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A Wrinkle in Time is a joyous celebration of its heroine’s anger

Meg Murry is not a nice girl. That’s what makes her a great children’s heroine.

Storm Reid as Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time Atsushi Nishijima - © 2017 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Halfway through A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle — whose 100th birthday is today — teenage Meg Murry finds herself on the dangerous alien planet of Camazotz. She fears for her life.

To protect her, the witch-cum-guardian-angel Mrs. Whatsit offers Meg a gift:

“Meg, I give you your faults.”

“My faults!” Meg cried.

“Your faults.”

“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Whatsit. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.”

Meg’s faults do indeed come in handy on Camazotz: They save her life, and ultimately, they allow her to save the world.

A Wrinkle in Time is one of the great classics of children’s literature, a joyous science fictional rhapsody to the strength of free will and the power of love. And fault-ridden Meg Murry — spiky, unlikable Meg Murry, who feels like a monster in her glasses and braces — is what makes the whole thing work so well.

The things that make Meg unlikable are the same things that make her a formidable opponent

Meg’s faults are not a mystery. She is not a nice girl. Instead, she is angry and resentful and stubborn, prone to shouting and fistfights and flights of self-pity. In Wrinkle’s opening pages, people are forever telling Meg to fix her faults.

“You don’t have to take everything so personally,” says her pathologically normal brother Sandy. “Use a happy medium, for heaven’s sake.”

“Don’t you realize that you just make everything harder for yourself by your attitude?” says her principal Mr. Jenkins.

“I’m full of bad feeling,” Meg sighs to herself.

Meg has every reason to be full of bad feeling. Her father has been missing for years on a secret mission, and no one seems to have any idea where he is. Her small-minded neighbors and classmates snicker behind her back about how her father has undoubtedly left her mother and how her preternaturally wise baby brother Charles Wallace is clearly a moron.

She feels plain and friendless. Her teachers won’t let her think through math the way that she likes to do it, trying to force her into going “the long way around” in her work, and when Meg has trouble approaching math in this new way, they decide she is stupid.

Meg’s faults, in other words, are a response to a world that tries to push her into conformity. The world is an unjust place that viciously punishes any sort of difference, and Meg feels its unjustness with the full force of adolescence. She is angry not just because she is an angry person, but because she is constantly fighting to be herself in a world that does not like her.

And she has no ability to hide herself, like her love interest Calvin O’Keefe does. Calvin too is secretly smart and sensitive, and unlike Meg he lacks a supportive mother — but Calvin can pretend to be an all-American high schooler. He is good at basketball and good at talking to people, and all his classmates like him.

Meg has no such abilities, and so she lashes out. She ignores her schoolwork, is rude to her teachers, and tackles anyone she hears say anything mean about Charles Wallace. She interprets everything through the lens of her self-pity: When she bumps into furniture in the dark, she wails out loud, “Why must everything happen to me?”

But when she lands on Camazotz, Meg’s practice at fighting against conformity turns out to be exactly what she needs. Because the insidious thing about Camazotz is that it forces everyone to be exactly like everyone else, so that everyone thinks and acts and behaves just as the evil giant brain IT wants them to. But Meg, who never behaves the way anyone wants her to, certainly isn’t about to start now.

It is all the things about Meg that are most unlikable, that our culture teaches girls to reject — her anger, her prickliness, her inability to perform social pleasantness — that make her a formidable opponent to IT, ultimately able to defeat IT where her beloved father failed. It’s astonishing to read about Meg as a small girl, to slowly come to the conclusion that perhaps it is possible, and even valuable, to be something other than nice and accommodating. And, not for nothing, it makes it all the more exciting that in the 2018 movie adaptation Meg is black, played by Storm Reid, because black women’s anger is policed even more fiercely and more stringently than the anger of white women.

“Differences create problems,” says IT. “You’ve seen at home how true it is. You know that’s the reason you’re not happy at school. Because you’re different.”

“Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg responds, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”

The magic of Meg Murry’s faults is that they make it possible for readers to not want to be like everybody else, either.

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