Outlander and The Dark Side of Humanity
*Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual assault*
*Spoilers for Outlander by Diana Gabaldon*
During the recent Lara Croft discussions, some (including myself) pointed out how tired they were of the lazy use of rape in a number of stories, particularly fantasy and science fiction. This led to the question of which rape stories were “good” and, to be honest, I had a hard time coming up with any beyond perhaps Tess of the d'Urbervilles. For most of them, I felt that the rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault used could have been replaced with a number of other horrendous violent crimes and the overall story would not have changed, except maybe to be less sexualized overall.
Then I read Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The bulk of the novel is set in 18th century Scotland and primarily involves multiple levels of Scottish society and British soldiers. As in the Game of Thrones, rape was a constant threat for women, particularly those who did not have political power through their relationships to men (although sometimes those relationships were also seen as reasons to “ruin” the woman as a political maneuver).
Lots of novels make use of rape as a background device, as an easy way to show how evil the time period was and as a contrast to today. However, Outlander goes further, making the act of rape and society’s views of it, part of the story.
- The main character, Claire, learns how to protect herself and is given self-defense lessons. She learns how to use the society’s low expectations of women to her advantage, giving her the upper hand in a number of occasions. She is forced into the position of welcoming a rapist’s advances to make it easier for her to kill her attacker.
- The worldview of her love interest, Jamie, is tainted by rape and attempted rape. He becomes estranged from his sister in part because his captor, Captain Randall, tells him not only did he rape her, but she carried his bastard child. This leads him to place the blame on himself and blinds him to the entire story of what happened between Jenny and Randall.
- Later in the book, we suffer with Jamie as Randall captures him again and he surrenders his body to Randall in exchange for Claire’s freedom. The way in which Randall rapes Jamie leads him to question himself, feeling that his body betrayed his emotions and his love for Claire. Through this, we explore the guilt often suffered by survivors, especially when Jamie says he couldn’t stop his body from reacting anymore than he could stop a cut from bleeding. We watch as he works through this grief and guilt.
A number of other similar situations appear in the book. A few of them, particularly in the beginning, might fit more into the flavor category, showing us how the world of 1740s Scotland worked. Overall, however, rape isn’t used just to establish how terrible the society or the people within it was. We get to examine not only the effects it has on the individuals, but on society itself, especially as we see Claire, a woman from the 1940s, deal with her desire to be a free and independent woman and the realities of a world where women who expressed their independence often suffered consequences for it.
Outlander deals with some dark aspects of the human condition but often does so with gravity and respect and in a way that leads the reader to think critically about not only the world of the novel, but our own as well. Given the number of survivors out there, of all genders, I think we have an obligation as creators to use rape in moderation, especially in more mainstream works, and when we do use it, to make it more than a symbol for how bad a person or society is.
Given the sensitive nature of the subject, comments will be moderated.