Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and the Trivialization of Rape

Robert_Hunt_illustration_gabaldonRape of civilian women by invading forces has undoubtedly been a characteristic of war for centuries. Martial rape has, in fact, been recognized by the United Nations Security Council as a deliberate military strategy “to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

It should therefore come as no surprise that rape is featured in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, a novel set in 18th-century Scotland during the years leading up to the Jacobite rising of 1745. English soldiers are stationed in the Highlands and although there appears to be a reluctant amity between the British army and the Clans, the events of the novel suggest the peace is tenuous: deserters from the English army roam the countryside, Scotsmen are imprisoned and executed, and certain Highlanders are quietly gathering the coin necessary to support a rebellion. In this atmosphere of increasing tension between the English and the Scots, civilian rape could be a very real possibility. Unfortunately, Gabaldon uses rape as a plot device throughout Outlander and, as a result, trivializes sexual violence.

When Claire, the novel’s main character, is transported back through time from post-WWII England to Scotland in the 1740s, she is almost immediately assaulted by an English army captain. Wearing a dress that looks like a shift to the inhabitants of this earlier period is sufficient excuse for Black Jack Randall to identify Claire as a whore and force himself upon her: “He ground his hips hard against mine, and his hands pinned my shoulders to the earth…His tongue thrust into my mouth and explored me with bold familiarity, roving and plunging, retreating and lunging again.” This scene is undoubtedly meant to say more about Randall than his victim. He is, after all, in hot pursuit of Scottish bandits, but takes time for a cursory assault when the opportunity presents itself. However, the encounter also sets the tone for Claire’s experiences throughout the remainder of the novel: despite frequent sexual attacks, she remains emotionally unscathed and capable of engaging in a passionate sexual relationship with her newfound love, Jamie.

Gabaldon characterizes Claire as a resourceful WWII nurse. She has seen action, she has seen men die. She is no stranger to violence. We are to assume that she can overcome anything that is thrown her way. Furthermore, Gabaldon suggests that Claire does suffer in her own way as a result of the many attacks and shocks throughout the novel. The effects of sexual assault are varied and unique to the individual, but there are some common symptoms. In Claire’s case, she may be displaying effects similar to rape trauma when she appears emotionally numb or in shock or when she chronically minimizes the assaults. Claire, herself, admits that she has not been taking things “with the proper seriousness” and describes her experiences as unreal, “something from a play or a fancy-dress pageant.” This would be a believable response to trauma if it were not for Claire’s budding sexual relationship with Jamie. Unless Gabaldon’s (unlikely) intent was that Claire’s love for Jaime is merely the result of Stockholm syndrome—the psychological phenomenon of bonding with her kidnapper—this relationship undercuts any attempts at a serious depiction of sexual trauma.

Following the initial assault by Randall, Claire is set upon no less than five times: she is kidnapped and suffers the lascivious gazes and lewd remarks of the Mackenzie bandits; is molested by drunk clansmen at Castle Leoch; is violently struck and later nearly raped by Randall; and kills a deserter from the English army who is readying to gang rape her with his partner while her new husband is forced to watch at knifepoint. Despite these horrors, Claire’s relationship with Jamie blossoms as does her supposed love for the period she has been transported to. Even when Claire first breaks down emotionally in the novel—“Since the moment I stepped into the rock and ordinary life ceased to exist, I had been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and jostled”—this emotional outpouring is diminished when the scene marks the first stirrings of sexual desire between Claire and Jamie. As Jamie is soothing her, she thinks to herself, “If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere,” which coincides with the realization that Jamie is aroused. This is a disappointing conclusion to what could have been a real display of emotional turmoil.

A similar lightness follows Claire throughout the novel. During the wedding preparations, for example, despite Claire’s vehement attempts to prevent the marriage, she is flattered by the male attention: “I floated down in a most gratifying cloud of reverent admiration…What with one thing and another, it was some time since a man had looked at me that way, and I nodded quite graciously back.” These do not seem like fitting thoughts for a woman who has been repeatedly set upon by violent men, including the Laird’s brother Dougal, who is the admirer in this scene.  In another example, when Claire is captured and nearly raped by Randall, she thinks “What in God’s name is the British army coming to? Glorious traditions, my aunt Fanny.” The attempted humour is strikingly incongruous with the scene.

Following the attack by the English deserters, Claire finally displays a more serious response to the attack, “shaking with nerves and shock.” However, this is short-lived and the scene becomes another sexual encounter between Claire and Jamie: “It was not an act of love, but one of necessity…Our only strength lay in fusion, drowning the memories of death and near-rape in the flooding of the senses.” Even Jamie admits to taking her “like some sort of animal.” The lightness returns when Claire has an uncontrollable laughing fit visualizing Jamie’s face “caught in the act as it were.” She realizes that, except for periodic hysterical laughter over nothing, she “seemed to suffer no ill effects from our encounter with the deserters.” This from a woman who was not only nearly raped but also killed a man for the first time.

Sexual assaults are not merely carried out in the context of military spoils of war either. Gabaldon also casually incorporates marital rape as the next step in Claire and Jamie’s passionate affair. After her rescue from Randall, Jamie claims he must punish her for disobeying his orders. His men expect it. If she were a man, she would have her ears cropped, be flogged, or killed. Perhaps this is historically accurate, but, if so, this is undercut when Jamie admits to taking great pleasure in Claire’s punishment: “I said I would have to punish you. I did not say I wasna going to enjoy it.”

In fact, Claire’s non-consensual beating becomes the precursor to no less than three non-consensual sexual encounters: following a failed ambush by thieves Jamie coerces Claire into having sex while the other men are nearby despite her protests (“While my mind might object…my body plainly considered itself the spoils of war and was eager to complete the formalities of surrender”); and following a bitter fight back at Castle Leoch, Jamie forces himself violently upon Claire despite her clear rejection; and then again “gently” in the morning despite her extreme physical pain: “…a gentle insistence that I knew was a continuation of the lesson so brutally begun the night before. Gentle he would be, denied he would not.” In all three of these instances, the suggestion is that it is not marital rape because Claire enjoyed the sex (that no really meant yes) and the reader should be turned on by the virulent Jamie taking what is rightfully his. For survivors of sexual assault who understand the guilt associated with the body’s arousal to even unwanted sexual advances, this is the utmost trivialization of a horrific violation. And, frankly, there isn’t much to be excited about when Claire comments on the morning after this rape, “My innards felt like churned butter. It felt as though I had been beaten by a blunt object.”

Claire is not the only one to suffer from sexual violence. The rape of Jamie’s sister (which we later learn Randall was not able to carry out) is a major plot and character driver as it leads to Jamie’s initial arrest and brutal flogging. Jamie himself is also tortured and repeatedly raped by Randall in a shocking sequence, later described in detail by Jamie, where the only homosexual sex in the novel is utterly demonized. Surprisingly, Gabaldon’s depiction of Jamie’s reaction to sexual assault is the most accurate. He is unable to eat, he has nightmares, and he wants Claire to leave because he can’t bear to touch her again: “I lie here feeling that I will die without your touch, but when you touch me, I feel as though I will vomit with shame and loathing of myself.” Jamie even displays the shame absent from Claire’s response to rape when he describes how he could not stop himself from “rising” to Randall’s touch. This poignant depiction is short-lived, however, as the “cure” for Jamie’s emotional dysfunction is shown to be nothing more than Claire doping him with opium and pretending to be Randall so that Jamie can fight back and feel powerful again. In a fitting culmination of the sexual attacks throughout the novel, Jaime nearly strangles Claire to death, violently penetrates her, and then collapses in her arms while confusing her with his mother. In one night, Jamie is cured and they can return to the passionate relationship they have built throughout the novel.

Part of the success of the Outlander series is Gabaldon’s engaging characterization and depiction of historical Scotland. Perhaps the novel’s rape-centric plot was intended to demonstrate that Claire and Jamie are able to find love amidst great tragedy. Unfortunately, even their relationship is undercut by scenes of marital abuse and rape. In the end, with its glib treatment of sexual assault, Outlander makes a mockery of rape and minimizes the severe and lasting trauma of its real victims.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is published by Seal Books (2001), ISBN 978-0770428792.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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10 thoughts on “Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and the Trivialization of Rape

  1. Yep. This sums up my take on the story as well. I haven’t even finished it, but the continual presence of rape as a plot device and as titillation is making me extremely uncomfortable, and I came online to read some reviews and see if it gets better. I’m glad I came to this page, because I would have been very upset if I’d read further. Thank you.

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    • Thank you for reading and I’m glad this helped. I felt compelled to write this after reading the first novel. There are many scenes that could be triggers for rape and abuse survivors or just disturbing for some readers. Most reviews I found online didn’t talk about that aspect.

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  2. Totally agree with this assessment of the Outlander book.

    As a feminist I can’t continue reading.

    The TV show is better than the book but still trivializes violence towards women. In the spanking scene, they played jaunty, humorous tune in the background.

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  3. A few years ago, my boss gave me this book to read. A staunch feminist herself, I was excited to see what she thought I might like. I knew right away it was bad, but gave it 100 pages to be sure. What stuck out to me most was that approximately 5 seconds after leaving her husband, the main character didn’t think of him again. Didn’t she miss him? Didn’t they love each other? Didn’t she have a moment of hesitation before she jumped into bed with someone else? Apparently not. Not saying that she should have felt guilty, what I’m saying is that she should have felt *something*: hesitation, sadness that she wouldn’t see her husband again, happiness that she found someone better, etc…but *something*!

    I’m very glad that I didn’t read the rest. I could just sense that it was a bodice-ripper, 50 Shades dressed up in sci-fi decor. And like most bodice-rippers, the female protagonist gets bowled over by the sexual prowess of her lover, to the point where consent is discarded as redundant. Or maybe she does say no, but it’s not really important to the overriding passion of the male (and, eventually, the female).

    I had to return the book to my boss, mostly unread. That’s always a bit awkward: “Sorry you liked this book enough to share with me but I think it’s trash, here you go!”

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  4. Thank you for this. Having watched the show recently, though enjoying some elements of the show initually, the trivialisation and frequency of rape and the beating incident really angered me. Not only because, like you say, the all-too frequent rapes are used simply to further the plot – they are used to further Claire and Jaimie’s plot and no one elses. I’ve been googling around, having not read the books, to see if it’s as bad in the literature and honestly it seems worse! Very unsettled that there are so many faithful fans defending these books and the romanticising of sexual violence and abuse.

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    • Thanks for reading and I’m glad this was helpful. I was amazed too that no critical discussion seems to be happening about the content. I don’t necessarily think books should be avoided because they’re offensive, but we need to have critical dialogue about things like rape and sexual abuse in literature, tv, and film. I especially worry about young girls reading the series with no context and assuming rape and abuse are ok.

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  5. Honestly, I love these books, the plot and would love every other aspect of the ‘romance’, etc. But the amount of rape, the abuse, the frequency really unnerves me. I love the plot but can’t look past the sheer amount of assault. Unfortunately, in further books, it only gets worse; less common rape, but more graphic and seemingly gratuitous (Can that even be said about rape? that it’s ‘gratuitous’?) Either way, does it make me a bad person/feminist that I can ignore these things and continue to read and even enjoy the books?
    (BTW, glad you picked up on the marital rapes, I was shocked by this, and will admit that I ‘deleted’ it from my mental summary of the novel.)

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    • I don’t think that makes you a bad person or feminist at all. To me, the important thing is awareness. Gabaldon has created interesting and engaging characters that many readers connect with. I say enjoy the novels and just keep a critical eye on some of the content. There are likely very few if any books that have no offensive content and if that content gets us talking and thinking about important issues all the better.

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