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  • The Grand Inquisitor for Children:Rejecting Sadism and Masochism in A Wrinkle in Time
  • Julie Straight (bio)

[I]magine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature … and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.

(Dostoevsky 245)

In this passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov is pushing his brother Alyosha, a novice at a monastery, to speak to a perennial problem in the Christian tradition: why is there suffering in a world created and governed by a good deity? Ivan sharpens the question by detailing cases of cruelty to small children. He then continues with the famous chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor," his monologue of the man who seeks to relieve suffering by relieving humanity of moral freedom, responsibility, and conscience.

Questions about human suffering sound throughout the works of Madeleine L'Engle as well, from her earliest fiction to her last essays. Like Dostoevsky, she explores the possibility that suffering may be inevitable if human beings are free to act as they will; like Dostoevsky, she also questions whether that freedom is worth it:

Why would God give the gift of freedom to creatures who are not ready for it, who have kept making wrong choices for thousands and thousands of years—ever since Eve listened to the snake? Freedom is a mistake, we might well agree with the Grand Inquisitor, as we drive through the slums of any of our great cities …

(Walking 104)

And yet, she also asks, "Do I want to adore a God who allows me no free will, and therefore no potential for either evil or good? Do I want a cosmic dictator, ruling a closed, finished cosmos?" (Irrational 32). As Donald R. Hettinga and Naomi Wood have noted, L'Engle celebrates human freedom [End Page 37] and the significance of human choices, however small (Hettinga 31 and 150; Wood 141), and as L'Engle explains in multiple essays and interviews, questions of human freedom, human suffering, and divine love were very much on her mind as she wrote A Wrinkle in Time.1 Yet, although critics have recognized theological content in Wrinkle and its sequels,2 they have generally said little about L'Engle's engagement with questions of human suffering, whether in this book or in her corpus as a whole.

That engagement might not immediately jump out at the reader in Wrinkle, as it is less direct than Dostoevsky's in The Brothers Karamazov or L'Engle's own in her other novels, such as The Moon by Night. In A Wrinkle in Time, a scientist, Mr. Murry, has disappeared. His teenage daughter, Meg; her telepathic and extraordinarily intelligent five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace; and their new teenage friend, Calvin O'Keefe, meet three supernatural beings—Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which3—who take them to a paradise-like planet, Uriel. There a character named the Happy Medium shows them what they are up against: Evil, visible first as a "Dark Thing" in the sky, then as a shadow enveloping their own planet Earth. Mrs Whatsit notes that some of the best fighters against the shadow have come from Earth; Charles Wallace names Jesus at the head of the list, and Meg and Calvin add others, including Michelangelo, Gandhi, Buddha, and Copernicus. Now, however, they must go to a planet that has given into the Dark Thing, Camazotz. There they find Mr. Murry imprisoned by IT, an evil disembodied brain that controls the minds of everyone on the planet. Mr. Murry escapes with Meg and Calvin to a hospitable planet, Ixchel, but Charles Wallace remains on Camazotz, his mind caught by IT. After a council on Ixchel, Meg returns to rescue Charles Wallace, finding she can do so by the one thing she has that IT does not: Love. Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which then transport the protagonists back to...


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pp. 37-55
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