situation. So there was some level of unknown risk in a decision to yoink Charles, yes. But there's a level of known risk in leaving him behind: he'll stay there forever as IT's mind-controlled captive, even more of a prisoner than Murry was. Murry weighed the unknown risk and the known risk and made a decision to not attempt to teleport his son away from danger.

Why? Doyleistically, L'Engle didn't need to write Murry choosing to leave Charles behind. She could have written Murry trying his damned hardest and just... failing. He's already said the darkness almost tore Meg away from him, so why not include a line like 'that's how we lost Charles Wallace.' (Bonus: that would have been an actual answer rather than Meg magically intuiting what happened.) Could L'Engle not bear for Murry to have failed at something once he was on-screen? That seems unlikely, given that Meg will go on in this chapter to muse that her father has failed to be the godlike fixer-of-all-problems that she's been imagining. If Meg can realize her father-fixation was childish and grow beyond that worship, why couldn't L'Engle make him a legitimate failure at something difficult rather than making him the sort of man who would willingly and knowingly leave his son behind to be tortured?

Watsonianly, I ask again: Why? At the time of the tesser, Murry didn't know about the Mrs Ws. He didn't know the children were sent by a divine power. He can't possibly have had any notion of being able to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles later. He'd tessered exactly once in his life at that point and hit Camazotz entirely by random accident. To cross the streams with Narnia for a moment, this is like leaving Charles Wallace in one of the infinite pools in the World Between Worlds knowing that you can't mark the pool and return to it later. By choosing to leave Charles behind, he was choosing to leave Charles forever. With that on the table, wouldn't you take the unknown risk and try? Sure, okay, he might be damaged in the attempt, but is that damage more than a death sentence? Murry consigned his son to a hell planet, to be tortured until he dies. Which may never happen, since Murry thinks time loops there, so hey, that's cool.

[Calvin] And we had to do something right then.”
   “IT was taking us. You and I were slipping, and if your father had gone on trying to help us he wouldn’t have been able to hold out much longer, either.”

Murry held out against IT for years. Meg not only couldn't manage mere minutes, but her weakness additionally weakened her father and made him vulnerable because he was distracted trying to protect her. Top marks here for female protagonisting, sigh! I do feel I'm allowed to be annoyed by this, especially given that Meg's strengths were supposed to be her stubbornness--and yet even with that admonition from the Mrs Ws, it didn't help Meg one bit in the moment!

Being preternaturally stubborn didn't even make her stronger than Calvin, who has spent his whole life going with the flow and getting along with people and making himself whatever people need him to be in order to like him. A useful skill in high school, no doubt, but one which could have made him more vulnerable to IT than Meg is--which would have been a nice vulnerability for Calvin to have, in a book wherein he has consistently outshone the female protagonist. Again I have to wonder whether L'Engle simply couldn't bring herself to make the father-figures (Murry, Calvin) vulnerable and capable of real weakness. Everything Meg is good at, Murry and Calvin are just a little bit better.

   “You told him to tesser,” Meg charged Calvin.
   “There isn’t any question of blame,” Mr. Murry cut in severely. “Can you move yet?”

Speaking of Murry and Calvin being father-figures in this scene, why else are they in such harmonious lockstep? They keep covering for each other, with Calvin jumping in to defend Murry and Murry jumping in to defend Calvin. Why? This doesn't make sense, except from the lens of L'Engle needing her father-figures to be in total agreement about what is Right, since the alternative would require one of them being Wrong.

Calvin and Murry have known each other for all of maybe an hour while Meg was unconscious. Long enough for Calvin to fill Murry in on the Mrs Ws. If Murry knows about the Mrs Ws, then he ought to know that Calvin is a recent (as in, like, yesterday) friend of the family. He's a young man, older than Meg, from an impoverished violent Catholic family who is implied to live on whatever the local version is of the wrong side of the tracks. He also pretty obviously wants to bone Meg silly (in a chaste marriageable classic YA sort of way). His entire contribution to the rescue effort was utterly failing to stop Meg and Charles from walking into danger, despite being the oldest and best communicator in the group.

In that context, it's a astonishing that Murry seems to consider Calvin a prince among men rather than a fool teenager with more hormones than brains. Meanwhile, Murry is a father who left his family in order to go work on a project he believed would kill him. He made no provisions for his death and did not warn his wife he might not be coming back. The government has been lying to Mrs Murry--by omission, if nothing else--as she has no idea what happened to him, if he's alive, or if he's coming back. What kind of man agrees to work on a program where the expectation is death for the participants but there's no plan in place to inform the survivors? Murry had better options--he has multiple degrees! he's respected in his field! he wasn't drafted against his will!--and he chose to leave his family behind. Now he's chosen to leave his son behind. With a track record like that, how can Calvin idolize him? Murry isn't his father, so unlike Meg he doesn't need to get over a god-complex for the man. Calvin might well be thinking that his own dad is a far cry from decent, but at least he comes home at night and keeps a roof over their heads. Murry can't even say that much.

There is no reason, none, for Calvin and Murry to be so chummy right now--and I would argue that it's equally indefensible for Murry to be so calm. His calm was already pretty jarring, but now it verges on sociopathy for him to be this chill about leaving his son behind to die. Murry should be a gibbering wreck and Calvin should be... I'm not sure. He's an abuse survivor adept at handling shitty fathers, so I would probably write him as polite but in a faintly "off" way that only Meg can notice. Smiling too broadly. Placating her father with soothing words. Peace-making. In that case, I can see Calvin leaping in to defend Murry from Meg, but in a very different tone--soothing her and papering over her objections in order to halt the disagreement quickly before Murry gets his temper up, rather than trying to convince Meg that Murry is objectively right and she's wrong.

...This chapter is just so long, or I'm too long-winded, so we'll break here.


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