Study Guide

A Wrinkle in Time Wisdom and Knowledge

By Madeleine L'Engle

Wisdom and Knowledge

[Mrs. Murry] "No, Meg. Don't hope it was a dream. I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be." (2.7)

It's kind of funny that Mrs. Murry uses the word "learned" here, since what she's learned is that you can't know everything. Instead of learning as gaining knowledge, here it's recognizing a lack of knowledge.

Meg smoothed out the paper and studied it. "Do they care how you do it?" she asked. "I mean, can you work it out your own way?"

"Well, sure, as long as I understand and get the answers right."

"Well, we have to do it their way. Now look, Calvin, don't you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?" Her pencil flew over the paper.

"Hey!" Calvin said. "Hey! I think I get it. Show me once more on another one."

Again Meg's pencil was busy. "All you have to remember is that every ordinary fraction can be converted into an infinite periodic decimal fraction. See? So 3/7 is 0.428571."

"This is the craziest family." Calvin grinned at her. "I suppose I should stop being surprised by now, but you're supposed to be dumb in school, always being called up on the carpet."

"Oh, I am."

"The trouble with Meg and math," Mrs. Murry said briskly, "is that Meg and her father used to play with numbers and Meg learned far too many short cuts. So when they want her to do problems the long way around at school she gets sullen and stubborn and sets up a fine mental block for herself." (3.38-45)

Meg's way of doing math is sort of like a tesseract – a shortcut that not everyone understands, but if you do get it, it becomes incredibly tedious to have to go the long way around. This passage also highlights the difference between Meg and her teachers: she seems to feel that the results are the important thing, and so long as she gets the right answer she should be golden; her teachers, however, are more concerned with the process, and with Meg following their set of rules to get to the result rather than the result itself.

"What's a megaparsec?" Calvin asked.

"One of Father's nicknames for me," Meg said. "It's also 3.26 million light years."

"What's E=mc2?"

"Einstein's equation."

"What's E stand for?"

"Energy."

"m?"

"Mass."

"c2?"

"The square of the velocity of light in centimeters per second."

"By what countries is Peru bounded?"

"I haven't the faintest idea. I think it's in South America somewhere."

"What's the capital of New York?"

"Well, New York City, of course!"

"Who wrote Boswell's Life of Johnson?"

"Oh, Calvin, I'm not any good at English."

Calvin groaned and turned to Mrs. Murry. "I see what you mean. Her I wouldn't want to teach." (3.49-65)

For all her math whizzery, Meg apparently lacks basic logic skills. ("Who wrote Boswell's Life of Johnson?" is basically the same question as "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" - you shouldn't need to know anything about Boswell, Johnson, or Grant to be able to answer.) Perhaps Meg's lopsided knowledge is in part due to a link between learning and affection – the things her beloved father teaches her stick, while the lessons from her hated teachers don't.

[Meg] "Do you think things always have an explanation?"

[Murry] "Yes. I believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we're not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist." (3.83-84)

This is the flip side to the first passage quoted above – not only can things exist without our understanding why they do, but just because we don't understand doesn't mean it doesn't make sense in a way we just don't get.

Meg sighed heavily, took off her glasses and twirled them, put them back on again. "Well, I know Charles Wallace is different, and I know he's something more. I guess I'll just have to accept it without understanding it." (3.101)

This sounds a lot like faith – taking something as true even if it doesn't make sense logically or if you don't have enough evidence to support it as fact.

For a brief, illuminating second Meg's face had the listening, probing expression that was so often seen on Charles's. "I see!" she cried. "I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can't possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!" (5.37)

This moment suggests that knowledge is independent of, and perhaps even hampered by, language – you can know something without necessarily being able to put it into words.

"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who's spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"

"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."

"Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?"

"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out, "and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!"

Now Calvin's voice rang with confidence. "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!"

"Now you, Meg," Mrs. Whatsit ordered.

"Oh, Euclid, I suppose." Meg was in such an agony of impatience that her voice grated irritably. "And Copernicus." (5.114-123)

This presents a small-c catholic view of wisdom – the list of those fighting against the darkness includes not only philosophers and scientists, but also artists and human rights activists. This passage suggests that writing a symphony or sonnet can bring as much good to humanity as a scientific or mathematical discovery.

"If we needed passports or papers Mrs. Whatsit would have told us so," Charles Wallace said.

Calvin put his hands on his hips and looked down at Charles Wallace. "Now look here, old sport. I love those three old girls just as much as you do, but I'm not sure they know everything."

"They know a lot more than we do."

"Granted. But you know Mrs. Whatsit talked about having been a star. I wouldn't think that being a star would give her much practice in knowing about people. When she tried to be a person she came pretty close to goofing it up. There was never anybody on land or sea like Mrs. Whatsit the way she got herself up."

"She was just having fun," Charles said. "If she'd wanted to look like you or Meg I'm sure she could have."

Calvin shook his head. "I'm not so sure. And these people seem to be people, if you know what I mean. They aren't like us, I grant you that, there's something very off-beat about them. But they're lots more like ordinary people than the ones on Uriel." (6.154-159)

The novel frequently reminds us of the limitations of human knowledge, and especially of Meg's knowledge, but this suggests that "higher" beings have different knowledge, rather than simply more knowledge, and that humans know a thing or two about a thing or two that a star just wouldn't think of.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident!" she shouted, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she' realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.

"But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike."

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"

"Good girl, Meg!" her father shouted at her.

But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. "In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else," but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.

Like and equal are two entirely different things.

For the moment she had escaped from the power of IT. (9.137-144)

Why does this particular revelation get Meg out of IT's power? Is it just because she has an independent thought, and holds on to it even though IT opposes her? Or is the content of the thought also a factor? Why would being able to tell the difference between "like" and "equal" be especially threatening to IT?

Meg could hear her father sigh. "Then it was my turn. I went. And here I am. A wiser and a humbler man. I'm sure I haven't been gone two years. Now that you've come I have some hope that I may be able to return in time. One thing I have to tell the others is that we know nothing." (10.38)

It's interesting that Mr. Murry links wisdom and humility. Rather than knowledge being a source of pride, here it's a recognition of one's own limitations and previous mistakes.

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