Originally posted February 24 at 9:34 PM

This is a photo of Madeleine L’Engle, who Madeleine is named after. She is the author of A Wrinkle in Time, and The Small Rain, which is my favorite book. She was also an Episcopalian and writer-in-residence at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, which is the setting for my other favorite book, A Severed Wasp. She taught me that loving means being vulnerable. I wrote a lengthy essay about her my senior year in high school that is one of my proudest accomplishments. With my research I got to know her granddaughter, Lena Roy, who is also an author. I was able to meet Lena Roy at a writer’s workshop in Mobile, Alabama. Madeleine L’Engle taught me so many things through her writing, and I haven’t been able to read everything she has written because she was such a prolific writer.

The following writing comes from my Extended Essay, completed in 2008 or 2009. Lucia Harvilchuck was my mentor for this project. Of everything I have achieved academically, I am most proud of this work. I actually stole a letter of recommendation from Lucia Harvilchuck (sorry Mrs. H) and I read it when I am feeling down. I’ll let her introduce my essay:

I had the sometimes unnerving, but always powerful experience of traveling along with Anna’s linguistic mastery as she pressed her own verbal elasticity into the service of the intense literary scrutiny of the novels, The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L’Engle. Anna had read both works and loved both works before beginning the extended essay. She poured over the texts multiple times, scrutinizing the plots, the characters, the allusions, the shared image systems, the parallels, the persistent, artistically intended juxtapositions. She knew both books as well as other people know the addresses of their personal residences. So vast was her knowledge that the composing of a controlled, coherent, cohesive analysis of the works became, at times, agony. Her absorption and her frustration became fervent tests of my own temperance: how to simply let another one alone, let the person alone so that no trespassing of thought and original design occurs.

Remaining quiet and somewhat sidelined, I was able to behold and see the most beautiful response, process, the most competent outcome. Today, with such joy, Anna handed me her completed extended essay: crisp, direct in its thematic claim, completely controlled and well-crafted in its unfolding analysis of literary evidence. The works both treat, when taken together, the central human perplexity of love. The paper is written in prose akin to a professional writer in the middle of a long and fruitful career.

Lucia Harvilchuck February 25, 2009

An Analysis of the Nature of Love as Portrayed by Madeleine L’Engle in

The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp

Anna Hinesley


I began my research on L’Engle’s novels, The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp, by taking extensive notes and separating my notes into four categories: events, characters, literary devices, and themes.  This resulted in 25 pages of notes, mostly consisting of literary devices and themes. I then divided the devices and themes into subcategories like nightmare imagery, prison motif, temperature imagery, and from these specified notes I began to form my research question.  Using these literary devices, how does L’Engle portray the nature of love? The literary allusions, prison motif, temperature imagery, and character development best answer this question. L’Engle reveals that one must be content with the self in order to love others because otherwise one will seek for what one lacks in others, using another to fulfill something that is missing, instead of loving just for the sake of loving them.

I contacted Wheaton College, which has a special archives section dedicated to Madeleine L’Engle, and they emailed me several photocopies of different reviews by critics.  I also emailed Madeleine Roy, L’Engle’s eldest granddaughter, in order to learn more information about L’Engle’s life. This research for me enhanced my profound admiration for Madeleine L’Engle that had been established when I first read A Wrinkle in Time in middle school.  

The concept of love cannot be explained in a short dictionary definition, and so L’Engle describes the nature of love in two novels.  She gives countless examples, she describes characters at different stages in their development in life, and she allows the reader to learn what the nature of love is for them.  

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Progression 1
Chapter Two: Allusions of Love2
Chapter Three: A Prison of Fear4
Chapter Four: Temperature Imagery8
Chapter Five: Evolution of Character11
Chapter Six: Only to Care15

Chapter One: Progression of Love

In 1945, Madeleine L’Engle wrote her first novel, The Small Rain, which describes the life of Katherine Forrester from childhood, from adolescence, and then young adulthood.  Almost forty years later, L’Engle returned to the story of Katherine, now an elderly woman, in A Severed Wasp.  Through the detailed narrative of Katherine’s life, L’Engle reveals that one must be content with the self in order to love others because otherwise one will seek for what one lacks in others, using another to fulfill something that is missing, instead of loving just for the sake of loving them.  To substantiate this claim, L’Engle uses literary allusions, motifs, imagery, and character development. The titles of the novels, The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp, are both literary allusions.  Both works demonstrate a person’s inherent need to love another.  Even if this need is realized, people must allow themselves to love and be loved or else they will trap themselves into isolation.  L’Engle conveys this using a prison motif. As a person progresses from isolation to openness, L’Engle uses temperature imagery that transitions from cold to warm.  During this transition, they learn to become vulnerable enough to love others. There are several characters in A Severed Wasp that are in the different stages of their progression of love, and they are foils for Katherine Forrester because they reflect Katherine’s stages of growth in both The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp.   These allusions, motifs, image systems, and characters all help define what the nature of love is according to Madeleine L’Engle.  

Chapter Two: Allusions of Love

The titles of L’Engle’s first novel, The Small Rain, and its sequel, A Severed Wasp, are literary allusions to different works – the former an anonymous British poem written approximately in the sixteenth century (Lover 1), and the latter an essay by George Orwell. The works to which each title alludes contrast in the manner in which the subject of the piece seeks love.  Still, the narrator in the poem and the wasp in the essay both lack something, as do the characters in L’Engle’s novels. In juxtaposing the two literary pieces, L’Engle examines the shift in the consuming nature of love to a more wholesome, giving manner of loving.

Similar to the lover’s cry in the poem, “The Lover in Winter Plaineth for the Spring”, the characters in The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp long for some kind of love.  L’Engle views this yearning for love as a basic human need. The protagonist of both novels, Katherine Forrester, reads the poem and sobs “in a sudden outburst of agony,” though she cannot identify the source of her pain (Small 12).  The young girl recognizes the yearning that she and the narrator of the poem share. At the time that Katherine reads this poem, she craves the love of her mother. Katherine picks up the book after she sees that her stepmother, Manya, has been softly crying small tears.  Manya’s longing is more akin to that of the narrator of the poem – that of a lover. The passionate narrator of the poem exclaims, “Christ, if my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again!” which first would seem exclusive to the agonizing cry of one lover to another (Lover 3-4).  However, the narrator’s plea is familiar to all: the plea for the love of another – from friend, from husband, from mother, from lover.

In A Severed Wasp, another character finds George Orwell’s essay, “Notes On the Way,” and reads an excerpt to his company, which includes Katherine, now an elderly woman (Severed 59).  The speaker in Orwell’s essay remarks on an occasion when he cut a wasp in half while it was guzzling jam: “only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him” (Orwell 1).  The wasp symbolizes people’s own blindness to their flaws. People, like the wasp, shield these flaws, from others, as well as from themselves. According to L’Engle, one should acknowledge the brokenness, because “once we recognize that we’re broken, we have a chance to mend” (Severed 60).  If the brokenness remains unknown to the self, then no amount of love from another can satisfy the void.

Chapter Three: A Prison of Fear

According to L’Engle, all people have the intrinsic capacity to love, but often they are not able to express their love openly.  L’Engle explains the barrier that prevents a more open love using a prison motif. This prison exists because of one’s inability to become vulnerable enough to love.  The literary allusions of the titles of the two novels demonstrate this inherent need to love. Unless there is love for the self, this longing for love will stay unfulfilled, and the result is self-entrapment.

In The Small Rain, Katherine’s mother, Julie Forrester, lives in a figurative prison.  Julie, once a renowned classical pianist, is in a car accident that leaves her physically and emotionally damaged (Small 23).  Her prison is her weak body. She is unable to exist, or even love, at the same capacity as before the accident. To Julie, music is her means of loving herself and it is her gift of love to the world.  Before her accident, she is always “perfecting and improving [her] instrument so that if any higher power should want to speak through [her, she’d] be ready” (49). When she loses her gift, all that she wants to express is “locked in, and it’s battering against [her] every second” (50). She has been free to express all that has been inside of her, but Julie feels imprisoned, unable to communicate her emotions due to her inability to play the piano – or love another – in the same way.  She isolates herself, and her husband leaves her. In Julie’s shame and self-pity, she ostracizes her husband, Tom, by refusing his love: “You can only push people so far, or they’ll really go away,” she explains to Katherine (32). Julie cannot show Tom her love for him, even though Julie wants to love and need someone. Julie isolates those she loves because she will not free herself from the prison she creates out of fear. It is not that she does not care for her husband or her daughter, but she does not want others to see her imperfections.  Julie carries the burden of all her troubles by herself, and she pushes those who wish to help her, like Tom, far away. She compensates for her lack of physical strength by showing that she is competent enough to take care of herself.

After three years of separation from her mother, Katherine is reunited with Julie and she witnesses her mother’s steady composure.  Katherine grows up to be like her; she wants to be strong enough to never experience pain. However, L’Engle reiterates that “to love is to be vulnerable” (Severed 347).  L’Engle says again in A Severed Wasp that fear destroys love: “One cannot live in fear, retreating from life” (189). Understandably, a young girl like Katherine would fear any possible harm that comes with opening herself to another.  It is natural to fear something that could cause emotional pain. Hysterically, Katherine reveals her confusion and emotional turbulence. Her mother is dead, she has few friends at school, and she learns that she will have to leave her piano teacher when she leaves France for America.  “I’m all alone with my fear. I’m all alone and I’m afraid of being alone and I’m afraid of dying and I’m afraid of being afraid” (Small 250). L’Engle knows how difficult it is to overcome this fear, and that fear is a basic human reaction to anything unknown. L’Engle shows that everyone is afraid at some point in his or her life, even Katherine.  When one realizes that one is not alone in fear, that “it’s a part of the human condition,” the fear loosens its grip on the psyche (Severed 74). To love, one must free oneself from a prison of fear. Fear consumes the soul and “leave[s] only the shell” (Small 250). Fear is a natural emotion, but perpetual fear prevents a full life of love.

In contrast to Julie’s metaphorical prison in The Small Rain, newlyweds Katherine and Justin Vigneras live in a very concrete, physical prison for a short time in A Severed Wasp. During World War II, Katherine and Justin are imprisoned in a concentration camp in France. L’Engle shows that the inability to love begins with an individual’s willing to love him or herself.   The Nazis at Auschwitz perform experiments on Justin that keep him from ever playing the piano again and from ever having children. He is a victim of the Nazis’ hate, and the torture of this prison leaves him feeling worthless, not deserving love from anyone, especially Katherine, his wife (158).  Their greatest challenge in their marriage is that Justin thinks Katherine should leave him; he believes he does not warrant affection because of his mutilation. Katherine tells Justin “It’s you I love, because of all of you” (159). Justin tries to isolate himself, fearing that his wife will reject him after the Nazis have mutilated his body.  Katherine refuses to accept his isolation because of her overwhelming love for him. She loves his whole being, and her love does not decrease because a part of Justin has been damaged. He is not able to love her completely until he accepts himself as being worthy of love. Had Justin continued to reject himself, he would have become a hollow shell, unable to love another.  Justin and Katherine’s marriage begins to heal because they love each other, regardless of their shortcomings.

From great pain, Madeleine L’Engle asserts that there can come great works of love.  One overcomes crippling fear through acts of compassion and love. Julie nourishes her daughter’s talent, with the knowledge that Katherine will have the music that so comforts the soul (Small 54).  Katherine and Justin have a difficult marriage, but they too have their music. In Justin’s darkest moods, he composes some of the most beautiful pieces, created from both pain and love (Severed 135).  One critic refers to the richness of creativity derived from pain as wisdom (Mitchell). L’Engle connects “great personal and artistic triumph with great personal sorrow” (Mitchell). This sorrow only becomes wisdom as time passes, and the characters channel their pain into some constructive work, which brings solace to their broken soul.  Katherine and Justin create music, which is something they share as a couple, but also they share their gift with the world in the form of her performances and his compositions. Loving openly does not come easily to the couple at first, but making music binds them together and helps them create a more wholesome relationship. Their love – of music and each other – does not rid them of their pain, but it helps to free them from their prison of fear.  

Chapter Four: Temperature Imagery

While the prison motif explains that the restriction of love is self-imposed, Madeleine L’Engle shows the development of Katherine’s ability to love in her use of temperature imagery.  Katherine slowly transitions from a cold, closed girl in the beginning of The Small Rain, to a warm, open woman in A Severed Wasp.  L’Engle describes images with heat when there is a flood of emotion in a character.  The antithesis of this frantic desire for love, the heat, there is a state of coldness in which the character is detached from the love of another. When examining the hot versus cold emotions, it is clear that L’Engle believes that the warm, balanced emotions are the most beneficial in a loving relationship.

When Katherine is a young girl, her mother dies, and Katherine’s grief inhibits her ability to show affection (Small 56). Katherine goes through her mother’s things, and finds a locket that belonged to Julie.  The metal locket’s coldness is “somehow comforting against her flesh” (58). This cold metal locket symbolizes the detached façade that Katherine creates as a barrier to all of the pain in the world. Katherine carefully maintains a cold exterior that penetrates into her soul.  Katherine’s father, Tom, and stepmother, Manya, offer her comfort and love, but she rejects their offerings, especially their pity. Katherine cannot accept the “warm blanket of love and tenderness and pity they were constantly throwing over her, in this heat, when all she wanted was coldness” (Small 68).  Still, Katherine yearns for love, but only from the one who can no longer give it, her mother. Tom and Manya’s insistent warmth reminds Katherine of her loss, so Katherine retreats into her unfeeling coldness. In a beautiful image that represents Katherine’s despair, she cries out in agony at the sun, in “anger at the sun’s having set already” (69).  Her mother’s death, like the sunset, leaves Katherine cold and alone.

As Katherine learns to love and trust others, she experiences warmth within herself. As L’Engle extends the temperature metaphor into the sequel, the elderly Katherine remarks, “thawing hurts” (Severed 119). Katherine is vulnerable when she loves, and if that love is rejected or ended, like in her mother’s death, Katherine retreats into coldness.  Katherine learns to love when she learns that love, even though it leaves her vulnerable, has great rewards for the self. Eventually, Katherine allows her father and Manya into her heart again: “Something warm spread all through her; it wasn’t until Manya had sung several songs that she realized this warm feeling was love” (Small 89). This realization marks the time when Katherine is finally ready to love again, albeit love with trepidation.  Katherine’s first romantic love, Pete Burns, comforts her in a way that reminds her of her mother’s love: “He was like warming your hands in front of a fire in winter” (263). Katherine craves Pete’s affection like a child, in adoration of her caretaker. Katherine desperately needs love and dives into the relationship with the same kind of passion as the lover in the poem about the small rain. Katherine sabotages the relationship because she does not return his love with the same enthusiasm.  Pete tells Katherine, “I know that your music means more to you than I do. It’ll always mean more to you than anything in the world” (278). Like the wasp in the Orwell essay, she is so engulfed in her own desire for love that she can see neither her own brokenness nor the fragility of the relationship.

L’Engle develops a pattern with the temperature motif where Katherine’s love shifts from cold to warm, changing as the seasons.  She loves, she is harmed, and then retreats into isolation, as a “frozen child” (122). Katherine desires affection, but she does not reciprocate easily.  She cannot allow herself to be vulnerable or risk that her love might be rejected. Justin notices the coldness in her demeanor and her playing. As her piano instructor, Justin sees that Katherine’s fear keeps her from progressing in her music.  He praises her technique but tells her, “you appear afraid to let anything come through … There’s deep emotion in you … though you certainly don’t show it. Not even in your playing” (Severed 120). Justin’s critique catalyzes the release of Katherine’s raw emotion.  Not only does Katherine recognize her need for love, she begins to openly display affection. Her music and her heart radiate the warmth of love.

Katherine, the “warm, wise, mature wonderful” woman, as Justin describes her when they are married, lives a fuller live in love (Severed 170).  Life is not easy and simple, the way a child would expect. Katherine and Justin go through hell together, but they survive: “A marriage is something that has to be worked at, and too many people give up just at the point where their love could begin to grow” (156).  Their son, Michou, dies in an awful accident at a carnival, and fire consumes his body. This memory haunts Katherine, but it does not destroy their marriage (301). Katherine accepts the warm love of her stepmother, in a way she could not after Julie’s death. Justin and Katherine see their brokenness and they still continue to love each other.  There are only options L’Engle offers in tragic circumstances like these: “a firmer bonding, or breaking apart entirely (303). The tragedy does not defeat the couple. Instead, their marriage strengthens. If Katherine had never learned to love, she would have been like the wasp, unaware of its severed body until it feels the numbness of death.

Chapter Four: Evolution of Character

Katherine Forrester has aged a few decades in A Severed Wasp, and she reflects on her past experiences that occur in The Small Rain and during the time between the two novels.  The Small Rain is a coming-of-age novel because L’Engle portrays all of Katherine’s childhood development from around age ten to eighteen.  L’Engle fills the second novel with characters in different stages of their lives, and in A Severed Wasp, Katherine, a woman who has surely “come-of-age,” is juxtaposed to these characters in their abilities to love themselves and others.  These characters show the shift from the desperate need for love to the giving nature of love as they each learn how to love in the novel.

The female characters in A Severed Wasp serve as foils for Katherine Forrester, and L’Engle portrays Katherine’s development in relation to these women.  A major critique of L’Engle’s work is the incredible coincidental nature of Katherine’s relationships (Osborn). However, it is not that there are so many people with the same kind of problems as Katherine, but Katherine clearly identifies with those who struggle to love:  “The sheer volume of intimate revelations” is understandable, because wise, non-judgmental persons are rare, and people flock to Katherine, because they sense she will listen to her (Mitchell). The complicated relationships in the novel show the complexity of life. Each person reveals a microcosm of Katherine’s character in the way that she reacts to his or her actions and reflects on her own experiences.

Katherine meets Emily Davidson, a young girl, and sees a girl frozen in fear, but with the same determination to succeed that Katherine possesses.  There are similar tragic events in Emily and Katherine’s childhoods, and they share the same stubborn nature, rejecting any pity from others or the self (77). Katherine recognizes the “carefully expressionless face” that hides Emily’s pain (Severed 119).  Katherine knows that Emily will eventually thaw as Katherine does, and that the process will be painful, but will allow her to love. Luckily, Emily has a passion for music, especially composition, that Katherine knows will aid in “knitting up her raveled spirit” (120).  The young girl is a foil to the mature, elderly Katherine who becomes her mentor and piano teacher (246). Emily highlights Katherine’s progression from childish, volatile love, to the more mature, requiting love that Katherine openly gives. However, L’Engle does not portray Katherine as an omniscient sage.  Even in her seventies, Katherine has moments of fear, “as lonely and frightened as a child, and with as little reason,” but Katherine has matured and learned enough to not allow the fear to incarcerate her again into a self-imposed prison (44).

Again, L’Engle provides a character that reminds Katherine of her younger self and causes her to reflect on more painful memories. One of Katherine’s tenants, Dorcas Gibson, is older than Emily but just as naïve in her views of love.  At there first meeting, Katherine offers comforting words to the young pregnant wife, and Dorcas accepts her advice with reverence, as if she is drowning and Katherine provides her air. Katherine proceeds with caution in her new friendship to prevent Dorcas’s codependence, because “adoration turns one into an idol, and when the one who idolizes discovers flesh and blood instead of marble perfection, there is apt to be trouble, if not disaster” (Severed 84).  Dorcas continues to run to Katherine for aid as the marital problems continue. Katherine offers a listening ear, and appropriate support, but never a solution to her problems.

Though Katherine appears harsh in relation to Dorcas, L’Engle reveals just how destructive adulation can be.  Katherine precludes Dorcas from idolizing her because Dorcas longs for a savior. Her problems evoke the memories of Katherine and Justin’s broken marriage. Cardinal Von Stromberg, or Wolfi, who is a fellow music lover the couple meet, mediates between them, and heals their marriage with his loving words and encouragement.  Katherine feels “swiftly secure” in their friendship, sure of Wolfi’s ability to heal her brokenness (164). Unfortunately, Katherine forgets that Wolfi might be broken himself. She does not believe any gossip she hears about him, because she does not want her saintly image of him to be tainted (169). The final time she goes to Wolfi for help, his solution horrifies her (201):  “There were no answers anywhere,” writes L’Engle, describing Katherine’s frantic confusion as the image that she has of her beloved friend crumbles (202). Katherine never idolizes another person after this, nor does she encourage another to adore her in the same unhealthy way. Learning the destructive nature of adoration is a piece of the “great deal of painful experience” that adds to Katherine’s wisdom (239).  Katherine dreams of Wolfi and Dorcas, who “gaspingly thanked him for saving her life” (266). Katherine wants to be able to save Dorcas in the same way Wolfi wants to save Katherine. No human being is strong enough to save another. One can help and offer support and love, but to promise to save another is dangerous, as this is a promise likely to be broken. This kind of inner turmoil can ultimately only be calmed by the individual.   

As a writer, Madeleine L’Engle experienced “being both the adored and the adoree” (Roy).  L’Engle shares her own wisdom with the reader with the characters of Dorcas and Katherine.  Adulation is not real love, or at least not a kind of love that can last. The one who idolizes has inordinate expectations of their idol, which results in a sense of failure for both people.

Katherine tells Dorcas, It has to be all over before you’re free to move on to the next stage” (155).   This is an overlying theme for the entire novel. People can recover from their brokenness if they admit that they are broken, and move forward in life with love.  The purpose of life is not to achieve wholeness, or perfection. Perfection is impossible in the eyes of a human, even if they are blind to their own flaws. To love another, one must accept that everyone has flaws, including the self. It’s “a hell of a world we live in,” a broken world that is held together only by love (91).  

Chapter Five: Love According to L’Engle

Learning to love begins within the core of the self.   L’Engle writes of Katherine Forrester’s progression to the warm, content, and loving individual that she is in A Severed Wasp.  L’Engle’s message is universal: everyone needs love, but this love must originate with one’s self.  The need for love remains unfulfilled when people stop grasp from other people for what they need, like the severed wasp guzzling the jam.  Until the brokenness of the self is realized, they will remain in a figurative prison of their self-imposed isolation. As much of the two novels, The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp, focuses on Katherine’s relationships with others, it would seem that L’Engle considers relationships and connections with others to be the most important parts of life.  As it is a central part of the novel, loving unselfishly, without expecting anything from another, is the highest, purest form of loving. L’Engle presents two novels rich with characters who struggle to love just as Katherine has struggled to grow in love.  L’Engle does not claim that there is a perfect way to love, but that the act of loving, itself, is enough.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “The Lover in Winter Plaineth for the Spring.” The Oxford Book of English Verse. (1919). 13 Aug. 2008


L’Engle, Madeleine. A Severed Wasp.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  The Small Rain.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

Mitchell, Judith. “Severed Wasp: the alchemy between pain and wisdom.” The Providence Journal. [Providence, RI] 13 Feb. 1983

Orwell, George. “Notes on the Way.” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell.  (1968).  14 Aug. 2008


Osborn, Susan.  “L’Engle’s novel of grace stumbles over contrivation.”  Chicago Sunday Sun-Times. 23 Jan. 1983: R6.

Roy, Madeleine.  “Re: Madeleine L’Engle.” Email to the author.  14 July 2008

Works Consulted – Not Cited

Dale, Alzina.  “Novelist’s Picture.”  The Living Church.  27 March, 1983: 12.

Wardlaw, Beth. “A Severed Wasp.”  Wilson College Alumnae Quaterly. Winter 1984

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