This week, in my continuing quest to bring you more and deeper thoughts about A Wrinkle In Time than you ever wanted to know, I want to discuss the Mrs Ws: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, but most especially Mrs Who. Mrs Whatsit has always been my inner guardian angel/fairy godmother/wise old (wo)man archetype, but I feel an odd kinship to Mrs Who. Maybe it’s the glasses. When I saw the special collectors’ edition Barbies they’ve made of the three movie Mrs Ws the other day, I thought, “Well, going to have to put one of those on my birthday wishlist—but $150 worth of collectable dolls is going overboard, I must narrow it down, but which one?” As soon as I saw that Mrs Who did, in fact, come with a pair of glasses? That settled it. You can get me Mrs Who for my birthday in March, if you’d like.
Anyway, there’s one little grammar annoyance I need to point out when discussing the Mrs Ws, because Grammarly is yelling at me as I type this. Madeleine L’Engle always insisted that the Mrs Ws didn’t use a period in their names. Actual published editions vary on whether or not the copyeditors enforced this or not (my Laurel-Leaf paperback has periods, my 50th Anniversary paperback does not). GeekMom articles vary on whether my editors bothered to add my seemingly missing periods or not, too. See, I have to admit I almost unconsciously agree with L’Engle on this one, and usually skip the periods without noticing. Periods, or “full stops,” to use a more telling term, are such grounding things. Grounded is one thing the Mrs Ws are definitely not.
Things the Mrs Ws definitely are are countless. “The complete, the true Mrs Whatsit, Meg realized, was beyond human understanding. What she saw [when she looked at Mrs Whatsit] was only a game Mrs Whatsit was playing… only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be” (p. 87).
The Mrs Ws are celestial beings. They did live, for some millennia, as actual stars, until they went supernova to drive back the Dark Thing. Now they’re more like angels, but not the pretty winged people you hang on a Christmas tree. We know that Mrs Whatsit, when away from Earth, can take the form of a magnificent winged centaur-like creature, but material form is not something the Mrs Ws are much attached to in general. Mrs Which, in fact, would prefer not to materialize at all unless it’s really necessary.
Mrs Who doesn’t have a problem taking physical form, but she does have a unique way of giving her thoughts form: she quotes. She has a quotation for every situation, often in more than one language. “She finds it so difficult to verbalize,” Mrs Whatsit explains on page 60. “It helps her if she can quote instead of working out words on her own.”
This kind of boggled my mind as a child who often had trouble verbalizing herself. How could Mrs Who so quickly remember all those quotes? All those words in all those languages! Wouldn’t it be easier just to… just to say it?
It was years later before I realized that I’ve done the same thing all along. It’s just that Mrs Who has immersed herself in Classical Literature, and of course Ancient Greek and Modern English are all the same to someone from a distant galaxy. I’ve immersed myself in children’s books and pop culture, in, for the most part, just one language, so I just have a different well of quotations to draw from. But when other people’s words attach themselves to a certain thought, it is easier to grab the whole sentence that’s already there waiting to be alluded to.
Most often, I quote song lyrics—or, more accurately, I sing—spontaneously and frequently enough that my daughter has tried to make rules against singing in the house just in effort to stop me. I’m not sure if it can always be considered quoting: for every time the Rolling Stones help me to remind the kids, “You can’t always get what you want,” twice as many non-sequiturs pop out by reflex when someone says merely a word or two. It’s downright dangerous to say “thank you” in this household ever since we saw Moana. And I regularly sing “A Bushel and a Peck” (from Guys and Dolls) at my kids, a habit I picked up from my grandmother, who sang the same to me.*
Second most commonly, I quote books, but unlike Mrs Who, who quotes centuries-old Classics (though yeah, I’ll spit out some Shakespeare or the Bible here and there myself), mostly I quote children’s books. After all, I’m a children’s librarian. I regularly read aloud, and often come back to the same favorite picture books. Their rhythms have woven deep into my brain. I can find a picture book reference in anything. I don’t get to read longer books over and over enough in adulthood to have as many of those on the tip of my tongue, but ones I read over and over when I was younger, like The Secret Garden or Alice in Wonderland or Anne of Green Gables—or managed to squeeze in multiple readings in adulthood before children, like Harry Potter—still come back to me at any opportune moment.
There are so many quotes from A Wrinkle In Time itself that ring through my head and often out my mouth. Some of my favorites are:
- “Have you ever tried to get to your feet with a sprained dignity?” (p. 25)
- “Speaking of ways, by the way…” (p.26)
- “I do face facts. They’re lots easier to face than people, I can tell you.” (p.31)
- “Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” (p. 47)
- “Oh for crying out loud. You’re Meg, aren’t you? Come on and let’s go for a walk.” (p. 49)
- “It doesn’t seem any more peculiar than anything else that’s happened.” (p. 60)
- “Meg, I give you your faults.” (p.94)
- “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!” (p. 146)
Then, of course, there are movie quotes, which includes TV quotes and early-21st-century-webseries quotes (I don’t think I’ve ever said “Good job!” since I started saying “Good jorb!”). Again, it’s only the things I’ve seen over and over, but it doesn’t have to be recent, either. I haven’t seen The Princess Bride or Monty Python in years, but the quotes still come constantly. They ingrained themselves deep, and so they come up at the slightest reminder.
But everyone does that, to some extent. How much of it is what everyone does, and how much is actually an aid to verbalization? Is this the reason geeks are more prone to quoting their favorite things than average (I did a search for “Quotes” on GeekMom, and yes, we are fond of collecting them, aren’t we?)? Because we tend to be neurodivergent to some extent in some way or another, and this makes communicating in general easier?
My brother, who is on the spectrum, spoke primarily in cartoon quotations as a small child, and he’ll still quote a favorite show that no one else has even heard of every once in awhile. Charles Wallace, as I discussed in this post about labels, also appears to have some kind of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, though that phrase wasn’t in use at the time the book was written. Though he doesn’t quote quite as much as Mrs Who (and was even annoyed by her quoting at times), he, too, had trouble verbalizing before developing his classic “little professor” speech patterns. But the book implies his neurodivergencies just make him more like the Celestial Beings who find verbalizing to be such a hassle. The next step in evolution, that.
There’s a repeating theme in A Wrinkle In Time—throughout L’Engle’s books in general, actually—that verbalization is a lesser form of communication. “She keeps thinking she can explain things in words,” Mrs Who says of her relatively “young” friend Mrs Whatsit on page 61, “‘Qui plus sait, plus se tait.’ French, you know. ‘The more a man knows, the less he talks’.” Calvin has a gift for communication, and yes, he’s good with words, but he backs it up with a slightly telepathic sixth sense, one the mostly-telepathic denizens of peaceful Ixchel tune into, and therefore find it easier to communicate with (p. 160). And speech-delayed Charles Wallace, of course, is flat-out telepathic.
A well-written phrase can contain meaning far beyond the sum of its parts. Maybe that’s why quoting appeals to those whose brains transcend society’s limitations—because it says more than mere words.
At least, that’s my current theory. What do you think?
*Long after her brain didn’t want to verbalize so easily anymore, either.