The Homo Sacer Figure and The Time Traveler’s Wife

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book cover for The Time Traveler's Wife displaying a pair of men's shoes next to the feet and legs of a girl

Giorgio Agamben’s theory of “homo sacer,” elaborated upon in his 1998 book, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, harks back to a figure of the same name from Ancient Rome. A homo sacer, literally meaning “sacred man,” was someone banished from Roman society, denied the rights of a normal citizen, so his life was therefore seen as forfeit. Agamben, in his theoretical work, argues that to be homo sacer is the exact opposite of the experience of the sovereign, and due to the sovereign’s power, any citizen in a society can be made homo sacer. While Agamben himself notes many modern examples of his homo sacer figure, another can be found in Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, via her reluctant time traveler, Henry.

The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of Henry and Claire, a couple whose lives and relationship are made complicated by Henry’s unusual condition: he spontaneously travels in time, without warning and without taking so much as his clothes along with him. This leaves him in many compromising positions—and in a foreign time with no money or support. One key feature of Agamben’s homo sacer figure is the reduction to bare life, or “zoe.” The homo sacer, through having their life made forfeit by the state, is made to focus on their basic level of needs to avoid being killed. Plucked from his normal life and dropped, naked and alone, in a foreign time and place, Henry is forced to focus primarily on survival. Henry even says that when he travels, he becomes “inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself. I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides.” His individuality and normal moral virtues are torn away in favor of self-preservation. He is taught and later teaches himself “urgently required survival skills,” such as lock picking, shoplifting, and dumpster diving. Although he resents that “I’m corrupting my poor innocent little self,” he feels there is no other option. He must prioritize his own survival over his moral development. Much like the homo sacer, the danger imposed by Henry’s spontaneous time travel reduces him to a state of bare life and strips him of his identity. As a result, the world itself is made out to be a cruel sovereign that subjects its will on Henry; he sees cause and effect as “inescapable and brutal,” a horrid landscape he must solely survive.

Encompassed within the term “homo sacer” is the idea of a person who is simultaneously sacred and cursed. Henry, too, demonstrates a life both cursed by his time traveling ability and blessed by it. Time travel, beyond being a threat to his life, is a constant inconvenience to Henry, causing him to miss out on work and events while he is unexpectedly away in another time. As a result, he lives a lonely life, not only while he is away, but in his own time; it isn’t easy to maintain friendships or relationships when he could disappear randomly for any length of time. Unsurprisingly, time travel thus has a palpable effect on his relationship with his wife, Clare, as well. Clare, who narrates the novel alongside Henry, is often left alone while Henry is away, having to get used to living without him. To her, his absence is “present, like a damaged nerve, like a dark bird.” She feels like she has been left behind, and despite knowing that he does not travel willfully, she is often frustrated with him for seemingly deserting her.

Time travel, however, is not all bad. For one, Henry and Clare’s relationship would be impossible without it: Clare gets to know him during her childhood, a period Henry visits on his travels; they only begin their relationship after she recognizes him in linear time, many years later. Clare’s childhood was, by her own assessment, enriched by Henry’s inclusion. They also appear to be passionately in love in part because of Henry’s constant coming and goings; Clare claims that love is “intensified by absence,” as they appreciate the short, fleeting moments that they have together. Time travel both initiates and strengthens Henry and Clare’s love for one another, a small blessing alongside the struggles it imposes on them.

There are some other benefits to time travel that Henry exploits: for one, he is able to meet and interact with his dead mother, which he claims is “one of the best and most painful things about time traveling.” Although he is unable to prevent her death or let her know who he is when he visits, he can watch her and his father before his birth and is even able to see her sing. Rather than his memories of his mother becoming “faded and soft” over time, Henry is thus able to keep his mother alive by visiting her in the past. Material benefits can arise from time travel as well: Clare realizes that “Henry could win the lottery at any time” when he does so to buy her a bigger studio. Although he does not exploit the lottery again, the pair know that any financial trouble they might go through could be easily cast away in times of dire need.

Time travel, then, clearly makes Henry both cursed and blessed; by being somewhat freed from the constraints of linear time, he is able to experience things that normal people cannot. But at the same time, this “freedom” is no escape at all.

One of the primary fascinations of The Time Traveler’s Wife is the idea of free will, and the seeming lack of control Henry and Clare have over their own lives. It becomes increasingly apparent that, despite Henry’s efforts, his path is set in stone and his actions cause no change; they appear to live in “a block universe, where past, present and future all coexist simultaneously and everything has already happened.” A key tenet of Henry’s motivations in the novel is his desire to be free—he claims that running is “proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to control my movement through space if not time,” giving him the opportunity to exert some small amount of control over his life. But the rules of determinism never allow him to truly exert his will. He cannot prevent his mother’s death, couldn’t prevent his relationship with Clare if he wanted to, and cannot avoid his own death, even though he knows it’s coming. In fact, it’s the moments when Henry attempts to exercise his will that the universe appears to fight back most strongly, asserting its control.

After Clare’s multiple miscarriages, for example, Henry decides he won’t endanger her any further, and gets a vasectomy. But these efforts are thwarted when Clare meets up with a former version of him who has traveled forward in time; by chance, this pregnancy is successful. The slim odds that a pre-vasectomy version of Henry would travel to this exact point, when Clare is still angry enough at her husband to get pregnant behind his back, suggests some meddling from an outside source. Their daughter Alba’s birth appears to be a moment that is predetermined; Henry’s attempts to prevent it are overthrown. In such moments, Henry’s dedication to enacting his own free will is exactly what makes it clear that he has none.

Similar contradictions are littered throughout The Time Traveler’s Wife: along with the dedication to exert free will in a world where, seemingly, there is none, Niffenegger also confronts us with the presence of a person’s absence, the liveliness of the dead, and the way that someone unshackled from linear time can still feel trapped by it. Henry is homo sacer in the way he is both expelled from normal life and inextricably tied to it, and, like the homo sacer, he represents a complete contradiction: both blessed and cursed; unimportant and crucial; a part of time and exempt from it; simultaneously here and elsewhere.

But while Agamben presents the homo sacer as a fundamentally oppressed and tragic figure, Niffenegger presents these contradictions as more complex than simply good or bad. Contrast and contradiction appear to be necessary to a fruitful life: “don’t you think,” Clare says, “that it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?” Perhaps being both cursed and blessed is better than simply being ordinary. From Clare’s perspective, all of the “curses” she and Henry experience due to time travel are justified by the short, fleeting moments of joy they get to have together.