Part #1 of Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
Readers’ Guide to Outlander
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—perhaps recently, or perhaps years ago.
This Readers’ Guide to Outlander is intended to extend the pleasure individual readers feel when enjoying these remarkable books privately. I hope the questions serve 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 connections 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! Page references in parentheses refer to the 2001 trade (large-size) paperback. I own multiple editions of Outlander with differing pagination, but this one seemed the most easily accessible.
Many book clubs enjoy using interviews with the author and other background material to broaden and deepen their reading experience, and Readers’ Guides sometimes include those resources. Thanks to Diana Gabaldon’s generosity and to lively online communities of readers, however, these are readily available elsewhere. 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 when finishing Diana Gabaldon’s books—you will also enjoy these resources.
The Outlandish Companion, a hard-cover treasury which 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: https://voyagesoftheartemis.blogspot.com, Listen to her podcasts:
https://www.randomhouse.com/audio/podcasts/diana_gabaldon_rss.xml And see video interviews on her YouTube Channel:
https://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:
CompuServe Books and Writers Community: https://community.compuserve.com/Books and on the Ladies of Lallybroch site: www.lallybroch.com and on https://groups.yahoo.com/group/DianaGabaldon/summary
Questions and insights about the characters, plots, settings, themes, symbolism, 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.
Part ONE Inverness, 1945
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. Fantasy, the para-normal, the supernatural … if we as readers are willing to suspend our disbelief (to use Coleridge’s phrase), narratives that make demands on our credulity require a very credible, trustworthy narrator. What qualities does Claire possess that make us willing to believe her tale? Are there aspects of Claire’s personality with which you can personally identify? Can you think of other narrators whose credibility is the key to a reader’s acceptance of an otherwise unacceptably incredible story?
3. Examine Claire’s account of her second honeymoon with Frank, weighing their affection, relief at being reunited after the war, and sexual passion, on one hand, 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 significant, do you think, might these tensions have become had Claire not inadvertently disappeared through the stones? (If you and your group 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?
4. The ghost episode (20): 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 attempt 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 intuition that he may have been referring to an infidelity of his own? If so, how does this affect your response to his character?
5. 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 divided marriage line in Claire’s hand (34) 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 beliefs and folkways—their barbarism and ignorance, or their secret access to truths of which the modern world has lost sight?
6. The horror of Claire’s terrifying trip through the stones is striking. “There was a noise of battle, and the cries of dying men and shattered horses (49).” She frequently recalls the horrors of World War II. Is she re-experiencing some of that trauma? (If you are re-reading Outlander after having read the sequels, do you think that this carnage is associated with any one battle in particular? If so, which one? Or does it make more sense to see it as a universal expression of pain engendered by violence?)
7. 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 significance throughout this novel (and in the sequels) because of its subsequent effect 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 18 c. episodes, where hygiene standards differed significantly from ours. What descriptions in Outlander are particular 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.)
8. When Claire meets Dougal and his men, the scene is almost cinematic: the scene 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, ordering 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 conflicts: first, a conflict between 20c. scientific medical practices and 18 c. assumptions; and second, the conflict between a modern, educated woman’s expectation that she should be taken seriously and the tendency of 18 c. 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 character, or merely their desperation about Jamie’s injuries?
9. 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
10. Once they are safely inside the castle, Claire is finally able to process some of the shock and grief of her disturbing experience. Weeping for Frank, she is comforted by the young stranger whose wounds she has tended and who has shared his horse with her. Her reaction as he soothes her: “slowly I began to quiet a bit, as Jamie stroked my neck and back, offering me the comfort of his broad, warm chest. My sobs lessened and I began to calm myself, leaning tiredly into the curve of his shoulder. No wonder he was so good with horses, I thought blearily, feeling his fingers rubbing gently behind my ears, listening to the soothing, incomprehensible speech. If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere (92).” In what subsequent moments in their relationship do images of horses and riding recur? What do these images ultimately suggest about their relationship?
11. Part One ends with Claire settling into Castle Leoch with clothing more suitable to the 18c., thanks to Mrs. Fitz, a growing sense of safety with the young Jamie MacTavish, 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 (98). 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?
Part TWO Castle Leoch
12. Claire learns a good deal about life in Castle Leoch: she enjoys the musical entertainment and bardic story-telling, acquires a respect for Colum’s leadership 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. This 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?
13. 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 deliberately fighting away from some, and then wonders, “Had I fought towards others? 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 (129)?” 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?
14. Consider the songs and supernatural folktales Claire hears during the entertainment in the castle (159); she notes the pattern that the transported women are so often gone for about 200 years—but do sometimes return home. Applying the lessons of the poetry to herself, she acquires hope and courage to try to escape through Craigh na Dun again. Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s fiction often express gratitude that emotionally powerful scenes in her books have empowered them to make positive changes in their own private lives. Has your life ever been touched profoundly by an insight from a poem, song, or piece of fiction? How?
15. 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 MacMahon?
16. 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 (150). What evidence do you see of her 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 criticism do you have for Laoghaire in this novel? Why?
17. When Claire meets Geillis Duncan in Chapter 7, notice the cluster of references to poison: Geilie immediately identifies Claire’s mushrooms as poisonous, jokes about poisoning husbands, discusses an abortifacient herb, and before Claire returns to the Castle—where there is an outbreak of food poisoning because of some tainted beef—Geilie tells her that Hamish is Jamie’s child. This breath-taking lie is almost Shakespearean: the poison-in-the-ear motif in Hamlet refers not only to the way Claudius killed Old Hamlet, but also to the climate of destructive rumors and falsehoods that contaminate the kingdom. Consider the other, later toxic falsehoods in this novel: which ones have the most serious consequences? For instance, consider Dougal’s telling Jamie that Jenny was with child by Randall and by a second British soldier; consider Randall’s persecution of Jamie for the murder of a sergeant-major whom Randall himself had killed; consider Laoghaire’s lie to Claire that Geillis was ill and wanted her to come, thereby luring her into the witchcraft arrest, and Geillis’ lie to Jamie that Claire was barren.
18. In the episode with the tanner’s lad, we see the petty vindictiveness of Father 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?
19. 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—where either his failure to take the oath (possibly signifying 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 understands 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 that endangers Jamie? Have you ever inadvertently put someone else in danger 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?
Part THREE On the Road
20. Dougal’s exploitation of Jamie’s flogging to stir public support for the Jacobites 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 humiliating the experience (which Claire, significantly, calls a “crucifixion”) is?
21. Although the evidence is mounting that Black Jack Randall is a sadistic bully, Claire is still stunned—because of his remarkable resemblance to Frank—that he hits her. How might the resemblance complicate her memory of and love for Frank?
22. After he punches her, Claire’s contemptuous response to Randall’s question “Have you anything to say?” is “Your wig is crooked (238).” When Dougal describes Jamie’s great courage and composure during his flogging, he remembe
23. Dougal tells her the complete story of the flogging as a way of illustrating Jamie’s character to her prior to the marriage, and also hints at the sexual 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 ambitions, is Dougal killing two birds with one stone here? Despite his Machiavellian instincts, some ancient spirituality lingers in Dougal: why does he take Claire to St. Ninian’s spring?
24. Claire and Jamie’s wedding—in the same church in which she married Frank—has touching and comic moments to it. What details do you find most striking or memorable?
25. In Chapter 15, “The 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 one another’s families and personal experiences. As they sit side by side drinking wine and touching, what important insights do they learn about one another? How important is this ability to talk to one another in their growing relationship?
26. 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? (273)” And do you readers agree that a good marriage can have secrets?
27. Gender and genre: Claire gently educates the virginal Jamie, who had been misinformed by Murtagh that it is best to get the act over with quickly, as women do not enjoy sex. It has often been observed that this novel does not fit readers’ expectations of generic romances. Among other things, your group might wish to consider the age disparity of the protagonists, the unusual circumstances of their “courtship,” the subsequent revelation that the male is a virgin, and the continuation of the story well beyond the marriage itself. As well as illustrating a difference between 18 c. and 20 c. expectations by having the older, experienced female take the lead, Gabaldon undermines yet another romance convention. “As yet too hungry and too clumsy for tenderness, still he made love with a sort of unflagging joy that made me think that male virginity might be a highly underrated commodity (287).” Claire also suggests that her husband Frank, despite his sophistication and polish as a lover, had not discovered some aspects of her sexuality that Jamie had (289, 438). She still intends, at this point, to return to Frank somehow. How would this new dimension of her experience complicate her life with Frank?
28. If you are interested in hearing Diana Gabaldon’s insights into the craft of erotic writing, including elements of other books in the Outlander series, listen to Episode 5 of the Diana Gabaldon Podcast and discuss what light it sheds on this scene. (https://a1018.g.akamai.net/f/1018/19024/1d/randomhouse1.download.akamai.com/19024/rhaudio/diana_gabaldon/episode5.mp3)
29. Modern marriage enhancement therapy (for example, Emotionally Focused Therapy) is based on the research behind Attachment Theory, the understanding that human infants (and indeed all primates) require physical cuddling—a need that extends into adult relationships. (If you are interested in reading an excellent contemporary overview of why this universal childhood need extends into adult marriages, see Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight, or her recent article summarizing the book: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200812/hold-me-tight). 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 (293)”. How important is their ability to touch one another? What other episodes of touching—not necessarily sexual—strike you as memorable and significant? Is Jamie’s need for touch any greater than Claire’s?
30. Although Claire appreciates Jamie’s protectiveness, she is sometimes quick to assume that he shares what seems to be a widespread 18 c. attitude that women are not intelligent enough to master certain skills; for example, using heavy pistols (348). Chastened, she realizes the men are right that a sgian dhu is a better weapon for her, and they teach her how to use it properly—to good effect when she kills her attacker in Chapter 20, “Deserted Glades.” But her most difficult and complex adjustment to 18 c. mores—and the one most readers find most controversial—undoubtedly concerns the beating she receives at Jamie’s hands following her rescue from Black Jack Randall at Fort William for her disobedience in refusing to stay in the copse where Jamie had ordered her to stay. Her independent streak and determination to return to her husband Frank, despite the growing love she feels for Jamie, endanger Jamie’s life and the life of his men far beyond what she had imagined. Re-read Chapter 21 and 22. Was Jamie justified in beating Claire? Why or why not? Did it affect your response to his character? When you read Jamie’s anecdotes about the physical discipline he received from his beloved father Brian, how does that affect your judgment of him? What do both Claire and Jamie learn from the experience?
31. Given the information available, is Claire’s jealousy of Laoghaire and her hurt pride when she thinks that Jamie may have married her primarily for his share of the rents that now accrue to him as a married man reasonable? Or do her jealousy and hurt pride point to a deep insecurity in her? How does the episode with the wedding ring reinforce Jamie’s commitment to her?
Part FOUR A Whiff of Brimstone
32. 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 information 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 recurring motif in the whole series), including the Duke of Sandringham’s humorously 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?
33. When Geilie and Claire find the “changeling” baby, Claire is appalled by the ignorance and inadvertent cruelty of the ancient superstition, and appeals to Jamie for help in rescuing it. Despite his rationality, however, he is reluctant to challenge local mores—and against his better judgment, checks on the child, who is dead. But what do you think Jamie would have done had it been alive? When Geilie warns her against her altruism, “Don’t ye know what they say about you in the village (497)?” do you think Geilie is telling the truth, or is she merely attempting to prevent Claire from doing something that would get them all into trouble?
34. 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 the 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 example, Fr. 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 f
35. In the thieves’ hole at Cranesmuir, Claire and Geillis await death. Claire discovers that Geillis is a Jacobite, and at the moment of Geilie’s death, realizes from her vaccination that she too is a time traveler. But the hole has “the dark anonymity of the confessional”, and as is the case in so many myths and stories in which someone descends into the underworld, Claire has her most important and transforming revelation: she tells Geilie—and herself—the truth that she does love Jamie. Consider, however, that she does not share this with Jamie for a considerable amount of time. Why not?
36. 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 defence. Jamie, of course, does arrive in time, and by means of
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes