43 pages 1 hour read

Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


The Time Traveler’s Wife is a novel by Audrey Niffenegger published in 2003. It tells the love story of Clare Abshire and Henry DeTamble, revealed through their alternating perspectives in which each character is the first-person narrator. Henry was born as a with a condition that allows him to travel in time, though when and where in time he travels is out of his control.

Using a non-linear plot structure, Niffenegger explores a range of themes including Fate Versus Free Will: How much of our lives are predetermined, and how much do we have direct control over? The novel also explores The Impact of Grief and its lasting effects. The narrative’s out-of-sequence events mirrors the jolting nature time travel has on Henry. Niffenegger provides dates and characters’ ages so that readers can check whether an event is happening in the present or at some other time. At the heart of the novel is the love story between Henry and Clare, and the question of how people enter into each other’s worlds and cope when losing loved ones.

The Time Traveler’s Wife was adapted into a film in 2009 and an HBO television series in 2022. This guide uses the Night Bookmobile edition published in 2021.

Plot Summary

As the novel begins, Clare Abshire is at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She notices a man who she immediately recognizes as Henry DeTamble. When she approaches Henry and refers to him by name, Henry does not recognize her. It is 1990 and Clare eventually convinces Henry to go on a date with her. On the date, Clare reveals that Henry has visited her in the past and told her that in the future, they would be married.

In the second chapter, Henry describes his first encounter with time travel. In Chapter 3, the narrative shifts to 1977: Clare is six years old and Henry, who has traveled from 1996, visits her. These first three chapters lay a foundation for how the time structure in the novel operates. The characters’ lives unfold in their present time, as portrayed in the first chapter. Then there are flashbacks when Henry or Clare discuss their past from the vantage point of their current present. There are also sequences when Henry physically travels in time, usually to the past, but sometimes to the future.

In their present lives, Clare and Henry forge a relationship that culminates in marriage. Along the way, Clare becomes accustomed to Henry’s uncontrollable disappearances, and learns how to cope. Henry’s condition imposes chaos, and his health suffers from traveling to different times. Often when he returns from a trip, he is visibly injured, bleeding, tired, disheveled and always naked, as he is unable to take anything with him in his travels. It is a physically traumatizing existence.

Henry seeks ways to stay grounded in time. He visits an off-market chemist who is skilled at concocting medicinal drugs. Henry provides the chemist with the ingredients for an antipsychotic medication that hasn’t been invented yet, and that he learned about during one of his trips to the future. He believes that taking it may help him remain in the present time. He also enlists the help of a genetic scientist, whom he hopes will find a cure for his condition.

When Henry travels to the past, he often ends up at Clare’s childhood home. His presence in Clare’s life is consistent, and while he abstains from telling her too much about the future, he reveals that they get married. This creates a kind of prophecy: Clare lives with the knowledge of a future that she believes is predetermined.

Henry often time travels back to emotional moments in his past. When he is five, Henry’s mother Annette dies in a car accident. Henry witnesses her gruesome death, and because of his condition, sees it over and over again throughout his life.

After she and Henry are married, Clare has several miscarriages. Finally, she is able to have a child, who is conceived when a time-traveling Henry has sex with Clare while the present Henry is right there in the room. Henry and Clare name their daughter Alba, and like Henry, she is born with the ability to time travel.

Henry’s health worsens. During one of his travels, a 43-year-old Henry is mistaken for an animal and shot by Clare’s brother and father, who are hunting. As Henry approaches 43 in his present timeline, it becomes clear that this is when he will die.

Upon returning to the present after one of his travels, Henry can’t find his way home and lies naked in the cold. He finally saves himself, but not before his feet are frostbitten. His feet are amputated, and for the last few months of his life, Henry uses a wheelchair.

When Henry dies, Clare’s grief is immense. She is unable to do much of anything but sleep. She finds a letter that Henry had written before he died. In the letter, Henry pleads with her not to allow his death to ruin her life. He alludes to how grief consumed his father after his mother’s death and begs her not to follow that same path. Henry reveals that he has traveled to the future, and that at some distant, unspecified time, he sees her again.

Clare navigates her life in Henry’s absence. The novel jumps ahead in time, to 2053, when Clare is 82 years old. As Henry had promised in his letter, the two indeed meet again.

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By Audrey Niffenegger