Study Guide

A Wrinkle in Time Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Madeleine L'Engle

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


What the heck is a tesseract? We'll let Charles Wallace explain:

"Well, the fifth dimension's a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points." (5.36)

Technically the tesseract is four-dimensional, not five, but that's a quibble. (Still confused about what a tesseract is? See the "Best of the Web" section for more attempts to explain the tesseract in a way that makes sense, with pictures and animations even.) The point of bringing the tesseract into the book isn't to offer a course in Hypercubes for Dummies, but rather to suggest that the novel's fantasy is grounded in science.

But why does it matter whether there's a scientific basis for the crazy stuff that goes down in the book or not? Throwing in a few words that you'll find long complex explanations for on Wikipedia doesn't make you any more likely to believe that somewhere in space there's a planet full of winged centaurs with an impossibly beautiful list of Top 40 hits, so why bother? Perhaps L'Engle is trying to balance fantasy with fact, so that even her weirdest creations seem more believable. Or perhaps she's pointing out that even fact can be fantastical: if the real world has such bizarre concepts in it, perhaps we don't need winged centaurs to see reality as wondrous and awe-inspiring.

So if you don't understand the tesseract, never fear: it's all part of the mysterious grandeur of the universe.

The Black Thing

The Black Thing is the like Sauron, Darth Vader, and Voldemort all rolled into one, and it's coming to a planet near you. But what, exactly, is it? Calvin has the same question:

"But what is it?" Calvin demanded. "We know that it's evil, but what is it?"

"Yyouu hhave ssaidd itt!" Mrs. Which's voice rang out. "Itt iss Eevill. Itt iss thee Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!"

Thanks, Mrs. Which, that really clears things up. So we know the Black Thing is Eevill, but beyond that, zilch. We don't know where it came from, we don't know what it wants (other than to take over the universe, naturally), and we're not even quite sure what its relationship to IT is.

Why is A Wrinkle in Time so vague about the Black Thing? Well, part of it may have to do with the book's theme of there being more to the universe than what is seen: just as Mrs. Whatsit & Co. are beyond the power of Meg's puny human brain to comprehend, so too might be the Black Thing. Another reason might be a rule well-known to horror-movie fans: a danger is scarier the less of it you see. Give away the monster in its entirety, and you say goodbye to the chances of Cloverfield: The Sequel.

On top of all this, having the Black Thing simply be pure, unadulterated evil gets rid of any pesky moral quandaries in fighting it. As with the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies, you can root for the good guy with full confidence that the villains he's destroying deserve to be destroyed. Presenting the Black Thing as Evil, full stop, makes the good guys look all the better by comparison, and makes their quest an inarguably righteous one.

But why then does the novel want to make the side of right so absolutely unquestionable? We'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Camazotz and IT

IT, speaking through its various mouthpieces, portrays Camazotz as giving Disneyland a run for its money as the Happiest Place in the Universe. Here's what the IT-possessed Charles Wallace has to say about Camazotz:

"Why do you think we have wars at home [on Earth]? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives. I've been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It's IT. And that's why everybody's so happy and efficient." (8.80)

So Camazotz may look like it has a large population, but really it's like a Sims game where one higher power controls everyone. Free will is an illusion: anyone who deviates from the norm is considered a mistake, and either forcibly brought back into conformity or destroyed. It's utopia...or hell, depending on your perspective. IT says its various offshoots are happy, but does happiness have any meaning in such a tightly controlled system? Can people be forced to be fit one model of happiness? Camazotz forces Meg to confront her own assumptions that she'd be happy if she could just be more like everyone else.

It's common to think about fantasy novels as happening in a world only lightly connected to our own, in a time and place untethered to human history, but it's interesting to think about Camazotz in light of the historical moment in which A Wrinkle in Time originally appeared. The book was published in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, when the greatest threat to American freedom was Soviet Communism. What could rampant fears of a totalitarian social system, run by a single all-powerful dictator, preaching conformity to a single way of being, and symbolized by the color red, possibly have to with Camazotz, IT, and the man with the red eyes? We'll let you answer that one.

While Camazotz may be colored, in more ways than one, by the specter of communism, it also takes up broader questions of freedom, responsibility, and happiness that stretch far beyond the Cold War. The question of how to balance individual freedom with group coherence, and of whether it's better to fit in or to buck the system, continue to be subject to debate, and have no easy answers.


A Wrinkle in Time is no The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but religious language and imagery does keep popping up. Is it coincidence that Charles Wallace asks Calvin to read him the Book of Genesis as a bedtime story, followed by Calvin and Meg taking a walk in the garden, where they both snack on apples? Perhaps...or perhaps these religious allusions are there to create the sense that these characters are about to gain a greater knowledge of good and evil.

Then there's Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who were once stars, but also, when Calvin is trying to explain them to the beasts, are best represented as "guardian angels" and "messengers of God" (11.113). The first fighter of darkness that Mrs. Who prompts the kids to name is none other than Jesus, and she quotes from First Corinthians when she's sending Meg off to extract Charles Wallace from the clutches of IT. And when Mrs. Whatsit translates the song of Uriel (which shares its name with an angel), it's a hymn singing the praises of God that quotes from the Book of Isaiah in the Bible (4.94).

Even Mr. Murry gets into the act, after he tessers Meg and Calvin off of Camazotz:

"We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (10.68)

So why all the religious-talk? Well, this is, after all, a battle between good and evil, and since its inception Christianity has claimed a large stake in that conflict. The novel makes much of the limitations of one civilization's language: perhaps the characters are just making use of the language they have for talking about good vs. evil. Or perhaps it's the specter of communism again (see the above discussion of Camazotz and IT), since that conflict was often portrayed as Christian democracy vs. godless communism. The novel never makes the role of religion in its world entirely clear, so in the end it's up to the reader to decide how literally to take the text's Biblical allusions.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest first pops up in the text among Mrs. Who's plethora of quotations:

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." She smiled broadly. "Prospero in The Tempest. I do like that play." (5.55)

But what sets this allusion apart from everything else Mrs. Who says is that it keeps coming back. When Mrs. Who leaves the children on Camazotz, she gives Calvin another passage from The Tempest as "a hint":". . . For that he was a spirit too delicate

To act their earthy and abhorr'd commands,

Refusing their grand hests, they did confine him

By help of their most potent ministers,

And in their most unmitigable rage,

Into a cloven pine; within which rift

Imprisoned, he didst painfully remain. . . ."

Besides being good stuff, what significance does The Tempest have for our heroes? You should really go read the whole thing (or at least check out the Shmoop guide), but here's a quick summary of the plot: a group of sailors are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by the powerful magician and banished duke Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and his servant, the spirit Ariel (he's the one in the lines above; he was trapped in a tree by a witch, and Prospero released him from that imprisonment but also enslaved him at the same time). Prospero uses his powers to manipulate the sailors according to his whims, and hilarity ensues.

What does all this mean for A Wrinkle in Time? Well, for one thing, the island in The Tempest is a place full of illusions, just as the world of the novel is. It's run by an all-powerful sorcerer, Prospero, whose intentions are somewhat better than IT's, but who still has a tendency to meddle with the free will of others. And of course it has Ariel, imprisoned in the cloven pine, who, as even Meg recognizes, bears a striking resemblance to her father, locked inside a glass column on Camazotz for not doing what IT wants him to do.

OK, so there are a bunch of parallels, but so what? Why bother? Perhaps the Shakespearean underpinning is there to show that Mrs. Who's language of allusions is a feature, not a bug. Or perhaps it's there to show how the list of members of the Anti-Darkness Justice League that Calvin, Charles Wallace, and Meg come up with are still contributing to the good fight even after their death. Or perhaps it's there to say, "Hey, this may be a kids' book, but we can quote Shakespeare with the best of them, so take us seriously, OK?" Whatever the purpose, the book's conversation with Shakespeare provides an interesting undercurrent to its own unique story.