“Not really one thing or the other”:
Queer Themes in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time
Introduction: Understanding Gender Expression and A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time has always been surrounded by controversy. L’Engle wrote the first novel of her Time Quintet series in 1959, but it was rejected by at least 26 publishers before she found success getting it published in 1962. L’Engle herself has theorized that the difficulty stemmed from its female protagonist in a work of science fiction, which was highly controversial at the time due to the conservatism of gender roles. In further explaining the novel’s repeated rejections, L’Engle stated that she believed it to be “too different” ("Go Fish: Questions for the Author) from other novels. Indeed, the novel is different, especially in the way that it promotes self-acceptance for characters who do not fit into binary gender categories. Meg, the main character, may not identify as queer, but she certainly exhibits masculine and feminine traits that blur her gender identity. A Wrinkle in Time is the story of how Meg overcomes her own judgmental attitudes and learns to accept others in order to finally accept herself.
According to L’Engle, she wrote A Wrinkle in Time “during a time of transition,” in which she and her family moved back to New York City after living in rural Connecticut. Not only was the author’s personal life in transition, but so, too, was the culture of transgender visibility. A Wrinkle in Time was published right on the cusp of a counter-culture movement that popularized gender-queer aesthetics. Figures such as
David Bowie and Lou Reed were taking over the music scene with their gender-fluid personas and glam rock style, thereby re-inventing gender norms and paving the way for an era in which gender-queer ideals and aesthetics were more accepted and even considered cool. Both artists would sport makeup, and Bowie more often than not would go to flamboyant extremes, wearing glittery get-ups and
platform boots. Though it is a stretch to label these two individuals as actually being gender-queer, they helped change the way that gender was being understood in the 60’s, when A Wrinkle in Time was written. At the same time, it is imperative to recognize that people who actually identified as trans suffered immense backlash, becoming the targets of police brutality. Additionally, trans people were still largely misunderstood and ill-treated, often living in poverty and denied opportunities for
employment (Stryker). Despite these hardships, the heightened visibility of non-binary gender expressions in pop culture informs L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Perhaps due to the shifting conception of gender expression at the time the novel was written, it contains themes that support the queer movement of today. The queer movement is a relatively new phenomenon that originated in the early 90’s and is propelled by individuals who wish to promote non-binary ideas about gender, sexuality, sex, and identity in general. This movement seeks to legitimize non-binary and gender fluid identities. According to queer activists, gender is a social construct, and the traditional binary understanding of gender is limiting and not inclusive of gender-queer people (Butler). These ideas about non-binary genders can be seen in many of the characters in A Wrinkle in Time, particularly in protagonist Meg and the aliens she encounters. Through her interactions with these aliens, Meg learns to accept her own queer identity.
Meg Murry in a Binary World
In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin must embark on a quest to find Meg and Charles’s father with the help of their gender-ambiguous alien friends, the Mrs W’s and Aunt Beast. They eventually save their father and destroy an evil, mind-controlling force called IT. A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg on her journey of acceptance both of the non-binary aliens she encounters as well as her own non-conformist identity. Meg does not fit neatly into a gender category: she embodies elements of both traditional masculinity and femininity. She has a difficult time because she operates under the assumption that a person must be one or the other—that there is no in between. In much the same way that Meg does not fit into the gender binary, the aliens in the story break gender norms in that they can choose to be different genders or choose not to identify with any gender at all. At first, Meg is wary of the aliens in the story because she still adheres to a binary mindset. However, the aliens enlighten her about queer ideas, and she eventually comes to love them. In accepting the gender queer identities of Mrs Whatsit and Aunt Beast, Meg eventually comes to terms with her own gender queer identity. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time promotes queer appreciation both in oneself and in others through Meg’s acceptance of Mrs Whatsit, Aunt Beast, and, eventually, herself.
L’Engle does not directly identify Meg as gender-queer—which is unsurprising given that today’s idea of queerness was not solidified until the 1990’s (“Keyword: Queer”). However, Meg certainly does express traits typically associated with both ends of the gender spectrum. Meg embodies both traditionally masculine and feminine traits in that she excels in math and science and is very outspoken but also desires feminine beauty and plays with dolls (51). Charles Wallace captures Meg’s non-binary personality well, saying, “Meg has it tough. . . . She’s not really one thing or the other” (40). Meg’s situation is reflective of how living in a binary society makes it difficult for queer children to understand exactly where they fit in. Meg’s struggle with not belonging to any particular category can even be seen in her physical description. When complaining about her plain appearance and her uncooperative hair, L’Engle describes how “one side would come out curly and the other straight” (17). The imbalance that extends even to her hair texture shows Meg’s discomfort with her identity in the beginning of the novel—she feels that she must be one thing or the other and has not yet accepted that it is completely natural to have a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.
Because Meg does not fit the specific gender category that society expects her to, she is picked on in school. Meg cannot hide who she truly is, even though she wants to, and this is why she is bullied so intensely. Mrs. Murry tells her that she is “much too straightforward to pretend to be what [she isn’t]” (18). Meg’s inability to hide who she really is calls to mind the queer people of today who must pretend to be cisgender or straight in order to avoid violence and hatred from their peers. L’Engle emphasizes that Meg is “different” from other kids in order to explain why she is bullied so incessantly. Surely many children feel that they are different for a medley of reasons, but Meg’s feelings are specifically linked to her gender expression (getting made fun of for “rough-housing” and fighting), and this connects her more directly with children who share this gender confusion, perhaps because they truly are gender-queer.
Just as Meg is bullied for being different, she, too, is at first very mistrusting of both Mrs Whatsit as well as the “beasts” of Ixchel. Her fearful initial judgment of the aliens reflects the human tendency to demonize what is unfamiliar. When Meg first meets Mrs Whatsit, she disapproves of Charles Wallace’s friendship with her, saying, “She’s no one Charles Wallace ought to be friends with, especially when he won’t even talk to ordinary people” (23). Meg’s reaction to Mrs Whatsit mirrors society’s frequent disapproval of the gender queer community. Additionally, Meg’s ill treatment of Mrs Whatsit because she is unusual is reminiscent of the way that kids bully her for being different. In this way, Meg almost becomes the bully, dismissing Mrs Whatsit automatically just because she is bizarre and unfamiliar. Meg’s opinion of the creatures of Ixchel, too, demonstrates how people assume the worst of anything that strays from the norm; Meg refers to the creatures as “beasts” and “monsters” because their ways of thinking and their otherworldly appearances are so different from her own human perspective. Meg’s judgment of both Mrs Whatsit and Aunt Beast (an alien from Ixchel who rescues and takes a liking to Meg) mirrors the treatment of queer people by a society that adheres so strictly to the gender binary that queerness is threatening.
Individuality, Acceptance, and Self-Love
Despite the hardship that being different may bring, A Wrinkle in Time celebrates the individuality that separates Meg and Charles from other children and encourages its readers to embrace their own quirks. The Murry house is a space that promotes self-love and fosters Meg and Charles Wallace’s individuality. Mrs Whatsit fondly points out that Mrs. Murry is “letting [Charles Wallace] be himself” rather than “trying to squash him down” (24). Right away the reader is given the impression that the Murry household is a place of safety and acceptance and that Mrs. Murry embraces her children’s unique qualities. During the midnight meal of sandwiches that the Murry’s share, L’Engle gives great attention to their differing tastes: each sandwich ends up being unique—Charles chooses jelly, Mrs. Murry cream cheese and liverwurst, and Meg, simply lettuce and tomato. Elizabeth Gargano argues that the Murrys’s eccentric nature can be understood by the characters’ differing food choices in this scene: “As L’Engle humorously emphasizes the characters’ idiosyncratic food choices, [she reminds the reader] of their stubborn individuality and eccentric tastes” (212). The Murry household is a place where being different is not looked down upon but celebrated, and this celebration of individuality allows Meg to eventually come to terms with her gender.
Throughout the novel, L’Engle places an emphasis on how Meg must find a “happy medium,” a mixture of masculinity and femininity, rather than one or the other. However, Meg does not at first understand that she is allowed to identify as both masculine and feminine. Meg only begins to truly accept
this “happy medium” of her gender identity when she meets the aliens who also break binary gender ideas. The most obvious example of the aliens unsettling gender expectations comes in the many forms of Mrs Whatsit. Because Mrs Whatsit was once a star, she has no sex, and for this reason was never assigned a gender. She therefore is able to choose which gender she wishes to identify as. Even when L’Engle first introduces Mrs Whatsit, she is described as a sexless individual: “The age or sex was impossible to tell” (21). She chooses to introduce herself as a female; however, she has the ability to change her sex as well as her gender. She transforms from an old woman into a centaur-like creature with “a nobly formed torso, arms, and a head resembling a man’s,” and this ambiguity of her “true” form demonstrates the ways in which gender is presented in the novel as performative (73). Mrs Whatsit is able to choose to be called Mrs Whatsit, to take the form of an old woman, or to take the form of a male centaur—in this way she is able to choose her sex as well as her gender, underlining the fluidity of both. Mrs Whatsit’s ability to shift into different forms mirrors the way that people can shift into different gender expressions. Because Mrs Whatsit is able to express different genders, Meg is no longer alone in her feelings of non-binary gender,
Mrs. Whatsit on the cover
of A Wrinkle in Time
and having a positive role model such as Mrs Whatsit influences her transformation from self- loathing to self-acceptance.
The Beasts of Ixchel: Free From Labels
In addition to Mrs Whatsit, the beasts of Ixchel break binary norms—not because they are gender fluid, however, but because they have no gender at all. This lack of gender can be seen in the absence of gendered terminology in their language, which strengthens the notion that gender is merely a social construction. The aliens’ transcendent lack of labeling becomes evident when Meg asks Aunt Beast what she should call her and her planet, and Aunt Beast cannot give her a definite answer. Aunt Beast does not have a name for herself—she does not feel the need for one. Aunt Beast is beyond the concept of labeling things in order to understand them, just as she is beyond the need to see things in order to understand them. The beasts of Ixchel do not even comprehend the concept of gender. When referring to Meg, one of the beasts asks Calvin for help in labeling her: “‘And this little—what is the word?’ the beast cocked its tentacles at Calvin. ‘Girl,’ Calvin said” (197). Evidently, the beasts of Ixchel do not consider gender to be an important indication of identity, as they do not even understand the terminology for it. Meg realizes in her conversation with Aunt Beast that “the beasts in some way saw, knew, understood, far more completely than she” (201). The beasts’ dismissal of gender labels affords them a deeper understanding of true identity beyond male and female. Many gender queer people argue for the eradication of gender labels of any sort. This viewpoint is expressed by Aunt Beast as well as the other beasts of Ixchel.
The beasts of Ixchel present a very different lifestyle than our human protagonists, and their differences call attention to the human flaw of needing to label things. Calvin encounters difficulties in communicating with the beasts, and when they ask him to describe Meg or himself to them, he does so in terms of gender. When the beasts ask him who he is, he immediately turns to gender to describe himself: “I’m a boy. A—a young man” (194). That Calvin’s maleness is central to his conception of his own identity points to just how gendered our society is. Meg, too, has difficulty with making sense of a world with no labels and no gender. When Aunt Beast asks Meg to describe the essence of the Mrs W’s to her, Meg has a difficult time looking past their physical appearance. Meg’s difficulty in communicating with Aunt Beast indicates the human tendency to label things in order to understand them and undermines the ability of these terms to convey the true meaning of something. Meg relies heavily on gender indicators, as she labels Aunt Beast as a female even though Aunt Beast likely does not identify as any gender. The stark difference between how the beasts ignore gender while Meg and Calvin rely on it is indicative of the human need to understand everything in terms of gender.
In her interactions with the beasts of Ixchel, Meg gains an appreciation for beings who are able to experience the world differently and therefore comes closer to accepting her own differences and non-binary gender identity. Meg’s love for
Mrs Whatsit and Aunt Beast mirrors her eventual love for herself. Because Mrs Whatsit and Aunt Beast have shown her that being different makes her strong rather than weak, she comes to accept her own quirks. She declares to IT, “Maybe I don’t like being different, but I don’t want to be like everyone else, either” (155). Meg learns how to accept her faults and even uses her differences to protect her
In her interactions with the beasts of Ixchel, Meg gains an appreciation for beings who are able to experience the world differently and therefore comes closer to gaining an appreciation for her own differences and her own gender identity.
against the brainwashing tactics of IT. She is able to resist the pull of IT’s mind control because she has a different way of thinking (225). Meg is eventually able to accept her unique traits, as she realizes through her interaction with Mrs Whatsit and Aunt Beast that it is not always beneficial to be like everyone else.
While it is remarkable that a work as dated as A Wrinkle in Time can be interpreted through a queer lens, it is pertinent to note that by 2017, literature should have progressed far past the subtle hints at gender fluidity found in this novel from the 1960’s. Yet, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go in giving queer characters the respect they deserve. Though “homosexuality has become nearly a mainstream topic in YA literature” (Abate 5), there is still much work to be done as far as genuine and meaningful depictions of LGBTQIA characters go. In his article about queer representation in young adult literature, William P. Banks addresses the continued misrepresentation of queer characters in today’s literary works. He discusses fostering empathy for queer characters rather than just sympathy, meaning that gender queer and LGBTQIA individuals should not be merely victims to be pitied but actual people who deserve to be treated as such (35). Finding novels that have gender queer characters proves to be even more difficult, as many people do not even grasp the concept of not fitting the gender binary.
However, there is a chance that more explicit representation of queer characters may come to fruition through the story of A Wrinkle in Time. Disney has announced that they will be adapting the novel into a film to be released in April of 2018, and L’Engle herself will be assisting with the screenplay. And though there has been a lack of queer representation in media, there certainly has been a recent shift toward more acceptance for the LGBTQ community. Perhaps just as there was an atmosphere of change when L’Engle first wrote the novel, the new forward-thinking attitude of modern day America has allowed society to be open to the resurgence of such a progressive story. There is ample opportunity for Disney to highlight these themes of queer identity and self-acceptance in this adaptation. Hopefully the new understanding of queer individuals will be reflected in this movie and the queer community can finally begin to receive the representation they deserve.
Glossary of Terms
Gender identity: An individual’s internal sense of gender, which may or may not be the same as one’s gender assigned at birth.
Transgender: Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans or TG) people are those whose psychological self ("gender identity") differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with.
Gender-queer: A person whose gender identity is neither man nor woman, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders.
Cisgender: A person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender/sex based expectations of society (also referred to as “Gender-straight” or “Gender Normative”).
Abate, Michelle Ann; Kidd, Kenneth. “Introduction.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Ed. Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd. U of Michigan P, 2011. 1-14.
Banks, William P. “Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures.” The English Journal, vol.
98, no. 4, 2009, pp. 33-36.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.
“Definition of Terms.” Gender Equality Resource Center. UC Berkeley, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
Gargano, Elizabeth. "Trials of Taste: Ideological 'Food Fights' in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time." Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature, edited by Kara K. Keeling and Scott T. Pollard, Routledge, 2009,
“Keyword: Queer.” Keywords Project. University of Pittsburgh, n.d. Web. 2 April 2017.
L’Engle, Madeleine. 1962. A Wrinkle in Time. Square Fish, 2007.
---. “Go Fish: Questions for the Author. “A Wrinkle in Time. Square Fish, 2007, p. 236.
Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal P, 2008.
Katie Prescott recently graduated from NAU with a BA in English and certificates in Linguistics
and Literature. Her favorite movie is Kill Bill , and her favorite hobby is shooting antagonizing
glances at the local geese on her nature walks through the beautiful suburbs of Phoenix, AZ.