Character Connection 26
Last week, I brought up the poignant truth that no matter how close we are to our parents, there are some things about them that we'll never know. And these things aren't always the minor moments in their lives, but often include the real game changers.
The mother I feature today did many amazing things when she was a young girl--and one really awesome thing when she was pregnant with her first child--but none of her children, not even that first one, may ever hear of them.
(This is going to be a long post . . .)
The Time Quintet
by Madeleine L'Engle
The Time Quintet
by Madeleine L'Engle
". . . Grand, why did Mother have so many kids?"
"Would you want any of you not to have been born?"
"But it doesn't answer your question. . . If a woman is free to choose a career, she is also free to choose the care of a family as her primary vocation."
"Was it that with Mother?"
"Partly." Her grandmother sighed. "But it was probably because of me . . ."
An Acceptable Time is the last novel in the Time Quintet: the first and only one in which the space-time-traveling heroine role is filled not by Meg Murry, but by her daughter Polly. It is a switch which makes the novel an awkward sequel at best, and something suspiciously like a remake at worst. Perhaps I'll take on the question of whether or not Polly "out-Megs" Meg in a future post; right now, I just want to howl at the way their creator throws the older heroine under the proverbial bus.
Does anyone ask why an artist produces so many paintings? Why a pianist performs so many recitals? Why a surgeon saves so many lives? Polly's question about why her own mother had so many children is incredibly insulting. But her grandmother's answer is so much worse.
Mrs. Murry truly believes that the main reason Meg, once a mathematical prodigy, ultimately decided to be a housewife and to raise seven children (Is that really so staggering a number? Seriously.) is that she didn't want to be in such direct competition with a mother who had both a career in the hard sciences and four children of her own. So Meg married her childhood sweetheart, threw all her energies into supporting his research, and even showed herself content to live on sparsely populated islands in order to protect that research. Well, yes, it does seem a bit anti-climatic.
But before we settle on the same conclusion, let's look back at the Meg whom Mrs. Murry seems to have forgotten, and whom Polly herself may never know . . .
--A delinquent, that's what I am, she thought grimly. --That's what they'll be saying next. Not Mother. But Them. Everybody Else. I wish Father--
But it was still not possible to think about her father without the danger of tears. Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, "When your father gets back--"
Gets back from where? And when? Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip. Surely it must hurt her as it did Meg . . .
The first time we meet Meg, it is a dark and stormy night, and she is going over her grievances against the universe. It's not easy to be so mousy and awkward looking, with thick glasses and braces to boot, while your mother is drop-dead gorgeous--and even worse to have been moved to the slowest class in your grade when your parents are two of the top scientists in the country. (There's that idea of direct competition again!) But the real source of Meg's misery is not that she is being dumped upon, but that her whole family has been taking some abuse.
Her father has been gone for a long time, on a secret mission for the government, but the neighbourhood gossips are convinced that he has abandoned his wife; and they sneer at Mrs. Murry for being in denial. It's a double insult to her family that Meg cannot bear--especially when she knows that her father is faithful and her mother is right.
Then there is her beloved little brother, Charles Wallace, who happens to be incredibly gifted in many ways. Nobody in the neighbourhood understands that, either; and when the story opens, Meg is nursing bruises from another fight with bullies who called him retarded.
What happens next involves a jaw-dropping intergalactic adventure fraught with danger and graced with beauty . . . but in one sense, it is all merely a vehicle for the real story of Meg coming to terms with her father and standing up for her brother against one of the biggest bullies in the universe. We get a happy ending not because the villain is defeated, but because Meg's family--the real centre of her universe--has been restored.
. . . "Progo, even for Charles Wallace, how can I do the impossible? How can I love Mr. Jenkins?"
Proginoskes did not respond. There was no flame, no smoke; only a withdrawing of eyes behind wings.
"Progo, help me! How can I feel love for Mr. Jenkins?"
Immediately he opened a large number of eyes very wide. "What a strange idea. Love isn't a feeling. If it were, I wouldn't be able to love . . ."
It should be no surprise that Meg remains the emotional heart of the second novel, which gives her a bigger challenge this time around.
Loving your own father and brother is easy, especially when you're all about family, like Meg. Loving your principal, on the other hand, is a task of Herculean proportions--and Meg has never even liked school. To compound the problem, the same Principal Jenkins who was once so odious to her is now being awful to her beloved baby brother.
And how unfair is it that unless she learns to love him, the dark forces of the universe might swallow him up forever? As far as she is concerned, he is one of the dark forces of the universe. =P
Yes, Meg does tend to take everything personally: no surprise that her greatest trials are emotional. But L'Engle's cosmic wars are won only by love--a weapon none of her other characters learn to wield half as well as this little warrior does.
"Meg," he said gravely. "Something's blocking me, and I need to get unblocked. I have to be alone. But I'll need you to kythe with me."
She looked troubled. "I'm out of practice--" Kything was being able to be with someone else, no matter how far away they might be, was talking in a language that was deeper than words . . .
Charles Wallace assured her. "It's like swimming or riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget."
"I know--but I want to go with you." She tried to hold back the thought, --To protect you.
"Meg." His voice was urgent. "I'm going to need you, but I'm going to need you here, to kythe with me all the way."
When the third novel begins, Meg is older, married, pregnant, and feeling left out of things. Her husband is in another country for work and her usual partner-in-saving-the-world won't even let her step out the front door with him while he tries to avert a nuclear disaster. It's more than her mother hen instincts can bear.
Leave it to Charles Wallace, whom she has loved all his life, to understand that her proper place has always been in the home. That's not a very politically correct thing to say, especially about a woman with an IQ as high and a list of accomplishments as long as Meg's. And yet . . . it's true.
It's also not a bad thing. Charles Wallace knows he could never fulfill his charge without Meg's help. But he doesn't need her with him "out there;" he needs her to be there for him back home. Meg's real genius lies in the domestic field of family . . . in being the strength of the hearth.
Sandy stood looking at one of Meg's open notebooks. "Hey, listen to this. Do you suppose we'll have this kind of junk when we're in college? 'It seems quite evident that there was definite prebiotic existence of protein ancestors of polymers and that therefore the primary beings were not a-amino acids.' I suppose she knows what she's talking about. I haven't the foggiest."
Dennys flipped back a page. "Look at her title. 'The Million Doller Question: the chicken or the egg, amino acids or their polymers.' She may be a mathematical genius, but she still can't spell."
Have I mentioned that her IQ is off the charts? (It is.) Does it matter that she'll go on "to do nothing" with her well-earned degree except homeschool seven children? (It does . . . to her children.)
It's also interesting to see how the most "normal" members of the Murry family view their remarkable older sister. Sandy and Dennys have never really believed in Meg and Charles Wallace's adventures--and from all indications, never reveal to anyone else what happens to them in this book. People tend to keep all sorts of things from Meg because they underestimate her: Sandy and Dennys weren't the first . . . and I'm sure Polly, twenty years later, won't be the last.
But while it's not a bad thing that a specific woman's place is in the home, it's much sadder when those she loved so strongly and raised so well can't see how beautifully she has lived up to that vocation. Perhaps the only thing worse is that the creator of all these characters didn't seem to see it, either.
Meg Murry is Madeleine L'Engle's greatest #Characterfail.
For more thoughts on Meg and L'Engle's odd treatment of her own best character, check out the second part of the "Duel" Perspectives feature I did with Lauren at Little Wonder Reads:
Image Sources: a) An Acceptable Time, b) A Wrinkle in Time, c) A Wind in the Door, d) A Swiftly Tilting Planet, e) Many Waters