Wentworth: Violence, Death, and the Hell Within

For within him Hell

He brings, … nor from Hell

One step no more than from himself can fly

By change of place.

John Milton. Paradise Lost. Bk. 4


The episode we have all been dreading in Outlander aired and it was as horrible as we imagined it to be (1X15 Wentworth). The image of Jamie clutching his bloody crippled hand was extremely disturbing even though we were prepared for it. Many people, including the Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies, have described the last couple of episodes as “dark” and, as the Wentworth episode coincided with a rape scene on Game of Thrones, a number of writers commented on the violence in both shows (ex. Sara Stewart). Yet we do tolerate the violence on Outlander, gruesome as it was. Why?

Diana Gabaldon has talked about the necessity of putting Jamie through such “pain and suffering” because it’s a “High Stakes” story and how the violence is necessary to show that Jack Randall was “a serious threat” (Gabaldon, “Jamie and the Rule of Three”). She also suggests that the Wentworth scene is part of a triangle of emotional climaxes of the book, which culminates in the Abbey.

Outlander 2014
Outlander 2014 from Starz

The Hell Within

For me, the Wentworth episode is central to the story because it is the moment when Jack Randall and Jamie confront their deepest fears and unconscious desires. In Paradise Lost, John Milton envisioned hell not just as a place, but as a state of mind. After his defeat, Satan leaves hell but talks about the “hell within” him which he carries to the Garden of Eden. Similar to the fiend, Black Jack Randall is a tormented man who takes pleasure in seeing others get hurt. Four years before, Jack Randall tried to break Jamie with sheer brutality and physical force (100 lashes on top of 100 lashes), but that failed to crush Jamie’s spirit. This time, he succeeds in penetrating Jamie’s core through a combination of love and brute strength. Initially, Jamie was unafraid of Jack and refused to surrender, but agreed later to comply with his wishes in exchange for Claire’s safety. Even so, Black Jack’s triumph comes at a cost to himself: he had to admit his desire for Jamie in order to gain the upper hand. Love is risky.

Outlander 2014
Outlander 2014 from Starz

What happened in the dungeon was not just physical torture but an experience that cut through the essence of one’s psyche. Jamie tells Claire later that he could have stood “being hurt, no matter how bad,” but it was the love that got to him. Black Jack aroused a visceral response in Jamie. It was the combination of love and pain, the confusion of anger, sexuality and desire that broke Jamie and made him feel shame and loathing for himself. Later, he becomes reluctant to touch Claire in the abbey because he feels that he would contaminate their relationship (Chapter 39 To Ransom a Man’s Soul).

Parallels Worlds

The Wentworth dungeon represents a hell in more ways than one. Milton had envisioned hell as fiery, in a state of “darkness visible,” and the imagery of fire and darkness permeates Starz’s production. Even the other prisoners all had the look of forsaken souls.

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Significantly, this descent down to hell is introduced by numerous images of death. The episode begins with prisoner after prisoner being hung at the gallows, and the camera pans to a close-up of the noose. Jamie, MacQuarrie, and all the other prisoners are confronting one of our greatest fears in life, the prospect of annihilation.

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In Episode 1X11, “The Devil’s Mark” Claire had faced a similar prospect, and she had also descended into a kind of hell in the thieves’ den. The imagery is suggestively similar: an underground dark, damp place crawling with creepy creatures. With Geillis, she was held prisoner for three days before being rescued by Jamie. After this imprisonment and near death, Claire has an epiphanic moment of revelation. At Craigh Na Dun, she realizes how much her emotions have shifted in the past six months. Having been given the choice by Jamie to return to her own time, she chooses to stay in the 18th century.


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In a similar manner, Jamie also has three days before he is rescued and then redeemed. At one point, the brothers in the abbey give him a sacrament, both to heal and to serve as his last rites (Chapter 39). He is believed to be near death. A nail through the hand, the sacrifice of the self in order to save another, redemption and three days before resurrection are strong biblical echoes, as Gabaldon has remarked. It is the gravity of the scenes and the emotional weight of them that make a profound impact on us. The Wentworth episode is not a gratuitous rape scene. Wentworth is about confronting the limits of one’s self, acknowledging one’s weakness, and being able to find enough courage to come back from the dead, and pursue one’s dreams in spite of the lingering pain and suffering.

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By: Eleanor Ty

Works Cited

Gabaldon, Diana. “Jamie and the Rule of Three.” Dianagabaldon.com 9 December 2010.

Stewart, Sara. “Sexual Violence on Outlander vs. Game of Thrones. Women and Hollywood 21 May 2014. http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/sexual-violence-on-outlander-vs-game-of-thrones-20150521


Why Sassenachs (not just soccer moms) love Outlander

        In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in Business Insider, Jethro Nededog writes that Starz’s Outlander is a show mainly watched by women (64%), and more specifically by soccer moms who have become hooked by reading Diana Gabaldon’s novels, who like the characters’ family values, find inspiration in Claire and Jamie’s marriage, the strong female point of view, and the good-looking lead actor, Sam Heughan. These reasons are probably true for some people, but do not adequately explain the obsession readers and more recently, audiences have with the books and the TV series. Gabaldon’s books have sold 26 million worldwide, and the Starz production has averaged 5.1 million viewers each episode in the first half of Season 1.

Gabaldon’s books offer multiple levels of intellectual, emotional, aesthetic psychic engagement, and Ronald D. Moore’s production has been careful to replicate this experience on screen. Here are my five reasons why women (not necessarily just soccer moms) love Outlander:

  1. A strong, competent heroine

Gabaldon presents a strong, intelligent heroine who is able to perform amazing feats of nurturing and healing because she has the advantage of 200 years of science and medicine. During the first encounter of Claire Beauchamp with the Highlanders, her ability to put back Jamie’s dislocated shoulder was the first riveting scene that made us and Jamie fall in love with the heroine. Not since Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) have we seen such “competence porn,” the enjoyment derived from witnessing impressive feats of human capability” (Dartnell). Starz understood this attraction and made the most of Claire, and later, Jenny representing them as feisty, strong, and capable women, at home in Lallybroch and on the road.

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Outlander Episode 1 x 02
  1. Melodrama

19th century melodrama is characterized by the clash between extremes of good and evil, between strong and weak, rich and poor, but also by its use of archetypal, mythic beliefs. Gabaldon’s novels are full of heart-wrenching scenes of emotional conflicts and drama. The scene of Black Jack Randall flogging Jamie works at a number of levels. The flogging scene, with Jamie’s outstretched arms, is one of goodness and innocence at the hands of the wicked, suggestive of Christ at the hands of Roman soldiers. Diana Gabaldon describes Black Jack as a “pervert” and a “sadist” (Facebook post 28 April 2015), but even David Cameron appreciated the power of such a scene when he requested that Outlander not be shown in Great Britain before the Scottish referendum.

In the eighteenth century, sentimental novels used stock characters and scenes to create affecting scenes for readers: a seduced maiden asking for forgiveness at her father’s feet or the reunion between a father and his long, lost son. Different readers have their own list of gut-wrenching scenes in Outlander but for many it is the scene at the standing stones, when Jamie bids Claire to go back to her “own time on the other side” because “There’s nothing for ye on this side, lass!” (Chapter 25 Thou Shalt Not Suffer). Later, he admits that letting her go was the “hardest thing” he ever did. Instead of replicating the self-sacrifice through dialogue, the Starz production shows Jamie crying himself to sleep, and then weeping for joy when she returns to him at the cottage.

Outlander Episode 1 X 11

In addition, melodramas often feature orphans and emphasize the weak and the unappreciated. Interestingly, Claire and Jamie are both orphans, which intensifies their need for each other. Promises of unconditional care become more critical. Early on, Jamie tells her, “You need not be scairt of me.. Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye” (Chapter 4 I Come to the Castle). Care is also given to Claire by Mistress Fitzgibbons who offers Claire a “kindly” welcome, dresses her and respects her as a healer. These scenes are important because Claire, and to a certain extent, Jamie, have been itinerants, without stable homes, and are emotionally- starved. In the Starz production, when Claire imagines telling someone who she really is, it is to Mistress Fitzgibbons to whom she dreams of confessing.

  1. The Renaissance man as hero

Even though Sam Heughan has become the “alpha male” of 2015, most women would agree that we are in love with the fictional character Jamie Alexander Fraser rather than Sam. As well as being a brawny fighter and soldier, Jamie is a true Renaissance man, cultured and accomplished in the arts and sciences. He speaks English, Gaelic, French, German, and reads Latin. He is good with horses, is emotionally intelligent, often understanding people’s needs before Claire, and is a born leader. He can fix a mill wheel, knows how to run a farm, and later, can build log cabins with only an axe (Drums Of Autumn). He is a tender and passionate lover. The only thing he cannot do is sing. Okay, Jamie’s (and Sam’s) physique and handsome features help.

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  1. Romance and transgressive sexual passion

Contrary to those who see Claire and Jamie’s marriage as the epitome of pure married love, I see their relationship as the embodiment of transgression and desire. All through the first two-thirds of Outlander, Claire’s feelings for Jamie are ambivalently tinged with admiration, love, but also feelings of guilt, worry, and her sense of impropriety. She knows she is married to Frank, and the relationship with Jamie is that much more exciting because it is, in the back of Claire’s mind, a forbidden one. Sure, Jamie and Claire’s relationship has been sanctified by marriage, but was she free to marry? There is nothing quite so exciting romantic as being reluctantly swept up into a passionate love affair, for once, letting one’s body (and soul?) judge what is right instead of following one’s reason.

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  1. Nostalgia and Elegy

Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber are extended elegies for the Scotish clans, their kilts, their grand horses, and the Gaelic language. In the Starz production, Claire and Frank visit the battlefield of Culloden right at the beginning. In the novel, Claire warns Jamie not to participate in the Rising. She remembers “the clan stones, the grey boulders that would lie scattered on the field, each stone bearing the single clan name of he butchered men who lay under it” (Chapt. 25 Thou Shalt not Suffer). We are reminded that the Highlanders and their way of life are doomed, and the impending destruction infuses the story with a sense of melancholia and nostalgia. Even though readers and viewers may not have been to Scotland, we feel nostalgia for the rolling green hills, the craigs, lochs, old castles, majestic mountains, and heather-covered fields. The Starz production makes the most of the pastoral beauty of Scotland by highlighting its magic and mystery. Terry Dresbach’s meticulous and detailed costumes make even the drabbest wool and plaid come alive and look stunning. Is it any wonder that tourism in Scotland has increase by 30% since the show started?

By: Eleanor Ty


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