A Wrinkle in Time is a fantasy science fiction novel written by Madeleine L’Engle, first published in 1962, during the peak of the Cold War. It is a story about Meg, a twelve-year-old girl, who saves her father from the IT, a dark intellectual force that enslaves people’s minds.
A Wrinkle in Time is a great example of allegorical Visionary Fiction. It allegorizes absolutism. Madeleine was criticized for blatant anti-communist propaganda, which is, in my humble opinion, shortsighted. The glove of this allegory fits all kinds of ideologies, including fascism, neo-religion, and capitalist meritocracy – the latter the most subtle of all.
Madeleine pictures the IT as a dark force and a huge brain. Absolutism can take on many forms, but usually has these two elements: intelligence and gloom. To understand the two, we need to invite Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung to the review table.
1882, Nietzsche proclaimed God’s death. What killed him? Science. Science is rational and so is absolutism (religion is dead, long live absolutism). In the aftermath of God’s death, people faced three choices:
- Hang on to religion no matter what
- Embrace nihilism
- Embrace absolutism
The absolutists of the late 19th and early 20th century wanted to distance themselves from their religious ancestors. That is the reason for embracing a rational body of thought and orderliness, preferably with a scientific foundation. Absolutism overemphasizes order.
Mind you, intelligence and wisdom are two different things. Intelligence is the ability to discern and reason, wisdom is knowledge of universal principles. Unguided intelligence always fails, and that’s why smart people can be surprisingly pigheaded. And that’s why we can find irrational ideals at the hearts of idealism, like racism, elitism, the annihilation of private property, or glamorized greed.
What about the allegory of the dark force? Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious explains that. All humans share in the collective unconscious that contains archetypes, common sense, and shared emotions. At the end of the nineteenth century, Europe’s collective unconscious was a mess. It was the peak of the Victorian Age, an over-rational age and time of emotional suppression and rampant drug abuse. People lacked emotional intelligence and below the calm surface of Victorian rationality lurked untamed inner demons – resentment, traumas, paranoia, misogyny, and racism. Europe’s collective unconscious was a powder keg, ready to explode. And it did so twice – with WWI and WWII. Jung foresaw that. He had a visionary dream of Europe drowned in blood.
Back to the story. Three odd ladies, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, inform Meg that a dark force trapped her father on another planet. Meg, her brother Wallace, and her school friend Calvin space-jump with the help of a tesseract to save Meg’s father.
A Wrinkle In Time is at the fringes of Visionary Fiction. Meg does not go through a transformation and there is no enlightenment involved, except for the global story climax. Meg defeats the IT with the power of love. Were it not for that, I would not have written a review for this story. But enlightenment and love always go hand in hand. Love is the key to enlightenment. Love redeems. Light and love.
Meg rescues her father, but she doesn’t vanquish the IT. This is true for absolutism to date. We know how dangerous absolutism is, but what about those intellectual-idealistic structures that keep doing their thing unnoticed in the collective unconscious? A lot of psychological and enlightenment work remains to be done, which is one of the crucial Visionary Fiction chores.
A Technical Analysis of A Wrinkle In Time for Authors and VF Nerds
What follows is a technical analysis of A Wrinkle in Time using the Storygrid methodology and the Hero’s Journey.
1. The Storygrid’s Editor Six Core Questions
1.1 What is the Genre?
The content genre (as defined by Storygrid) of A Wrinkle In Time is Action. According to Storygrid, stories need a hero, a villain, and a victim. Meg is the hero, her father the victim, and the IT the villain. The life value of the action genre is life/death with damnation as the extreme. While nobody’s life is at stake in this story, damnation always looms – the IT’s idealistic enslavement.
1.2 What Are the Genre’s Conventions And Obligatory Scenes?
1.2.1 The Conventions of the Action Genre
126.96.36.199 The role of the protagonist needs to be clearly defined throughout the story.
Check. Meg is the hero and she faces the villain.
188.8.131.52 The protagonist’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim.
Check. Meg rescues her father and later, her brother Wallace.
184.108.40.206 The protagonist sets out on a journey.
Check. Meg space-jumps to other planets to save her father.
220.127.116.11 The villain is much more powerful than the hero.
Check. The IT’s hypnotic power conquers the population of entire planets and almost hypnotizes Meg if it were not for the power of love.
18.104.22.168 The victim’s role must be clearly defined throughout the story.
Half check. The victims change in the course of the story. The first victim is Meg’s father, the second her brother. I think it still works.
22.214.171.124 The villain must be clearly defined throughout the story.
Check. The IT is a dark force/shadow and an overpowering, brainwashing, hypnotic brain.
126.96.36.199 The Speech in Praise of the Villain.
Check. Meg’s (hypnotized) brother Wallace (an ally) delivers the speech in the praise of the villain in the chapter Transparent Column.
188.8.131.52 The genre requires a fast-paced plot with action and excitement. Characters are put in extreme situations and forced to take risks.
Half Check. The story doesn’t have much action (lower case), rather drama. And since it is a children book, it’s mostly childish drama – no offense. But Meg takes a huge risk facing the IT alone – mental enslavement.
184.108.40.206 A clock establishes a limited time in which the protagonist must save the victim.
Half check. No clear clock, but Meg has a vision of the IT’s consuming Planet Earth, which seems only a matter of time.
1.2.2 The Obligatory Scenes of the Action Genre
220.127.116.11 The Inciting Incident is a life-threatening attack by the antagonist. The attack can be causal or coincidental.
No check. The only candidate for the Inciting Incident is the father’s imprisonment. But this incident is off page, happens before the story begins, and is explained late in the Middle Build.
18.104.22.168 Following the inciting attack, the protagonist avoids responsibility to take action against the antagonist.
No check. Meg agrees to save her father without hesitation.
22.214.171.124 Forced to take action (after avoiding responsibility to do so), the protagonist acts out.
No check. Meg did not avoid responsibility and wasn’t forced to take action.
126.96.36.199 The protagonist discovers or gains an understanding of the antagonist’s McGuffin.
No check. There is no McGuffin in A Wrinkle In Time, only the villain’s Want – to enslave people’s minds.
188.8.131.52 Having decided to act, the protagonist’s initial strategy to defeat the antagonist fails.
Check. Meg’s loses the first standoff with the IT (see chapter IT), and her brother Wallace turns into a victim.
184.108.40.206 The protagonist gains an unexpected ally.
Check. Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who are unexpected allies, as well as the Happy Medium and Aunt Beast.
220.127.116.11 The protagonist reaches an All-is-lost Moment and realizes she must change her approach to defeat the antagonist.
Half check. Meg experiences an internal All-is-lost Moment (self-doubt) after losing the second standoff with the IT (see chapter Absolute Zero). She thinks that she is no match for the great, bodiless, pulsing, writhing brain mass.
18.104.22.168 During the hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villain scene, the protagonist must express her gift to save the victim and herself.
Half check. Meg has two standoffs with the IT, but she is never at the IT’s mercy as we know it from James Bond movies. However, Meg expresses her gift (love) and defeats the IT with that.
22.214.171.124 In the Ending Payoff, the protagonist is rewarded for her sacrifice to save the victim.
Half check. No sacrifice, but Meg returns home with her father and the family reunites.
1.3 What is the Point of View?
Limited point of view – Meg.
1.4 What is the Object of Desire?
Meg’s object of desire is finding and rescuing her lost father.
1.5 What is the Controlling Idea or Theme?
Damnation can be avoided when the protagonist vanquishes the villain’s dark forces with the power of love.
1.6 What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff?
The first three chapters form the Beginning Hook, which comprises 25%* of the story.
The succeeding six chapters form the Middle Build – 51.15%* of the story.
The last three chapters compose the Ending Payoff – 23.85%* of the story.
* Calculated from an estimated average of 130 words per page (paperback).
2. The Storgygrid Spreadsheet of A Wrinkle In Time
3. The Hero’s Journey
For this analysis, I use Vogler’s twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Test and Trials, Friends and Enemies
- Approaching the Innermost Cave
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- Return with the Elixir
I divided A Wrinkle in Time into four acts with three chapters each (see chart below). What follows is an analysis of each chapter.
This chapter introduces Meg’s Ordinary World and a symptom of the adversity, the missing father. The herald shows up, which is Mrs. Whatsit, but she does not yet call Meg to her adventure.
This chapter introduces the hero’s flaw, Meg’s lack of focus, and two new allies, Calvin, a boy from school, and Mrs. Who. Mrs. Who calls Meg to the adventure (rescue her father). Meg does not refuse the call.
This chapter introduces the hero’s strength (Meg’s intelligence and knowledge of math) and offers more backstory of the Ordinary World. A new ally appears – Mrs. Which. New friends and allies usually show up after crossing the threshold, but I think it still works.
End of Act 1 and the Beginning Hook and 25% of the word count.
The Black Thing
The heroine crosses the threshold and arrives in the Extraordinary World – Meg space-jumps to Uriel with the help of the tesseract. Meg learns about the the dark shadow. Usually, the heroine learns about the villain or at least about the adversity before the Call to Adventure. I think Madeleine’s diversion from the norm still works, but it slows down the action in the Middle Build.
There is no Approaching the Cave, neither the Ordeal. Instead, Meg meets the Goddess of the Cave (the Happy Medium) in a peaceful manner. The Happy Medium explains Meg the adversity (the dark shadow), as well as the stakes – the dark shadow is swallowing Planet Earth. But she keeps Meg in the dark who the villain is, which keeps up the suspense.
The Happy Medium
This chapter provides some backstory of the three chief allies, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who. Spoiler alert: They are shapeshifted stars – a Hero’s Journey archetype. I can’t think of a better place to provide this backstory, but it slows down the thin action of the Middle Build.
There is no ordeal and the heroine does not seize a gift, rather the three Mmes. give Meg, Wallace, and Calvin a gift each. I think it still works.
Meg, Wallace, and Calvin tesseract to Planet Camazotz, the Belly of the Beast.
End of Act 2 and the first half of the Middle Build and 50% of the word count.
The Man With Red Eyes
The Belly of the Beast is the Central Central Intelligence. There, Meg faces her first trial, the first standoff with the villain. Meg’s trials come late. According to the Hero’s Journey, they should begin in the after crossing the threshold to the Extraordinary World and that is one reason why the action in the Middle Build feels thin.
Meg fights an emissary of the villain, the man with red eyes. Usually, the heroine fights a few enemies before taking on the villain, but I think this still works.
Meg loses the first standoff and her brother Wallace becomes the new victim.
The Transparent Column
A short chapter during which Meg faces her second trial. She frees her father, which the IT trapped in a transparent column.
In this chapter, the third trial takes place – the second standoff with the villain. This is the so-called 75% battle. Meg loses, but escapes with her father and Calvin. Usually, the villain crushes the heroine in the 75% battle, but this one ends in a draw. For this reason Madeleine resorted to an internal All-is-lost moment. I think it still works.
End of Act 3 and the Middle Build and 75% of the word count.
The heroine experiences a dark-night-of-the-soul moment or internal All-is-Lost moment.
A new ally (Aunt Beast) helps Meg to resurrect. It is unusual that the heroine gains a new ally in the fourth act because it slows and delays the climactic action.
Meg takes the road back home, which involves the final standoff with the villain.
The Hero’s Journey foresees an atonement with the father after seizing the gift (Act 3). For some reason, the opposite happens in this chapter. Meg alienates from her father. She is pissed at him because he isn’t able to save her and her brother and she has to take the fight.
The Foolish and the Weak
The heroine vanquishes the villain in a final standoff and returns home with the elixir. While Meg achieves her Object of Desire – freeing the victim(s), she does not defeat the villain.