I finally finished reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” I don’t usually pay attention to cover art, because too often I think the artist hasn’t any idea of the major themes of the book and just puts token elements from the story into the motif. But this cover? A whole world of meaning in the picture that ties into the story.
It reminds me of the drawing that if looked at one way the observer sees a young lady wearing a pearl necklace with her face turned away, the other perspective is that of an old crone with an enormous nose. What is light and shadow in one view is turned on its head in the other, yet it is the same picture.
In the cover art to this book one sees the feet and legs of a young girl. This is Clare, who is six years old when she first meets Henry. We see Henry’s shoes, empty. They rest atop what looks like a folded up man’s white dress shirt and a blanket. At first, what we think we see is that Clare is always there, she is present and lives only in the present. Henry, on the other hand, is being portrayed as not being there. From the title one can surmise that Henry is absent because he is traveling in time. But does that mean he is never there or that he never lives in the present? Just what do those empty shoes symbolize?
One of the first things we learn is that when Henry travels, he can’t take his clothes. Nothing other than his physical body does the traveling. This makes sense as it is his genetic structure responsible for his displacement in time; the clothes are inert, unable to act upon or be acted upon by Henry’s condition. Since he can’t take any clothes with him, why the particular attention paid to the shoes in the cover art? Why are they on top of the shirt? Did Clare place them there waiting for him? Or are they what was left behind when he vanished? In either case, the shoes being on top doesn’t make a lot of sense. You don’t put your shoes on first; you put on your clothes, then your shoes. You wouldn’t put shoes on top of clothes, the clothes might get dirty. They should be at the bottom of the pile, for reasons of convenience and hygiene. If they were left by Henry disappearing, the same would be true, too. Physically, your shoes would be on the bottom of a pile of clothes left behind, unless you walked on your hands. The shoes, front and center, are considered to be the most important item representing Henry’s life.
Henry never tells us that, though. He says finding shoes that fit is always the hardest part of clothing himself when traveling. Finding shoes, in and of themselves, however, is not an imperative in his travels. What he does say to Clare midway through the book is that his feet are his most important asset, that if anything happened to them it would mean his death. He runs miles every day to keep in shape. His feet are tough and leathery from being exposed to the elements. Henry’s feet are becoming his shoes. Without them, he has no recourse to escape from people meaning to harm him, from animals, from situations that require being able to exit them rapidly. Or, in the case of his wedding, an older Henry getting to the church on time to prevent the absence of his younger self being noticed at his own wedding. In this way, the only thing that travels with Henry is a facsimile of shoes. So, what do those shoes in the picture really represent? Henry’s actual shoes or Henry’s shoe-like feet which we can’t see?
In drawing there is a technique of using negative space to represent an object. Rather than drawing the object and putting white space around it, highlighting the object’s silhouette, the space around the object is filled in with black, thereby drawing attention to what isn’t actually there. It infers the object. It can also reveal things found in the surroundings that you wouldn’t notice because of the emphasis normally placed on the object itself. In case I’m not making myself clear, a good example of this can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_s
What else is there to see in the picture? What can we infer about Clare from her representation? One thing we notice about Clare in the picture is that we see only her legs and feet. They are prosaic and present in the picture. Clare is there, she is present at all times in her life, whether Henry is there or not. We don’t see her face because that is not important to who Clare is. While Henry may love her long red-gold hair, it does not define her. She is defined by her connection to the earth, to her physical grounding in time and space. Where and when she is, is objective and immutable. She provides a contrast to Henry who is subjective and mutable.
Secondly, Clare is just a child in this picture, yet the title of the book is “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” Why the disconnection between the word wife and the portrayal of said wife as a child? What’s important about this disassociation? We know that Clare met Henry for the first time when she was six years old. This was the beginning of their relationship in her frame of reference. When Clare first meets Henry, her life is highlighted by his visits. He is transient to her life and has no clear agency in it. Clare is the master of her own ship. She doesn’t do things because he is there, she does them because he isn’t. As a teenager, she dates because Henry isn’t there, because she’s tired of waiting for him. In the two years between losing her virginity to an older Henry and finally meeting Henry for his first time, she has a fling with someone because Henry is not there. Not because he’s traveled away from her time, but because he’s gone back to his own. Henry’s long absences in her childhood allow Clare free will to act in her own present. All that changes once they meet and Clare’s life becomes entangled with Henry’s fractured timeline, Her free will becomes problematic. When they go house hunting, Clare becomes exasperated because Henry keeps looking for something he’s already seen from a visit to the future. Clare is looking for a different set of specifics and finally forbids Henry to come along so she can at least go through the motions of finding what she wants through free will. As an adult, Clare has lost agency in her own life because of Henry’s absences. How can the fact that Henry is absent cause two different effects? Negative space. In Clare’s past, Henry is actually from the future, he can’t affect her present while he is there. There is nothing to infer from his absence from the future. In adult Clare’s present, Henry has a mitigating effect on her present, what she can do is inferred by when Henry has gone to when he is absent: the past or the future. Why, then, is it important to portray Clare as a child on the cover? Because no matter what Clare thought she had at any given moment, free will or not, she will be/is/once was the time traveler’s wife. Once she met Henry when she was six, she became all of those whether she knew it or not.
So, we see a child standing next to a pair of men’s shoes. The child is the alpha of the relationship, the feetless shoes are the omega. Both are inevitable. Birth to death, in shoes.