Violence in Outlander

Outlander 2014

I love audio books, and my favorite genre is romance. As we all know, romance has gotten racier over the years, and people sometimes ask me if it’s difficult to listen to sex scenes on audio. It’s not. What’s difficult for me is violent scenes on audio. Listening to books, even on 1.5 speed, is much slower than reading. A violent scene takes longer to get through. And a good narrator can bring it to the next level.

Whether or not Gabaldon’s Outlander is a romance novel (and debate is heated on this point), it has strong romantic elements that attract many romance readers. When I first read it about seven years ago, like many romance readers, I focused primarily on the relationship between Clare and Jamie. There’s an infamous episode of violence between them which has launched a thousand  forum and blog posts. In Chapter 22. “Reckonings” Jamie takes a leather belt strap to Clare for deserting him and the company, getting captured by the English, imprisoned by Captain Black Jack Randall, and putting all of them in danger. That was the violent scene I recalled, was prepared for, had thought about.

But what I had forgotten was all of the other beatings in the book, and all of the scenes of torture. Now, having re-read it on audio, I think ritualized violence is very important to this novel.

I had forgotten the way violence and its bloody aftermath cling to Jamie like a second skin. When Claire first lays eyes on Jamie, he is rocking back and forth in pain, bloody and wounded with a dislocated shoulder, the brutal reduction of which is described in detail. Not long after, when Clare checks his wounds, they bond over Jamie’s recollections of physically defending his home and family from Randall. Randall had bound Jamie to a wagon wheel and beaten him with the flat of his saber before taking him to the prison at Wentworth.

A few chapters later, Clare and Jamie are at Castle Leoch and before his wounds have even healed, Jamie voluntarily submits to corporeal punishment in the place of a young women. Again the description of Jamie’s physical pain and suffering is front and center, as is the ritualized nature of the punishment:

It was a scientific beating, skillfully engineered to inflict bruising pain, but not to disable or maim.

Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 73). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Not long after this event, Clare and Jamie are taken by Dougal MacKenzie, Jamie’s uncle and the brother of the laird of clan MacKenzie and Castle Leoch, on a mission to drum up support for the pretender to the throne Bonnie Prince Charlie. How does Dougal court the sympathies of the Highlanders? By stripping Jamie bare to show the marks of the whippings he’s endured at the hands of the English. Clare refers to these repeated exhibitions as “public crucifixion.” Finally, Jamie has enough and picks a fight with a gawker, resulting in “One scraped shin, one cut eyebrow, one split lip, one bloody nose, six smashed knuckles, one sprained thumb, and two loosened teeth. Plus more contusions than I care to count.” according to Clare’s inventory.

A few chapters later, Dougal MacKenzie describes the two terrible floggings that Jamie received at age nineteen at Fort William, the second from Captain Jack Randall. Clare, not exactly missish, nearly faints from his detailed description. Finally, she asks why he told her, and he answers: “I thought it might serve as what ye may call a character illustration,” he said, of Jamie and of Randall. Shortly afterwards, Clare and Jamie are married.

Then, of course, Clare tries to escape and Jamie beats her. Routine childhood beatings at the hand of his father had prepared Jamie to think of taking the strap to Clare as appropriate. And he was not only beaten by his father, but by schoolmaster, uncles, and any other male in a position of authority who felt Jamie’s behavior had given them just cause.

But all of this, bad as it is, is just prologue to the worst of it: Jamie’s imprisonment and torture by Captain Randall. This is narrated in at least three scenes: first, when Clare comes to rescue him, and fails; then when she actually does rescue him; and finally, when he tells Clare in detail everything that passed between him and Randall. Eventually, to overcome the effects of Randall’s torture, Clare has to drug Jamie, impersonate Randall, and provoke Jamie into a bruising, bloody wrestling match that destroys his bed chamber.

On rereading Outlander, I think the violence was partly just a way Gabaldon characterized Jamie, and the Highlanders, and even the era … a method she may have over-relied on. But I also think there’s something thematic going on, something about the body as a way in to the soul, to the truth of a person, to a kind of knowing. So many times in the book, characters say that seeing or experiencing something is different from knowing it: for example Jamie, when he tells Clare why he doesn’t want his boss in the stables to see his striped back, even though he’s aware that Jamie was flogged; or Dougal when he tells Clare that you don’t understand what flogging does to a man until you’ve witnessed it. When Jamie stakes a claim on Clare, it’s the bodies that do the job: “The hammering was a question, repeated over and over in my flesh, demanding my answer.” She rakes his back with her fingernails, he pushes hard enough to hurt. It’s sexual violence, but of course violence nonetheless:

He thrust harder and faster, as though he would force my soul as he forced my body. In body or soul, somewhere he struck a spark, and an answering fury of passion and need sprang from the ashes of surrender. I arched upward to meet him, blow for blow. I bit his lip and tasted blood.

Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 280). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

There’s a bit of dialogue in the Jamie/Clare beating scene that is significant in this respect. He can’t just tell her what she did was wrong. He has to write it on her body:

“Now, listen. Ye understand me, ye say, and I believe it. But there’s a difference between understandin’ something with your mind and really knowing it, deep down.” I nodded, reluctantly. “All right. Now, I will have to punish you … so that ye will know.”

Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Outlander: with Bonus Content (p. 251). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I’m not sure how I could have read Outlander once and not thought of it as a violent book. Audio certainly makes the beatings seem more visceral to me. But what really struck me wasn’t the amount, but its function in developing characterization and setting, as well as its symbolic meaning.

16 responses

  1. Pingback: Camp Nano Day Um I Forget | winterbayne

  2. Outlander is a very violent book. I remember quite a visceral reaction to the later scenes with Captain Randall and Jamie. I’m really interested in your take about the violence and its symbolic meaning etc. I have to cogitate on that some more but I think you’re onto something (also, if I can find a spare 55 hours, perhaps I could re-listen).

    As the series progressed however, I began to feel that the violence didn’t serve a purpose (as I thought it did in Outlander) but was a kind of authorial manipulation (torture porn, if you will). Violence to a major character (Jamie, Claire, Roger Mac, Brianna, Claire again, Jamie again, etc) is a sure way to get the heart thumping and make the audience gasp and turn the page more quickly but it built and built to the point that it’s become soap operatic to me (including death and “resurrection”). I will still read the next book (and the next) because I’m a sucker for Jamie and Claire, but I think the violence of the first book is a bit of a different beast to that which came later in the series and I’m a bit shy of it now.

    Sorry, that’s a bit off topic isn’t it?


    • That’s an interesting observation about how the series progresses. I did read the next 2 books, but don’t plan to continue on audio. I absolutely agree that violence can be excessive, gratuitous, and that makes it even harder to take.


  3. I haven’t read Outlander, but I have read the Lord John spin-offs. They include some violence, but since he is a soldier that’s not surprising. But I don’t think I could read a book with as much violence as you describe in this post. I can see why Gabaldon decided that her heroine had better be a nurse; she’s sorely needed!

    I do so agree with your point about audio. When I’m reading in print or in ebook, I skim through bits which don’t appeal to me, looking for dialogue or character traits but ignoring everything else in my desire to get to the next bit of the plot, to the bit which does appeal. Some readers do that with sex scenes; I do it with anything violent, and with lengthy descriptions (especially of places). So although I say I couldn’t read Outlander if it’s that violent, in fact I might have been able to do so by skimming past the gory descriptions and only registering the plot point (X did Z to Y). (I find it impossible to read about torture or cruelty, even skimming, so I would have stopped reading the book the first time either occurred.)

    But as you say, audio is different. I still find that I have to make myself concentrate when descriptions are read, rather than doing the equivalent of skim-reading and letting the words wash over me. But anything violent is inescapable and, as you say, seems to last forever. It feels as though the author dwells unnecessarily on it, even if on paper it would look quite short. I’ve noticed this when listening to Dick Francis books. Many of them include a violent scene, necessary to the plot and usually described quite clinically; his books are always first person POV (I think) and one gets the impression that the hero is gritting his teeth and describing things as impersonally as possible so as to lessen the pain he registers. But I find it much more difficult to listen to than to read myself.

    So this is the flip-side to audiobooks. I love them partly because I always find things which I didn’t when I read the book, mostly because I have to go at the narrator’s pace and hear every word. That’s great when you’re picking up nuances, and hearing rhythms you didn’t notice. I also find humour, especially dry humour, comes over particularly well in audio. But the bits of books which I skate over, especially violence, are equally well brought out and therefore difficult for me.


    • Thank you for fleshing out the difference between listening to violence on audio and reading it. I agree completely with you. I find it so easy to lose my place in audio (partly my own fault as there are now pretty decent controls for bookmarking etc.) that I would never attempt to skip ahead, and I have the lifelong student’s habit of listening when someone is speaking to me, so I couldn’t NOT pay attention.


  4. Great post. I’m mired in writing about violence right now (not fictional) and I was nodding my head as I read this. I definitely think you’re on to something about the role of the body, but I also have another interpretation. Violence is often used as a marker of a more primitive society, and not always primitive in a bad way (purer, more in touch with the land and other primordial feelings, etc.). In this case Claire is the modern person going back in time to a more violent but more honourable and simple time. The Highlanders are both more admirable and more “basic,” for want of a better term. It’s fetishizing Scottish culture in a pretty straightforward way, both positively and negatively.

    In some ways Outlander is the Braveheart of romance. It’s an unputdownable story, but it’s not one I feel particularly proud of enjoying.


    • Yes yes yes! I have thought many times as I re-read Outlander how strange it is that Clare finds it so easy to stay in the past. There’s one passage when she explicitly ponders the difference between the two times, I think put in there for the skeptical reader like me, because it’s so slanted in favor of the 1700s. It’s clear Clare was never tempted to go back on the grounds of anything but her relationship with Frank, whereas just the thought of indoor plumbing would have sent me running for the magical stones.

      Among the many many, many, many, many ways that 18th century Highland life is glamorized in the book (and this is part of what makes it an enjoyable fantasy for me, so I am not complaining), I can now add the primitive, basic, but honorable form of truth telling with the body. Thanks!


  5. I haven’t read Outlander but was taken by your point “He can’t just tell her what she did was wrong. He has to write it on her body” because it seems to speak the language of BDSM. I am also thinking about what it is that we can only know or hold on to or are forced to know through our bodies – prompted by thinking about chronic/life threatening/life changing illness, that we cannot know through our intellect or thinking experience.


    • I agree. In some ways we don’t do well by ourselves when we split the body and mind the way Descartes encouraged us so many years ago. Last night I had dinner with an 86 year old philosopher from Notre Dame who talked about who old age and its infirmities has forced him to see the importance of his body in all aspects of his intellectual life. It was really interesting.


  6. This is really interesting – it’s been a long time since I read this book, so I only remember some of what you describe, but now I’ll think on it.


  7. From a purely practical standpoint, Gabaldon’s inclusion of graphic violence in Outlander set her apart from other romance writers and made her work distinctive enough to garner a great deal of attention in the crowded field of historical romance. Readers respond strongly to the violent scenes, as well as the love and sex scenes, and then they talk about them with others, thus promoting the books and generating curiosity about their content in ways that advertising never could.

    Given how many books Gabaldon has sold and the faithful fans she has accumulated, there must be something worthwhile about this strategy. To me, however, the problem with this approach is that the scenes take on a life of their own: “the beating scene, the rape scenes, the wolf wrestling scene”–say those words to a Gabaldon fan, and they will know exactly what you are referring to. The same thing is true about the vivid and often tender sexual encounters in the books. But these memorable scenes–set pieces in the novel–suck so much air out of the narrative that the coherence of the novel suffers as a result. Readers can’t keep track of the exact plot line, but they sure can remember those scenes.

    Gabaldon herself has admitted to purposely including at least one highly provocative scene in every book so that it will shock readers. At this point in her career, this “move” has become her calling card as a writer. She once claimed in her discussion forum that after writing one of these scenes, her husband told her that readers were “gonna scream” when they read it, and she agreed that this was the effect she was seeking. And she got what she hoped for: when the book was published, the discussion forums lit up with fans voicing their objections.

    As a great admirer of her work, I wish she sought better control over her narrative rather than a desire to hear readers “scream.” The violence in these novels doesn’t bother me as much as that creepy feeling I get that she’s doing it for her own pleasure. She can write lyrical passages that take my breath away, and I wish she would trust in that talent more often and devote less time stirring up controversy among her fans.

    Makes me wonder if there is a writer’s version of sadism.


  8. I thought a lot about Outlander and its level of violence when reading some newer historical romances that also incorporated “onscreen” depictions of graphic violence and torture. It made me realize that many mainstream romance novels with similarly violent historical settings (wars, border raids, spy plots, etc) put the violence “offscreen” in some way — it’s rare to read this level of wrenching, graphically detailed violence in a romance novel. (Arguably, this could be one element of the case for Outlander not being a romance novel – that it’s more like what Donna Thorland calls “the swashbuckler,” but I don’t want to tackle that here.) I agree that at least some of the violence in Outlander serves a ritual purpose, especially in terms of Jamie and his role as the iconic, and pure, Highland leader, sacrificing himself for his kith/kin (the brave heart), but I have wondered as I read through the rest of the series, with each successive book visiting new and viscerally challenging horrors on Gabaldon’s beloved characters, as Kaetrin notes, if in fact some of the “porn” or “violence for violence’s sake” elements were there from the beginning, in Outlander itself. I’m thinking about the episode where Claire fights off a full-grown wolf basically with her bare hands, or the number of times we see Jamie take a beating, sometimes having to re-read the same beating as told by a different character. I remember some discussions about Gabaldon’s earlier work (pre-Outlander) with graphic novels, and whether this influenced the level of extreme, almost over the top, violence of some of the scenes. Claire vs. the Wolf always struck me as a little ridiculous, like a comic book scene.

    I also really like Sunita’s point about fetishizing violence as a marker of honorable or pure primitive cultures. In the context of Outlander, the violence suggests the ways in which the Scots, and the Highlanders in particular, were both admired for their badassery & bravery, and yet despised as the “savages” of Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. The notion of the Highlanders as a more primordial, pure, and yet violent culture is also very important in the later books, where we see the Frasers and the Mackenzies in the New World, living among the “savages” of North America. Gabaldon draws many direct parallels between native American tribal communities and Highland clans and customs, crafting a possibly idealized (and/or fetishized?) vision of a violent yet honorable people living in harmony with the land. The noble savage, etc. One of the most significant secondary characters in the later novels, the younger Ian, becomes an archetypal new “American” – the Natty Bumppo/Hawkeye hero who is intended to represent the best and most badass aspects of both the Old and New Worlds. And with significant sections of the later novels set in native villages, we also get more graphic depictions of torture — which here is depicted as explicitly ritualized and linked to spirituality and belief systems.


  9. Disclaimer: I’m talking off the top of my head about things I haven’t read for 20 years.

    I haven’t read Outlander but this discussion is fascinating. Sir Walter Scott, among other late-18th/early-19th century figures, subscribed to a racial hierarchy in which Highlanders were equated with Native Americans as “noble savages.” So it seems like Gabaldon is drawing inspiration from an earlier author of Scottish historicals (a founder of the historical fiction genre, in fact). Scott was very much engaged in mythical nation-building/building a national mythology in his fiction.

    This post also made me think about Elaine Scarry’s BODY IN PAIN, because I remember her, in her discussion of torture, being very critical of the idea that truth lives in the body–she sees pain as unmaking, not revealing, the self. She objects, for instance, to the idea that confession under torture is some kind of weakness/character flaw, because a person in extreme pain is not making choices; the pain is their (only) reality, while for the torturer, the pain is an abstraction and the question they want answered is reality.


    • Oh, I didn’t remember that about Scott and the racial hierarchy theories – thank you! Gabaldon has certainly drawn inspiration from a range of earlier literature, and I especially see this in the novels set in America. My comment was made in haste, but what I should have said is that she allows the reader to draw many parallels between two “tribal” cultures in a way that seems purposeful, but it’s not as clumsy or obvious as my comment may have suggested, though I do think it rather fetishizes both. I also think that one of the best aspects of the series, particularly in Drums of Autumn and the Fiery Cross, is its exploration of the Old World/New World themes. Things become much darker and grimmer for Jamie and Claire, in their “New Eden,” in the more recent books.


  10. Thank you all for this discussion, I had been wondering about reading these books, I know not to now.

    I have a chronic condition that causes pain, sometimes extreme pain, that is not always well controlled (working on it). It has given me an intolerance for graphic descriptions of violence, but more than that for unrealistic behaviours after injury from whatever cause. The character sapping/changing effects of pain are rarely admitted in fiction, but more the exhaustion that pain causes is so rarely reflected in subsequent scenes. I guess we all have things that pull us out of a books reality and these days pain and it’s effects are one of my things.


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