Skip to content

Regeneration by Pat Barker

January 21, 2016



RegRegeneration is a historical and anti-war novel which explores the experience of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Inspired by her grandfather’s experience of World War I, Barker draws extensively on first person narratives from the period. Using these sources, she created characters based on historical individuals present at the hospital including poets and patients, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, who pioneered treatments of posttraumatic stress disorder during and after WWI. The title of the novel refers to Rivers’ research into “nerve regeneration”. Barker also includes fictional characters, based on the larger cultural experience of the period, including an officer who grew up in the lower classes, Billy Prior, and his girlfriend and munitionette, Sarah Lumb.

It explores the effect of the War on identity, masculinity, and social structure and draws extensively on period psychological practices, emphasising River’s research as well as Freudian psychology. Through the novel Barker enters a particular tradition of representing the experience of World War I in literature: many critics compare the novel to other World War I novels, especially those written by women writers interested in the domestic repercussions of the war, including Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Barker both drew on those texts of the period that initially inspired her and makes references to a number of other literary and cultural works and events. These give an impression of historical realism, even though Barker tends to refute the claim that the novel is “historical fiction”.

Regeneration begins with Siegfried Sassoon’s open letter, dated July 1917, protesting the conduct and insincerities of the First World War. The letter has been published in the London Times and has received much attention in England, as many people are upset over the length and toll of the war thus far. The army is not sure what to do with Sassoon, as his letter clearly threatens to undermine the strength of the war effort at home.

Regeneration is primarily structured around the consciousness and experiences of Rivers, who is the link that connects all the patients together. It is through his mind that ideas and beliefs are reflected. By choosing Rivers as the central protagonist of the novel, Barker forces a comparison between the past and the present. Rivers, a good thirty years older than most of his patients, was brought up with a Victorian education. Raised by an Anglican priest, Rivers was taught not only a strong belief in God, but also a deep respect for order and authority. He recognizes his duty to be that which he has agreed to do; he does not accept that changing one’s mind should have any effect on honoring one’s duty. However, as Rivers treats his patients and learns more and more about the horrors of war, he begins to question his existing values. Though Rivers will not admit it to Sassoon, he cannot see that anything could possibly justify such mass destruction of a generation of young minds and young men. As a protagonist who is also a scientist, Rivers’s keen observations allow us an insight into the moral and societal dilemmas he faces. In Rivers, traditional values and modern reality clash uneasily.

Within Regeneration there are many plot lines going on at once, some of which intersect in important places and some of which they do not intersect at all. Structurally, the novel is separated into four main parts, each containing several chapters. Within those chapters, the story is further broken down, switching from scene to scene in order to keep up on all the plot lines. For example, in Chapter 17, the scenes change four times: Sarah and her mother, Sassoon and Graves, Sarah and her female friends, and finally Sassoon and Rivers each consecutively take the spotlight. Barker uses this technique to allow themes to carry across plot lines and characters. In Chapter 17, Sarah is upset when she hears about Betty’s botched abortion, fearing that she herself might end up in the same situation. Similarly, after hearing about Peter, Sassoon is worried that he too might be sent for punishment for his homosexuality. By having unprotected or illicit sex, respectively, both Sarah and Sassoon endanger themselves. Together, they face a similar fear of societal condemnation. The narrative design of the chapter allows Barker to present these problems as situations for comparison, subtly allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

People who had breakdowns were regarded as not being real men – hence a gruesome practice of torturous experiments on their glans penis. Emasculation appears in the novel in a wide variety of forms. Sassoon remembers the young boy in the bed next to him who has been castrated on the battlefield. Anderson dreams he is tied up with corsets. Prior recalls his weakness against his father and the influence of his mother. Sassoon mentions to Rivers the topic of homosexuality and the idea of an “intermediate sex.” Rivers reflects on the “feminine” nature of healing and caring for one another on the battlefield.

Emasculation signals the powerlessness that soldiers feel when confronted with the shocking reality of war. Although they try to do the manly thing by enlisting in the war and fighting for their country, they must face society’s judgment that it is decidedly unmanly to suffer a breakdown. In the hospital, Rivers’s method of treatment involves more ostensibly unmanly actions, as the patients are forced to release their emotions and discuss their feelings. Willard is so opposed to the unmanliness of his condition that he refuses to believe he has anything other than a physical problem. Yet, Rivers achieves results in a sympathetic manner; he helps his patients to improve and lead a normal life once again. Through further “emasculation” the patients are able to improve. Ultimately, Barker’s exploration of emasculation in the novel challenges traditional notions of manliness.

At one stage, Rivers attends church near his brother’s farm and reflects on the sacrifices of younger men in the war for the desires of the older generation. The most important “regeneration” in the novel is the fact that Rivers begins to question the very nature of madness; as a character, he grows into a new type of person, one who challenges the assumptions of his society. He begins to wonder whether it truly was madness for these men to break down in the face of such horror and death, or whether it was madness that so many men (including Rivers himself) blindly followed a program of war and decimation in the first place. Rivers begins to wonder if he himself is mad for “healing” patients only to send them back to war to be killed. after years of working with shell-shock cases at Craiglockhart, Rivers is forced to confront the true definition of madness. Is Sassoon mad for rebelling unwisely against the war? Or is Rivers the one who is truly crazy? He is the one who works to heal people with the sole aim of returning “cured” patients to service, where they only face death. Rivers is forced to consider that he might be mad for working to defend a state that could sacrifice its own children so mercilessly. The questions of right and wrong, duty and honor are mingled and confused in the chaos of war.

Sassoon and Owen work on what was to become the text in Britten’s war Requiem. Various experiences get knit together into the words of the poems, e.g. looking at a stained glass window of Abraham and Isaac in a church and musing on the slaughter of young men in the trenches gives rise to the poem that was used in the offertory.

Graves stresses his heterosexuality, leaving Sassoon feeling of unease about his own sexual orientation. During a counselling session Sassoon talks to Rivers about the official attitude towards homosexuality. Rivers theorises that during wartime the authorities are particularly hard on homosexuality, wanting to clearly distinguish between the “right” kind of love between men (loyalty, brotherhood, camaraderie), which is beneficial to soldiers, and the “wrong” kind (sexual attraction). Sassoon refers to Edward Carpenter’s writing on sexuality The Intermediate Sex, and it is implied that Sassoon is a homosexual because he states that such works made him feel normal about his sexuality. Love and intimate friendship between men is a continual theme in the novel, as all of the soldiers and doctors in the novel are male. On the battlefield, love between men is an accepted and desirable occurrence. Sassoon is complimented on the love and dedication he demonstrates for the men who serve in his division. Such a relationship involves a level of caring and comradeship for fellow soldiers. Society looks upon such love favourably, as it engenders a better army.

However, there are bounds to the acceptable societal level of male emotional interaction in Regeneration. In Chapter 17, Rivers mentions these limits. He tells Sassoon that although comradeship is encouraged, “at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right kind of love?” Homosexuality is an implied, but not overt theme in the novel. Rivers suggests that in wartime, the reaction to homosexuality would only be more intolerant than in peacetime, as the authorities would want to make it clear that there are penalties for the wrong kind of love. From this perspective, love between men—and male emotional relationships more generally—are a smaller part of a larger goal of curbing what is deemed socially unacceptable behaviour. Homosexuals, like shell-shock victims, are outside the boundaries of normal social interaction. This being the case, Sassoon’s homosexuality is an underlying threat to the stability of the social order. Through his sexual preference, he challenges the control of the state exerted in wartime, and his character emerges as a more complicated and controversial figure.

Although it’s not a book full of blood and guts, there are some gruesome descriptions of life and death in the trenches.

Reg 2In a 2004 interview with literary critic Rob Nixon in the journal Contemporary Literature, Barker also states she wrote the novel, in part, as a response to how her earlier fiction was being received; she said, “I felt I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a northern, regional, working-class, feminist—label, label, label—novelist. It’s not a matter so much of objecting to the labels, but you do get to a point where people are reading the labels instead of the book. And I felt I’d got to that point. And also, I’d always wanted to write about the First World War. One of my earliest memories was of my grandfather’s bayonet wound and his stories of the First World War. I knew I wanted to do that. I also knew I had to wait until I’d got a way of doing it that wasn’t just a copy of what had already been done. It takes a long time to have an original idea about something which has got whole libraries devoted to it….It’s not an antiwar book in the very simple sense that I was afraid it might seem at the beginning. Not that it isn’t an antiwar book: it is. But you can’t set up things like the Somme or Passchendaele and use them as an Aunt Sally, because nobody thinks the Somme and Passchendaele were a good idea. So in a sense what we appear to be arguing about is never ever going to be what they [the characters] are actually arguing about, which is a much deeper question of honour, I think. “Honour” is another old-fashioned word like “heroism,” but it’s very much a key word in the book.”

From Fierce Imaginings by Rachel Mann: One of the powerful threads in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is a speculation that one of the ‘wounds’ inflicted upon fighting men in the Great War was a kind of Teminisation’. Rivers,’ the psychiatrist, (as Barker’s vox) wonders whether the conditions in the trenches – constricting, forcing men to inaction and passivity, living a life with no control (and expecting death any moment) – have pushed men into the traditional position of women. Barker asks whether men – raised to conceive of themselves as `active, ‘dynamic’ and owners of space – have been forced into the condition of the ‘done to’ rather than ‘the doing. Clearly, behind this speculation is a lot of psycho-dynamic and feminist re-reading of soldiers’ experiences. In short, Barker wonders whether the soldiers’ experience of ‘shell-shock’ was akin to what psychiatrists then considered to be the ‘female problem’ – hysteria As Ben Shephard in his history of military psychiatry argues, should be careful about too readily accepting Barker’s account. `Pat Barker would have us believe that by 1918 officer-patients shell-shock hospitals were discussing the finer points of Freud’s doctrine with each other:

Yet if one would wish to bring considerable critical force bear on Barker’s 1990s feminist speculations about the imp trench warfare on masculinity, the Great War constructed a novel language of wounds and woundedness. A new and dist term – ‘shell-shock’ – was coined (first used in medical discourse in The Lancet in 1915 by pioneering military psychiatrist C Myer) to begin to give some account of the impact of static, explosive war on human subjectivity.

Reg 3Quotations:

“On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.”

“You must speak, but I shall not listen to anything you say.”

“Well, all I can say is I’d rather talk to a real person than a strip of empathetic wallpaper.”

‘So, you agree with his views but not his actions? Isn’t that rather an artificial distinction?’ ‘No, I don’t think it is. The way I see it, when you put the uniform on, in effect you sign a contract. And you don’t back out of a contract merely because you’ve changed your mind.’

“Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army, than to think they’d been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice, saying; ‘Run along, little man, be glad you’ve survived”

“I don’t think it’s possible to c-call yourself a C-Christian and… and j-just leave out the awkward bits.’ -Wilfred Owen”

“Somehow if she’d know the worst parts, she couldn’t have gone on being a haven for him…Men said they didn’t tell their women about France because they didn’t want to worry them. but it was more than that. He needed her ignorance to hide in. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to know and be known as deeply as possible. And the two desires were irreconcilable.”

She belonged with the pleasure-seeking crowds. He both envied and despised her, and was quite coldly determined to get her. They owed him something, all of them, and she should pay. He glanced at her. ‘Shall we walk along?’

“The sky darkened, the air grew colder, but he didn’t mind. It didn’t occur to him to move. This was the right place. This was where he had wanted to be.”

“You know you’re walking around with a mask on, and you desperately want to take it off and you can’t because everybody else thinks it’s your face.”

“A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.”

“I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

They don’t want the truth. It’s like letters of condolence. “Dear Mrs Bloggs, Your son had the side of his head blown off by a shell and took five hours to die. We did manage to give him a decent Christian burial. Unfortunately that particular stretch of ground came under heavy bombardment the day after, so George has been back to see us five or six times since then.” They don’t want that. They want to be told that George — or Johnny — or whatever his name was, died a quick death and was given a decent send off.’

A dispiriting way to bring girls up, Sarah thought; to make marriage the sole end of female existence, and yet deny that love between men and women was possible. Ada did deny it. In her world, men loved women as the fox loved the hare. And women loved men as a tapeworm loves the gut.

“This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition. That would help to account for the greater prevalence of anxiety neuroses and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime, since their relatively more confined lives gave them fewer opportunities of reacting to stress in active and constructive ways. Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.”

One of the paradoxes of war—one of the many—was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was… domestic. Caring. As Layard would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that wasn’t the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricting they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure—the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys—consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.

“He’s a bar-room socialist, if that’s what you mean. Beer and revolution go in, piss come out”

“Didn’t you find it all … rather unsatisfying?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t seem to see a way out. It was like being three different people, and they all wanted to go different ways.”
A slight smile. “The result was I went nowhere.”

“It was… the Great White God de-throned, I suppose. Because we did, we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.”

“And as soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue. And the therapy was a test, not only of the genuineness of the individual’s symptoms, but also of the validity of the demands the war was making on him. Rivers had survived partly by suppressing his awareness of this. But then along came Sassoon and made the justifiability of the war a matter for constant, open debate, and that suppression was no longer possible. At times it seemed to Rivers that all his other patients were the anvil and that Sassoon was the hammer. Inevitably there were times when he resented this. As a civilian, Rivers’s life had consisted of asking questions, and devising methods by which truthful answers could be obtained, but there are limits to how many fundamental questions you want to ask in a working day that starts before eight am and doesn’t end till midnight.”

“On the face of it he seemed to be congratulating himself on dealing with patients more humanely than Yealland, but then why the mood of self-accusation? In the dream he stood in Yealland’s place. The dream seemed to be saying, in dream language, don’t flatter yourself. There is no distinction.”

“Fathers remain opaque to their sons, he thought, largely because the sons find it so hard to believe that there’s anything in the father worth seeing. Until he’s dead, and it’s too late. Mercifully, doctors are also opaque to their patients.”

“Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.”

“we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.”

A horse’s bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had—however unconsciously—rejected. He found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work.

“Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing”

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: