Outlander: not all (fictional) rape is equal

Spoiler warning: Outlander (the first book).

Content warning: discussion of rape, including marital rape.

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” – The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

People keep talking about how good the Outlander novels are, and it just makes me bristle. I just want to ask them, ‘But how can you get past the rape scene?’ The obvious question would then be, which rape scene? The novel has so many that some have dubbed it a ‘rape novel’

I’m talking about the marital rape scene, in which Jamie rapes Claire. I wrote to the author about why she decided to condone marital rape in her novel, and her people wrote back to me:

Dear Emmeline—-thank you for writing.  Diana has been writing her stories for 25 years and the questions surrounding the rapes in the story, the violence and the suffering of the characters have been discussed many times.  Diana no longer answers these questions preferring to remark that readers bring to each book their own perceptions and will find in any book ideas that resonate or not with them.  If you wish to read a blog entry Diana wrote about Jamie’s rape in Wentworth, you can find it under her web page, www.dianagabaldon.com BLOG entry for December 9, 2010:  Jamie and the Rule of Three.

best,  Janice

This response frustrated me because it conflated all of the rape in the novel, treating it as if it is all the same, when I am specifically asked about the condoning of marital rape in the novel.

In real life, all rape is bad. But in fiction, how the rape is framed in the context of the plot tells us how to feel about it. This applies to any behaviour in fiction. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. And when characters do the wrong thing – especially our protagonists – they get plot punished.

So the other rape scenes in the novel, while not pleasant reading, are not problematic in the way that Jamie raping Claire is, because Jamie is not positioned as a baddie and he does not get plot punished. On the contrary, this is a formative moment in their relationship, in which Claire makes the decision to be with Jamie.

This is what happened:

They have just arrived at the castle after their adventures, the equivalent of their honeymoon in a weird way, and they are settling into married life together. Jamie makes it clear he wants to have sex and he doesn’t care whether or not she does.

“I didna ask your preferences in the matter, Sassenach […] You are my wife, as I’ve told ye often enough. If ye didna wish to wed me, still ye chose to. And if ye didna happen to notice at the time, your part of the proceedings included the word ‘obey’. You’re my wife, and if I want ye, woman, then I’ll have ye, and be damned to ye!”


“You think you can order me to your bed? Use me like a whore when you feel like it? Well, you can’t you fucking bastard! Do that, and you’re no better than your precious Captain Randall!”*

He glared at me for a moment, then stood abruptly aside. “Leave, then,” he said, jerking his head towards the door. “If that’s what ye think of me, go! I’ll not hinder ye.”

Later, when they have both calmed down, Jamie clarifies that they can live apart if that’s what she wants. Then he offers her a wedding ring.

Forced on me by circumstance, he would force himself on me no longer, if I chose to reject him. And there was the alternative, of course: to accept the ring, and all that went with it.

She decides to take the ring.

Then they have sex. And at points it becomes rape. It is described as a positive thing, ending with both partners satisfied.

The next morning he goes back for more.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” I said, pulling back. “I can’t possibly; I’m too sore.”

James Fraser was not a man to take no for an answer.

“I’ll be verra gentle,” he wheelded, dragging me unexorably under the quilt. And he was gentle, as only big men can be, cradling me like a quail’s egg, paying me court with a humble patience that I recognised as reparation – and a gentle insistence that I knew was a continuation of the lesson so brutally begun the night before. Gentle he would be; denied he would not.

That’s the thing about intimate partner rape. He doesn’t have to be violent every time (usually but not always a he**). It can happen just once, and then consent is void in the relationship because she (usually a she) has learned she can’t say no. So even if she doesn’t say “no”, it is still non-consensual because she is not in a position to give consent, because of the power dynamic that exists between them***.

Far from being condemned for marital rape, this scene is actually framed as the couple growing closer, as Claire is choosing to be with Jamie and accepting the (morally unacceptable) price of admission of the relationship.

That is why I condemn the Outlander books.


*Captain Randall is the baddy, who later in the novel horrifically rapes Jamie, as referenced in the letter from Diana Gabaldon’s letter-writing person.

** It is worth noting that power imbalances and abuse dynamics are not limited to opposite-sex, cisgendered couples.

**I tried to find a reference to support this and failed. I remembered reading about it in Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski but there is something mysterious about this book, in that whenever I try to find a reference in it I can’t. Readers: If you can find a reference to this, please let me know.

2 thoughts on “Outlander: not all (fictional) rape is equal

  1. In the time of the story women did not have rights over their bodies. We were property, so in context of the time the rape was not rape by law. It was what was expected. Sex for provisions and protection.
    Rape in marriage was not illegal until recently. So the books can be seen as not necessarially condoning but as shedding light on what was. I think many women today forget or don’t actually know what life for women was even 50 years ago in Western culture and even in Australia, let along Scotland in the 1500’s or was it 1700s?
    Remeber South Australia was the first place to give women the vote…So Australian wopmen have grown up with a different context than many women. But 70 years later in Qld Headmasters were telling teachers not to grade the smart girl with the A’s as it took away a university place for a male. After all the female wouldn’t go to University. (and no she didn’t as her father agreed with the headmaster.. but many years later she has 2 degrees and lives in Canberra)
    Rape in marriage in Overlander… yep sexy bad.. but have you read the Mills and Boons books of the 70’s? Written FOR women…. a Summer holiday staple for me when I was sitting in the farm truck with bush fire unit attached watching the harvesting. The ‘wanton woman and the powerful man who shows her what love is with his brutish behaviour’….

    When I grew up a female getting to adulthood without some kind of sexual assult was rare. may be inappropriate comments and looks, to ‘casual touch ups” to assult and also rape. It was normal and we learnt to deal with it, prepare for it, kick and run or cope.

    Life for females in Australia now is VERY much improved. To the point I feel for the up and coming young men. balance is to be gained yet for all genders

  2. I am aware of the context. In fact, when the book was published in the 1990s rape in marriage was still legal in many places. Today intimate partner rape often gets a lighter sentence than what is seen as traditional stranger rape.
    The problem is that this book is being read and enjoyed *today* and Jamie and Claire’s relationship is being celebrated *today*, and Jamie is being held up as a handsome hero *today* when in fact he is a rapist.

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