That’s really the only word to describe my feelings a few hours after finishing reading Outlander. I picked up the novel 100% because I was enjoying the TV show, and after I turned the final page, I found myself eager to start Book 2 straight away. I was addicted to these characters and this world. I had to find out what would happen next.
And then the minutes passed, and the bitter aftertaste set in. All the things that I’d cringed from, or skimmed over, or wanted to kill with fire while reading came back, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe that this was actually something I had read.
Outlander uses rape like it is literally the only plot device in the world. Need to create some tension? Add a rape threat! Want to show someone is villainous? Make them a rapist! Have to show that 18th century Scotland is dangerous? Rape! Want an amusing anecdote about a character? Rape! Need some romantic scenes between your two protagonists? Rape, dammit!!
I wrote last week about the show’s seeming addiction to rape to create tension, but compared to the book, it suddenly seems mild. Positively restrained. I lost count of how many times the protagonist finds herself either threatened with rape, or very nearly raped, before the male hero swoops in to save the day. If I added in the number of times our romantic hero “wouldn’t be denied” or won’t take no for an answer, there’d be more scenes or rape or near-rape in the book than consensual sex scenes — and believe me, there are a lot of those as well.
And it boggles my mind, because there’s so much that is good about this book. The historical setting is richly described. The characters are great. It’s a fantasy/historical/adventure novel with a female protagonist whose struggles and decisions are front and center in the story, and that’s great. But any attempt to enjoy the story is ruined by the casual appearance of rape, again and again and again.
And most of the occurrences aren’t even for plot reasons. There’s an entire scene were Jamie tells the “humorous” story of a Duke attempting to rape him repeatedly when he was a teenager, and everyone laughs about it, including our protagonist/his wife. And then it never comes up again, as though it wasn’t really that important. Various people assault others like it’s all a lot of fun. There are frequent rape-like tones in the scenes between Jamie and Claire, and they’re so much like asides that they could be deleted and you’d never notice the difference, especially since the romance before and after comes across as genuine.
Rape is part of Jamie’s backstory, as he was arrested for trying to defend his sister from Captain Randall. An unrelated rape is part of the reason he hates Randall so much. He spends half the book saving his wife from rape, often at the hands of Captain Randall again, and still finds time to joke about it in the dinner hall.
But worst of all, in my opinion, is the way this all comes together, with the one rape that actually occurs in the book. The one that appears to be for “plot reasons,” when Jamie “sacrifices” himself, once again, to save Claire, and puts himself in the hands of Randall. Several graphic retellings throughout the rest of the novel make it very clear precisely what happened. And the mind boggles. I have to wonder whether this was intended to be a subversion of a trope, where the female love interest is raped either to give the male hero angst and something to fight or to give her some good old-fashioned emotional trauma. Same trope here, but the male love interest, right? But that doesn’t quite fit. Jamie is presented as the hero for sacrificing himself for Claire, and there’s a strange kind of glee in the book for his trauma. And even if it were intended as a subversion, that wouldn’t make it acceptable. Jamie is presented throughout the book as a character we should at least sympathize with, if not love. He’s as much a character as anyone else. And seeing that character go through so much violence in such graphic detail, almost lovingly described… it seemed gratuitous, on top of the rest of the book’s attitude towards rape.
And it’s all so unnecessary. It doesn’t even come together in a satisfying way. Jamie is rescued a few hours later in a really unclear plot involving stampeding Highland cows, and after many many pages of extreme emotional trauma, he suddenly apparently gets completely over it — by his wife drugging him up and basically reenacting the rape so this time he can fight back. Yeah.
I’m just left wondering… why? Why was all this seen as necessary? It could all have been edited out, leaving a fantastically atmospheric and addictive book, a book that made me fear for the characters and squee in delight and gasp in horror without the constant threat of sexual violence. A book that would have been infinitely better if it didn’t decide that rape is the solution to all narrative woes.
Mostly, my book-reading experience has got me praying that the show writers have got their pruning shears ready and are more than willing to use them. But the book is so pervaded with rape that a lot of it has already slipped through. And no matter how gorgeous the scenery might be, and no matter how much chemistry the leads may have, I really don’t think I want to see the end of this book on screen.
Just… ugh, guys. Ugh.