The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry – Reluctant Time Traveler or Unreliable Husband?
In various passages in The Times Traveler's Wife, Henry explains that the inevitable cause of his time travels is stress. According to Dr. Kendrick, Henry has zero tolerance for stress. And, boy, Henry is stressed out by a lot: by watching TV, by loud noises, by blinding lights, by drinking too much, by getting married, by having kids, by conflict… He only relaxes during sex. Hm. Sure, he has some legitimate stressors in his life, but don't we all have problems? And isn't life about learning how to deal with those difficulties instead of escaping to another place or time? A review for The Time Traveler's Wife in The Times suggests, "The book may even serve as a feminist analysis of marriage as a partnership in which only the male is conceded the privilege of absence" (source).
So the big question here is, is Henry just not trying hard enough? Does he really have no choice? After all, not even Kendrick can ever really explain the reasons or the mechanics of Henry's disappearing acts. So what if this is all an elaborate hoax? A male conspiracy to have an excuse to leave marital responsibilities behind and just go out womanizing (1.4.146), drinking (1.7.120), getting high (1.12.130), causing trouble (1.8.85) – living the bachelor life. That's pretty much what Henry does with his time away from Clare, right?
Also interesting is that right after he meets Clare in the present – unmarried, no children, no responsibilities – Clare remarks to Henry that he hasn't been traveling much: "…since I met you in the present you've hardly time traveled at all" (1.11.231). Kind of suspicious. And then there's the whole "I need more sex to stay in the present" thing. Really? So maybe The Times is right. Maybe Henry is just a big flake. A coward who can't handle life and so keeps slipping through its cracks. What do you think?
In his defense, Henry does try to be a good husband when he is with Clare in the present. He cooks for her and teaches her how to cook, so she can really take care of their daughter and herself after he's gone. That's kind of sweet, right? And when Henry meets Clare, he breaks up with his girlfriend Ingrid right away. He also acts quite forgiving when Clare admits her little fling with Gomez years ago. He's a loving father to Alba, and travels to the future to spend lots of time with her in the years following his death. So he seems to be an unreliable, yet really well-meaning husband.
Henry, the Runner
While Clare is all about birds, Henry is all about running. Running is Henry's number one time traveler's tool of survival, which is why he takes great pains to keep in shape. He runs whenever he can, no matter the weather.
But apart from the physical advantage of escaping the police or the dangers he finds himself in when he pops into random scenes, running is also a mental thing for Henry. It instills him with a sense of control over his life:
"Running is many things to me: survival, calmness, euphoria, solitude. It is proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to control my movement through space if not time, and the obedience, however temporary, of my body to my will." (1.8.136)
Henry sees running inextricably connected to his identity and his ability to cope with life's obstacles. That's why when he loses his feet, he not only suffers from the physical amputation, but he also feels disconnected from himself. So he sinks into feelings of helplessness and self-pity until Mrs. Kim forces him to pull himself together. Henry eventually realizes that even without his feet, he can manage. When Clare makes him giant wings, he's overwhelmed with gratitude, because he understands that she's telling him that he can depend on her too, not just the other way around.
To Know or Not to Know, That is the Question
Henry has all kinds of theories about the workings of the universe. For one, he doesn't believe in a God-created universe, because his random time jumps have led him to believe that life is pretty random and meaningless. This reflects Audrey Niffenegger's view of the novel's message. Not only is Henry's life random, but he also has to accept the determinism that makes up a big part of his life. Clare once mentions to him that she enjoys the idea that everything is already taken care of. Other characters eagerly ask him questions about their futures. Henry, on the other hand, maintains throughout the story that "you have to behave as though you have free will, as though you are responsible for what you do… if you don't, things are bad. Depressing" (1.4.72-74). In other words, Henry believes that you'll be happier pretending to not know your future, pretending to live a normal life, even if it is already set in stone.
But what's so great about not knowing? Wouldn't it be nice, as Clare suggests, to just sit back and watch life take its course? Wouldn't knowing what the future brings appease all those fears and worries about what's to come? Well, sure, to the extent that it's a future that you're looking forward to. But what if it's not? What if you're looking into a future full of pain and sadness and there's nothing you can do to change it? That seems like a surefire path to depression. So the reasoning behind Henry's rule of "not knowing is better" seems to speak to the fact that if you feel as though you're making choices and taking responsibility, you feel in control of your life. Your actions will have meaning just because of that belief and, according to Henry, this sense of meaning creates happiness.