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Analogy and Love in the Time Traveller’s Wife

The appearance of time travel within romance fiction is a relatively new phenomenon. Despite the novelty of the subgenre, it has become an increasingly popular narrative device within modern literature and film. Time travelling narratives were perhaps first popularised by Constance O’Day-Flannery, who published a series of time-travelling novels in 1986, following writers such as Jo Ann Simon, Jacqueline Marten, and June Lund Shiplett who also made use of the narrative device at the beginning of the decade (Kaler, 1999, p. 100). Since Anne Kaler published her criticism of romance conventions in 1999, the subgenre has continued to flourish. Popular both inside and outside of the romance genre, fiction continues to implement time travel within stories. This article will consider the significance of time travel as the narrative focus of the 2013 film About Time and the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003).

Kander’s perception of time travel as an analogy for the transcendental nature of love is a compelling argument. Love as a transcendental force has been the focus of literature for centuries. Heminger’s (1999) perception of love as a “spirituality that transcends” (p. 11) is a notion depicted by writers throughout the development of romance literature. The lais of Marie de France, written in the 12th century, feature supernatural beings and worlds that allow the exploration of pure, transcendent love. In her lai Lanval, the protagonist (Lanval) and his supernatural lover become detached from society, existing in the Otherworld which is a land of “pure, disinterested, heartfelt love” (Robertson, 1970, p. 169). This sentiment has been mirrored endlessly in literature. Love is continually represented as an otherworldly force that transports its lovers to a world separated from the anxiousness and chaos of reality and to where pure and innocent emotions flourish. This motif reappears through the popularity of time travel in romance fiction and its continuity is supported by Linda Lee (2008), who argues that “romance novels have much in common with traditional fairy tales” in the way that they archetypically involve a “fantasy element” (p. 53).

Figure 1: Eric Bana in Robert Schwentke’s film “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (Alan Markfield, 2009).

Time travel offers writers the opportunity for a new fantastical entry into the exploration of the transcendental nature of love. Offering a gripping analogy to the transcendence of love, Pamela Simpson (1990) argues:

“All love is a species of time travel. In order to love we transcend the boundaries of sex, of selfishness, of ego, so why not the boundary of time?” (p. V).

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003) is a love story about an outwardly ordinary couple, Henry and Clare. However the novel explores how Henry possesses a genetic condition that causes him to travel unpredictably through time, whilst Clare is left to navigate life in the face of his frequent absence. Written from a dual perspective, the novel explores the navigation of love in the face of Henry’s disorder and the ways in which we source love as a way to make sense of the trials and struggles of modern life. Henry and Clare’s paths are continuously crossing disjointedly, with Clare first meeting Henry when she is only six years old, whilst Henry’s first encounter with Clare occurs far into his adult life, at 28 years old.

Figure 2: The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dali, 1931).

Audrey Niffenegger’s 10th Anniversary Author’s Note explains much of her logic for the inclusion of time travel within a marriage story. Her rationale mirrors much of that of ordinary love narratives in the sense that, in an endeavour to make sense of the chaos of modern life, many authors source love as a grounding spectacle, a way to “preserve normalcy in the face of confusion” (Niffenegger, 2005, p. i). In this way, time travel for Niffenegger becomes an allegory of the chaos and confusion of modern life and of the attempts we make to preserve order in the face of modern obstacles. As Niffenegger notes, the story of Henry and Clare:

“Was simple, universal; the things that happen to Henry and Clare happen to us all, though the rest of us are thankfully allowed to experience these events in the customary order, not randomly. Henry and Clare’s job is to make sense from chaos” (p. ii).

In a herald to the simplicity of ordinary living, Niffenegger’s project in her novel is an appreciation for the ways in which time travel exaggerates and mirrors the chaotic nature of modern existence and the experience of love within it in order to demarcate the triumph of mundane love as a grounding factor. As much an allegory of love as it is an exploration of the overpowering influence of memory on our daily consciousness, Niffenegger (2005) elaborates:

“Like Henry, we jump back to moments of humiliation, loss, joy; we find ourselves flung seemingly at random to ordinary days, small unnoticed pleasures. Our present is created and shadowed by our past” (p. i).

Figure 3: Hands of Time Painting (Andrew Judd, 2009).

Absence and memory are significant to Niffenegger’s narrative of ordinary life and love. Time travel as a plot device exaggerates the harrowing emotional torment of Henry's absence when he disappears for unknown durations at unexpected intervals, leaving Clare to navigate life without him. Clare’s declaration in the novel: “it is only memory that holds me here. Time, let me vanish. Then what we separate by our very presence can come together” (p. 249) epitomises Niffenegger’s attention to the significance of memory and absence within the novel. For Niffenegger, memory and love are intricately connected, with Clare’s affection for her husband encouraging her to wish “to open up Henry’s brain and look at his memory like a movie” (p. 141). The inclusion of time travel within the love story allows for intense scrutiny of memory. In Henry’s absence, Clare can only rely on memory to feel close to her beloved. The power of memory in the absence of physical closeness to a beloved is a common feature of romance literature. As Brent Pitts (1990) explores, in Thomas’ Roman de Tristan, as well as within the conventions of romance, the “lovers’ ordeal rehearses the operations of memory in a cycle of absence and return” (p. 790).

This ordeal of the cycle of absence and return is reconstructed through the dominating presence of time travel in the lovers’ lives. Clare says:

“When I was growing up Henry came and went […] so I always had this intense, unsatisfied feeling. When I finally found him in the present, […] Henry is constantly touching me, kissing me, making love to me. […] And he tells me things! […] But the best thing of all is that […] I know where to find him”. (p. 91).

Figure 4: Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in Robert Schwentke’s film “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (Alan Markfield, 2009).

Memory in absence is exaggerated by Henry’s continual temporal departures, which leaves Clare longing for this inhibited physical closeness. As such, her desire to open up Henry’s brain and “get the real thing in there, whatever it was. I like to do things directly, touch the textures, see the colors” (p. 141) explores the ways in which time travel as a plot device exaggerates ordinary experiences of love. Memory repeatedly crops up throughout the novel, with continual returns by the characters to its significance in relation to absence, time travel, and ordinary life. For Clare and Henry, absence becomes a hyperbolic experience through the constant intrusion of time travel within their lives, and as such, the significance of memory to the lovers also becomes an exaggerated phenomenon.

The allegorical function of time travel in The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003) is striking. As both an allusion to and an exaggeration of the navigation of love in the modern world with its chaos, absences and trials, time travel serves to hyperbolise the modern love affair and the triumph of love in the face of the burdens of life. It is also a representation of the overpowering influence of memory on our daily consciousness, which is all-consuming and holds the power to inhibit our daily interactions and relationships, a symbolic reflection of the power of love to preserve normalcy amongst the chaos. For these reasons, time travel for Niffenegger is a striking commentary on the transcendental power of love in modern life.

Bibliographical References

Heminger, S. (1999). Three Perspectives of Magic in the Lais of Marie de France. Ball State University, pp. 2-52.

Kaler, A. (1999). Romantic Conventions. Popular Press.

Simpson, P. (1990). Partners in Time. Penguin Random House.

Lee, L. (2008). ”Guilty Pleasures: Reading Romance Novels as Reworked Fairy”. Marvels and Tales, 22(1), pp. 52-56.

Pitts, B. A. (1990). Absence, Memory, and the Ritual of Love in Thomas’s Roman de Tristan. The French Review, 63(5), pp. 790-799.

Niffenegger, A. (2005). The Time Traveller's Wife. Penguin Random House.

Roberts, N. (1989). Time Was. InterMix.

Robertson, H. (1970). “Love and the Other World in Marie de France’s Eliduc”. Essays in Honor of Louis Francis Solano, edited by Roymond J. Cormier and Urban T. Holmes, University of North Carolina Press, pp. 167–176.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Markfield, A. (2009). Eric Bana in Robert Schwentke’s film “The Time Traveler’s Wife” [Movie still]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Dali, S. (1931). The Persistence of Memory [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Judd, A. (2009). Hands of Time [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Markfield, A. (2009). Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana in Robert Schwentke’s film “The Time Traveler’s Wife“ [Movie still]. Retrieved from:


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Ella Fincken

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