The novel begins on a “dark and stormy night” with Meg Murry sitting in her attic bedroom contemplating the events of the day. She is feeling sore because she was dropped to the lowest section in her grade, teased by other girls in her class, and drawn into a fight when another boy made disparaging remarks about her youngest brother. As she sits in the attic she can’t help but think about her missing Father and the “smugly vicious gossip” that surrounds his disappearance. She looks at herself in the mirror, takes in her glasses and braces on her teeth, and feels very alone on the stormy night of the hurricane.
Downstairs, she hears her dog, Fortinbras, barking and worries that its the “tramp” she had heard about that has been roaming the town, stealing from the townspeople. She wanders around the house, suffers a bruise from bumping into a ping-pong table, visits her sleeping twin brothers, Dennys and Sandy, before finding her youngest brother, Charles Wallace sitting at the kitchen table drinking milk and eating jam and bread. Charles Wallace tells her that he had been expecting her and Meg wonders how he could “always know about her” and how he could probe her and her mother’s mind with “frightening accuracy.”
Meg relates how many people assume that Charles Wallace was dumb, or slow, because he hadn’t started speaking until he was four years old. Meg’s father had told her that both she and Charles Wallace were special, and that their development would proceed at a different pace than others. When Charles Wallace did begin to speak, he used full sentences and had a very extensive vocabulary. Their mother joins the two children in the kitchen and Charles Wallace makes some cocoa and sandwiches for them.
Mrs. Murry, who Meg describes as “a scientist and a beauty,” looks at her bruised face from the fight and Meg tells her about how badly she’d hurt the boy she got in a fight with. Meg complains that “people” always “think it’s my fault” and that she was “full of bad feelings.” She wishes she could be more like her normal twin brothers and not such an “oddball” or so “repulsive-looking.”
Charles Wallace tries to make her feel better and tells her that he is going to talk to Mrs. Whatsit about her. He tells his mother and sister that she lives in an old house in the woods that the kids won’t go near because they think it’s haunted. As the wind shakes the house, Fortinbras stands up and starts growling at the door to Mrs. Murry’s laboratory. Meg is sure it’s the “tramp,” but when Mrs. Murry checks who the intruder is, she returns with Mrs. Whatsit dressed in “several scarves of assorted colors” and “a man’s felt hat” on her head.
Mrs. Whatsit tells the family that she had gotten “blown off course” and decided to stop by and rest before proceeding. She says she knew it was Charles Wallace’s house “by the smell.” While fixing Mrs. Whatsit a sandwich, Meg contemplates that Mrs. Whatsit is probably the tramp and that she isn’t somebody Charles Wallace ought to be friends with.
Abruptly, Charles Wallace asks Mrs. Whatsit why she took the sheets (the crime the tramp had been charged with) and she tells it was because she “needed them” and that she’s “used them” so they can’t be returned. Meg thinks to herself that Mrs. Whatsit is no good, and Mrs. Whatsit then tells Charles Wallace to tell his sister that “I’m all right” and that her “intentions are good.” When Mrs. Whatsit asks for help getting her boots off, Mrs. Murry helps but they all take a tumble during the effort and water spills all over the floor. Mrs. Whatsit, not physically hurt, says that she has nonetheless sprained her dignity.
After finishing her sandwich, Mrs. Whatsit gets up to leave. While she is putting on her boots she looks at Mrs. Murry and tells here that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Mrs. Murry is shocked, since she hadn't said anything. To herself, Mrs. Murry wonders, “How could she have known?”
The first chapter of L'Engle's book introduces us to the main characters of the novel and sets up the principal conflicts that each must surmount int he course of their respective journeys. For Meg, no doubt the main character, her conflict involves rising above her seemingly low self-esteem to embrace her own idiosyncrasy and unique abilities. Here we see all the hints of foreshadowing that will unite to incite her towards adventure and discovery - her melancholy feelings at lacking a father, her separation from other students her age, and a feeling of being unsettled in the real world.
Meg certainly wishes she could be more like her younger twin brothers, who are both described as B students, athletic, and clearly part of the crowd at school that easily fits in.
The contrast between Meg's feelings of inferiority and her brothers' successful ability to conform will ultimately pose a key theme of the novel. According to L'Engle, conformity inevitably destroys the fabric of a society - and thus Meg comes to stand as a last remnant of individualism, initially weakened but ultimately emboldened.
The setting of the first chapter also offers meaning. L’Engle contrasts the brightness, warmth, and comfort of the Murry house with the storm that is raging outside. L’Engle will often contrast bright and warmth with cold and dark, implying that the Murrys' environment represents goodness and positive energy while the outside world suggests danger, evil, and hostility.
Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit are also characters that will further develop as the novel evolves, but for now L’Engle uses these characters to contrast the ability to flourish in one’s own environment against the constricting nature of conformity. Though Charles Wallace is considered strange, the reader can see that within the walls of the Murry household, he wields special gifts and intelligence. Though Meg herself feels left out, it is this freedom to develop that will soon become a crucial asset to her and her brother on their adventures.