TW for spousal abuse and rape; spoilers abound.
Diana Gabaldon’s super-popular time travel romance from 1991, Outlander, may be coming to cable TV. Fans are speculating who will play Jamie Fraser, frequently mentioning Chris Hemsworth. Ms. Gabaldon writes on her blog, “I’m sure Mr. H. is a very fine actor, but I really don’t like widow’s peaks on men.” Hey, we all have our quirks. Some of us don’t like the hero to have a widow’s peak. And some of us don’t like the hero to beat the heroine.
Yep, that happens in Outlander. It seems like a really good book–Gabaldon is a talented writer, no question–until our heroine, Claire Randall, tries to escape 1743 Scotland in order to get back to her own time. When she ditches the Scottish clan she’s hanging out with to get back to the magic stones that worked as a portal, she gets herself and the Scotsmen into some trouble. Jamie Fraser, the new husband she didn’t ask for, and who unfortunately the reader has probably fallen for by that point, decides he has to punish her for this.
Claire says he can’t beat her. Jamie says, “Did I want to break your arm, or feed ye naught but bread and water, or lock ye in a closet for days–and think ye don’t tempt me, either–I could do that…”
You’re swooning, aren’t you? I’ll give you a moment.
She says she’ll scream, he basically says, “Ha, ha, you sure will,” and he reaches for a belt. When Claire accuses him of being a sadist, he thinks that’s funny, too. “I said I would have to punish you. I did not say I wasna going to enjoy it.” This ends with Claire, as she describes it, “Half smothered in the greasy quilts with a knee in my back, being beaten within an inch of my life.”
Gabaldon is fond of telling people of Outlander: “Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read three pages. If you can put it down again, I’ll pay you a dollar.” If I’d opened to these pages first, I would have gotten that money, and judging from some other readers’ reviews, I’m not the only one.
Fans dismiss Jamie’s beating of Claire by saying, “It was a different time.” This is a pitiful defense. Human behavior being as variable as it is, it’s a safe bet that some husbands in 1743 Scotland did not beat their wives. Moreover, Outlander is a contemporary novel, and the readers bring more enlightened expectations to the story. Few contemporary romance readers finish a romance about Vikings or medieval knights and think, “That was so unrealistic how the hero never hit the heroine.”
Sadly, some readers opine that Claire deserved it. “I thought it…appropriate since she had endangered everyone and was careless,” says one reader on a forum. Another adds that her ex-husband used to beat her and it was way worse than this scene.
A skillful storyteller can convince the reader of the inevitability of the plot, but the fact remains that Jamie beats Claire because Gabaldon thought it was a good way to develop their love story. The next day, Claire is too sore to sit on a horse–ha, ha! Jamie tells her about all the beatings he got when he was a kid, which is supposed to make his beating her okay. Yeah, I don’t get it either. This conversation ends with Claire saying, for the first time ever,
“Oh, Jamie, I do love you!”
Jamie laughs and laughs, saying how funny it is that she didn’t care about all the good and heroic things he did for her, but when he beat her “half to death” then she says she loves him. Women!
Later Jamie asks Claire, “…Can ye understand, maybe, why I thought it needful to beat you?” She does. Ugh. She adds, “What I can’t forgive…is that you enjoyed it!”
Jamie laughs and laughs again. His beating Claire is the occasion for a great deal of hilarity. “Enjoyed it!…you don’t know how much I enjoyed it.”
Our hero says he deserves credit for not having sex with her right after he beat her, even though he really wanted to. Claire gets angry again, and says, “And if you think you deserve applause for nobly refraining from committing rape on top of assault!”
That is, of course, exactly what Jamie thinks. But at the end of the chapter he promises not to do it again. Flipping through the book today, I notice that Jamie says not long after that he regrets promising not to beat her.
Judging from the Wikipedia summary, one perilous thing after another happens to them in the rest of the book, giving Jamie ample opportunities to be noble, and to get abused himself. Gabaldon seems to love writing about rape. Jamie saves Claire from almost being raped before the beating scene, and apparently she almost gets raped again later, except Jamie says the villain can rape him instead. The villain, being a depraved bisexual, agrees. It sounds as though consent between Jamie and Claire is by no means clear, with some readers characterizing a couple of the sex scenes as rape.
Why do so many people love Jamie Fraser? I’m not sure. Maybe they feel bad for what happens to him later. Maybe his abuse of Claire arouses people who like S&M, even though the scene in the book is nothing like consensual sex play. People can get turned on by fantasy scenarios they would never want to experience in real life. Maybe it’s the Twilight effect: you get a lot of readers who have never read any other escapist romance or fantasy, so they’re like teenagers getting drunk on crappy beer.
I really hope Outlander never gets produced as a series, but if it does, Mr. Hemsworth will not be the star, because he’s too famous. Thank God: it would make me sad to have the guy who played the good-hearted Thor also play a wife-beating hero.
The Wikipedia entry about Outlander claims Jamie doesn’t beat Claire “in a malicious manner.” This is a striking example of a reader imposing her own wishes over the text. We saw a similar thing happen with The Hunger Games when many white readers believed the character Rue, described as having, “Dark brown skin and eyes,” was white. This phenomenon seems to happen when the story doesn’t stick to the reader’s expectations. An innocent little girl must be white. A man who is usually kind must not be an abuser. It’s sad to see such beliefs brought to books, and even sadder to know they are also used to interpret real life.