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The Time Traveler's Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

This novel has a bunch of epigraph-like quotes that are worth digging into. We're going to go through them one by one.

Prologue

Clock time is our bank manager, tax collector, police inspector;
this inner time is our wife
.

– J. B. Priestley, Man and Time

According to Audrey Niffenegger, this quote from Man and Time inspired both the title and the central idea for her book:

"…once I found that quote, the whole thing made complete sense to me, because Henry is not only married to Clare, but he is married to this quirky out-of-sync time that he is living. And it is such an intimate part of him, that it really is inseparable." (source)

So Henry's life seems to be determined by two different ideas of time. One is "clock time," which rules the minutia of his daily life, including paying taxes, dealing with the police, and so on. His "inner time," on the other hand, seems to refer to his personal time with Clare, his wife.

Although Henry tries very hard to manage both his life in the outside world and his private world with Clare, even with his best intentions, his time-traveling disorder makes it impossible for him to allot his time the way he wishes to. Henry's job at the Newberry Library hovers in constant peril, because he frequently misses work or appears buck naked in the library stacks, afraid to be caught by his superiors. He also remains an unreliable husband, who disappears during key moments of his relationship with Clare: when they get married, when Clare gives birth, etc. At the same time, the "inner" time Henry spends with Clare has no real boundaries. Even when he's gone in the present, he still spends time with her in his past or future while the "clock time" that Clare's life runs on is finite and measurable.

So, in a sense, Henry gets to spend way more time with Clare than she does with him. In his world, "clock time" and "inner" time seem to be one and the same, because he's able to live his past, present, and future all at the same time. Clare, however, only experiences the time Henry spends with her in the present. Therefore, Priestley's quote could point to the fact that time is relative and depends on our individual perceptions.

Love After Love

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.

– Derek Walcott

Feast on your life. Carpe diem! It's the elation of the moment and the appreciation of the "here and now" that Audrey Niffenegger hoped readers would take away from her story on the most basic level: "…I have got more mail from people, who suddenly had this new found [...] sort of a renewal of the sense of being lucky" (source).

Derek Walcott's poem seems to link the spirit of celebration and gratitude for your life with falling back in love with "the stranger who was your self." But how do you become a stranger to yourself? Well, it seems that somewhere on our way through the ups and downs of daily life, we ditch our poor old self "for another." Maybe because we don't like who we are or who we have become and would prefer to play someone else. Maybe because we're just too busy to think about the who's and why's of being, or maybe we'd just rather not think about those issues, afraid of opening a whole cans of worms. Or maybe we simply become so devoted to another, and what he or she wants or needs, that we wait to think about ourselves until another time. Either way, as the poem suggests, at some point we become strangers to ourselves.

But don't despair! After all, the title "Love After Love," promises that there will come a time, sooner or later, when we'll reconnect with the person we once were, "the stranger who has loved you all your life, […] who knows you by heart." So maybe we're never that far from our real self, no matter how far we stray. One day, we'll open our eyes to our surroundings. We'll rediscover ourselves in photographs, notes, and letters – the tangible stuff of life, the memories that define us, and we'll go: "Hello! Good to see you again."

Book 1: Man Out Of Time

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.

*********
But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which is in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

*********
Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the act of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And above all, the heaviness,
and long experience of love, – just what is wholly
unsayable.

– Rainer Maria Rilke,
From the Ninth Duino Elegy (Excerpt)
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke is considered one of greatest lyric poets of modern Germany. And one of his most famous verse sequences, the Duino Elegies, happens to figure prominently in The Time Traveler's Wife. These poems tackle the difficulties of living in the world while, at the very same time, the world can seem to exist "nowhere but within us" (source). Indeed, both Clare and Henry quote Rilke to express their emotions toward the "world" that is their own relationship as well as the world they live in. "Why are we here?" the excerpt seems to ask. "What is life's purpose?" It can't be happiness, since that's only a fleeting feeling, "a too-hasty profit," that will come and go, ultimately leaving us with the pain of "loss."

Rilke suggests that life is so much more than that. "Everything here apparently needs us […] this fleeting world […] keeps calling us." Thinking of the responsibilities and commitments we have to our families, friends, colleagues, and fellow human beings, it's easy to believe that the world needs us. Henry often wonders how Clare will manage without him, how Alba will grow up without a father. That's why he makes sure that Clare is cared for after his death and why he also visits Alba frequently.

The last paragraph of Rilke's poem poses the question of what we'll take from life into our deaths, or "that other realm." Apparently we bring our sufferings (not so good), but we also get to bring "the heaviness, and long experience of love" (much better). This idea seems to hold true for Clare and Henry's relationship. Henry's disorder causes a lot of pain for both of them, but their love for each other continues after Henry's death. It's so strong that Clare spends the rest of her life waiting for him. Such is the "unsayable" power of love, a power that allows us to exist beyond human time and space. A power that might define the best of our existence.

Book 2

"What is it? My dear?"
"Ah, how can we bear it?"

"Bear what?"

"This. 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 other times are running elsewhere."

– A.S. Byatt, Possession

A.S. Byatt's novel Possession tells the story of two young scholars whose research into the lives of two Victorian poets informs their own relationship with each other. As the title suggests, Possession explores issues of independence and ownership between lovers. The excerpt above introduces Book 2 of The Time Traveler's Wife , which launches us into Henry and Clare's married life and the complications that ensue.

Not that Clare hasn't been warned by family and friends about the repercussions of marrying a time traveler. But, as she explains to Henry's father, she would rather be extremely happy for even just a short while than to be just OK for her whole life. In Possession, the two lovers struggle with the same question:

"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… we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere."

The lovers' exchange again reflects what Niffenegger names as one of the main themes in The Time Traveler's Wife: life is short and we don't "have all the time in the world." So use it or lose it! As Niffenegger explains,

"I write about loss of a great deal because it seems like the most profound thing that happens to us […] in addition to gaining things […] falling in love and having children […] everything we do is potentially going to be lost. So I think that's why it's important to enjoy everything while it's here and pay attention while it's here." (source)

Book 3

His forty-third year. His small time's end. His time –
Who saw Infinity through the countless cracks
In the blank skin of things, and died of it.

– A.S. Byatt, Possession

On a completely factual level, this excerpt from Possession foreshadows Henry's death at – you guessed it – the age of 43. Henry dies after accidentally getting shot by Clare's brother, of all people. But the excerpt seems to also probe a bit deeper into the reasons and nature of Henry's death by implying that he died because he "saw Infinity through the countless cracks in the blank skin of things." Henry saw infinity because he lived in the past, present, and future, all at the same time. Although his own lifetime is "small" when just put together chronologically (after all, 43 is no age to die), Henry's condition allows him to essentially live a lot more life than most folks – unlike the rest of us earthlings, he's not bound to the space and time continuum, as he slips in and out through "countless cracks" in time.

"The blank skin of things" could possibly refer to the fact that Henry always arrives buck naked wherever he goes. Or, on a deeper level, it might hint at his daily fight for survival, which has made him see life in its blank skin: food, clothes, and shelter. Anything more is a bonus. If that doesn't help you appreciate every moment of your life…

Yet, it doesn't matter if you live your life forwards or backwards, it will eventually end in death. Death comes in many ways, but for Henry, death seems to be the price he must pay for cheating time. He "died of" experiencing time differently. After all, if he had lived his life in a sound chronological manner like the rest of us do, he wouldn't have landed on that meadow, footless, to be shot by Clare's brother.

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.

– Rainer Maria Rilke
From Going Blind
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

This excerpt from another one of Rilke's poems closely traces the final reunion scene between Henry and Clare. After years of separation, Henry makes good on his promise to visit Clare when she is an old woman: "…the woman turns and sees me and her face is remade into joy… this is Clare!… she is coming to me, so slowly, and I take her into my arms."

The first two lines of the poem deepen the sense of distance between Clare and Henry that has developed over all that time. Clare walks slowly, as if held back by obstacles – days after days of waiting for Henry, not knowing if and when Henry will return. Also, Clare is an old woman now so, naturally, getting from A to B takes a little more time. But she is coming to him, her face leaving no doubt as to the importance of this moment.

Yet, in contrast to the poem, Clare and Henry's reunion in the book seems to be more of a gentle, weathered one. Clare certainly doesn't give the impression of "being beyond walking, and would fly." Then again, this line might refer to Clare's love for birds and her never-ending longing for Henry. So in a way the poem might suggest that, by being reunited in Henry's arms, Clare has taken flight. In that moment of holding Henry, she is released from years of pain, years of waiting…even if her new freedom will be temporary.

Closing to Book 3

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
Of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
His dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
Longed for
As the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
Spent in rough water where his ship went down
Under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big surf
To crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
In joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.

– Homer, from the Odyssey
Translated by Robert Fitzgerald

Much like the excerpt from Rilke's poem "Going Blind," this passage from Homer's Odyssey resonates with Henry and Clare's reunion at the end of the book: "the ache / of longing" is finally released as they hold each other in tight embrace. Both recognize the pain and hardship they've suffered to get to this moment. Of course Homer likes to dramatize this a bit: "Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea […] big surf."

But in the end, only joy remains, even if it is only temporary, as the poem suggests. Henry will disappear again, leaving Clare to wait for him until the end of her time. The one consolation for the romantics out there might be that Henry will always be able to visit Clare her in her past so, in that sense, they'll be together forever.

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