Welcome back to this read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, where we examine the elements that make this bestseller work. To catch up or review previous parts of this read, click here.
Chapter 8: An Evening’s Entertainment
Summary: Claire receives an invitation from Colum to attend a musical performance in the hall that evening. She goes, and Colum invites her to share a drink with him, providing a delicious rosy Rhenish wine. In the midst of their conversation, Colum questions her about her French relations, offering to send word ahead of her if she provide him with their names. But Claire has no names to give. And thus Colum wins that round.
Writer Comments: Conflict is an essential element of fiction; however, it can take numerous forms. Sometimes the most intriguing conflict comes in the more subtle varieties. Colum and Claire are in conflict because Colum suspects she’s lying and Claire dares not let him receive confirmation that she is deceiving him. However, Colum at no point goes on an outright assault of her honesty. His manner ever remains genteel, and he treats Claire with nothing but the appearance of gracious magnanimity. Their conflict derives entirely from implication and risk, from a careful dance of phrasing, avoidance, and deft deflection. The potential outcome of this subtler form of conflict results in an enthralling duel that grants the pleasure of lasting multiple chapters.
Conflict in fiction should span the spectrum of outright, obvious physical clashes to the subtle dance of words and suspicion.
Summary: After such an uncomfortable interview, in which Claire knows she lost, she begs the need to relieve herself and returns to the hall later. Fortunately, she took a wrong turn and ended up on the opposite end of the hall, a blessing that allows her to more easily avoid Colum.
She spots Laoghaire, the girl Jamie took the punishment for, and tries to engage her in conversation. However, Laoghaire is clearly awkward at their interaction. But when Claire catches the girl watching Jamie, she determines to take matters into her own hands. She waves Jamie over and tries to get him and Laoghaire talking.
Jamie is clearly a bit uncomfortable around Laoghaire. He’s polite to her and friendly enough, but he’s clearly more concerned with Claire. Shortly after Laoghaire touches his arm, he arranges to switch places with Claire so that Claire sits between them. This allows Claire to have an unobstructed view of the bard at the end of the hall and for Jamie to whisper translations to the songs in her ear. Laoghaire is clearly quite displeased.
In he midst of the performance, Jamie realizes what wine Claire’s drinking. She admits to having had three glasses, and Jamie informs her that the wine in double strength to help Colum with his pain. He finishes her wine for her and escorts her to her room before she’s too drunk to manage the stairs.
However, when they reach her room, he follows her inside and dispenses with his shirt. Claire realizes he merely intends to at last allow her to remove the bandage. His shoulder wound is healing well. She asks why he wouldn’t let her tend it before, and he confesses that he didn’t want to take his shirt off in front of Alec the horse master and his boss. Alec knows Jamie was whipped, but Jamie fears that, if he actually sees the scars, Alec will never be able to see Jamie as Jamie again. He’ll just see the wounds and what happened.
Writer Comments: This section deals a lot with implication. Gabaldon uses other characters’ manners, words, movement, and expressions to suggest their motivations and inner workings. Laoghaire, for example, is clearly smitten with Jamie, but Jamie is not entirely taken with her. He’s so clearly more interested in Claire, and he reveals this by how he talks to each of them, how he insists Claire switch places with him, and in how much more comfortable he seems in Claire’s presence. Claire, of course, is oblivious to this, yet Gabaldon implies enough to keep the reader guessing and snared.
Yet, thanks to the narrative style of the work, we cannot know exactly what other characters aside from Claire really think. Gabaldon is good at suggesting their perceptions, turmoils, and interests. Yet she solves the mystery on occasion. In this instance, she explains at last why Jamie was so reluctant to allow Claire to tend his shoulder. His reason is understandable and sympathetic, and it’s not what I expected. This allows the pleasure of guessing based on Gabaldon’s hints without the frustration of remaining bewildered. But notice that Gabaldon does not solve most of her mysteries. Most remain unexplained so far. However, by solving a few, she continues suggesting to the reader, even on an unconscious level, that resolution will come in time. That desire for resolution coupled with the denial of it is a big part of what makes fiction enjoyable. It’s something an good author must master to create a truly engaging work.
Additionally in this scene, the bard shares stories about women who vanish in or appear near rocks, usually tied with the Wee Folk. Story after story refers to the rocks, the vanishing, and the woman’s eventual return. This gives her hope, for she sees the similarities to her own situation. Perhaps she is like these women and can return to Frank and home.
This accomplishes two primary things for the book. First, it creates a sense of hope. That hope will carry Claire through more and encourage readers to dive deeper into the story. After all, we naturally want to feel that hope satisfied. Second, it tightens the story’s threads. A story is composed of multiple threads involving theme, characters, conflicts, and more. The more connects and author makes, the strong the story usually becomes.
Summary: The next day, Claire catches Jamie kissing Laoghaire in an alcove. He sees her watching, for she’s at that time unsure how to sneak away without alerting them, shrugs, and keeps on. That evening at supper, Claire teases him about it, uses the horses as a metaphor for his tryst. Jamie threatens to stomp her foot under the table, and she kicks him in the ankle instead. Alec, who’s sitting with them, berates Jamie for his carelessness with the horses. Only after Jamie leaves does Alec turn his attention on Claire. He gives her warning against doing anything to let anyone know what Jamie did, for if Colum knew, the consequences would be far worse than a black eye. Claire asks if he means like a marriage. Alec then informs her that Jamie needs a woman for a wife, not a girl who will remain a girl even when she’s fifty.
Writer Comments: Jamie making out with Laoghaire casts some doubt on his earlier seeming disinterest or mere passing interest in her before. But that’s part of what makes it fun. His motivations are clearly complex, so having to continuously guess and alter one’s opinion makes for a more interesting read.
Also, I suspect Alec is far more aware of the potential for romantic interest between Jamie and Claire than Claire is. For all Alec gives the appearance of being far more deft in the equine world, he’s a character of surprising insight. This allows him to be Gabaldon’s nudging voice. If an author needs to utilize a character to nudge, drop hint, or something similar, it’s often more effective to use a minor character.
Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, join me Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.
To see other books I’ve broken down for the nuggets of writing insight, click here.