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Regeneration - Pat Barker
Transcript of Regeneration - Pat Barker
Regeneration explores the effects of war on the soldiers' mental health, it is the story of various people spending time at the Craiglockhart War Hospital.
, the protagonist of the story - He is the psychiatrist at Craiglockhart whose job is to get soldiers healthy enough to go back to fight. He is very sensitive and caring and so is conflicted about the amount of control he has over his patients.
who wrote an open letter which opens the novel, objecting the war. Due to his high ranking as a soldier, he was deemed insane because of his objection and sent for treatment. He is also a closeted homosexual, which he reveals to Rivers. He is not actually insane. (Sassoon is not a fictional character, he was a poet, and did write the letter in real life.)
, another of Rivers' patients. He is a difficult patient with a bad attitude and gives staff a hard time. He suffers from mutism and severe asthma and is stuck between wanting to return to France, and wanting to save his own life.
, a patient who has been unable to eat without being sick since a bomb threw him into a gas-filled German corpse.
, is depicted as a young man still unsure of himself and his work, though growing in confidence. Owen is deeply affected by the war, and he works to express it in his own words, with the help of one of his heroes, Sassoon. (In real life, the most famous of the Great War poets, dying in 1918 just before the end of the war.)
, a fellow poet and soldier and a good friend of Sassoon. He agrees with Sassoon that the war is evil and unjust but refuses to protest. Graves feels that regardless of his personal beliefs, it is his duty to honor his contract to his country. Graves is a true friend to Sassoon; he always tries to do what is best for his friend (making him go to Craiglockhart rather than get court marshaled for his objection), even if he does not do what is best for his cause.
'Regeneration' begins with Siegfried Sassoon's open letter, protesting the conduct and insincerities of the First World War.
With the string-pulling of Robert Graves, the Board agrees to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart War Hospital—a mental facility in Scotland—rather than court-marshaling him, though this undermines Sassoon's cause.
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon meets with Dr. Rivers, a former anthropologist turned psychiatrist who encourages his patients to express their war memories to heal their "nerves." Though Rivers can sympathize with the strong dislike of the horrors of war, he believes it is his duty to encourage Sassoon to return to France to fight.
There are many soldiers with various problems in the hospital. Burns, has been unable to eat since a shell threw him into the gas-filled stomach of a German corpse. Anderson, a former war surgeon, is now terrified at the sight of blood, and is worried about resuming his practice. Prior enters the hospital suffering from mutism. Rivers meets with each of them in turn, helping them to recover from their problems.
Dr. Rivers is personally and emotionally tied to the welfare of his patients. One night, he has a nightmare about old nerve regeneration experiments he used to conduct with his old friend, Henry Head. At Cambridge, the two had severed a nerve in Head's hand with the purpose of charting its gradual regeneration. Rivers still feels guilty about the pain he inflicted on his friend, as well as the pain he inflicts on his patients by forcing them to talk about their war experiences.
Sassoon's letter is read in the House of Commons and dismissed, as he is considered mentally unstable. Sassoon is disappointed by the news. He begins to become friends with another patient, Wilfred Owen. Owen is also a poet and greatly respects Sassoon's work; Sassoon agrees to help Owen with his poetry.
Rivers tries hypnosis on Prior to see if it enables him to remember the tragic events that led to his breakdown. The hypnosis works, and Prior remembers in vivid detail having to shovel his men's remains after they were killed by a shell. Prior's memories anger and upset him. The next week, Prior takes Sarah (a munitions worker he met in an Edinburgh pub) to a seaside town where they see crowds of people walking on the beach. Prior envies and resents the way these people can just escape from the war.
At its simplest level, madness is the problem that plagues the soldiers at Craiglockhart War Hospital, which the psychiatrists are meant to "heal." The symptoms of madness range from an irrational fear of blood to mutism, from an inability to eat to belief that one is paralysed when there is no physical damage. These "mad" men live outside the bounds of what is socially acceptable, and are therefore removed from their duty, labeled as "shell-shocked," and hidden away in a war hospital. For many of the men, treatment only further worsens their problems, leaving them feeling ashamed and emasculated over their breakdown.
A deeper level, however, is that the question of madness is one which Barker leaves unanswered. 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 society. He begins to wonder whether it was 'mad' for these men to break down in the face of such horror and death, or whether it was mad that so many men (including Rivers himself) blindly followed a program of war and destruction 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.
Love Between Men
Love and intimate friendship between men is a continual theme in the novel as all 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 as this relationship involves a level of caring and comradeship for fellow soldiers. Society looks upon such love favorably, as it makes for a better army.
However, there are boundaries to the acceptable level of love between men 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 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 in general—are a smaller part of a larger goal of curbing what is deemed socially unacceptable behavior. Homosexuals, like shell-shock victims, are outside the boundaries of normal social interaction.
Parenthood is linked in the novel to comradeship and caring. Parent-like protectiveness appears as a natural reaction to having men under one's command or patients under one's watch. Especially in wartime situations—in which control over many aspects of someone's own life is so limited—a desire to protect others serves as an outlet for the need to have some form of control. Some examples in the novel are Prior's fatherly feelings for his troops, and the way many of the patients hold Rivers as a father figure.
The idea of parenthood is complicated by unorthodox gendering of protective roles. A patient of Rivers's refers to him as a
This comparison distresses Rivers:
"He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women. … If that were true, then there was really very little hope."
It becomes clear that fatherhood and motherhood tie into a larger issue of gender roles in society. Rivers' method of treatment requires an expression of emotion, a traditionally feminine idea. Although Rivers resents that nurturing is considered to be a uniquely female trait, he ultimately accepts the idea that he acts in a fatherly and motherly way to his patients. For in the end, good parenthood involves care for the individual. Although war rejects such attention to the individual, as a doctor, Rivers makes his best effort to provide it.
The idea of "regeneration" functions in the novel to inform and develop the concepts of healing, changing, and regrowth.
It occurs several times, most notably in Rivers' recollection of the nerve regeneration experiments he had practiced with his friend and colleague, Henry Head, and in the figurative regeneration of men's "nerves" at Craiglockhart.
Rivers also undergoes a sort of regeneration in the novel. Through observations of his patients, reflections on his upbringing, and most importantly his interactions with Sassoon, Rivers beings to question many of the assumptions of war he previously held.
This motif highlights the comparison between mental and physical healing, and it emphasizes the regrowth and change in a man who has been confronted with the realities of war.
Emasculation appears in the novel in a variety of ways. 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 realities 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 unmanly to suffer a breakdown. In the hospital, Rivers' method of treatment involves more 'unmanly' actions, as the patients are forced to release their emotions and discuss their feelings. Willard, a patient who believes he has damaged his spine and believes he cannot walk as a result, 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.
In 'Regeneration', mutism functions as a symbolic manifestation of the disempowerment and helplessness the men feel.
Both Prior and Callan are affected by mutism after extremely horrifying incidents. Rivers reasons that mutism might be caused by an inability to speak out against social norms or express opinion over any part of one's own life. He notes that mutism occurs most often among regular soldiers, not officers—men who are entirely at the mercy of their commanders. Mutism is in itself an assertion of power. Through silence, these men are disobeying those who have power over them. How Rivers and Yealland differently handle patients with mutism is a reflection on their own need to reinforce control over their patients.
Trenches are symbolic in the novel, much as they are in the poetry of the Great War. The trenches are likened, both literally and figuratively, to graves. Many of the patients have terrible experiences and memories involving trenches. Prior, most notably, remembers waking up in a trench one morning, only to turn around and find two of his men killed by an exploded shell. The trench became the men's grave, as Prior was forced to mix their remains with lyme and use them to reinforce the walls of the trench.