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The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

encyclopedia entry by Starr Hoffman, 2006



1) provide a plot summary (if possible, without spoiling any surprise endings!)

2) reflect on the prominent features of the work itself, describing its major themes and characters

3) suggest the relationship of the individual work to others in the author’s oeuvre, as well as to the works of other authors

4) note other relevant information about the work itself, such as its adaptation to film


The Time Traveler’s Wife is a novel portraying the love story of Clare Abshire, an artist from a wealthy Michigan family, and Henry DeTamble, a librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago who has a genetic condition that causes him to uncontrollably, spontaneously time-travel. The book begins by telling of the first time that the two met—which for Clare was when she was six and Henry was thirty-six (having traveled from a future time in which he and Clare are married), and for Henry was when he was twenty-eight and she twenty. The novel tracks their love story from each of their perspectives, centering around key moments in their lives—from their respective childhoods, to their meeting as adults, to their married life.


The book is arranged in a loosely linear order that roughly follows Henry’s timeline, with non-linear episodes interspersed to follow specific storylines or themes. Each chapter opens with the date and respective ages of Henry and Clare, to clarify when Henry is time-traveling. The book is told from a first-person perspective that switches between Clare and Henry, often in the same chapter.


Although the book’s plot rotates around time-travel, a key theme in the science-fiction genre, it is not itself a science-fiction novel. It approaches the topic with a distinct lack of sensation, and places the characters firmly in present-day Chicago with vivid descriptions of concerts, restaurants, and ordinary daily life. The story is brimming with references to music, literature, art, and popular culture. This is in no small part due to the interests of the characters: Henry’s father is a violinist, his mother a singer, and he himself a librarian. Clare and her friend Charisse are artists, and Clare’s sister Alicia is a cellist. Quotations from literature and popular music appear both before chapters and within the dialogue.


Niffenegger has rooted her concept of time travel as a genetic condition in an ordinary world by describing it in terms of concrete physical sensations and reactions. Henry’s time travel is often brought on by either emotional or physical stress. Just before he travels, he often has symptoms similar to those of migraine sufferers: nausea, trouble seeing or hearing, “vertiginous falling sensations,” tingling limbs, seeing bright auras around objects. (1) His travel can be caused by the trigger for epileptic seizures: bright flashing lights, such as those caused by television.


His time travel exhibits another relation to stress: he tends to travel toward stressful or otherwise eventful periods. The event which he is taken to most often is the traumatic death of his mother when he was six. He describes it as a gravitational pull on his life: “My mother dying…it’s the pivotal thing…everything else goes around and around it.” (2)


Niffenegger also describes the practical complexities of time-travel throughout the novel. Henry cannot take anything with him when he travels, including clothing, and thus arrives naked and hungry. This creates problematic episodes in which he is chased, beaten, arrested, and exposed to severe weather. Upon his arrival from a time travel episode, Henry usually attempts to steal clothing and money in an attempt to blend into his surroundings. He masters the art of picking locks and pick-pocketing, which he later teaches to his younger self in a dizzying display of time paradox. When his younger, more morally-abiding self suggests begging instead of stealing, his older self replies pragmatically, “Begging is a drag, and you keep getting carted off by the police.” (3)


The plot revolves around a time paradox which the novel’s characters themselves ponder and attempt to test: Henry is compelled to travel back in time to Clare’s childhood because they are married in his present. Clare grows up, meets and marries Henry precisely because she knew him in her childhood. It’s a rather complex case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, and prompts the characters to discuss determinism versus free will more than once. Several scenes reinforce the idea upheld by Henry, that all of history is written once and cannot be changed, even by him. The young Clare is reluctant to believe this idea, although she begins to accept it the more time that she spends with him.

There is also a more subtle theme of fate, which by turn complements and contradicts these deterministic ideas. For instance, when Clare is eleven, a Ouija board spells out the name Henry and indicates he will be her husband. Clare’s perspective reveals that she has not pushed the board, and no one else present knows about Henry’s existence. This sense of inevitability and design are reinforced throughout the book.


Another theme throughout the novel is familial tragedy. Henry’s mother dies in a car accident when he is a child, severing his relationship with his father and sending them into self-destructive alcoholism. Henry’s family’s landlord, Mrs. Kim, lost a child to leukemia. Clare’s mother is a manic-depressive whose moods rule her entire household, and eventually loses her life to ovarian cancer. Clare and Henry’s attempts to conceive a child result in tragedy and a strain on their relationship.


Niffenegger’s other works, primarily graphic novels such as The Adventuress, are shorter than The Time Traveler’s Wife, and also rely on art more than on prose to tell the story. The linking quality throughout her body of work is the use of gothic fantasy elements in an everyday, realistic setting. While The Time Traveler’s Wife’s theme might seem to suggest its similarity to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, in fact it displays more in common with the everyday-fantasy of Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child and the fantastic-everyday setting of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.


The film option to the novel was famously purchased by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s production company Plan B before the book itself was published. The film is currently classified as in production.



1) Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 2003, 2.

2) Ibid, 113.

3) Ibid, 50.

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