A Writer's Journey

January 23, 2012

Book Analysis: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Filed under: journey,writing — mackenziew @ 12:00 am
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I feel I should start with the disclaimer that I do, in fact, like “Outlander.” Why do I say that? Because after I finished the book, I found an online friend had finished it as well. We decided to exchange opinions. And when I wrote mine, I turned a critical eye to it. And I mean critical.

Well, it took me a few years to read “Outlander.” Not the actual book, that only took a few months. But I mean to actually pick up the book. And I did so for a few reasons. The first was that the author, Diana Gabaldon, was quoted on another book I decided to try called “Into the Wilderness” by Sara Donati. The two authors seemed to also have something of a friendship, so I had to wonder if maybe their styles were similar enough for me to like the book.

Then a few months ago, my sister and our “cousins” (they’re not related by blood, but are practically family) went out to eat after my sister came back from college for the summer break. We were next door to a Barnes and Noble and so went in to see what they had. While there, my friend pointed out the Outlander books and really praised them. And this was important as in our group, her sister and I are the readers. We’re the ones people go to for book advice. So, if my friend–my best friend–was advocating it, it must be good. Her mother also grew excited when she heard I was interested in reading it and loaned me the book.

“Outlander” tells the story of Claire Randall, a WWII nurse newly returned from the war. She and her husband Frank decide to take a second honeymoon to reconnect after their six year separation. They go to Scotland, where Frank hopes to find more about an ancestor, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. Claire learns about the mystical stories of the area and finds herself in a circle of stones one day. In a rush of noise, she is transported to the 18th century.

Claire is caught by Black Jack himself, who quickly proves to be our antagonist. She escapes and winds up in a band of Scots. She tends to one of their wounded and they take her back to their laird. Despite his suspicions that she might be an English spy, he lets her stay in the castle where she gets closer to her patient, Jamie. The laird decides to turn her over to Black Jack, where it’s quickly confirmed she’s not a spy for him. The Scots save her and decide she should marry Jamie for her own protection. She does so and they form a relationship.

Jamie shows Claire a passionate love, but their life is filled with danger. They must escape from Jamie’s suspicious relatives, a town who thinks Claire is a witch and Black Jack. They find allies, enemies and a cast of colorful characters along the way.

From here on out, I am going to warn of SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the book and wish to do so, please leave now.

I had some difficulty getting into the story at first. Exposition is important but can be the
slowest parts of a book. I had this complaint about the Harry Potter books as well, mainly the last three. The first five or ten chapters of those books were usually the most difficult to get through and the same is true here. Of course, some important things are set up–Jack Randall and his connection to Frank, the ancient beliefs of the Scots, etc. It’s as if Gabaldon wanted to get Claire to the Highlands as soon as possible yet knew she couldn’t do that immediately. I was just waiting for that as well just because it might bring some action. I know Claire was not originally intended to be such a big part of the story and Gabaldon admits to writing in scenes. And I think the opening chapters were more of an afterthought than they should’ve been.

Our narrator and protagonist is Claire. In some ways, she’s a borderline Mary Sue. Judging from comments I’ve seen Ms. Gabaldon make, she is an author avatar. This isn’t always a bad thing and is so in Claire’s case. Many of her more Mary Sue aspects have explanations, such as her ability to remain calm is because she was a nurse during wartime. My only complaint is that she never fully breaks down over her situation. When the danger has passed and she’s alone in her room, she never panics. She analyzes the situation and immediately comes up with a plan. It may just be where my willing suspension of disbelief ends, but I cannot accept that someone doesn’t at least panic before forming a plan.

While she isn’t described as a great beauty, she does manage to attract a few admirers. Including the laird’s brother. But the laird, Colum, is suspicious of her. This is another thing that detracts from her Mary Sueness, people are suspect of her. But he lets her stay in the castle though he puts her to work as a healer. This also reduces her Mary Sueness. She has to earn the trust of the people in the castle as well as their respect. People don’t instantly like her. However, the people who have grudges against her do so out of jealousy. Laoghaire fancies Jamie. And then there’s Black Jack…but we’ll get to him later.

She does have a modern sensibility and in some ways, perhaps too modern. In some ways, she reads more like she comes from the post woman’s liberation movement than the period immediately preceding the 1950s. Of course, she had a very unusual upbringing which might explain away her more liberal way of thinking, but I highly doubt it. And then there’s this sentiment:

“Women are only fit to do as they’re told, and follow orders, and sit meekly around with their hands folded, waiting for the men to come back and tell them what to do.” (p. 385)

Okay, Claire, are you from 1946 or 1976? While the 1940s were more progressive than the 1740s, women were still taught to be loyal to their husbands and it was still an incredibly patriarchal society. There was even a king when Claire left as Elizabeth took the throne in the 1950s. But it makes for an interesting culture clash as well as tension in the story.

However, she is still a heroine for whom you can root. Sure there are times you want to throttle her and roll your eyes, but you still want her to succeed. Perhaps that maybe because she’s our narrator and if you didn’t root for her, you wouldn’t continue to read the book. In some ways, she is wish-fulfillment. She gets to do things we would never do in a million years and gets the guy.

Actually, she gets two. I’d like to take a moment to address Claire’s first husband, Frank. He’s a relatively minor character in the grand scheme of “Outlander.” I have thought about Frank. I theorized that he was a contrast to Jamie. In all honesty, if it weren’t specifically mentioned (along with a few comments about wanting children), I wouldn’t have known Frank was Claire’s husband. He comes off as inattentive and neglectful, unintentionally though. This is supposed to allow them to bond again after the war. But he spends it chasing down information of Black Jack, leaving Claire to her own devices. She doesn’t seem to mind this though.

There is a missed opportunity with Frank, in my opinion. A possible plotline hinted at but never used to potential is the fact that these two have just returned from World War II. It’s used more to explain the distance, but Diana Gabaldon also raises the question of fidelity during the six years. Frank first raises the possibility that Claire may have been unfaithful. He then says this:

“…Claire, it would make no difference to me. I love you so. Nothing you ever did could stop my loving you.” (p. 23)

While at first it sounds like a loving sentiment, it’s also a bit suspect. No one really handles
cheating that well unless they have their own secrets to hide, especially in literature/film/TV. Claire also wonders if her husband was unfaithful, but never asks him. I think it would’ve been interesting if she had turned around and asked Frank if he had cheated. If he had, it would make slightly more sense why Claire decides not to return in the end. She would have to face the pain that her husband had been unfaithful and leaving behind a man who would lay down his life for her.

Claire’s second husband and our other protagonist is James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser or simply “Jamie.” If Claire is an author avatar, in many ways, Jamie is the fantasy lover. Not that he isn’t flawed. He has a temper. He is violent on occasion, though he feels sorry afterwards. Now this makes him sound a lot like an abuser. And some people may think so after reading the book. But I don’t think so. He is genuinely sorry and vows to never do it again. And he follows through with this vow. He doesn’t raise a hand to her again throughout the book except for a sequence toward the end.

When we first meet him, he is injured and needs Claire’s medical skills. She continues to care for him as he works in the stables. He is revealed early on to be a wanted man and using a fake last name. His past is slowly revealed and it is more intriguing with each piece that’s revealed. He is also described to be quite handsome and has a pleasant personality.

And the poor guy goes through a lot throughout the course of the book. Besides what happened before the start, he then has to rescue his wife a few times from either Captain Randall or British soldiers. And then comes the scenes with Captain Randall. Of course, Claire doesn’t see them, but Jamie later describes them in great detail. In her blog, she explains why she chose this route:

“In part, it’s because it’s a High Stakes story. Almost everybody understands that you have to have _something_ at stake for a story to be good…So OUTLANDER is a high stakes story–on an individual level–throughout. It’s a love story, sure, and it’s all about what people will _do_ for the sake of love…Throughout the story, they keep rescuing each other…And here’s Jamie swearing to give Claire everything he has; the protection of his name and his clan–and the protection of his body–in order to save _her_ from this man”

So far, so good. Then there’s this:

“…One, two, three. The Rule of Three. It’s one of the important underlying patterns of story-telling; one event can be striking. The next (related) event creates resonance. But the third brings it home—WHAM…The third encounter with Black Jack Randall is the climax, the point where the stakes are highest…This is the final challenge, and Jamie’s willing to pay what will apparently be the ultimate cost…But they do rescue each other, and Claire saves not only his life, _but his soul_.”

That explains the torture. It still doesn’t explain the rape. Why did Black Jack have to rape Jamie for Claire to need to save his soul? Let’s discuss Black Jack then. I personally like evil characters were you spend most of the time debating about their intentions. Are they truly evil? Just misguided? Are they really good but painted in a bad light? Someone like Snape (though he ultimately ended up being a hero) or Dr. Richard Todd from Donati’s “Into the Wilderness.” (He had issues). Or Javert from Les Miserables. (He had issues as well).

However, I do like Voldemort from Harry Potter as well. He’s over the top evil and unrepentantly so. He’s this larger-than-life persona that overshadows the books and gives them a sense of urgency. As his threat grows larger and more real, the darker and more urgent the books become. And at first, Black Jack seems like this. He looms over the story and his acts seem to get more and more deplorable. He flogged Jamie, framed him for murder, raped his sister, led to his father’s death and has shown no concerns about beating up a woman (Jamie’s wife). He’s over-the-top evil. And this makes him as great a threat as Voldemort. What he doesn’t have is the ability to remain lurking in the back of your mind like Voldemort. You forgot about him until Gabaldon reminded you that he existed.

And then at the end of the book, she turns him from this over the top, pure evil villain into, well, a man who is crying and begging his rape victim to tell him he loves him. And that just struck me as a very weak decision. When she had Jenny recount how she wasn’t raped by Black Jack because she kept fighting back, I thought that was brilliant. Then she made it because he was really homosexual and/or fancied Jamie for some reason.

Then there’s this from Gabaldon’s blog: “The man’s a genuine sadistic psychopath, who has essentially destroyed Jamie’s family and seriously injured him, both physically and emotionally.” At first, it does seem that Gabaldon does write a genuine psychopath. And then we get to the prison sequence. And there she undoes everything.

Let me explain something first. When I was in college, I was a journalism major. As part of my major, I was required to take x number of journalism related courses. One of them was in literary journalism. As part of our curriculum, we read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (which I highly recommend). My professor made us look up the definitions of a psychopath and a sociopath. I am forever grateful to her for making us do so.

Therefore, Ms. Gabaldon’s statement struck me as off. Let’s look at some passages, shall we?

“He did not just hurt me, or use me. He made love to me, Claire. He hurt me–hurt me badly—while he did it, but it was an act of love to him.” (p. 793)

“He talked. All during it, he talked to me. Partly it was threats, and partly it was love talk, but often it was you…Aye. He was terribly jealous of you, you know.” (p. 794)

“I couldna tell what he was saying for a bit, and then I could; he was saying ‘I love you, I love you,’ over and over…Then he whispered to me, ‘Tell me that you love me.'” (p. 831)

I highlighted these passages for a reason. One of the signs of a psychopath is very shallow emotions.So shallow that some experts even have a name for it: “Proto-emotions: primitive responses to immediate needs.” Wikipedia also says this: “Psychopaths do not feel love and are incapable of forming emotional bonds with people. Though a psychopath can sometimes charm a person into being infatuated with him, he cannot reciprocate the feelings, only feign them. Though they derive pleasure from sexual encounters, these relations are superficial and impersonal.” So right there, two signs of a psychopath Black Jack certainly fails.

On to the sex scenes. I must admit these startled me. Have I read books with sex scenes before? Of course. In Donati’s “Into the Wilderness,” there are a few sex scenes. But not to the extent that Gabaldon writes them or the frequency. And they usually have a point or make sense in the context of the story, like a scene after the main couple (Nathaniel and Elizabeth) are nearly killed. I understand the scene involving their consummation. It’s every other scene afterwards that baffles me. It almost got to the point I was like “Really? Another sex scene?” I know from her blog, Gabaldon takes part in an annual tradition where several authors gather together to read sex passages from their works. In their underwear. Anyway, most sex scenes could have been cut to no detriment to the story. Who knows, maybe the story may have been tighter or Randall’s character development would have been better done.

About the romance. I like it. Sure, it moves a bit fast, but it’s not love at first sight. Well, on Claire’s part at least as Jamie does later admit he fell in love with her shortly after their initial meeting. Claire finds herself drawn to Jamie, but most likely as he is the only one who doesn’t regard her with suspicion and actually talks to her. I thought they had a great connection very early on, when I didn’t realize that the Jamie introduced was the same Jamie from the blurb on the back (the different name threw me–it was before hints started to be dropped that Jamie might be an outlaw). I swore if he wasn’t the Jamie in the end, I’d be very upset. I find their relationship to be one of two minds, which I like, even if the emphasis is still put too much on the physical.

The only weak part of the romance is the fact that Claire is technically married. Her guilt seems to come and go in spurts and is always gone whenever she and Jamie have sex. In one way it’s a flaw, how quickly she seems to get over her husband. However, a more sympathetic character would actually feel, you know, guilt over it. At least once. She freaks about marrying Jamie in the same church she married Frank, you would think she would at least consider what she’s done as adultery. Especially as Gabaldon has admitted that the original ending of the book included Claire going back. (“Also, when I wrote it, I had in mind that it was one book–and knew only enough about it to be pretty sure that Claire would “cross” not once, but twice– future to past, past to future–”)  Wouldn’t she still feel bad about Frank? Of course, if the plot idea that Frank had cheated had been explored, this might make more sense.

I found the historical aspects quite fascinating, which of course would keep me going short of sticking a bagpiper in there. Seriously, I love the bagpipes. I probably put more stock into the historical intrigue that was there than most readers and wished for more in the book. (Thankfully, there appears to be more in the sequel). I also wish we had seen more of Jamie’s MacKenzie relatives as well. They were much like Snape–are they or aren’t they the good guys? They care about Jamie, but to what point are they scared of him as well? I find the politics of a medieval castle more interesting than some of the other things Gabaldon focused on.

I find that Gabaldon has an excellent grasp of description. She paints a picture without overdoing it, which is always a plus. You can see the Scottish highlands, the characters, etc. Her dialogue is also very good as well. I can hear it when I read her work, which I love to do. In fact, I used it as example of writing accents in dialogue.

In some ways, it is just your average romance. Slightly idealized woman falls for ideal fantasy man. But in other ways, it’s fresh and new. Claire isn’t your average damsel in distress. She is capable when she needs to be. I know Ms. Gabaldon seems to dislike calling her work “romance.” But it is, or at least “Outlander” definitely is. The historical aspects take a backseat more in Outlander and the main thrust is Claire and Jamie’s relationship. And frankly, that’s what people talk about when they are reading her stories.

Are romances bad? No, of course not. They have their own purpose. And that’s why I started this with the statement that I like the book. As a writer, it gave me insight into how and how not to write my own story. Perhaps that was why I looked at it so critically. But as a reader, it was a great escape. Time to get lost in a new time and place, in the relationship of these two people. Time to just not think and recharge.

And sometimes, that’s all you need.

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3 Comments »

  1. I enjoyed your evaluation of Diana Galbadon’s writing very much. When I finished the third book of her series today I went on a Google search for an writer’s analysis of her fiction. I know to not attempt to read her work unless I have no deadlines nor need to be well rested because I am incapable of putting her book aside to sleep. My goal is to understand this. How does she achieve the unusual density of experience for the reader to become so “swept away” that emerging from her books to real life once again seems to awake into a flat and two-dimensional sensory experience? Why does it not have the opposite effect: to open the eyes more to life’s details and responding to life more urgently? Are there writers that can do that? How would it be done? What are the nuts and bolts of writing to deliver a strong experience during reading versus the nuts and bolts that deliver to the reader stronger life experience after reading?

    I wondered if Galabadon’s peculiar writing craft develops out of particular footsteps of earlier writers? My background is not in creative writing but one of a very broad liberal arts education and its application in design, illustration and art. I have no intention to become a writer but I need to know what is behind her good writing the same way I know the why and wherefore behind my craft.

    Your piece was so stimulating that it triggered my need for further discussion. There is another important aspect to Galbaldon’s writing. The observation comes from my perspective as fifty-seven year old. Reading fiction is a forty-seven year old habit and it is my opinion is that the most common flaw in writing is that the author’s fingerprints get in the way of telling a good story. Which fingerprints are they? It is their sex and inability to enter the world of the opposite sex. While there are stories where a singular distorted male or female point of view is needed, most writers of fiction attempt to depict male and female characters convincingly and fail to do both sexes equally well. Both Rowling and Gabaldon are the exceptions. I have found their male characters to be very true in spirit. It is interesting that the writers are both women. And I am looking forward to reading the adult fiction of J K Rowling and see if her ability to do that continues.

    Again, I appreciate your piece and found it illuminating. Thank you.

    Judy

    Comment by Judy Hanks — May 28, 2012 @ 2:39 am | Reply

  2. I am not an expert on literature, but am a bit of an expert on femenism. Some individuals are capable of thinking for themselves, some have highly developed sense of self worth and a plain old ego. Even back in 1947! Emma Goldman was one such woman and she lived way way back before the bra burning era. My own anscestors rejected racism before 1960s and not for religious reasons either. There were radical thinkers and moral rebels among the ordinary in every century.

    Comment by Lina — November 5, 2013 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  3. One aspect you leave out when saying Claire sounds more like a 70s than a 40s woman is the way the war changed women. Women took on roles they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try in peacetime, like working in factories, and they learned they were capable of much more than society told them they were. This would have been fresh in Claire’s mind.

    Comment by Msconduct — January 19, 2014 @ 7:03 pm | Reply


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