19 May 2011


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 . . .)

Meg Murry-O'Keefe
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?"

"No, but--"

"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


Jenny said...

I feel bad that I never read these books. You did a really amazing job of expressing yourself and your admiration for Meg. I actually think I'll like these books and understand them more now than I would have as a kid.

IntrovertedJen said...

It has been ages since I read these, and I'm not convinced that I read all of them.

What a horrible thing for a mother to think! "Oh, she couldn't compete with me, so she removed herself from the competition." Wow. Thanks for the vote of confidence there, mom.

I guess in a cultural context though, this was written at a time when women were struggling to get out of the home, so a woman who chose to stay there, especially a brilliant woman, would have been looked down upon. Obviously, she wound up where she fit, but it seems that L'Engle should have realized that in her own character.

I know that if I ever get around to re-reading these, I will have a whole new take on Meg thanks to your insightful post.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jenny -- Thanks for stopping by! =) If you do get around to these books, I hope you like them.

Slightly off-topic, so I hope you don't mind combox rambling . . . A few months ago, there was a meme in which bloggers listed the Top 10 books they wish they read as children, and A Wrinkle in Time made a whole bunch of lists. It used to be a staple of children's reading, but I guess the past generation was too distracted by Harry Potter (and I don't mean that in a bad way) to rediscover the Time Quartet.

Jen -- Yeah, I always had a problem with Mrs. Murry's evaluation of her daughter's choices. =/ It makes one wonder where the young Meg's inferiority complex really came from.

Good point about the time in which the books were written. So now I wonder what L'Engle was thinking! Given that she had full creative control over Meg's adulthood, it doesn't make sense that she would "dump" Meg in one fate and then criticise her "choices" through other characters. And we never actually hear Meg's side of the story; nobody asks her why she had so many children.

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Jen. =)

Melanie B said...

I suspect L'Engle felt conflicted about Meg. Artistically she did what she knew was right and let Meg be a housewife and mother. L'Engle was enough of an artist to trust her muse and let Meg be who she needed to be. But like Jen says, L'Engle was also very much the product of her time. She'd absorbed the feminist message that a woman had to be more had to do more. So I see Polly and Mrs Murray voicing those thoughts. In a way they show L'Engle's own lack of confidence in her artistic vision. Which is one of the many reasons why I've never liked Many Waters as much as the original trilogy. (The primary reason though is it wasn't in the original boxed set I read over and over again so I encountered it much later when I was older.) It feels tacked on, an afterthought and not really a part of the whole. An unsatisfying answer to the question of what happened next for Meg and Calvin.

Melanie B said...

Hi, I'm back again after reading the rest of the duel posts.

After reading what Lauren had to say, I also wonder if a huge part of the problem of Meg isn't really a genre problem. L'Engle couldn't make an adult Meg the heroine any longer because she is now a grown up. Is L'Engle trapped by the fact that she's a writer of Children's Literature? Did she write herself and her best character into a corner that she couldn't really get out of because she was pigeonholed as an author? What might we have seen if L'Engle had decided to follow Meg as the heroine of the novel as an adult? It's hard to imagine what such a book might look like; but I wonder if it might not have been a better solution for Meg's character than relegating her to a secondary role.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Melanie! =) You make a good point about L'Engle's genre and personal artistic vision limiting her somewhat. But I'm with you on the totally "unsatisfying answer to the question of what happened next for Meg and Calvin." They move from being our beloved heroes to being the parents who must be kept out of things, without much of a transition in between. And it's a worse treatment of them than the complete creative silence when it comes to the grown Charles Wallace.

I've written elsewhere (on Lauren's blog) about L'Engle not being very comfortable letting her girl characters grow up. We see this discomfort in the portrayal of an adult Meg and in her explicit refusal to show us an adult Vicky Austin. I'm also rather dissatisfied with the career she picked for Polly (which she didn't write into a novel but revealed during an interview). It seemed so tacked on.

I remember reading that the book L'Engle was working on when she died was about a middle aged Meg Murry. If so, I hope it will be published someday, even if it's as tantalisingly unfinished as Charles Dickens' Mystery of Edwin Drood.

PS -- I don't like Many Waters very much, either. Through some accident of fate, it was the last of the Time books I read, and I could really feel how different it was from the rest of the series. (Still, it's An Acceptable Time that feels most like an afterthought to me.) I think Many Waters would have been better as another Charles Wallace vehicle (with or without Meg); and I wonder if L'Engle really knew what she wanted to do with the twins.

PPS -- Lauren has a review of Many Waters in which she and I discuss L'Engle's treatment of sexual awakening and other coming-of-age subjects; we both agreed that she's pretty bad when it comes to these. Again, I don't know if it was a built-in limitation of the Young Adult genre at the time she was writing or her own limitations on herself.

Melanie B said...

An Acceptable Time feels like so much of an afterthought that I actually had forgotten about it.

Fascinating to hear there might actually be a novel starring an older Meg. I'd read it even though unfinished books drive me batty. I'm that curious about Meg. I always have felt her to be an alter ego even though I was always a literature person instead of a scientist.

I don't want to project my own issues with feminism onto L'Engle but I can't help but wonder about her discomfort with having her protagonists grow up. Was L'Engle conflicted about the feminist message that staying at home and raising children is somehow a failure? Did she feel she had to write along those lines in order to sell books that women would buy for their daughters?

I remember how when I was in high school I secretly wanted to be a stay at home mom but never dared to voice that opinion out loud because I knew what kind of reaction I'd get. That was not an acceptable desire. So I wonder if there's some of that going on with L'Engle's characters. If she was torn between what she wanted and what she thought was an acceptable message.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's funny you should identify with Meg that way, despite being "a literature person instead of a scientist"--because that is exactly why I like Meg so much! =D

Vicky is the "literature person" of L'Engle's two major heroines, but I can't stand Vicky. =S

You have some great questions that I wish I could answer--even if all I had were inferences from a close study of L'Engle's papers. My personal opinion is that L'Engle wasn't the type to be swayed by what books might or might not sell. She would certainly have been influenced by the feminist dogma of the day, but internalised it all before writing the books with the adult Meg. Maybe she had her own secret longings for Meg, but believed they were wrong for her to want.

By the way, I, too, secretly wanted to be a housewife in high school. (Heck, I still do!) But it wasn't something one was open about then, and it's still something we don't say now.