Outlander is basically a traditional romance on steroids. Not only is the book huge, but it takes all the typical romantic elements to the extreme. Claire isn't just your typical fish-out-of-water heroine; she's in a completely different time period than she's used to (thanks to time travel courtesy of the fantasy genre). Jamie is the epitome of the chivalrous gentleman, consistently risking his life for her, and there are tons of smoking hot sex scenes.
But Diana Gabaldon isn't content to just write a romance. She explores the genre, and while she doesn't quite turn it on its head, she's a little more introspective about it than many authors. The scene in which Claire, an independent, strong-willed nurse from the 20th century, is whipped by her Scottish husband, is pretty controversial. How can she submit to that? Is it anti-feminist or is it romance? Scenes like these make us wonder what romance truly means.
What in the what is a Sassenach?
In the first chapter, Claire and Frank have a discussion about the semi-pejorative term Sassenach:
"I distinctly heard the barman at that pub last night refer to us as Sassenachs."
"Well, why not?" said Frank equably. "It only means 'Englishman,' after all, or at worst, 'outlander,' and we're all of that."
"I know what it means. It was the tone I objected to." (1.25-1.27)
When Claire finds herself in the past, she is the ultimate outlander: both English and from another time entirely. However, Jamie calls her Sassenach as a term of affection. Between the two of them, the word represents much about what he loves in Claire—her differences, her otherworldliness, her modernity. Claire is his Sassenach: his time-traveler, his Englishwoman, his wife.
Diana Gabaldon almost titled Outlander as Sassenach, but that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Either way, though, the title is a shout-out to our main girl, Claire.
After fleeing Wentworth Prison, Jamie and Claire hide out at the Abbey of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in France. Jamie is on the brink of death, and his wounds are deep, both physically and psychologically. The abuse and rape he suffered at the hands of Jonathan Randall was extreme, and as Jamie struggles to live, Claire confesses she's a time traveler to Father Anselm, and he believes her.
What follows is an epic lecture on fate versus free will. It seems that Claire is a combination of both… it was fated for her to travel back to this time period, but she has the free will to make choices and maybe or maybe not change the future. Claire worries about her every action affecting the future (what about Frank, her husband, who is Randall's descendant?), but Father Anselm takes some pressure off Claire when he tells her bluntly, "Everyone's actions affect the future" (40.132). Time travelers aren't the only ones who count, yo.
In order to heal Jamie, Claire pretends to be Randall (having been married to his descendant, she knows exactly what he's like) and taunts Jamie into attacking her. This is the only way she knows to heal him. He is scared to have sex with her after being raped by Randall, so by forcing him to have sex with her while she's pretending to be Randall (arguably one of the book's strangest moments), Claire proves that Jamie has the mental strength to overcome the pain he'd suffered.
In other words, the pain is a part of him. He doesn't have to hide from it, and Claire doesn't love him any less because of it.
After that, Claire and Jamie descend into the hot springs below the abbey. Previously, Claire welcomed Jamie into her womb, if you will, acting as both lover and mother to him to bring him back from the brink of despair. Jamie doesn't have a womb for her, so Claire finds comfort within the earth itself.
It's all very symbolic. In the hot springs, Claire hears "the infinitely slow beat of a great heart nearby" (41.104), and there she realizes that she is pregnant, even though she previously believed herself to be barren. At its heart, Outlander is just a really long romance story, and all romances need a happy ending. Insofar as wombs are original homes, this installment in the series ends with Jamie and Claire coming home to each other. Aw.
Only two chapters are spent in what is present-day to Claire—post-World War II Scotland—before she gets whisked away two hundred years into the past. Even though Claire has seen war, she still experiences what could best be described as culture shock. She's used to seeing wounds inflicted by artillery, not by musket ball; interestingly, though, while hot showers are nice, Claire never seems to miss modern conveniences. For the record, we would not be so cool about this change.
Perhaps Claire is more interested in the medical differences than the comforts since she was raised by an uncle who often eschewed "civilization." In fact, she remarks at one point, "last time I walked such a path, the ground was littered with sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts" (13.11). Nature sure is nice without litter, isn't it? Again, though, we really love ourselves some hot showers.
While the scenery is easy to get used to, however, the people aren't. Women behave much more traditionally (and dress much more modestly) than Claire is used to, and many are wary of her modern ways. It takes her a while, but she eventually makes friends with the people of Castle Leoch. She becomes so close to them, in fact, that she almost regrets running away to her own time period, thinking, "The thought that I would never again see that grim pile of stone or its inhabitants gave me an odd feeling of regret" (11.1). Looks like somebody's found a new home.
Claire eventually grows to love living in this time period. Yes, being with Jamie is the major factor in that, but it's also remarkable how comfortable she is living in the past. Maybe the mid-18th century is the time when Claire was meant to exist? To each her own, we suppose.
When you pick up Outlander, you'll probably build a bit of muscle mass along with entertaining your brain for a few hours… days… weeks… Yeah, it's a long book, no matter how fast you read. The good news is that it has a fast-paced plot with fairly simple language, especially from Claire, our conscientious narrator.
The most challenging part of the book, besides trying not to die of infection in a time period that doesn't believe in hand washing, is reading the Scottish dialect that permeates the story. But don't worry: Diana Gabaldon is a master of dialect, and all you have to do is read what she puts on the page. For a boost, try reading a few of Jamie's lines out loud so you can hear them. The worst that can happen is someone will think you're auditioning to be Scrooge McDuck in a new DuckTales cartoon.
We only see the stone circle of Craigh na Dun a couple of times, but its presence looms over the whole novel. Though Craigh na Dun is fictitious, picture Stonehenge and you're on the right track. And just as Stonehenge has baffled and intrigued folks for ages, Craigh na Dun helps set the mysterious tone in Outlander. Claire never quite understands Craigh na Dun, and the more she thinks about it, the more questions she raises. She notes:
Whoever built the stone circles, and for whatever purpose, thought it important enough to have quarried, shaped, and transported special stone blocks for the erection of their testimonial. Shaped—how? Transported—how, and from what imaginable distance? (2.20)
Its unexplained mystical properties are what allow Claire to travel backward in time, but that's all we know for sure about it. And considering the deliberateness with which it was most certainly created, it's safe to assume there's more to this stone circle than we understand in this book. Which is fine, because symbolically, Craigh na Dun is here to make us think mystery.
So it's pretty apparent that Claire has traveled two hundred years back in time. This isn't one of those books where time travel is actually a dream the main character wakes up from in the end. But even though we know time travel has happened, we never quite understand why.
We're also not sure just how often this happens to other people. Claire meets one other time traveler in the book, Geillis Duncan, but she wonders how many other women have been unstuck in time like a character in a Kurt Vonnegut story.
The mystery deepens as Claire listens to the legends told by the bard of Castle Leoch. One in particular concerns a woman who "was tired, as though she had traveled far, but could not tell where she had been, nor how she had come there" (8.66). Sound familiar? The point behind time travel, then, is at least partially that Claire is not alone in doing it—unusual, yes, but alone, not so much.
Time travel is a reference, then, to a shared position, even if we don't know a whole lot about this yet (remember, we're just getting started in this book—there are a whole lot of pages that come in future books).
Also, if time traveling is true, how many other legends are also rooted in reality? We're thinking this is an important question to plant as this whole saga begins in Outlander, and it certainly establishea that not only have we gone back in time, but there are also other ways in which the world we're hanging out in likely doesn't resemble the one we live in.
Claire has two husbands, but not in a Sister Wives: Scotland Edition (or would that be Brother Husbands?) sort of way. Her first husband, Frank, hasn't even been born yet when Claire marries her second husband, Jamie, in 1743.
Time travel gives us a headache.
Still, even though Claire is permanently separated from Frank, she still loves him. She wears her wedding ring from him alongside the one Jamie gives her, "a wide silver band, decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small and delicate Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center of each link" (23.151). It's so pretty, you can buy one of your own.
The fact that Claire wears both shows us that she still loves both her husbands, and also that she is connected to two different worlds. Do you think she'll ever take off the ring she got from Frank? Perhaps future books will tell.