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The Book Club

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife

1. A different form of time-travelling. Traditional science fiction texts revolving around time-travelling place tremendous emphasis on its methodology; that is, how time-travelling is made possible by gadgets and their corresponding inventors, and providing in-depth scientific explanations to the various processes. In that sense, time-travelling is looked upon as a form of advancement and development, something which is perceived to be largely positive intellectually; unfortunately for Henry – though it does provide some peripheral benefits – time-travelling is a lifelong struggle, especially after his marriage to Clare, when his sudden disappearances become a cause of concern for both. Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveller’s Wife” is quintessentially a moving love story between two individuals, and their desire to lead normal lives; Niffenegger does include brief descriptions – on Chrono-Displacement Person (CDP) and how Henry’s genetic clock periodically resets – but science fiction it is not.

2. Alternating first-person perspectives. The alternating first-person perspectives essentially mean that the story revolves around these two individuals: their experiences, their romance and their interactions. The first-person point-of-view adds greatly to the emotional depth of the exchanges that Henry and Clare have, and makes the novel’s characterisation more wholesome. The reader goes through the up-and-downs of the couple relationship, comprehends the genuine affection they have for one another, but is also aware of the secrets that each hold about their past (which they eventually reveal to one another). Looking through Henry’s lenses allows the reader to understand what he goes through in another time period, without anything in possession, and particularly moving when he talks about his mother’s car accident; while Clare’s narrative reflects her noble affection for Henry, but this optimism highlights her vulnerabilities and fears, during Henry’s absences and her miscarriages.

3. Love, loss and free will. “For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away? // We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world. // And every day we shall have less. And then none. // Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all? // No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those times are running elsewhere”.

4. Foreshadowing and elements of tragedy. The reader is offered glimpses into the future, not only through Niffenegger’s exposition per se, but also from Henry’s ability to experience live in the future (through which he feeds Clare with little titbits of information, such as asking her not to worry about the miscarriages and the desire to have a child together). Unfortunately, most of the time these visions are tragic in nature: when Henry travels into the future and meets his ten-year-old daughter who is on a school field-trip, he finds out about his impending death; the inability of the geneticist Dr. Kendrick to treat his condition (and Clare’s constant suspicions); and the foreshadowing of his death back at Michigan. Henry’s desire and constant need to run is also a sad contrast to his eventual disability, when he loses both his feet to frostbite.

5. Humour in the novel. This is a good blend of humour in the story, which counteracts the oft-depressing scenes and dialogues, and injects some form of realism into the relationship between Henry and Clare. The scenes of sex and intercourse also physically ground their relationship, which is often affected by the shifting of time. Some of these scenes include the initial meeting with Henry’s father (when Clare replies that she is with Henry because the latter is “good in bed”), as well as the dinners and conversations the couple have with Gomez and Charisse.

6. Modern Capitalist Mind-Fuck (my favourite). “We play it with a Monopoly set. It involves answering questions, getting points, accumulating money, and exploiting your fellow players” (the light-heartedness of this activity is accentuated, given that it precedes a horrible scene of Henry’s time-travels). “Whom would you prefer to have dinner with and why: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Alan Greenspan? // Rosa. // Why? // Most interesting death”, “Income Tax has its own special cards. We all tense, in apprehension. He reads the card. // Great Leap Forward. // We all hand Charisse all our real estate, and she puts it back in the Bank’s holdings, along with her own” and “Henry hands Charisse the dice. She rolls a four and ends up going to Jail. She picks a card that tells her what her crime is: Insider Trading. We laugh”.

7. The significance of the title (I). The primary significance of the title is that it encapsulates Henry’s relationship with Clare, and his association with Time. Throughout the novel as he zips through time, he finds no real certainty or foundation to fall back on other than Clare’s expectations (for him to return on specific dates before their marriage); and after his marriage, together with Clare, they negotiate around the various inconveniences that his time-travelling brings about. Henry is also in a fruitless struggle against Time; and following his marriage to Clare, he continues to find ways to control his journeys or movements across the time-space spectrum (through the use of drugs, and experiments or consultations with Dr. Kendrick and his associates).

8. The significance of the title (II). The title also places emphasis on the “wife”, which means that the text is premised upon the life of Clare; this is made more evident given the fact that the plot progresses along chronologically with Clare, and it is she who consciously makes the first effort to begin the official relationship with Henry. Henry experiences tremendous physical and emotional trauma; but it is Clare – who has the “constant” progressing along with time – who has to live with Henry’s inconsistencies despite the deep love they share. She says: “It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays”.

9. Dividing the chapters and sections. Niffenegger prefaces each chapter with a poem, and titles the sections with appropriate themes that summarise the plot’s development. One of the poems that emphasise the themes (“Love After Love” by Derek Walcott): “The time will come // when, with elation, // you will greet yourself arriving // at your own door, in your own mirror, // and each will smile at the other’s welcome, // and say, sit here. Eat. // You will love again the stranger who was your self. // Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart // to itself, to the stranger who has loved you // all your life, whom you ignored // for another, who knows you by heart. // Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, // the photographs, the desperate notes, // peel your own image from the mirror. // Sit. Feast on your life”.

10. Imperfect families. Instead of painting a rosy picture of harmony, Niffenegger chose to portray both the families as imperfect households; in fact, the challenges faced by Henry and Clare’s families are mirrored in their own household. Clare has to deal with the impending loss of Henry (though the reader only has a glimpse into Clare’s life after Henry, though she remains staunchly faithful), and the young couple had to deal with multiple miscarriages because of Henry’s disorder. Ultimately, their ability to ride through these troubles without letting it affect their relationship reaffirms their faith in each other, and the genuine love that they have for one another.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


2 thoughts on “Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife

  1. The content of the book is sexist, homophobic, ableist, racist and kyriarchist generally.

    To the author and whoever thinks like the author goes the following.



    Posted by aperson | December 3, 2011, 10:59 am

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