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Always: Meaning Through Transcendence in "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger

January 18, 2014


 "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger, simultaneously a love story, a fantasy, and a profound examination of the human condition, uses the transcendent ​love of its protagonists, Henry DeTamble, and Claire Abshire to coax us into confronting what are known as existential issues − those central to the nature of existence itself. These issues, which we'd just as soon ignore, include death (which is inevitable); love (which cannot keep death at bay); and meaning (which we struggle to find) − issues that ultimately expose us to the reality of our limitations. How does this novel capture our interest, despite our discomfort with its existential themes? Why is it important that we face them anyway? To answer these questions, let's take a closer look at the time traveler, Henry DeTamble, and his wife, Claire.


Since the age of 6, Henry DeTamble, a librarian, has struggled with a rare genetic disorder, Chrono-Displacement, a literal displacement of his chronology that plunges him at random into past and future time. Henry's CDP is involuntary − his comings, goings, destinations, all are beyond his control. As a time traveler, Henry often meets variously-aged versions of himself, and revisits places/times that impacted him deeply. This can be wonderful when the place/time is memorable, such as the first time he makes love to 18-year old Claire Abshire, the woman who will become his wife, but devastating when he must stand by helplessly and watch the tragedy of his mother's death over and over again. These events highlight an important aspect of Henry's illness: despite his foreknowledge, he cannot change the future. Henry's impaired chronology means his relationship with Claire is anything but conventional. Once they are together in present time, despite Henry's sudden disappearances, his long absences, and the burden Claire feels at "…being left behind...," despite the sense of uncertainty and imminent doom that hangs over the relationship, he and Claire struggle to love deeply enough to transcend their fear of the future, and live as normal a life as possible. The sense of imminent doom deepens as Henry learns when he will die, and reaches a crescendo of poignancy when he is accidentally shot during a time-travel episode, and returns, bloodied, to die in Claire's arms.


So going back to my earlier questions, why are we drawn to the novel despite our distress over its existential themes? Because Niffenegger inextricably binds these themes to a heart-wrenching love story whose course and ending are predestined, yet so compelling, that we keep hoping for some intervention − authorial, divine? − to alter Henry's inevitable fate.  And why is it important that we confront these existential themes? Because, ironically, awareness of our human limitations can enhance the experience of living, make every day more precious, yet another opportunity to live a meaningful life.

Going back to Henry DeTamble, his CDP-induced arrival, naked and bereft of anything not physically attached to him, dramatizes our existential isolation. Neither Henry's clothes, possessions, nor life as he knows it mean anything if he cannot come to terms with his state and find a way to survive before he disappears again. Similarly, we may go through life in denial of death, but living a more genuine life means facing our fear. Henry and Claire's relationship also symbolizes our existential fear of the unknown, which is so powerful, that it leads many into a state of psychic stagnation − desperately desiring change but terrified of the accompanying uncertainties. Henry and Claire are never in doubt that they will be together, and (albeit unacknowledged) that Henry will die, perhaps violently; the only uncertainty is when and how the end and unbearable loss will come.


But, the love between Henry and Claire is powerful enough to transcend death, which highlights another existential concept: our struggle to create meaning. According to Victor Frankl, someone who "knows the 'why' for his existence…will be able to bear almost any 'how.' " The profound connection shared by Henry and Claire represents the "why," or meaning in their lives, a meaning so deep, that it allows them to transcend the "how," or vicissitudes of living in the shadow of a shifting and uncertain chronology. To that end, in the novel, Henry continues to time travel after his death, so that even though it is hard to deal with existential isolation while she waits for him, Claire knows that Henry will return, and for her, that means everything.


Ultimately, the hope and yearning channeled through Henry and Claire's love are what really draw us to this novel. We all ache for the deep love and connectedness that Henry and Claire seem to share; we all want our lives to mean something, despite the existential reality we barely glimpse through our fingers as we figuratively cover our eyes in horror. So we mourn and endure alongside Claire as she awaits Henry's return; and at the same time, search for our own meaning through transcendence.


References

Frankl, Viktor (2006). Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Beacon Press.


Hoffman, L (2009). Existential therapy. Retrieved from http://www.existential-therapy.com/Index.htm


Niffenegger, Audrey (2004). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


4 Comments

Joseph

1/19/2013 11:17:22 pm

The solution to their (our) problem could be seen in the prevailing theme of The Red Book, that concept of 'negative capability' or the ability to remain in the unknown is how we get out of our misery about the evitable or our fears as they are always based on what we know or believe. There will always be certain things that we cannot change so why put so much energy into worrying about them. Thanks for the discussion.


Rivkah Kaufman

1/29/2013 08:13:18 am

Thanks Joseph - I'll have to look up The Red Book to explore negative capability!


Suzanne L Dunn RN LPC

1/21/2013 01:08:15 am

This book was intriguing to me, imaginative, and entertaining. However, as you have identified so well, the existential themes are really what held it together. It would be interesting to know if the author was aware of these while telling this story or if they became obvious to the trained eye after the fact. Thanks for the article.


Rivkah Kaufman

1/29/2013 08:09:20 am

Your welcome Suzanne - I'm so glad the article resonated with you. It IS interesting to speculate on what the author actually was aware of while writing the book. I tried not to look at interviews with the author, because I believe that our individual responses to a novel/painting/ song etc, are what make it meaningful to US. And that's what I wanted to focus on.


Luonne Rouse

1/29/2013 03:18:24 am

Your commentary is as powerful as the book, in that they drew me into the book. Admittedly, once into the book your comments have more energy not less, because true to your words the "existential themes" capture essential realities of life. Thank you!


Rivkah Kaufman

1/29/2013 08:14:32 am

Thanks so much for your feedback, Luonne!


V. Karen McMahon

2/5/2013 11:20:50 am

I have just published a book with a similar theme, TO MY LAST BREATH....and my feedback tells me that MOST people want a happy ending and they don't want to think about death or taking your last breath. But reviews of the book have still been, "I couldn't stop turning the pages" kind of reviews. And one reviewer said, "This is your best yet, I couldn't stop reading and the story will stay with me for a very long time" which is MY idea of a good story--one that lingers with you for a long time after you read it. So what I get from the comments is that, although everyone wants a fairy tale, nevertheless reading about the darker side captures their minds and they read and like it anyway.