Reading Group Guide
A reader’s guide
by Catherine MacGregor
If your book club is like mine, you probably have a mix of people who have just recently discovered Outlander and others who have read the entire series— perhaps multiple times—recently, or even years ago.
This Reader’s Guide to Outlander is intended to extend the pleasure indi- vidual readers feel when enjoying these remarkable books privately, as well as to enrich fresh discussions with friends and book-club members. The questions assume that you have read the entirety of Outlander and they are more or less chronological, but some link particular early details with larger patterns. Most questions refer only to Outlander; some in parentheses, however, suggest con- nections with the sequels. Don’t worry: They are written in a way that will not spoil any suspense for those who still have those fresh treats in store!
Many book clubs enjoy using interviews with the author and other back- ground material to broaden their reading experience. Thanks to Diana Gabal- don’s generosity and to lively online communities of readers, these resources are readily available. If, like many of us, you want to deepen your enjoyment and appreciation of the Outlander universe even further—especially if, as I did, you go into withdrawal after finishing Diana Gabaldon’s books—you will also enjoy these resources:
The Outlandish Companion, a hardcover treasury that she wrote after the first four novels (a second volume will appear in the fullness of time!), is indispensable.
Online resources abound: Take a look at Diana’s own website: www.dianagabaldon.com (you’ll find links to interviews here)
And her blog: http://voyagesoftheartemis.blogspot.com
Listen to her podcasts: http://www.randomhouse.com/audio
And see video interviews on her YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/voyagesoftheartemis
You and your book club will discover kindred spirits and their intelligent and lively discussions of her work on discussion sites such as:
CompuServe Books and Writers Community: http://community.compuserve.com/Books
And on the Ladies of Lallybroch site: www.lallybroch.com
And on: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DianaGabaldon/summary
Questions and insights about the characters, plots, settings, themes, sym- bolism, historical backgrounds—and the creativity and discipline that transform them into these remarkable novels—await you . . . and will bring you back to the books, our own kind of time travel.
1. You undoubtedly knew that this was a time-travel novel. If you had not known this, however, at what point would it have become clear to you that Claire has gone back in time?
2. Examine Claire’s account of her second honeymoon with Frank, weighing on one hand their affection, relief at being reunited after the war, and sexual passion, with the evident tensions on the other. All marriages have some strains in them; what signs of possible trouble do you see in theirs? For example, Frank seems pedantic to Claire. Does he seem so to you? And she seems ambivalent about the ladylike deportment required of her as a don’s wife. Perhaps most serious is their disagreement on the question of adopting a child. How signifi- cant, do you think, might these tensions have become had Claire not inadver- tently disappeared through the stones? (If you have read the sequels, how does Frank’s initial belief that he could not love an adopted child affect your sense of his character in the later books?) At this point, how sympathetic a figure do you find Frank to be?
3. The ghost episode (12–14): Yes, Diana Gabaldon confirmed that the kilted figure gazing up at Claire’s window was indeed Jamie and that we will know at the end of the series why he was doing so. Having read Outlander, however, why do you think he was there? The apparition provoked Frank’s clumsy at- tempt to tell Claire that he would understand and accept that she might have been unfaithful during the pressures of war. What is your reaction to this: Is her angry response to him justified or not, in your view? Why? Do you share her in- tuition that he may have been referring to an infidelity of his own? If so, how does this affect your response to his character?
4. When Mrs. Graham reads Claire’s tea leaves and palm, she deprecates her own psychic skills, saying that prognostication is more a matter of “reading” common-sense observations about people. And yet what she says about the di- vided marriage line in Claire’s hand (23) does come true. The novel is full of ancient, primitive superstitions and practices that the rational, skeptical Claire largely rejects—and yet her experiences suggest that at least some of the ancient ways contain some inexplicable truths, none the less true for being inexplicable. In this novel, what seems to you to be the dominant impression of the old be- liefs and folkways—their barbarism and ignorance, or their secret access to truths of which the modern world has lost sight?
5. When Claire is apprehended by Black Jack Randall, she is surprised by his dragoon’s uniform (which she believes to be a film costume) and shocked by his startling resemblance to her husband, Frank. But she is also keenly aware of other details, including his scent of lavender, this scent growing in signifi- cance throughout this novel (and in the sequels) because of its subsequent ef- fect on Jamie. A frequently noted feature of Gabaldon’s prose style is her skill in bringing a scene to life, not merely through visual details but through her generous use of realistic odors—especially in the eighteenth-century episodes, where hygiene standards differed significantly from ours. What descriptions in Outlander are particularly memorable for you because of the vivid focus on one or more smells? Is this realism part of their appeal for you? (Be generous with your club: Include page numbers for all references.)
6. When Claire meets Dougal and his men, the scene is almost cinematic: It builds slowly as the men puzzle over Claire’s identity and odd clothing. We do not see Jamie, huddled in pain in the corner, for several pages. However, when the episode builds to its climax, Claire takes charge of the situation, or- dering Rupert out of the way to avoid injuring Jamie further, resetting Jamie’s shoulder, and disinfecting his wounds. The men, perhaps surprisingly, allow her to do so. This is the first episode in which we see two recurring con- flicts: first, the one between twentieth-century scientific medical practices and eighteenth-century assumptions; and, second, the conflict between a modern, educated woman’s expectation that she should be taken seriously and the ten- dency of eighteenth-century men to assume she may be merely a whore or otherwise insignificant. What accounts for their willingness to recognize—at least temporarily—her authority in this situation? Is it the force of her charac- ter or merely their desperation about Jamie’s injuries?
7. After the skirmish about which Claire warned the Scots at Cocknammon Rock (which indicates that Claire had been paying more attention to Frank’s history lessons than we thought), Jamie faints from his wounds. His faint does not just give Claire another opportunity to display her medical skills; it intro- duces a gender reversal, in which Gabaldon plays with and undermines the for- mulaic conventions of romance novels. Female protagonists are expected to faint prettily, but Claire was knocked unconscious by Murtagh, and we don’t expect young warriors to faint. If you are familiar with the conventions of ro- mance writing, identify some other aspects of what you expect in a romance novel. Then reconsider your list when you discuss Chapter 15, “Revelations of the Bridal Chamber.”
8. Part One ends with Claire settling into Castle Leoch with clothing more suitable to the eighteenth century (thanks to Mrs. FitzGibbons), a growing sense of safety with the young Jamie, but an increasing—and horrifying—fear that she has indeed gone back in time two centuries. This fear is confirmed when she snoops in Colum’s letters, where she finds a fresh one with the date 20 April, 1743 (70–71). What character traits are evident in her reaction to this discovery? Have you ever made an utterly shocking discovery requiring that you fake, as Claire did, calmness and equanimity? Were you able to do so?
9. Claire learns a good deal about life in Castle Leoch: She enjoys the musi- cal entertainment and bardic storytelling, acquires a respect for Colum’s lead- ership skills and for his courage in bearing the pain of his disability, feels useful working in the herb beds and tending to the ailments of the residents, and once more tends to Jamie. This time, his injuries are sustained in a gallant offer to save Laoghaire from the disgrace of a public beating requested by her father and agreed to by Colum for her inappropriately flirtatious behavior—a state of affairs apparently accepted by everyone in this patriarchal culture. The episode dramatizes for Claire the brutality of this patriarchal world, the courage of young Jamie, the possibility of a romance between Jamie and Laoghaire, and the utility of leeches, a medical intervention demonstrated to good effect by Mrs. Fitz. But of everything Claire is learning, the most important probably concerns details about the life of the mysterious young Jamie. Although she is shocked to learn that there is a price on his head for murder, why is she not really alarmed? How is their friendship evolving?
10. While cleaning the appalling mess out of Davie Beaton’s closet and deciding which medications might actually have some utility and which are useless or perhaps even dangerous, Claire has time to consider her own predicament and the terrifying images from her passage through the stones. She remembers de- liberately fighting away from some and then wonders, Had I fought toward oth- ers? I had some consciousness of fighting toward a surface of some kind. Had I actually chosen to come to this particular time because it offered some sort of haven from that whirling maelstrom? (94) She cannot answer that question at the moment; can you? From what you now know about her relationship with Jamie, do you believe that some sort of unconscious choice—his or hers—was involved, or was the timing purely random?
11. Why is Jamie so much more comfortable with Claire seeing the scars from the horrendous flogging he endured than he is with even old friends like Alec McMahon MacKenzie?
12. After Claire discovers Jamie and Laoghaire kissing, Alec shrewdly remarks that Jamie needs a woman and that Laoghaire will be a girl when she is fifty (114). What evidence do you see of Laoghaire’s immaturity in this book? If you have not read the sequels, how do you think this prediction might play out? (And if you have read them, how does it play out?) How much sympathy or crit- icism do you have for Laoghaire in this novel? Why?
13. In the episode with the tanner’s lad, we see the petty vindictiveness of Fa- ther Bain (to be contrasted with the wisdom and compassion of the monks at St. Anne de Beaupré later), a hint of the cruelty of the mob (a foreshadowing of the witchcraft hysteria), and the first of the episodes in which Claire puts Jamie in danger, by asking him to assist in freeing the tanner’s lad. Is she right or wrong to do so? Why?
14. When Claire attempts to escape during the commotion of the Gathering, she again endangers Jamie, albeit inadvertently. He has been trying very hard to avoid being present, because either his failure to take the oath (possibly sig- nifying disloyalty to the whole clan) or swearing his oath to the MacKenzies (signifying he is one of them and therefore a possible rival for the chieftainship) could ignite the turbulent clan factions and result in his death. He has to return her to the castle, and Claire, who does not comprehend immediately, later un- derstands and deeply regrets the position she has put him in. How do you read this: Are you sympathetic to or critical of her single-minded focus on escaping, which endangers Jamie? Have you ever inadvertently put someone else in dan- ger or been endangered yourself by someone else’s unwitting actions? And why is Jamie so willing to subject himself to harm and danger in order to protect women?
15. Dougal’s exploitation of Jamie’s flogging to stir public support for the Ja- cobites is clearly manipulative. Dougal, however, is a complex character, and even Jamie has profoundly mixed feelings about him. Do you think there is any justification for what Dougal is doing to Jamie? Does he understand how hu- miliating the experience (which Claire, significantly, calls a “crucifixion”) is?
16. After Randall punches her, Claire’s contemptuous response to his question “Have you anything to say?” is “Your wig is crooked” (173). When Dougal de- scribes Jamie’s great courage and composure during his flogging, he remem- bers Jamie’s insulting “I’m afraid I’ll freeze stiff before ye’re done talking.” Does their insolence to Randall increase or decrease the danger he poses to them? Do you see this verbal daring as heroic?
17. Dougal tells Claire the complete story of the flogging as a way of illustrat- ing Jamie’s character to her prior to their marriage, and he also hints at the sex- ual interest Randall has in Jamie. From a purely practical perspective, would Claire have been safer marrying Rupert, ludicrous as this sounds? Dougal is clearly upset by Randall’s brutality to Claire at Brockton. But how much of his scheme can be attributed to the fact that the MacKenzies would never accept a chief whose wife was an Englishwoman? In terms of his own political ambi- tions, is Dougal killing two birds with one stone here? Despite his Machiavel- lian instincts, some ancient spirituality lingers in Dougal: Why does he take Claire to St. Ninian’s spring?
18. In Chapter 15, “Revelations of the Bridal Chamber,” the awkwardness of the bride and groom delays the consummation considerably but also gives them an opportunity to learn more about each other’s families and personal ex- periences. As they sit side by side drinking wine and touching, what important insights do they learn about each other? How important is this ability to talk to each other in their growing relationship?
19. On their wedding night, Jamie says, “There are things that I canna tell you, at least not yet. And I’ll ask nothing of ye that ye canna give me. But what I would ask of ye—when you do tell me something, let it be the truth. And I’ll promise ye the same. We have nothing now between us, save—respect, perhaps. And I think that respect has maybe room for secrets, but not for lies. Do ye agree?” (199) Do you agree that a good marriage can have secrets?
20. Modern marriage-enhancement therapy (for example, Emotionally Fo- cused Therapy) is based on the research behind attachment theory, the un- derstanding that human infants (and indeed all primates) require physical cuddling—a need that extends into adult relationships. As their newlywed nervousness returns, Jamie seems to have an instinctive understanding of this need: “Now then,” he said. “If we canna talk easy yet without touching, we’ll touch for a bit. Tell me when you’re accustomed to me again” (214). How important is their ability to touch each other? What other episodes of touching—not neces- sarily sexual—strike you as memorable and significant? Is Jamie’s need for touch any greater than Claire’s?
21. When they return to Leoch, after the drama of the Fort William episode, Claire learns—almost anticlimactically—that Horrocks, the deserter who was in a position to confirm Jamie’s innocence regarding the murder of the sergeant- major, identified Black Jack Randall as the killer. This disappointing informa- tion is useless, because of Randall’s apparently unassailable status and power, but it does provide a segue to other examinations of the abuses of power (a re- curring motif in the whole series), including the Duke of Sandringham’s hu- morously inept attempts at seduction of young men like Jamie. His predatory behavior is treated comically here. Why does Claire rather like the Duke? Why is Jamie willing to go hunting with him?
22. In the complex drama of Claire’s arrest as a witch, what seems to be the balance in this book between the world of the natural and the supernatural? Geilie’s interest in the dark arts encompasses not only occult spells, about which Claire is skeptical, but also a practical expertise with the biochemical properties of substances such as opium, arsenic, and cyanide. (If you have read the sequels, what is the significance of the reference to L’Grimoire d’le Comte St. Germain?) Some of the details for the pretext of Claire’s incarceration as a witch are foolish and ignorant distortions, if not outright fabrications: for ex- ample, Father Bain’s interpretation of Claire’s warning of infection to be a curse. And yet the episode with the waterhorse—ironically, Peter the drover’s testimony is rejected—points to an acceptance of the paranormal. Similarly, Colum’s wedding gift to Claire, partly to reward her for saving Losgann and her foal, is a rosary; despite her nominal adherence to Catholicism, Claire does not understand the significance of the gift. But the rosary later becomes a crucial element in demonstrating her innocence to the mob. For now she merely prays, thanking whatever benign spirits presided over such events that noth- ing had gone wrong (374). Are we to understand this as coincidence, or is it an authentic—and answered—prayer, albeit an unfocused one?
23. Another romantic convention is comically upended when the elderly lawyer Ned Gowan, rather than the dashing romantic hero, arrives to buy much-needed time for Claire’s defense. Jamie, of course, does arrive in time and, by means of tremendous personal courage and a theatrical use of the rosary, saves her from the mob and from ecclesiastical abuse of authority. But Claire’s safety is also dependent on Geilie’s altruism in declaring Claire’s inno- cence. How do you account for Geilie’s dying act? How does it affect your es- timation of her character?
24. Notice that previous tension in Claire and Jamie’s marriage focused on the question of wifely obedience. Claire once again disobeyed Jamie: He had told her, when he left with the Duke of Sandringham, to stay away from Geil- lis Duncan (376). Claire’s failure to do so, when Laoghaire told her Geilie was sick and needed her, almost results in her death. And yet Jamie does not re- proach her this time for her disobedience. Why not? How is their relationship evolving?
25. Jenny and Claire get to know each other, they have a conversation that both recognize is a polite kind of code: for example, “I hear ye married very quickly,” meaning, “Did you wed my brother for his land and money?” (435) Reread this dialogue. Have you had conversations like this that you are willing to share? In your experience, did both parties understand what the other was really saying?
26. Jenny’s remarkable, sensuous description of her pregnancy was one of the early chunks of Outlander posted on the CompuServe Writers Forum that at- tracted attention and encouragement for Diana Gabaldon to write more and publish. (Perhaps this pregnancy led not only to wee Maggie but also to the novel itself!) If you have been pregnant, do these details ring true to your own experience? Could only a woman have written this passage? Debates about whether a male writer can write authentically in a female voice and vice versa have proliferated for years. Could this passage have been written by a man? Or by a woman who has never been pregnant? Why or why not?
27. When Jamie is taken by the Watch, having been betrayed by Ronald Mac- Nab, Claire warns Jenny of the coming slaughter and famine, giving her the practical advice to plant potatoes. Is Claire running any risk of being considered a witch again here?
28. Jamie is to be hanged on December 23 (515). Although Claire does not make this point, the day she reaches Wentworth Prison is December 21, the Winter Solstice, one of the sacred days in pre-Christian Celtic tradition about which Frank spoke early in the novel. On this day, northern people rejoice that the sun is returning to a world that otherwise would die without its light and hope. If speculation about the standing stones is correct, this is a day on which one could travel through time. At the moment, however, Claire is focused on the preciousness of the present and the immediate future. She charms Sir Fletcher, and Rupert gambles with the soldiers, both strategies eliciting some information about where Jamie is. Claire finds him, cold-bloodedly kills a guard, and sees the depths of Randall’s depravity. Jamie promises to submit to him if he sets Claire free. Helpless against Randall, Claire’s rage gives her the fury and physical strength to kill a wolf. Are you familiar with other examples of astonishing strength in traumatic circumstances and overcoming fear in or- der to act?
29. Jamie has always had a complex relationship with his uncle Dougal. In the search for Jamie, Claire practices some fortune-telling skills she learned from Mrs. Graham, as well as her medical skills. Gypsies she and Murtagh encounter lead her to a cave where she meets Dougal, whom the Gypsies have understand- ably mistaken, from Claire and Murtagh’s description, for Jamie. Widower Dougal’s attempt to seduce Claire for Jamie’s property, in the belief that there is no hope of rescuing his nephew and foster son, enrages her and lowers him in our estimation. Surprisingly, however, in view of Jamie’s theories, Dougal swears that he did not attempt to kill Jamie with the ax, the wound that sent him to St. Anne de Beaupré to convalesce. Is Dougal credible on this point? Do you be- lieve him? He says he is unwilling to risk the lives of his men to save Jamie. Does this ring true to you, or is it an excuse? When Claire challenges him to allow his men to make their own choice, why does Rupert follow Claire rather than Dou- gal? What is the source of Claire’s hope that Jamie can be freed?
30. Jamie does try to explain the psychology of rape, of a violation and break- down that provokes suicidal thoughts (561):
“I think it’s as though everyone has a small place inside themselves, maybe, a private bit that they keep to themselves. It’s like a little fortress, where the most pri- vate part of you lives—maybe it’s your soul, maybe just that bit that makes you yourself and not anybody else . . .
“You don’t show that bit of yourself to anyone, usually, unless sometimes to someone that ye love greatly . . .
“Now, it’s like . . . like my own fortress has been blown up with gunpowder— there’s nothing left of it but ashes and a smoking rooftree, and the little naked thing that lived there once is out in the open, squeaking and whimpering in fear, tryin’ to hide itself under a blade of grass or a bit o’ leaf, but not . . . but not . . . making m-much of a job of it.”
After more challenges—including killing a young English soldier in cold blood, the latest of a series of killings that illustrate Claire’s own lethal tenden- cies (the British deserter, the guard, and the wolf )—Claire and Murtagh suc- ceed in getting the dangerously seasick Jamie to St. Anne de Beaupré, where the more complex challenge of addressing his emotional and spiritual wounds must take place.
Jamie’s terrible problem is one shared by many victims of sexual assault— that they have, against their wills, been sexually aroused by and responsive to the stimuli. The shame and recurring images are a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, worsened by the victim’s conviction that he or she is morally culpable. When Claire understands that she must give Jamie an experience that will reverse his disempowering trauma at the hands of Randall, she uses her medical skills—and, perhaps surprisingly, a strategy she learned from Geillis—to summon spirits. Conjuring up her memories of Frank for the shared voices and gestures, including sexual ones, she uses the power of sug- gestion and opium to stimulate a hallucinogenic experience in which he can fight his battles again against the dead Black Jack Randall, this time defending himself and therefore having a different outcome. Is taking Jamie back into his own soul-deadening trauma a sort of time travel?
31. Remember that when Claire returned from Craigh na Dun, having chosen to stay with Jamie, she told him that the hot baths nearly won (413). It seems only fair that they both enjoy the hot baths of the abbey springs now—a fitting symbol for the cleansing of their psychological wounds, their reconnection sex- ually, and the promise of new life. What does Claire mean in the last line of the novel, “And the world was all around us, new with possibility” ?