Study Guide

A Wrinkle in Time Language and Communication

By Madeleine L'Engle

Language and Communication

[Charles Wallace] "School awful again today?" he asked after a while.

[Meg] "Yes. I got sent to Mr. Jenkins. He made snide remarks about Father."

Charles Wallace nodded sagely. "I know."

"How do you know?"

Charles Wallace shook his head. "I can't quite explain. You tell me, that's all."

"But I never say anything. You just seem to know."

"Everything about you tells me," Charles said. [...]

"You mean you read our minds?"

Charles Wallace looked troubled. "I don't think it's that. It's being able to understand a sort of language, like sometimes if I concentrate very hard I can understand the wind talking with the trees. You tell me, you see, sort of inad— inadvertently. That's a good word, isn't it? I got Mother to look it up in the dictionary for me this morning." (2.71-81)

For Charles Wallace, language is more than words, and people can communicate without consciously intending to do so. It's almost like Charles Wallace has a sixth sense – which on the one hand is comforting to Meg, because he understands what's wrong with her, but on the other hand is a little creepy – what if she wants to keep her troubles to herself?

"Mrs. Who, I wish you'd stop quoting!" Charles Wallace sounded very annoyed.

Mrs. Whatsit adjusted her stole. "But she finds it so difficult to verbalize, Charles dear. It helps her if she can quote instead of working out words of her own." (4.28-29)

Language here is something to borrow. It's as if once something has been verbalized, it's out there ready for anyone to use. How does Mrs. Who's quoting of others compare to IT's speaking its words through other people?

"She keeps thinking she can explain things in words," Mrs. Who said. "Qui plus salt, plus se tait. French, you know. The more a man knows, the less he talks."

"But she has to use words for Meg and Calvin," Charles reminded Mrs. Who. "If you brought them along, they have a right to know what's going on." (4.47-48)

This suggests a paradox: the only things worth knowing are the ones that can't be put into words, but those are also the only things worth trying to explain.

"What are they singing?" Meg asked excitedly.

Mrs. Whatsit shook her beautiful head. "It won't go into your words. I can't possibly transfer it to your words. Are you getting any of it, Charles?"

Charles Wallace sat very still on the broad back, on his face an intently listening look, the look he had when he delved into Meg or his mother. "A little. Just a very little. But I think I could get more in time."

"Yes. You could learn it, Charles. But there isn't time, We can only stay here long enough to rest up and make a few preparations."

Meg hardly listened to her. "I want to know what they're saying! I want to know what it means."

"Try, Charles," Mrs. Whatsit urged. "Try to translate. You can let yourself go, now. You don't have to hold back."

"But I can't!" Charles Wallace cried in an anguished voice. "I don't know enough! Not yet!"

"Then try to work with me and I'll see if I can't verbalize it a little for them." (4.85-92)

It's mysterious how the process of learning this strange language works – it's not as if Charles Wallace is thumbing through a dictionary or putting a babelfish in his ear. It seems that all that's needed for him to pick up this new language is time and attention – it's almost as if it's something he already understands, he just has to match up the new means of expression with what he already knows.

Silence again. Not a word. It was as though the shadow had somehow reached out with its dark power and touched them so that they were incapable of speech. (4.138)

This might be foreshadowing the way that the humans fight against IT with words: nursery rhymes, snatches of historical documents, etc.

Mrs. Whatsit sighed. "Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words." (5.10)

How do you explain something without words? It seems like Meg & Co. are engaged in a perpetual game of charades, trying to figure out what's going on around them without being able to just talk it out.

Charles Wallace stared after him. "What is it?" he asked Meg and Charles. "There was something funny about the way he talked, as though—well, as though he weren't really doing the talking. Know what I mean?" (6.140)

Camazotz links speech with identity – the people on that planet don't have independent selves, so they don't have independent speech. One wonders whether IT controls all of them directly, or whether they're like robots, trotting out their limited speech patterns in response to stimuli.

"And by the way, my children," he continued blandly, "you don't need to vocalize verbally with me, you know. I can understand you quite as well as you can understand me.

Charles Wallace put his hands on his hips defiantly. "The spoken word is one of the triumphs of man," he proclaimed, "and I intend to continue using it, particularly with people I don't trust." (7.91-92)

As with Charles Wallace's reading of Meg's mind earlier, communication that bypasses the spoken word raises issues of privacy and independence. Charles Wallace's insistence on speaking out loud even though he doesn't have to is an assertion of his independence from the man with the red eyes.

"Well, we can't see without it," Meg said, realizing that she was completely unable to explain vision and light and dark. How can you explain sight on a world where no one has ever seen and where there is no need of eyes? "Well, on this planet," she fumbled, "you have a sun, don't you?"

"A most wonderful sun, from which comes our warmth, and the rays which give us our flowers, our food, our music, and all the things which make life and growth."

"Well," Meg said, "when we are turned toward the sun—our earth, our planet, I mean, toward our sun—we receive its light. And when we're turned away from it, it is night. And if we want to see we have to use artificial lights."

"Artificial lights," the beast sighed. "How very complicated life on your planet must be. Later on you must try to explain some more to me." (11.53-56)

Meg's experience trying to explain light to Aunt Beast suggests that language is founded on shared knowledge – if someone literally doesn't see the world the same way as you, it's very difficult to find the words that will make them understand your meaning.

"Oh, dear, it is so difficult to explain things to you, small one. And I know now that it is not just because you are a child. The other two are as hard to reach into as you are. What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know." (11.83)

Aunt Beast has just as much trouble explaining as Meg does. How might one come to knowledge, if having others explain something is not an option?