The Charles Wallace Moment

I’ve already posted about Wrinkle in Time, but I’ve been thinking about this passage lately.

She felt only anger toward this boy who was not Charles Wallace at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT.  . . .  With the last vestige of consciousness she jerked her mind and body. Hate was nothing that IT didn’t have. IT knew all about hate.

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

But she could love Charles Wallace.

She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace. Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace.

This moment had a profound impact on a friend of mine, and shaped her adult world view. And she is the kindest, most loving person I know. (Never  assume children’s literature is a trivial topic. It has the power to shape generations.)

Though it seems like a very simple and direct message, it has multiple layers, and this is what has been occupying my thoughts.

First and clearest is that we shouldn’t foster hate against evil-doers, because it will eat us alive. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves saying, like the guy in Falling Down, “You mean I’m . . . the bad guy?”

Closely related but saying something additional: We should extend to all people an attitude of love, or at least compassion — what is practiced in Buddhism as loving-kindness meditation (which is distinct from focused-attention meditation). Easier said than done, but it’s something worth striving for.

But this incident is not just about loving Charles Wallace, it’s about saving Charles Wallace. This leads to the the third and fourth messages, which swim just below the surface of our culture. Both messages are false, and both are swallowed along with the first two messages by too many young women: it is possible to save another person from being horrible, and, it is her job to do so.

It implies that evil is something overlaid on a basically good person, an external thing that has a grip on them, and if that grip can be broken they will be fine. There is the puppet Charles Wallace controlled by IT, and there is the “real” Charles Wallace underneath, if we can just get to him. THIS IS NOT HOW PEOPLE ACTUALLY WORK. I’m sorry, Meg Murray, but if Charles Wallace has taken to crouching in the basement reading men’s-rights forums, Charles Wallace is an asshole. You cannot save him by loving him. No matter how sweet he used to be, or could have been if his life had been different.

It is this dynamic that led advice columnist Captain Awkward to coin the term “Darth Vader Boyfriend.” The key here is not just that Darth Vader is awful, but how Luke reacts to him. Worth quoting at length:

“Luke, your dad is totally evil.”

“There’s good in him. I’ve felt it.”

“Luke, he blew up a planet just to make a point.”

“There’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”

“Luke, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he severed your hand.  From your arm. He cut it off.”

“Dueling to the death is just how we relate. You wouldn’t understand it. Now that we both have prosthetic robot limbs, it’s only brought us closer together.”

“Luke, he lured your friends into a trap so that he could murder them in front of you. We had to be rescued by Ewoks. It was embarrassing.”

“Yeah, that was pretty bad, I admit! But there’s good in him! I’ve felt it!”

And then Luke is risking his own life to carry Darth Vader out of the Death Star before it explodes so he can look upon that swollen purple face and experience one shining moment of real connection that would justify everything he’s invested in this completely dysfunctional relationship and he’s like “See? IT WAS ALL TOTALLY WORTH IT!”

Children’s literature has great power, and with great power comes great responsibility. Madeleine L’Engle did the world a disservice when she told us that love could not only defeat IT, but could save Charles Wallace as an individual. In reality, the only rescue that is possible has to be an inside job. He has to decide he wants to be a different person than that. (Spoiler: Most of them don’t.)

If you meet the grown-up Charles Wallace and he says he only acts this way because of IT (whatever IT is, fill in the blank), he is telling you he is an asshole. Believe him.

6 thoughts on “The Charles Wallace Moment

  1. Susie

    I slightly disagree with your analysis, although I agree with the bigger picture that you present. I think that LEngle was presenting one moment in the rescue trope and the fact that Charles Wallace is a child in the scene makes a big difference. It IS important to not give up on children who have come under the influence of evil ( violence in the home for example, or have been victims of sexual abuse & are now acting it out). Hate the behavior, not the child etc… Meg was right to try to rescue her brother instead of giving up on him after his first fall from grace. The fact that she was instantly rewarded provides the lesson on how one might succeed in these sort of difficulties.
    I agree that at some point the Charles Wallace/ victim merges with the evil to such an extent that he becomes it, chooses it and perpetrates it, and that we do need a story on how to let that go. We cannot rescue everyone. Not everyone wants to become ” Good.” We do need a model for setting boundaries and letting go of responsibility for other people’s bad choices, but that is not what that moment in a Wrinkle In Time was about. It was about not judging someone as hopelessly lost because of one mistake. It was about how to resist evil, and Meg needed to be successful in order to make the point.
    Maybe you should write the book about recognizing incorrigible evil and letting it go…. (Put it on another planet and I will read it).
    I just want to say I LOVE the anti spam code words for this Blog.

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    1. mlwilson

      I had no idea I had anti spam words! 😄

      You are very right that the fact that Charles Wallace is a child matters a lot. I struggle with this in real life. I know kids — kids! — that I think are assholes. (Bad me.) At what point on the pathway from angry toddler to horrible adult do we start holding people responsible for their own bad attitudes? It’s a dilemma.

      Also complicating things is how heavily metaphorical the whole set-up is. Charles Wallace didn’t just make one bad decision (like, say, slugging a friend or shoplifting). He is literally IN THE GRIP OF EVIL. Like, the kind of grip-of-evil that only really happens over a long process of hardening of habits of mind.

      So, both the quick succumbing and the quick rescue are unrealistic, but if you just consider the metaphor, I think L’Engle *is* asking us to believe we can change abusive people just by pouring more love into them.

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      1. Alexandra

        Love helps though right? I mean, you gotta try. I’d think it’d be a lot harder for someone to change for the better without love. Perhaps the balance is trying, but still knowing when something’s a lost cause, like the Darth Vader example?

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      2. Susie

        When I said “one mistake” and you said “literally in the grip of evil” we were speaking of the same thing. Charles Wallace made the mistake of trusting the evil process one time and Meg was able to pull him out with her love. How one might do that was the lesson of that moment. Now if, after that grand rescue, Charles Wallace was tempted again by It… If he remembered the feeling of union & submission with a nostalgia that pulled him back to It…. Then yes, setting boundaries and abandoning him is a healthy choice for Meg, but as you point out, a choice for which she will be judged and condemned. Meanwhile the real Charles Wallaces of the world who do not learn from the first rescue and allow themselves to be redrawn into evil (Toxic , abusive behavior, addiction, or white supremacy, for example) are to be pitied and their behavior is excused because the woman (their Mom, Girlfriend, Sister etc) was not strong enough, or too selfish to save them.
        I do not find it a fault of Wrinkle In Time that it does not make that point. Books are best with just one (or very few) themes & morals, and Wrinkle’s theme is that it is worth it to keep trying because LOVE prevails. It was a message of hope that we still need today, which is why the book is still beloved.
        I would like to add my own review in saying that, sadly, Wrinkle In Time is the WORST read-aloud book. It is one of my favorite books and thus I was so disappointed at how painfully un-read-aloud-ish it is.

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  2. Katherine

    I think it’s really important that Meg knew Charles Wallace BEFORE he fell into the grip of evil, unlike Luke, who only knew his hope for a father. I don’t think it’s a bad message to tell people not to give up on their previously strong relationships when that person is in a bad place. Those are the relationships that, if worse comes to worse, are worth sacrificing yourself for. If she had shown Meg doing the same for the random children she saw playing ball and skipping rope in street, I would agree with you. We can’t assume we can save everyone, and we shouldn’t encourage our children (who later grow into teens and adults), to sacrifice themselves trying.

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