Why I’m really conflicted about reading The Outlander…

8 September 2014

Heads up: trigger warning for discussions on rape and domestic violence.

I’ll admit, I was initially excited to read The Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Historical fiction? Hot guys in kilts? TV adaptation with Graham McTavish? Done and done. I was sold. Others who had read it seemed really enthusiastically in love with it, and even more so with said television adaption coming out on Starz.

I didn’t think anything of it and picked it up right away to dive into this new world. At first, yes, it took me a little bit to get into it… but then I slowly got wrapped up with the characters, and yes, I mean, the romance part sort of make you want a highlander of your own… Until it didn’t.

Ok. Fair warning, yes, there are spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book.

I’m talking about the time when Jamie beat Claire, his wife, to punish her and remind her to submit and obey him. Now, I completely understand that historically, that happened a lot. It’s only been fairly recently in our human history that women are considered equal partners in marriage — and that you’d even marry for love, rather than some sort of social, political, or business reasons. (And still, this concept isn’t fully recognized in all parts of the world today, but I digress.)

Ok, so let’s back up. The men go off into town for some business and Claire is told to stay put. She clearly states that she doesn’t want to, but is told again to stay put (and my memory is a little hazy, but possibly is threatened if she disobeys). Now, in case you’re completely unfamiliar with the book — Claire is from the 1940s, and she’s suddenly back in the 1740s thanks to some sort of portal thing in a magic rock she touched. In the 1940s, she’s already married, and has been for some years now. But now in the 18th century, she ends up marrying Jamie as a way of avoiding arrest from the English. The whole story so far has sort of revolved around Claire wanting to get back to those set of rocks so she can go back to her husband and her time.

Being alone for the first time since transporting back 200 years, she takes that opportunity to try to go back to the rocks so she can indeed go home. Along the way, she’s caught and taken by the English… forcing her husband to rescue her. Said rescue risks the lives of all the men in the group, and the husband is forced to kill and fight his way to save her. Yay, heroic husband, right? He saves her from being raped. This should be an awesome thing.

But when they get back, he beats her. Yeah, he tells her straight up that he’s going to have to punish her for what she did, for putting them all at risk — and if a man had done what she did, chances are they’d killed him in return. But as she’s a lady, it’s up to her husband to give her a beating. She protests — because, seriously, who wants to be beaten — and as a result, he holds her down and beats her “within an inch of her life.” Seriously, the book says that.

She’s not happy with this, obviously. And she fights with herself about this — which, even that I can understand. I get his mindset in this, and I can get that she’s been falling in love and now she’s torn about this abuse and how to take it. They talk, blah blah blah… But when they get back to the inn, Jamie forces himself on his wife. He’s not gentle about it either. She clearly says no and that he’s hurting her. Gabaldson doesn’t really skimp on these sections, it wasn’t just a “and he took her forcefully.” She does get somewhat detailed without being overtly graphic. This scene is definitely uncomfortable. And it is in this whole mess of an ordeal between the beating and the rape, Claire decides that she loves Jamie.

Now. Historical fiction. I get it. Beatings happened. Rape happened. What is upsetting to me is how this is all romanticized in the book. And I really don’t know if I can read any further.

We’re supposed to see Jamie as this strapping, caring, strong, and sensual male that we’d all long for… Someone we can root for… But… I can’t It’s part of why his character reads off to me. Or at least why his character is disconcerting to me. Yeah, he promised not to beat her again, but after the rape he told her he would not apologize for the beating because he, in his mind, was right. And he showed no remorse for the rape, in fact, not long after he raped her again, though gently that time — but she still clearly said no.

Like I said, I know that these events were unfortunately common in the 18th century. A man back then wouldn’t understand that there is such a thing as spousal rape. I also understand that yeah, Jamie and Claire liked rough sex with each other — but the fact is, for these events, she never gave consent. It doesn’t matter if it physically felt good, or that she consented the time before this. An orgasm is not consent. At that moment she was also in pain and was saying no.

And to write this as a 21st century author in the light that it’s supposed to be romantic? I can’t support that. What happened there was not love, not at all. Rape is not romantic.

I really want to like this story. I really want to feel comfortable finishing it. I really want to read all 8 or however many books there are in this series. But I can’t invest myself in a story that doesn’t understand how wrong this all is. I can only hope the tv adaptation either addresses this, or just handles it completely differently.

  • Just got the first book from the library. This does not sound pleasant. Will update once I read it myself. I really didn’t expect this especially since the first episode of the tv show was so pro-women and women’s sexuality I assumed the books were very feminist in that way.

    • Erini

      It’s definitely challenging… and I’m sort of tempted to finish the book just to see if this sort of romanticizing of violence/abuse is continued or not. But that part made me 100% uncomfortable. I just wasn’t expecting it.

      Glad to hear the show is more pro-women. I’d be curious to see, later in the season, how they portray these events. Maybe their adaptation is better.

  • Marie

    I did the same thing! I picked up the book because I like the show, then I got to that point in the book last night and deleted it from my Kindle. I didn’t even read far enough past the beating to get to the rape. Gross. I also understand it’s historically accurate, but I’m a 21st century woman and have lost all interest in Jamie now. It’s not sexy, it’s not romantic, it’s not love. To look past these scenes is to condone and excuse violence, which I could never do. I’m interested to see how the show handles these scenes. Those episodes should air soon, and in the light of the current public conversation over domestic violence, I hope the show and those elements of it are rightfully condemned. Thanks for your post and for sharing your thoughts. I’m happy to see I’m not alone in my reaction.

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