The Outlander book series by Diana Gabaldon, and the Starz television series (now in its 5th season) have garnered millions of followers. In my previous post I shared my own personal journey through the world created in Gabaldon’s books. I conjectured why it won my heart like nothing I’ve experienced as a reader. I wonder, why is it such a phenomenon now, 27 years later? [Diana’s first novel, Outlander, was released in 1991.]
Critics might chalk it up to escapism in a world gone mad. I believe it’s something else.
Key elements infused throughout the stories are 1) the possibility of creating a new order of things; 2) the kind of personal freedom Americans believe they have but which in fact has been eroded since sometime around the industrialization of America. Our freedoms are regulated or qualified to the point of handcuffing almost any endeavor unless you are rich in which case you can evade regulation.
In Gabaldon’s world of Outlander, we experience lawless times in the nascent Republic, and times of terrible oppression in Scotland. The author does not sugarcoat any of the times, but rather plunges readers into the horrors of slavery, violence against women, and brutal policies imposed on the poor and oppressed. Diana’s novels are not for the faint at heart nor are they romantic novels in the strict definition of that genre. Diana’s wave is so huge in the book world that it has created its own genre.
Diana Gabaldon possesses a sense of humor; she includes chapter titles such as “Meanwhile, back at the ranch , , ,” to keep readers engaged in her complex plots. Yet, like a deep current in the troubled waters of time – from book 1 to book 8 – there is an abiding theme and what I would describe as a ‘force’. The theme, in my opinion, is “we are all in this together” and the force emanates from this idea: true love lasts through the slings and arrows of human history, and it is the only real thing that defines the human pageant across time.
The Theme: We are all in this together.
The books are about family. We see it first in the Highlander clans at a time when survival depended upon that unit of cohesion among people. Then we see it in frontier times in American history with pioneers, and among colonies. The major characters of Jamie Fraser and Claire Fraser form the warp while secondary characters, children, and animals form the weft or woof. The hues and texture are provided by historical events and circumstances.
The Force of Gabaldon’s Story: Demonstration of love that is immutable.
Over and over we experience the love of Jamie and Claire, of parents and children, of brothers and sisters, of comrades in arms, of communities and of nations. Gabaldon shows us which ones last and which ones don’t; we are left to consider why and why not in ever changing scenarios. Passionate love, filial love, maternal love, brotherly love, and patriotism are all in there in their fullness: strong, vulnerable, imperfect and humanity’s signature trait. Diana sharpens our understanding of immutable love by contrasting it in darkness: jealousy, resentment, pure hate, unhinged violence, or the worst perhaps — negligence.
The answer to my question [why does Outlander appeal to millions today?] seems obvious only now that I have read the entire series twice and listened to interviews with the author. This long developing narrative and its unforgettable characters provide a way forward in the complex, otherwise discouraging world humanity has created for itself. Think about that: 1) We are all in this together (connoting we are responsible to each other); 2) Love, the greatest force in the world, is immutable (it can’t be changed or touched by any force no matter how diabolical or egregious).
The stories show the impact of our actions, or lack there of, and the fact that history is made together. It is counter intuitive if you think about it. Is true freedom being alone to do what you please? Or is true freedom something achieved only together (as families, as groups, as nations, as a world community)?
Finally, I think we experience Diana Gabaldon’s own journey to answer that question. We time travel with her characters jumping from historical periods and back. She probes to understand those times and ours even as it is unfolding today, at this very moment. Will we, her contemporaries, choose love over hate, and work in a family or community to provide a home, a town, a nation that is worth fighting for?
I would love your comments on what you think makes Outlander such a compelling body of work.