Illuminating the Darkness: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Moment of Tenderness

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In A Ring of Endless Light, one of Madeleine L’Engle’s many novels for children, there’s a quote I return to time and again. While grieving the death of a family member, the novel’s young protagonist surmises that “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” This statement is great first of all because I believe it to be true, but also because it poignantly describes a common theme within L’Engle’s body of work. The beloved author, most well-known for A Wrinkle in Time, refused to sugarcoat the reality of a difficult world in any of her books for children. Instead, she faced matters like death and destruction head-on, believing that doing so would respect and honor her younger audiences. I imagine this dynamic helped, and continues to help, her readers identify and be thankful for the good things—”the light”—in their lives, too.

Her most recent published work, a posthumous collection of short stories titled The Moment of Tenderness, holds this same ideal. Curated by one of her granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, these short stories for adults explore the world’s darkness. Written during L’Engle’s earlier experimental writing years, primarily her time in college, these eighteen stories cover a broad range of fictional genres, and yet each bears a dismal streak of some kind. One story is about a girl at summer camp who is influenced by her cruel peers to join in their tyranny of their kind but homely counselor. Another follows a middle-aged man refusing to deal with the physical and mental decline of his parents. Another is a horror story with a gruesome twist. Some of these characters get happier endings; most do not. But, because of their struggles, many of them seem to be moving towards personal growth, albeit indirectly at times. As one of the characters in “Summer Camp” says, “‘It’s good to have something to cry about sometimes. That’s how you grow.’” So, while this book of short stories strays from her typical genres and forms (primarily novels and books of nonfiction), it still feels very L’Engle: illuminating in the face of tenebrosity.

Fans of L’Engle’s work will adore this collection for several reasons. For one, it shows the upward trajectory of her skill as a writer. In an interview, Voiklis explains that she strategically ordered the eighteen stories to show her grandmother’s artistic growth. Yet it is fascinating and worthwhile to read all of them, even the first few that are her earliest. The Moment of Tenderness will also be of interest for L’Engle-lovers because of its occasional overlap with the author’s personal life. In “Gilberte Must Play Bach,” the mother must play the piano in order to work through her negative emotions, which L’Engle herself was prone to doing. As she said herself in an interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck… in life or in what I’m writing.” This dynamic recurs in many of her novels, where various characters either listen to classical music or play it on the piano as a way to relax or to problem-solve. And, some of the stories in The Moment of Tenderness lay the groundwork for her later books: there are similarities between the plots of “One Day in Spring” and her novel The Joys of Love; “The Foreigners” is referenced in her memoir A Circle of Quiet; and “A Sign for a Sparrow” is clearly an early prototype for her much-adored A Wrinkle in Time.

I would argue, however, that The Moment of Tenderness is also of interest to those beyond the L’Engle fanbase. The stories are not perfect, craft-wise, because they were unpublished manuscripts—and thus unfinished ones—which her family found cloistered away in her old office. Voiklis explains in an interview that since her grandmother is no longer living, she and the editor felt it would be unwise to change much. Instead, they made only a few minimal touch-ups to retain the stories’ authenticity. Still, the stories reveal that even in her youth, L’Engle was a master. Her prose is brilliant—straightforward, emotive, and lovely to the ear when read aloud. Consider the last sentence of “The Foreigners”: “But where, after we have made the great decision to leave the security of childhood and move on into the vastness of maturity, does anybody ever feel completely at home?” It ends the story with a simple but thoughtful tone, allowing readers to consider the comfort—or the lack thereof—to be found in their own adult lives.

Another passage that shows off young L’Engle’s skillful prose comes at the end of the titular story “The Moment of Tenderness.” The protagonist is observing a star: “Over the garage… she saw a star, quite small, but quietly brilliant. She looked at it for a long time, memorizing its place in the sky, almost as she might have, in the spring, planted a flower in a special place in the garden.” These lines contain beautiful turns of phrase, as well as a play on words: “quite small” and “quietly brilliant.” (I’ll also add that stars recur in much of L’Engle’s later work, particularly in her two largest fiction collections—the Austin Family Chronicles and the Time Quintet, due to her interest in science and all things celestial. Again, fans will enjoy this collection.)

In these short stories, as well as in her other works, L’Engle’s characters come first. What they do is primarily relevant in that it sheds light on who they are, and on who they’re becoming. Just take A Wrinkle in Time, for instance: I would argue that the book is more about the character growth of the child protagonists, and in particular Meg Murray’s acceptance of herself, than it is about the children’s journey to Camazotz to save their father. The same goes for many of the stories in The Moment of Tenderness; its plots are a framework for the people within them to both shine and shift.

A more precise way, then, to explain the scope within The Moment of Tenderness is to say that in examining so many different characters, it covers a lot of human-psyche terrain. In “The Birthday,” a coming-of-age story, an egocentric little girl named Cecily finds out on her birthday that her mother is seriously ill. L’Engle makes the wonderful stylistic choice to continually repeat a variation of a line that Cecily tells herself—that “she was Cecily Carey… bought from a balloon man and guaranteed absolutely.” The last variant of this mantra is especially shrewd, both on the level of prose and on what it says about Cecily’s personal growth: “For she was Cecily Carey, bought from the balloon man and guaranteed absolutely, and she had just had a birthday, and in the rooms across the court people thought when they went to bed and they didn’t know about her.” This final iteration of her mantra begins with Cecily’s self-centric statement but ends with her finally verbalizing the fact that the world does not revolve around her existence. Then, in a subtle denouement to the story and final testament to her character development, Cecily gets out of bed to find her own glass of water rather than yelling for her father to fetch it for her.

In “The Moment of Tenderness,” a married woman named Stella harbors amorous feelings for a married man named Steve. Steve, who is a kind and skillful but perhaps not brilliant doctor, is described by Stella as being “like… one of the old stable horses that are saved for the children or for people who have never ridden before: easy, pleasant, and completely unexciting.” Later, when Stella muses about why she’s so attracted to someone who reminds her of “a tired old stable horse,” she realizes it’s in his gentle way of behaving, both as a doctor and simply as a human being—she’s attracted to his “moments of tenderness.” Here, and throughout these stories, L’Engle writes with an astute awareness of the complicated and, at times, convoluted nature of human affection. Although many of the characters make morally questionable choices, their fallibility, and L’Engle’s deft and generous portrayals, make them understandable.

The final story in the collection, “A Sign for a Sparrow,” is especially noteworthy. Voiklis explains in the aforementioned interview that it was placed last because its hopefulness shines a little brighter than some of the other stories. The story follows a young man and new father who must leave his infant and wife behind on post-apocalyptic Earth while he finds another habitable planet for humanity. In a presentiment of dread, this husband and father comforts himself in thinking that his “trip through the uncharted seas of space would not be dissimilar to that of the old ships alone in the unknown enormity of ocean.” As he journeys and then lands on a foreign planet, he grapples with his faith and the age-old collision of science and Christianity, which becomes a recurring theme in L’Engle’s later work. At the story’s climactic end, these questions of belief are resolved, and the darkness that has pervaded the story—and for the book’s reader, all of The Moment of Tenderness’s stories—is finally balanced by an instant of light.

Ultimately, these stories—especially “A Sign for a Sparrow”—deal with seeking out hope in a hopeless moment, and so this collection couldn’t have come at a better time than April of 2020, after our hopes of a short-lived pandemic had been dashed. For anyone looking for some truth and tenderness amidst a still-trying time, look no further. In L’Engle’s own words from her memoir Walking on Water, “We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.” L’Engle wrote those lines much later in her writing career, but the narratives in The Moment of Tenderness do just that.

Emma Boggs is an MFA fiction candidate at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she serves as the editorial assistant to The Greensboro Review. Her work has been published in The Peacock’s Feet. She tweets at @emmaboggswrites. More from this author →