Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

July 14, 2015 at 12:24 am 4 comments

Gabaldon_outlanderThere is a point in this novel in which Jamie, the main love interest, yells at Claire, the female protagonist, that he is sick and tired of finding himself in situations where people threaten to rape her and make him watch. Not only does that pretty much sum up the first half of the book, it is one of Jamie’s most sympathetic moments, as the reader, by this point, is heartily sick of it as well.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is the story of a woman named Claire Randall (nee Beauchamp) who, on a holiday with her husband in the Scottish Highlands in 1945, is accidentally transported back in time to 1743. Here, she meets with a number of Highlanders who are in the process of mounting a rebellion against the English king. Taken for an English spy, then a French spy, she is captured by the Scots and shipped off to a castle where, thanks to the skills she gained as a WWII combat nurse, she sets up a little physician’s practice.

The plot is a bit episodic and rambling, but generally pleasant in the first two-thirds or so. There’s intrigue, witchcraft, kidnapping, falls from horses, and — of course — sudden love and an arranged marriage. And there is a lot of sex, some of it nice, and some of it not. There’s also a weird preoccupation with whips that makes me think that E. L. James must have read this before writing Fifty Shades of Grey.

But rape, or the threat thereof, is a major theme in the book. Jamie’s sister has supposedly been raped, and she’s subsequently supposedly turned to prostitution. Jamie himself has been threatened with rape by a few Englishmen, one of whom also threatens to rape Claire. Claire is also nearly raped by two English deserters. That’s not even counting the last 200-300 pages in which a character is shown recovering from brutal rape and torture. And then there’s another drug-induced rape (the victim in question is clearly out of their mind and in no shape to give consent).

Sexual violence should not be used solely as a plot device. Even when a plot point doesn’t seem to revolve around rape, illegitimate children are somehow involved. It just seems a little lazy, in all honesty. Surely if one is bent on writing the type of story where a beautiful young woman (oddly, whose height and weight we know — this should be some sort of marker for the type of book this is) needs to be rescued constantly, one should at least use more varied situations. At least there are a few points in which the handsome young man also needs to be rescued, but overall, not a fan of all of the sexual assault.

At the same time, the issue of rape would seem more clear-cut if not for the character of Jamie. Most of the raping is done by absolute “baddies” and painted as horrible and unequivocally awful. And then…there’s Jamie.

Jamie is an archetypical man written by a woman — sensitive, kind, trusting, devastatingly handsome, strong, good with horses and typically tender but with a hidden traumatic past filled with dead siblings and brutality. My experience is admittedly limited, but I don’t think any nonfictional men wander around all the bloody time telling their wives how much they love her and dragging her off to have sex in a haystack. Like, three to four times an hour. If there are men like that, their wives are quite lucky.

But Jamie also has this angry and violent side. Gabaldon is probably trying to make a comment about him being a product of his time — this could something she’s introducing to make him less perfect. But for God’s sake, the man whips Claire for disobeying him, tries to rape her and mentions how turned on he was by beating her. If Claire had any friends (which she doesn’t, disturbingly), they would be very concerned about her.

The context here is tricky — Jamie says any man who disobeys a superior’s orders and brought danger on the clan as Claire has would be physically punished as well, and that a few lashes is better than any other option. He doesn’t rape her, even though it’s clear that by the laws of his time, he wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. Still, for a man who first kept asking her every four seconds if she was okay and if they could keep going, it’s a sea change. And it works to keep the rape in kind of a weird gray area. We’re supposed to like Jamie, even vicariously love him…and if this guy is okay with sexually assaulting his wive, what are we to make of Gabaldon’s attitude toward sexual violence?

However, if you are willing to overlook these flaws, Outlander is a great summer beach read. Escapist and picturesque, when no one is getting raped, it’s actually not terrible. Just try not to giggle when Jamie refers to Claire’s “lovely broad bum,” as she’s already told the reader she weighs 126 pounds (which Jamie describes as being the weight “of a draft horse”) at 5’ 7”, and very likely has no ass at all.


Entry filed under: Historical Fiction. Tags: , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  July 15, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Ugh, I would be a mess. I couldn’t hack Ken Follett and the rapes in ‘Pillars of the Earth,’ so it sounds like I should steer well clear of this one!

    • 2. Kate  |  July 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      For god’s sake, do. I could handle it in Game of Thrones, but rape shouldn’t be just a plot point. And I can’t get around the fact that we’re supposed to be idolizing Jamie, and then he beats his wife. Nope.

  • […] I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I was just kind of bored by it…not one of his best. Also, Outlander for runner-up. I liked it, except for the rape, which constitutes about a third of the […]

  • […] the end, I’m left feeling like I did at the end of Outlander — as though it had so much potential, and just ended up being deeply flawed. I did enjoy it, […]


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