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 represent 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.
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
Niggenegger, Audrey (2004). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Contact Rivkah Kaufman: Phone: 917-803-5871 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Address: 115 Henry St, Suite 1F, Brooklyn, NY 11201-2512