AGAINST THE CLOCK: Characters Who Defy Time
By Paula Vince
Time is arguably the most fascinating and relentless force of all. It steadily changes each of us and eventually removes us from the picture entirely. Nobody can speed it up or slow it down. The most we can do is create the illusion that we can, with skin products, hair dye, cosmetic surgery and so-called super foods. But it ticks steadily away, eroding us into faded, frail images of our former selves. Maybe that's why speculative stories about fellows like the following literary characters intrigue us, because they encourage us to ask, “What if time behaved differently for us? What would be the ramifications of that?” It's interesting to consider how certain authors have grappled with the same questions; the conditions they inflict on their poor heroes could be likened to medical prognoses, enabling us to ponder some possible answers. So, here goes…
Tom Hazard (from Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time)
Tom has a condition that causes him to age incredibly slowly, at the rate of one year for every 15. He's seen a lot of history in his life, meeting celebrities such as Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This gives him plenty of insight for his current job as a High School History teacher, but Tom finds it hard to deal with the downside, which is outliving everyone he grows to care about. (My review is here.)
Benjamin Button (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
I love the concept of poor Benjamin's tale. His life trajectory is the opposite to other people's. He's born as a haggard, grey-haired man and ages backward until his death from old age, as a new born baby. The image of how he and the love of his life face their final moments together is haunting; an elderly woman holding a helpless infant. I believe the movie starring Brad Pitt surpassed the novella by F. Scott Fitzgerald, on which it was based.
Henry de Tamble (from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler's Wife)
Henry’s strange condition once saved his life, as a 5-year-old, but he senses it will also be the death of him. He zips back and forth to different stages of his own future and past, but unable to control when it will happen. His genetic clock randomly resets itself, often at extremely awkward moments. He always vanishes without a trace, leaving a pile of clothes behind on the floor, to appear entirely naked in another time frame. But, he has the consolation of some interesting conversations with himself at different ages. To a certain extent, this gives him comforting insight into what lies ahead for him, but how terrifying for Henry when his future self no longer visits. What is that supposed to signify? (My review is here.)
Dorian Gray (from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray)
You could say that Dorian’s time-defying condition didn't develop until his late teens or early twenties. This young man longed to trade places with his own portrait, because it would be so wonderful to stay gorgeous and young. Suddenly, that's just what happens. However, the canvas bears the brunt of his hard living and bad choices, so Dorian hides it away in his attic. Meanwhile, everyone wonders how he manages to stay so ravishingly attractive. It's bound to catch up with him some time, though, because that's the nature of time, and we know it'll hit hard when it does. (Here is my review.)
Jesse Tuck (from Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting)
Teenager Jesse Tuck and his family could be said to have caught their condition from contaminated water. There was evidently some sort of supernatural bug in the stream they drank from, which preserved them from the ravages of aging from then on. Furthermore, it fortified each of them, so they were impossible to kill. So, when Jesse visits the grave of his childhood sweetheart, Winnie, long after she's grown old and passed away, he's still the same handsome young man he was in the 1920s. Only his fashion sense has changed. His is perhaps the most tragic tale of all. For, who would really choose that sort of indestructible immortality?
What a wild ride it would be to get hold of all these stories and read them back-to-back! If you're like me, they might help reconcile you with your rapidly aging self. Perhaps ours is the best-case scenario, after all, because these guys' lives were fraught with too much difficulty and heartache. Would you trade places with any one of them?
I'll finish off with the legendary figure who represents the condition each of us must bear…
He's not actually a mortal, but a personification of Time itself. He's portrayed as elderly and bearded because he's been around literally forever. His scythe and hourglass represent the one-way movement we all must cope with. The young will grow old, but the old cannot rejuvenate themselves to start over again. Presenting him in a human form like the rest of us is apt because, it could be argued, we all have a genetic condition regarding time, the same as the characters on my list. Time starts ticking away the moment we're born. We know the condition is chronic, and will turn out to be terminal, but compared to them, I suspect we wouldn't have it any other way.
If you enjoyed this survey of time-bending characters, you might also enjoy my related list of Evergreen Children, those storybook kids who never grow up. It turns out there's a lot they can teach us. There's also this reflection on the passage of time, featuring a wise and happy bunch named The Graveyard School.
Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She's also a blogger, reviewer and mother of three. Getting stuck into a good book is one of her very favourite pastimes. For more of her book chat, check out www.vincereview.blogspot.com