Romanticizing the “Ramblin’ Man” in The “Time Traveler’s Wife”

Last night, my wife and I finally watched The Time Traveler’s Wife. I remember that she wanted to see it when it was in the theaters, but I don’t remember why we never got around to it. It is not a great movie, though there were some moving moments in it. My guess is that the novel, by Audrey Niffenegger, is much better than the film—or maybe I am hypothesizing the book as I would have written it—because in the book, at least I hope, you can get into the characters’ inner lives in a way that a movie makes impossible. For example, in the movie, there was something really creepy to me about the way the main character, Henry—who travels randomly through time because of a genetic anomaly—keeps going back to a field where he meets his wife, Claire, at different points during her growing up. The way the movie presents it, it’s hard not to get the impression that he is in fact “grooming” her for when they will finally meet and start their courtship, and there is a moment in the film where Claire actually accuses Henry of that, but I imagine—or, again, perhaps more accurately, I hope that in the book Niffenegger does some justice to Henry’s interior experience of having no choice but to travel back to when Claire was a child. Because how could that lack of choice not result in all kinds of interesting internal struggles and ambivalences on Henry’s part, informing his choices for how to interact with young Claire in similarly interesting ways. At least that’s something I would have explored if I were the author.

The other thing I found really interesting about the movie was how it romanticized a very stereotypical kind of masculinity: the man who can’t be “tied down,” who has to ramble because that is his nature, who is called, and who has no choice but to answer, to the dangers of life on the open road—and for Henry the road is open in more ways than one, because when he time travels, he travels naked and so wherever he ends up, and he never knows where or when that will be, he ends up there completely vulnerable. Claire, as any “good woman” should, loves him both in spite and because of this wandering nature. She acclimates herself to his absences, gets angry and frustrated, has a life of her own—though she does not leave him—and, in the end, after he dies, remains the “perfect wife,” always waiting for him, leaving clothes for him in the field where she first met him when she was a girl, so that when he does return there (though it’s always his younger self, from before he died who shows up), he’ll be able to get dressed and, perhaps, spend some time with her and their daughter. The daughter is also a time traveler—except that she is able to control when and where she travels to, and she is able to stop herself from going when she doesn’t want to. It makes sense that the daughter Henry has would be able to control her traveling in ways that he can not. In the gender binary the movie is so vested in, women are understood to be more grounded than men, by definition, largely because their child-bearing bodies root them in the here and now.

Henry, actually, did not want to have a child. Claire gets pregnant several times, though she is unable to carry to term because the fetus keeps traveling. In response, not wanting to put Claire through the pain and agony of constantly “miscarrying”—though that’s not quite the right word—and also not wanting to bring into the world a child who would have a life like his, Henry decides to get a vasectomy. Claire is furious at him—and this part of the movie would make for some interesting discussion on the nature of male reproductive choice—since she wants a baby, something that will root her life and, by at least metaphoric extension, Henry’s as well, in the present. Not long after they fight about this, a younger version of Henry, one who has not yet had the vasectomy, shows up; Claire has sex with him and gets pregnant, forcing the older Henry to whom she is married to be a father to a child he did not want to have. Here too, though, the very stereotypical gender binary comes into play, because once the child is born—the one Henry was afraid to have, as all men who “can’t be tied down” are supposedly afraid—Henry falls in love with her and the fact that she can control her time traveling becomes, to some degree, his redemption. In the end, mother and daughter bond over their love for this man who is never fully present—because he has no choice but to leave at random moments—but is also omnipresent, because you never know when or where he is going to show up.

It’s a touching and bittersweet ending for all the obvious reasons. The movie is called, after all, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and so she and her daughter are the ones we are supposed to identify with. It is also, however, a deeply, deeply sad ending because what it has cost Henry to be a temporally “ramblin’ man” is rendered completely invisible by the mother-daughter bonding and their love for him, and the fact that the only way out of that life for him was to die—and it is his time traveling that kills him—is rendered more or less meaningless by the fact that his younger self keeps showing up in the future. He has, quite literally, no exit from his life; he is trapped in the manhood he was born into and everyone around him, everyone he loves, just needs to accept it. Why would anyone want to romanticize that?

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5 Responses to Romanticizing the “Ramblin’ Man” in The “Time Traveler’s Wife”

  1. 1
    karabear1 says:

    No, you are exactly right. The book is as nauseatingly offensive as the movie. I remember feeling flabbergasted that anyone would consider such a situation romantic while it was being read.

  2. 2
    Rebecca says:

    I loved the book, and avoided the movie for many of the reasons named above – that I knew there was no way a movie could depict even a tenth of what goes on in the book, and it’s so hard/angering to watch a book you love be shortchanged by the movie version. The book does, indeed, have the adult Henry mentally engage in the complexities of hanging out with the child/adolescent versions of his future wife. It also explores a lot of the things that I think would appear romanticized or simplified in the movie, in greater nuance. It does have some of the same tension you touch on in that it continues with his “life” after his death; he continues to appear from the past to interact with his family, (although not often, and before he dies, he even reflects on whether or not that is cruel or kind to them; and he is dead) and from the reader’s perspective he is still “alive” which is a falsehood. But it also brings up questions of memory, death, and time which I would say are the books real obsessions.
    Which is all to say, you might like the book.

  3. 3
    jillian says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, but I loved the book. I didn’t see it as being about the Ramblin Man at all, but rather about free will and the time-space continuum, about the illusion that we have control over our futures. When in fact everything that will happen is already writ in four-dimensional space, although it doesn’t seem that way to those of us that travel through that space linearly. It’s worth noting that I read the book around the time that my middle-aged husband was dying (possibly after he had died?) of pancreatic cancer. So I may have been acutely sensitive to the idea of the expectation of death, and of what it’s like to move uncontrollably toward an outcome that’s clear but unwanted. Also the idea of a daughter so like her father, since I have one of those.

  4. 4
    Lord Cerbereth says:

    I am pretty sure it is supposed to be a romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet.

    Kind of a star crossed lovers type of deal.

    It’s not the kind of thing I am interested in, so I won’t be seeing it.

  5. 5
    Tamara says:

    I saw the movie but haven’t read the book. I found it quite gripping but not really satisfying, which is a bit odd (I think Rachel McAdams makes things more watchable than they otherwise might be). I also found the “grooming” aspect troubling. I don’t think you can escape the gender issues. If it wasn’t at least relying on stereotypes we have about men and women then it wouldn’t seem strange to reverse the characters. The time traveller’s husband? Since when do men hang around and wait while women roam about? It’s a bit Wuthering Heights.