By the Pricking of my Thumbs…Evil as represented in Outlander.




“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”

William Shakespeare MacBeth

The Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon is full of multi-layered characters including its villains. I’ve come to believe that Diana is masterful at playing with themes and ideas about human actions and behavior because she doesn’t appear to be satisfied to give us just one example or side of anything.

In the past, I have written about Diana’s characters and their faith:

Ms. Gabaldon’s portrayal of “men and women of God” is  a microcosm of the religious world at large.  Her priests and ministers range the spectrum between legalistic to philosophical.  Her Catholics and Protestants are at odds and her natives in tune with  the natural world.

Her look at what it means to be or do evil seems just as varied.

While considering this subject, I decided I needed to come up with a clear definition of evil.  What I found was sort of what I expected to find; no clear definition.  It appears that we use the word “evil” because we just don’t have a better word to describe what we feel.  It is a matter of degree and the word bad isn’t enough.

The dictionary definition for evil is “profoundly immoral and malevolent”, but defining what is profoundly immoral and malevolent seems somewhat subjective. It appears everyone has a slightly different idea of what the word “evil” truly means. It might stand to reason that “evil” would be acts of intentional malevolence, but evil intention doesn’t always have to precede evil results. People don’t always intend to do evil, but the results of their actions can and do hurt people in ways that we have come to label as evil. On the other hand, some people do act out of intention to do evil and appear to revel in the painful results of their choices.

There are many characters in the books who represent the different facets of what it means to be or do evil. For instance, Malva, Stephen Bonnet, Bonnie Prince Charlie and a sixteen year-old named Laoghaire are all great looks at the different faces “evil” can take. Intentional or not.

In the book, “Evil in Modern Thought,” from 2002, Susan Neiman says,

“Evil is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world. Evil is both harmful and inexplicable, but not just that; what defines an evil act is that it is permanently disorienting for all those touched by it. It hints at dark forces, at the obscure, unfathomable depths of human motivation.”

Two of the most interesting looks at “evil” and the unfathomable depths of human motivation in the Outlander series can be found in the characters of Black Jack Randall and Gellis Duncan. I find these two faces of evil to be fascinating. Their motives and if you will, rationale for their actions appears to reflect the broad spectrum of evil in the modern world.

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that both BJR and Gellis are perceived as villains. But, personally, I find Gellis to be the more insidious. I doubt there are very few people who meet BJR who do not recognize the need to be careful in his presence. The man practically drips malevolence. Gellis on the other hand keeps her nature very well hidden under a quirky wit and charm. Claire is fooled by her and as a result so are we, at least for a while.

It is said that evil requires agency. If so, then BJR could be the poster child for “his evil deeds” or “the evil that men do”.  He is a person through which power is exerted to allow evil to be achieved.  It would appear that he actively seeks out ways to harm to satisfy his own twisted desires and needs.  We don’t like to believe that men are born evil (because that would open up a whole new idea of culpability) .  And, I don’t believe that is the case here, but only Diana truly knows and she has chosen not to reveal Jack’s back story to us. We know very little of this villain. We know he is a middle child who has a younger brother that he loves. We know his parents went to lengths to correct his accent. We know he is in league with a powerful man who protects him from being held accountable by his superiors.

What we do not know is his true motives for his actions. Diana hints at his damaged past and even allows the reader to approach something akin to pity for him when he cries for “Alex” (who Alex is remains a mystery) to love him and when he is grieved by his younger brother’s death, but it is never enough to balance what is seen as at the least sadistic or maybe sociopathic behavior.  Jack always has the ability to choose between inflicting tremendous harm or not doing so and chooses harm. I found it ironic that Jack’s plans are never foiled by his evilness, but rather by what little in his character is honorable. In his own sick way, he remains a gentleman and a man of his word. A character “flaw” Jamie takes advantage of to save Claire.

Gellis’ evil is more intangible and a more modern representation. While researching this piece, I found information that suggested that our world’s idea of what it meant to be evil was drastically altered after WWII.  We had to deal with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and its death camps. This new view has been coined the “Auschwitz” evil. It was difficult for us to wrap our minds around a modern civilized society perpetrating such evil. In fact, during the Nuremberg Trials America sent psychologists to interview and test the Nazi defendants. They felt sure that these crimes had to have been committed by monsters and several of the interviewers did label the Nazis as psychopaths, but many more noted how “normal” these men seemed.

Interviewer Hannah Arendt had another explanation for how such normal men could be capable of such evil. She called it the “banality of evil”. It wasn’t mental illness, but a lack of thinking and poor decisions. They had bought into a cause and the men making the decisions. They truly didn’t believe they were doing wrong they were just following orders.

When I think of Gellis, I think of this “Auschwitz” evil.  In many respects, she appeared to be “normal” even being a friend to Claire. But, on further “interviewing” (when they were kept together before the witch trail) we see the “matter of fact” way she describes killing her husband and her zeal for the Jacobite cause. Not unlike the Nazis, she has bought into an ideal, a belief  and given over her thinking to bringing about a free Scotland. What ever she needs to do to make that happen she does. She sees her actions as justifiable and the damage she inflicts collateral. To me, it is this lack of remorse that labels her as evil and…maybe she is mentally ill. She represents the idea that evil can come in many guises including a person who believes their actions are going to right an injustice and make the world a better place.

Diana always loves a twist, I find it interesting that both of these evil characters are the ancestral relations of two of the more lovable and honorable characters in the series Roger and Frank. Is this her nod to nature versus nurture and predestination versus free-will? What ever it is, I love it. The complexity and variety of her characters and their experiences keep me reading and recommending her books.

4 thoughts on “By the Pricking of my Thumbs…Evil as represented in Outlander.

  1. Kathryn Schultz

    Since Frank is, in fact, Alex’s descendant, not Black Jack’s, for me that changes significantly where his “nature” came from.

  2. Linda Bouley

    I have happily just discovered your blog, Beth What wonderful insights into the Outlander Series I’m going to read back posts and look forward to commenting.

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