Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Duel Perspective": Madeleine L'Engle and Feminism

Welcome to Part Two of Little Wonder’s first “Duel” Perspective. The idea is that I debate with a guest book blogger on the subject of a particular book and/or author. I’m deeply indebted to Enbrethiliel (Cristina) from Shredded Cheddar for helping me develop the idea, and for participating in the opening debate.

Here you’ll find both my thoughts and Enbrethiliel’s as we duel on the subject of Children’s/YA author Madeleine L’Engle (best known for A Wrinkle in Time). This is a particularly great subject to be debating during Women's History Month!

If you’re interested in reading more of our opinions on L'Engle, check out part one of my “duel” with Enbrethiliel and my reviews of L’Engle’s individual novels, all in the L’Engle archive.

Little Wonder’s take: Having read four of the Time Quintet and only one of the Austin Family Chronicles, my perspective of L’Engle’s female characters is admittedly somewhat limited. (Confession: I couldn’t even finish An Acceptable Time, the fifth in the Time Quintet. I disliked it that much!) Because of my incomplete reading, I might be more dissatisfied with L’Engle’s feminist characters than I might otherwise. The overall impression that I have, though, is that she attempted to create some unusual, intelligent, empowered women – and ultimately failed.

The most obvious example is Meg, the main character in several of the Time Quintet novels. Meg is an awkward but intelligent young woman, scientifically and mathematically-minded and quite unskilled when it comes to English and History. Since these are the subjects that girls are “supposed to be” good at, her teachers all assume that she isn’t very bright and are “disappointed” with her academic performance. She’s falling behind in school and can’t seem to fit in with her peers, either – all of which made me love her initially. We feminists want to read about the science girls and the book nerds, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones who eventually break out of their shell and out of the bounds of traditional gender roles, becoming a doctor or winning the Nobel prize. We’re all cheering on the underdog… but Meg is a disappointment because she doesn’t ever come into her own. As I discuss in my review of a A Wind in the Door, I think Meg is and remains a weak and immature character, always wishing that someone else would come along and save the day. It would be fine if she started out as an intimidated young girl who was dependent on her father and her boyfriend, but Meg never seems to outgrow these qualities in any significant way.

Enbrethiliel’s take: Lauren is right that Meg starts out as a great character and then doesn’t fulfill her potential, but I disagree with her opinion that L’Engle ultimately failed to create unusual, intelligent, empowered women.

I have to admit that I have always been unnerved at how Meg drops more or less out of sight after A Wind in the Door, taking a backseat in the tour-de-force that was A Swiftly Tilting Planet and only reappears as a supporting character in all subsequent stories. What was L’Engle’s point in making us fall in love with such a tough, brainy, loving and misunderstood girl, only to stop telling her story after the girl grows up/after the girl grows into her looks? Practically every adult character sympathetic to the young Meg promise her—and the reader—that she will become a beauty someday, which indeed she does! And it is right after letting us know that Meg has finally bloomed that L’Engle unceremoniously drops her, abandoning her to the backdrop of her stories. Of course, L’Engle couldn’t just ignore or eliminate Meg entirely because she continued to write about the Murry-O’Keefe family. Instead, she includes just enough to let everyone know that our beloved Meg, who has traveled to distant galaxies, befriended subatomic particles, kythed through centuries of history, and whose IQ is off the charts to boot, ultimately decides . . . to marry very soon after college, to give up her own career to support her husband’s work, and to spend the rest of her life as a housewife and homeschooling mother. It’s quite the anti-climax!

In later novels, other characters become openly critical of Meg. In A House Like a Lotus, Meg’s daughter Polly finds a mentor in Maximiliana Horne, a talented, wise, and (most significantly!) successful artist. Max clearly disapproves of Meg's choice to give up “her own work” for the sake of her husband's, hinting that Meg might even want to divorce him one day because he has been so selfish. Later, in An Acceptable Time, Meg's own mother Dr. Murry, who has won a Nobel Prize for her research in microbiology, confides to Polly that Meg probably developed a complex from having been compared to her beautiful and intelligent mother all throughout her childhood. The implication is that Meg gave up her own scientific career to avoid the pressure of competing with her mother in that field as well; and she had seven children in order to raise three more than her mother had to handle. I believe the condescension these two characters feel toward Meg echoes L'Engle's own, which bewilders me a little, since it was she who invented this fate for Meg in the first place.

But L’Engle’s stories are full of other empowered women: Max Allaire and Mrs./Dr. Murry are just two examples. In the novel A Severed Wasp, one can see three other women whom L’Engle first wrote about as children: Katherine Forrester (from A Small Rain) Philippa Gregory (from And Both Were Young) and Suzy Austin (from Meet the Austins, etc.). Katherine is a world-renowned pianist; Philippa, a respected painter; and Suzy, a cardiologist. There is no reason Meg could not have been among their ranks. I would say L’Engle’s failure in Meg’s case has less to do with having tossed her into a “conventional” role than to her own inability to see why a woman as remarkable as Meg would happily choose it for her career.

Little Wonder’s take: Cristina definitely has the advantage over me in this particular duel, since she is a much more devoted fan of L’Engle and has read her complete works. As I admitted, I might be less dissatisfied with L’Engle’s feminist characters if I had read all of her novels. Even so, I disagree that Meg’s mother Mrs./Dr. Murry is a strong female character. Dr. Murry is a Nobel prize-winning scientist, and several of the novels include her friend Dr. Louise Colubra as well, who is a physician. These successful women could possibly be interpreted as the counter-point to Meg’s character. They are successful career women, and Dr. Murry still manages to be a fairly good mother as well; despite the fact that she cooks all her meals on a Bunsen burner, she puts delicious meals on the table and keeps her family both well-fed and content. That’s a pretty tricky balancing act, if you ask me.

But ultimately, Dr. Murry and Dr. Colubra are limited by the conventions of Children’s Literature – in order for the children and teenagers to be the heroes of the story, the adults must prove incapable of taking care of whatever situation or problem drives the conflict, even incompetent in some way. While the books never come right out and say that Dr. Murry is incompetent, the very fact that Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are the heroes of the novels implies that the adults (even these educated and empowered women) aren’t qualified to save the day from these particular, fantastic threats. In Children’s Literature, it always takes a child to defeat the forces of darkness – and while that’s very empowering for the young readers, it manages to squash the potential of the only intelligent, strong female characters that L’Engle has created in her Time Quintet.

I don’t know anything about the other characters that Cristina has mentioned, though – Max, Katherine, Philippa and Suzy sound like they have potential to be strong female characters from the way that she has described them. In order to have a complete understanding and opinion of L’Engle’s feminism, I would have to make time to read the rest of her novels. So for now, this duel seems to be a draw…


  1. I haven't read L'engle's work in such a long time, and I certainly didn't have an eye toward feminism when I did, so I cannot comment directly on the content of this particular argument.


    I want to tell you that I think this is a fabulously awesome idea! I love, Love, LOVE, the "duel" perspectives (and I love the pun!) and cannot wait to read more of them! Such a great idea- it brings to debate to a central, and therefor respectful, location! :)

    I will definitely be looking for the next one!

  2. Glad you're enjoying the "duel" :-)

    If you're interested, I'm looking for other dueling partners, even though Enbrethiliel and I are planning to continue our duels. I'm always looking to include more of the book blogging/reading community!

  3. Yeah, I would love to duel with you, but I don't know that we disagree on anything... at least, not that I've found so far :) Though if you think of something, I'm game!

  4. This is such a great post/duel! It's great to see blogging about YA lit that's not simply about how good (or, far more rarely, how not good) a book is; this post really made me think. Like Gina, it's been a long time since I read the Wrinkle series, but I remember loving--and being inspired by--Meg. Now, reading this, I actually think it's pretty cool that Meg didn't have to become a career woman to hold on to her individualism. I think sometimes, in the best novels, the characters actually outgrow their creator's judgements, and this may be the case with Meg Murray. Anyway, thanks for the great post.

  5. +JMJ+

    Lauren, you make an interesting point about Mrs. Murry. For an "empowered" woman, she is pretty "powerless" to deal with the problems her children and one granddaughter resolve in the Time Quartet. I haven't really looked into her characterisation until now, but I've been aware that L'Engle has been criticised (and psychoanalysed!) for Mr. Murry being such a weak, incapable father figure. But as you point out, that might just be adherence to the conventions of YA Adventure Lit.

    I'd point out that a wider issue is whether or not L'Engle is successful in portraying her child characters as grown ups later in their lives. I once found a review of A House Like a Lotus in which the reader moaned that she could not see the young Calvin O'Keefe in the middle aged father of Polly. I kind of agreed. =S Does she just write her young heroes off as soon as they become too old?


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