Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works in this story and what we can learn from it as writers.
Chapter 29: More Honesty
Summary: That night, as they do most nights, Claire and Jamie sit around with Jenny and Ian and talk of old times. Claire mentions Grannie MacNab and her grandson, who she fears is being beaten too much by his father. This leads into conversation about Jamie and Ian’s boyhood mischief, how Jamie often tried to talk them out of punishments and normally made it worse, and some of Jenny’s recollections of such incidents. Jamie and Ian now laugh over their various exploits and successive beatings.
At one point, when Claire and Jenny are returning with refreshments, they overhear Ian asking Jamie if Jamie’s terribly bothered that he and Jenny didn’t get his consent for their marriage. Jamie assures him that it doesn’t bother him, especially considering they had no idea where he was or if, much less when, he’d return.
Later in the conversation, Jenny confesses the part she feels she played in making things worse between Randall and Jamie, and what led to their father’s death. When Randall took Jenny off to rape her and had trouble performing, she laughed at him and mocked him. He became enraged, and she fears this made him much harsher with Jamie than he otherwise would have been. However, Jamie assures her that it wasn’t her fault.
That night, while in bed, Claire realizes she and Jamie are both awake. They talk some more of Jamie getting beaten by his father, a fact he looks back on with humor. They discuss how they’ll handle their own children. Claire’s uncle was against beating and so raised her by trying to reason with her like an adult. The closest they come to a consensus is when Jamie suggests Claire can first reason with them, then he’ll beat them.
Writer Comments: There’s a lot to touch on in this chapter. First of all, Gabaldon brings up a sensitive subject: beating children. While I admire her for addressing it in its historical context, it is also a risky subject. Most modern readers would find the period’s approach to child discipline barbaric. In actuality, were a modern father to do what the characters in this book laugh off, he’d be considered guilty of child abuse today.
It is a tricky subject to handle in the book. On the one hand, to be truthful to the period and characters, Gabaldon must give them perspectives that are not in line with modern sensibilities. On the other hand, she is writing to a modern audience, and she does have a modern, well relatively modern, character as her narrator. I wish we’d get a sense of Claire’s perspective on the matter. It would certainly help with knowing how to take the scene. I know Claire is against beating one’s wife, but she makes little protest at the prospect of Jamie beating their children, and she makes practically no effort at encouraging the idea that they rescue Grannie MacNab’s grandson. I presume Jamie has already agreed to take the boy on as a stable lad, but I don’t know that for certain, nor is the subject addressed in the chapter.
At the least, bringing up touchy subjects in fiction, especially subjects that differ between modern perspectives and the mores of another time, is like walking a tightrope. An author must be both truthful to the representation of the subject, but not get preachy either. Readers do not like being preached at.
There are three subjects brought up in this chapter that appear to bear some weight to the story, or at least the potential to do so. First, Ian asks Jamie if he minds about his and Jenny’s marriage, a topic that has clearly nibbled at Ian’s mind for a while. The second is Jenny’s guilt over their father’s death and Jamie’s mistreatment at Randall’s hands. The third is the brief touch on the subject of child rearing between Jamie and Claire. Normally, I like to stay on the positive, but I must say that the subject could have carried a lot more weight and impact at they been worked into some conflict. They were all resolved very quickly and with little to no fuss. This doesn’t lend itself to compelling reading.
Which brings me to my final point for today. Conflict is essential in every chapter of a novel. Conflict is what pulls a reader in and gets them engaged. The past several chapters have been lacking in conflict. I’m not sure why, but they have. I sadly confess my enthusiasm for the story has also waned a bit.
Yet Outlander is highly popular and has achieved tons of avid fans. Why then when there are stretches of this book when little happens, the conflict is limited or almost nonexistent, and when the narrator often does little to contribute to some scenes. First off, there are parts of Outlander that are absolutely wonderful. Gabaldon can put together some brilliant scenes. However, I think there’s something beyond that, or at least, I suspect so. Outlander also represents fantasy fulfillment. Tons of women would love to be swept away by a sexy, accomplished, funny, compassionate highlander like Jamie. If you read a book for that wish fulfillment, going through some scenes like those in this chapter and the few previous chapters, are probably more tolerable to someone who isn’t reading it for that sort of wish fulfillment. We can take a little time and enjoy the peace Claire and Jamie have at the moment because, as readers, some part of us would like something like that in our own lives. But it takes luck and a great bit of skill to get away with this. In your own writing, I suggest avoiding it and sticking with ensuring that there’s conflict on every page.