Study Guide

Outlander Themes

By Diana Gabaldon

  • Love

    There are tons of romance stories out there. Classic romance. Modern romance. Dinosaur romance (seriously). But what if you combined all three? (The Loch Ness monster is a dinosaur, right?)

    If you threw them all in a genre blender, you'd get time-travel romance—yes, this is a thing—and the most popular example of this genre is Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. It's a love story that spans two hundred years, uniting people who are from totally different centuries. In other words, it's epic, just how love should be.

    Questions About Love

    1. When does Claire realize that she is in love with Jamie? When does Jamie realize he is in love with Claire?
    2. Is Jonathan Randall capable of love?
    3. Does Claire still love Frank even after marrying Jamie?
    4. Does Claire love Jamie differently than she loved (loves?) Frank?

    Chew on This

    Claire never gets rid of her wedding ring from Frank, so she loves Frank at the same time she loves Jamie.

    Claire decides to stay in the 18th century, indicating that she loves Jamie more than she loves Frank.

  • Sex

    What would a six-hundred-page romance story be without sex? Well, it would be Twilight, but that's beside the point. We've got an adult romance on our hands with this book, and Diana Gabaldon packs Outlander's pages full of steamy scenes. There's so much sex in Outlander, we'd forgive you if you temporarily thought you were reading something dirty, like a Judy Blume novel.

    Diana Gabaldon makes sex a critical part of almost everything. It's a way of expressing love; it's a way of exercising power; it's even a way of destroying something. Who knew three little letters could be so complicated?

    Questions About Sex

    1. Is the sex in Outlander ever gratuitous?
    2. Why is sex required to make Jamie and Claire's marriage official? Why can't they just, ahem, fake it?
    3. How does Outlander show the ways in which sex can be healing? Or the ways it can be damaging?
    4. Are attitudes to sex in the 18th century different from the attitudes in the 1940s? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    As a nurse, Claire is used to healing. This skill of hers translates into sex, which she uses to heal as well as to love Jamie.

    As a soldier, (and a total jerk, too) Jonathan Randall uses sex to cause harm and to destroy. It's what he does best.

  • Women and Femininity

    If you thought women were expected to behave differently in the 1940s than they are today, just wait until you see how women are expected to behave in the 1740s. The differences between the sexes are one of the most striking culture shocks Claire experiences when she travels back in time in Outlander. (And remember: This is a time when people don't even brush their teeth.)

    We can only wonder how things would have been different if it were Frank, and not Claire, traveling back in time. He wouldn't have married Jamie, that's for sure.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Claire holds Jamie responsible for failing to protect her when they get attacked at the river. Is she right? Is it Jamie's responsibility to protect her or should she be able to take care of herself?
    2. How do Claire's modern ideals conflict with how women are expected to behave in the 1740s?
    3. Claire is a modern woman compared to the 1740s, but in what ways does she behave traditionally, compared to women in our present day?

    Chew on This

    Although women are expected to stay home, they actually have more responsibility and power way back when than they do today because they're respected for everything they do. At least in this book, the 18th century is kind of a good place to be a woman.

    In this book, an 18th-century woman with too much power is totally feared. They're branded as witches and burned at the stake, and it's a pretty scary place to be a woman.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Traveling to a different country is always a source of culture shock. Customs are different, language can be different, heck—the basic way of life can be the total opposite of what you're used to. Now imagine traveling into a different country in a different time.

    In Outlander, Claire is used to the customs of Scotland in the 20th century, so it's not too difficult for her to adjust to going two hundred years into the past. If you're a non-Scottish reader, though, you might be in for a double dose of culture shock. Not only are the accents different, but the way they conduct business, the way they punish criminals, the way they party and celebrate… well, it's nothing like what we're used to, that's for sure.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. What's the biggest culture shock Claire experiences? How does she adapt?
    2. Why is Claire so good at adapting to the different customs of the 18th century? What customs does she have trouble adapting to?
    3. Did anything shock you more than it shocked Claire? What and why?
    4. Was there anything done in the 1740s the same way it's done in the 1940s? Did this surprise you?

    Chew on This

    Learning tradition and customs of a place you're visiting is always important… but when time traveling to the 18th century, it's a matter of life and death.

    Some things aren't a culture shock for Claire because going back in time from 1942 is a lot different than doing so from, say, 2014.

  • Power

    In the 18th century, you might think power is pretty cut-and-dry. Whoever can throw a caber the farthest is the most powerful, right? Wrong. Power was just as variable back in this day. Some men are burly and brawny and will beat up anything in their way, some men have power that isn't physical, and even some women are considered powerful (though they're usually feared for it). You might think living in the past would be simpler, but in some ways it's just as complicated, which Outlander shows us time and again through power dynamics.

    Questions About Power

    1. What power does Claire have as a woman in the 18th century? Do other women have power?
    2. What power does Jamie have, as a man without land or prestige in the 18th century?
    3. How do Dougal Mackenzie and Colum Mackenzie exercise their respective powers?
    4. Is Jonathan Randall a good soldier? How does he prove that he is powerful?

    Chew on This

    Claire's power is based on her knowledge as a medical professional, which makes her an invaluable addition anywhere, from a castle to an army.

    When it comes to political leadership in this book, it almost always depends on which man can show that he is the most powerful.

  • Duty

    Some jobs come with a sense of moral obligation. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, librarians swear to some sort of secret book code to only make the best recommendations (at least we're assuming this is what they do), and members of the Blue Man Group make an oath to rock our faces off (er, something like that). When it comes to the characters in Outlander, they are often defined by their jobs, and these jobs come with a sense of duty.

    Claire, as a nurse, will risk her own limbs to save the injured limbs of others, while as a warrior, Jamie is strong and fierce, but always fights fair. Especially in the 18th century, a man's word (and a woman's) is almost all he has, so their sense of duty is priceless.

    Questions About Duty

    1. What are Claire's duties as a medical professional? Do her duties ever lead her into dangerous situations?
    2. What are Claire's duties as a wife in the 18th century? Are they different than her duties as a wife would be in the 20th century?
    3. What are Jamie's duties as a warrior? As a clansman? As a husband? Do they ever conflict?

    Chew on This

    People didn't have Facebook in this time to create whatever image they wanted. Their job then, whether it be as a nurse, warrior, or clan chieftain, was their identity, and they take it seriously.

    Claire and Jamie also feel a strong sense of duty as a result of another role: that of wife and husband.

  • Loyalty

    Loyalty factors into almost every relationship, whether it's personal or professional. Lovers are loyal to each other… or at least they should be if they don't want to be spreading herpes all over the place. Employees are loyal to their employers… if they are paid a living wage. And politicians are loyal to… oh, who are we kidding on that last one?

    Things haven't changed in at least two hundred years. In Outlander, loyalties are critical in everything: friendship, partnership, and, yes, in and outside the bedroom.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Who is Claire loyal to? Who is Jamie loyal to? When do they start becoming loyal to each other?
    2. How big of a part does loyalty play when it comes to clan politics in Scotland? What is the punishment for being disloyal?
    3. Which Scotsmen are loyal to the crown of England? Which aren't? Who are the "good" guys and who are the "bad" guys? How much of the political plotline depends on loyalty to the king?

    Chew on This

    Jamie is loyal to Claire because he knows that she can take care of him: physically, emotionally, and sexually.

    Almost all of Scottish-English politics involve loyalty. Much of the background plot has to do with whether or not people like Dougal, Colum, and Geillis Duncan are loyal to the king of England or not.

  • Marriage

    The concept of marriage has differed all over the globe, depending on both where you are and when you are. Sometimes it's an act of love, and sometimes it's a business transaction for a hotel empire or a sack of goat's wool or whatever is valuable in your time and place of choice. And sometimes, it's a little of both.

    The marriage in Outlander is complicated to say the least. It's a marriage of necessity between Jamie and Claire, but to say that it's forced wouldn't be telling the whole truth. Part of the fun of Outlander is seeing how their relationship grows after marriage and how each of them manages to bring their own ideals for what it means to be husband and wife to the partnership. As far as marriages based on practicality instead of love go, we'd say these two really luck out.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How is marriage different in the 18th century than it is in the 20th century? What time period takes marriage more seriously?
    2. Does Claire behave as a wife "should" in the 18th century? What compromises does she make?
    3. Would Jamie make a good husband by 20th-century standards?
    4. Is Claire's marriage to Jamie romantic?
    5. Would Claire have married Jamie had she not been forced to?

    Chew on This

    Claire and Jamie have a marriage of convenience, yes. But they not only manage to make it work—they also make it romantic.

    Claire would not have stayed in the past if she hadn't married Jamie. She married him first, then fell in love with him, then decided to stay.

  • Violence

    Scotland in the 18th century seems so quaint and picturesque. Think: rolling hillsides covered in heather, beautiful stone castles, plus those kilts. But these images are missing one crucial component: all the bloody bodies scattered across the countryside. Details, right?

    Scotland isn't the most peaceful place in Outlander. It's ruled by a variety of different clans and their relationship with the king of England doesn't exactly involve sending fruit baskets back and forth. As a result of the tension, skirmishes break out at any time, and there is ample bleeding, broken bones, and even death. You won't see that in any travel brochure. (Or should we say time-travel brochure?)

    Questions About Violence

    1. In what ways is the violence of the Scottish Highlands different from the violence of World War II? In what ways is it similar?
    2. Why isn't Claire more grossed out by the violence she sees?
    3. What events force Claire to commit her own acts of violence? How does she feel about her actions?

    Chew on This

    Claire goes from one time of violence (World War II) to another (the skirmishes leading to the Jacobite Rebellion). The difference in scale makes the violence easier for Claire to deal with in some ways, and more difficult in others.

    Claire is exceptional in this book in that she never commits violence until she has to.

  • The Supernatural

    Time travel is pretty supernatural by definition. Our definition being: that sure as heck isn't natural. Other things that fall into this category: witchcraft, ghosts, and the Loch Ness monster. And guess what? You'll find two of these three things in Outlander,right alongside the time travel business.

    By the time she's fallen two hundred years into the past, Claire doesn't bat an eye at any of this supernatural stuff. It makes her a believer, you might say. To her, all this stuff isn't super natural… it's just natural. And in the case of getting to pet the Loch Ness monster, well, it's pretty darn cool, too.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Can time travel be explained? Do you think Claire could return to her time if she wanted?
    2. Does Claire's fortune, told by Mrs. Graham, come true? 
    3. What other legends do you think are true?
    4. What the heck is up with that Loch Ness monster scene?

    Chew on This

    The supernatural element is just a way to tell the story of Outlander. Why Claire is able to time travel is not important to the story; just the fact that it happened is enough.

    Because time travel is possible, almost any other legend—faeries, changelings, witchcraft, and monsters—might all be true as well. Time travel creates an anything-is-possible dynamic in Outlander.