As a student of English Literature, one of the biggest challenges I face is the ability to read for pleasure. I suppose after almost 5 years of dissecting novels for themes, motifs, and symbolism, it’s hard to think of a book as just a book and not a topic for a term paper.
For this very reason, I have decided to start this blog, in the hopes that it will keep me motivated to continue reading for pleasure. After hearing raving reviews about the novel and TV show, I have decided to read and write chapter summaries of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
Chapter 1 – A New Beginning
The novel immediately sets the scene: the Scottish Highlands, circa 1945, at a “clean and quiet” bed-and-breakfast.
Claire Randall, the narrator, was a Royal Army nurse in Word War II, and after years of rationing and wearing uniforms, is excited to finally wear “brightly printed cotton dresses” and engage in “languorous romance” with her husband, Frank. Frank is due to start his post as a history professor at Oxford University, and this vacation in the Scottish Highlands serves as a second honeymoon, to reunite the two lovers and renew their marriage.
Mrs. Baird, the old landlady, is spying on them from outside their room. In order to tickle her already overactive imagination, Frank jumps on the bed and moans. Claire jokingly reprimands Frank for his lack of industry, as it will not help the two of them conceive a baby. Frank is passionate about genealogy and his family ancestry is another reason why they chose to vacation at the Scottish Highlands. In the seventeenth or eighteenth century, Frank’s ancestor was associated with the Highlands. From the little I know about the TV show, I’m going to take a wild guess that this bit of information will somehow be relevant later in the novel.
Frank leaves to meet Rev. Dr. Reginald Wakefield, who has discovered army dispatches that mention Frank’s ancestor, Jonathan Wolverton Randall, a knight from Sussex. Claire muses over how a bartender at the local bar called them “Sassenachs,” or “outlanders.” Something tells me this, too, will be important later in the novel.
Claire then gives us a quick summary of her childhood. Her parents died in a car crash when she was five and she moved in with her father’s brother, “Uncle Lamb.” Uncle Lamb took her on his many travels to the Middle East and South America. It was on one such trip that Claire met Frank, a young historian. They were married soon after and continued to live a nomadic life, until the War rendered their services elsewhere.
Claire buys vases at the local market and meets up with Frank. As the two are walking, Frank suddenly notices blood on the steps outside the bed-and-breakfast. Claire is alarmed and wonders if Mrs. Baird has had an accident. But Frank notices there are blood stains outside every house in the neighbourhood, and concludes that it must be part of a ritual sacrifice. Frank explains that the Scottish Highlands are full of folklore, and the residents believe in the Old Folk. The blood on the steps outside the houses is the blood from a black cock.
Frank adds that the houses are all new, and that when a house is built on the Highlands, it is tradition to kill something and bury it underneath the house to appease the local spirits. The residents of the Highlands believed the War was a cause of people foregoing their roots and traditions. Sometimes, people were killed as part of this ritual sacrifice, and haunt the houses they are buried underneath, except on the anniversary of their death and on the Old Days — Hogmanay (New Year’s), Midsummer Day, Beltane, and All Hollows’. On these days, ghosts are free to wander about and haunt people.
Claire and Frank find the residents at the local pub, toasting the sacrifice. The vicar is celebrating along with the other residents, and is at first embarrassed to be partaking in acts of paganism. As he begins to debate the “parallels between ancient superstitions and modern religions” with Frank, Claire goes in search of Mrs. Baird.
Mrs. Baird introduces Claire to Mr. Crook, an elderly gentleman with a vast knowledge of plants. Claire, who has recently taken up an interest in botany, agrees to meet up with Mr. Crook the next morning for a tour of the shrubbery.
As Claire and Frank accompany Mrs. Baird back to their lodging, Frank inquires about the blood. Mrs. Baird explains that this particular tradition is quite old, older than the giants from the Gaelic folktales.
Once they arrive at their room, Frank leaves to visit with Mr. Bainbridge, a lawyer and history enthusiast. Claire opts to stay at home, musing over the last time she met Mr. Bainbridge and accidentally dropped a teapot on him.
Later that evening, Claire is in her room, brushing her hair, when suddenly the storm outside causes the power to go off. Just as Claire begins lighting candles, Frank returns, looking pale and uneasy. On his way home, he had seen a man standing outside the house and peering at Claire through the window. He was wearing typical Highland attire, complete with a running-stag brooch. Despite the windy storm, his clothes didn’t move at all. Frank tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The man jumped and whirled around, brushing past Frank into the storm.
But when he brushed past Frank, Frank couldn’t feel him at all. The man disappeared around the corner, vanishing into thin air.
As they get ready for bed, Frank voices his insecurities over whether Claire had been faithful during their time apart, when Claire was working as a nurse. He wonders if the man he saw standing outside could have been a lover of Claire’s. Claire reassures him that she has been completely faithful. As they drift off to sleep, Claire wonders if the same can be said of Frank.
By Kaavya Lakshmanan