The Once and Future Frank

Welcome back, my friends. Before we get started, it should be noted that for this discussion I’m choosing to mostly discuss Frank as portrayed in the television series and not the novels; there are too many differences between the versions for a cohesive argument here.

Are you sitting down? Because I’m about to tell you something that will Blow. Your. Mind.

Ready? Want to know who’s the real time traveler in the Outlander series?

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Did you pick Frank? Given the title of this article it would be the most obvious guess, but it’s true— Frank, despite his physical rootedness in the twentieth century, just might be the one in this story who most effectively journeys through time. As a historian and researcher, he is the one who most thoroughly understands the past. What’s more, he seems to have a clear understanding of the path of the future; a man whose wife battles on the war front, a man who supports his wife’s decision to go to medical school, a man who is the primary caregiver to a child that isn’t biologically his own…Frank, in short, is arguably the most progressive man on the show. A man like Frank, whether looking backward or forward, transcends time.

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I can hear it now…What about Jamie? But Frank cheated on Claire! Yes, yes, yes…and we will get to that in time. But here it is: it takes a man with thoroughly unconditional love, a strong security in his own masculinity, and a complete understanding of how history shapes the present and future to be the man, husband, and father that Frank embodies. And that makes him a man who is truly ahead of his time.

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Now, I realize that Frank (brilliantly and sympathetically played by the incredible Tobias Menzies) is far from perfect. He is, at times, patronizing, pedantic, and impatient. And, yes, he is eventually unfaithful— more on that later. But overall, for a mid-century man that endures his tribulations, he is pretty exemplary.

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So let’s lay out all the ways Frank is remarkable, not just for a man of his time but for a human being in general. He takes Claire back after her absence and his forgiveness is almost immediate and absolute. He raises Brianna as his own, never once giving her any reason to doubt his love. What’s more, he really raises Brianna, as we can assume that for much of Brianna’s childhood Frank would have been the primary child caregiver during Claire’s education and career (this is alluded to more in the novels, but the hours of a medical student and surgeon are no joke; they call them residents for a reason- they practically live at the hospital). Frank not only steps up to parent Brianna, he is arguably a more present parental figure than Claire.

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And that doesn’t make Claire a bad mother, but it does make Frank a pretty extraordinary father for the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, the average father reported spending a mere 2.5 hours per week on childcare. By 1968, a surgeon would have been making almost double what Frank would have earned as a tenured Harvard professor. Even if you account for a historical gender wage gap of about 60%, Claire still would have likely out-earned her husband. Not only would Frank have been the primary parent at home, Claire would have been the clear breadwinner.

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Claire’s presence as a woman in the military, in medical school, and in the workforce is truly significant, but so is Frank’s acceptance of these gender role reversals. If Frank feels emasculated he never really lets on—we never see him lash out with insecurity or behave as a cuckold or a man who begrudges his wife’s success. He comes to resent Claire’s love for another man (totally understandable), but he doesn’t question Claire’s choices or her unconventional roles.

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What makes Frank so secure? Undoubtedly, the glue that holds this man together is family. Frank mentions family- his genealogy, his ancestors, the family he wishes to start with Claire- in almost every episode.

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And this is where his background as a historian is key. Frank has studied the past- he knows its patterns, its predictable volatility, its slow but steady arc toward progress- and he understands that the only thing we really have to hang on to in this ever-changing world is family. Family and love transcend time. What we do as individuals in this life is often forgotten within a few generations; the only thing that outlasts us is the love and story we hand down to future generations. For Frank, what do society’s expectations and stereotypes matter? The only thing that matters is the family he will leave behind.

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What about Jamie, you might ask, isn’t he cut from the same cloth? Doesn’t he also understand the importance of family? Doesn’t he also support Claire?

Yes, of course he does, and that’s exactly why Claire loves both of these men. But I’d argue the social stakes are a bit higher for Frank; he cannot physically fight his way out of a situation in the way Jamie can. If there is gossip in Frank’s department (as there surely would be), it is his to endure. Honor is a bit harder to defend in the twentieth century, as I’m pretty sure Harvard frowns upon deuling.

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And what of the infidelity? Listen, marriage is hard and what two consenting adults do (or don’t do) in a marriage bed is their business alone. It’s referenced that Claire and Frank have an understanding about an open marriage, which is only fair to Frank if Claire cannot fully love him. Frank loves Sandy (honestly, her background in historical linguistics probably makes her a really fascinating person) but he also never really stops loving Claire. If at any time Claire threw herself fully back into this marriage, Frank would be totally back on board. Of this I have no doubts.

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Think of the seemingly throwaway comment Sandy makes at the ceremony honoring Frank: she opines that Frank would have hated all the attention, while Claire feels he probably would have loved it. So what does that say? It means in Claire’s world Frank likes attention and recognition, and liking attention is really nothing more than seeking approval from others. Of course he would like attention— he would always want Claire’s approval and respect. We all want admiration from the people we love.

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But perhaps what makes Frank the true time traveler in this beautiful story is his optimism that things will get better, that the future is something in which to invest. He believes his life with Claire and her baby will be a new chapter, that somehow the pieces will fall back into place. This world is pretty crazy right now, but we can all learn from Frank. We can support our loved ones and share in their success. We can step into roles that are unconventional or uncomfortable because it is the right thing to do. We can keep believing in our future in order to move forward. We can invest in the next generation to ensure our own immortality. And, in the end, we hopefully have loved and been loved. If we can do these things we can live beyond ourselves…and we will all be time travelers. 

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Slàinte.

photos: STARZ

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9 thoughts on “The Once and Future Frank”

  1. I love this post! I agree completely. I have often thought that the fans who see Frank as Jamie’s polar opposite are dead wrong! Claire loves both of them because they are able to appreciate her as a strong, independent and intelligent woman. Frank raises Brianna to be the same type of woman. Maybe because I grew up in the 1950s-early 60s I have more of a sense of how remarkable Frank was in his attitudes. It is easier for younger women, perhaps, to see that Jamie had to be really ahead of his time to accept Claire as an equal. But as you say, Frank wasn’t living in a time when it was easy for a man to buck the norms and be supportive of a wife like Claire either. There were very rigid norms about the ‘place’ of a wife and mother then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. I agree with your beautifully stated thoughts about the book character of Frank. I became a fan of Tobias Menzies in this tv production as he gave a great portrayal of book-Frank. After watching the series, I purchased the books and have a much better sense of the written character. Your observations and thoughts about Frank are perfect, and I appreciate the written character so much more for having read your remarks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m so glad I could match your appreciation. Tobias Menzies is so wonderful- I sincerely hope he has some Emmy nominations coming his way.

      Like

  3. I enjoyed your blog. I have always been a Frank fan. Even when only the books were out and my feelings were not appreciated by friends and other readers. Nonetheless he was a man ahead of his time and an extraordinary historian. You premise that he’s a time traveler is great and well supported.
    Many thanks for your thoughtful and enjoyable presentation!

    Liked by 1 person

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