Regeneration Summary

Pat Barker


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Regeneration Summary

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The Regeneration, a novel by Pat Barker published in 1991, draws on historical events, exploring the experiences of soldiers being treated for shell shock after the First World War.It includes first-person narratives taken from primary sources to create the characters at the hospital.

The novel opens with the poet Siegfried Sassoon openly declaring himself a conscientious objector and subsequently being sent as “shell-shocked” to an army hospital. The hospital psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers expresses doubt and after examinations says that he is required to send Sassoon back to combat. Sassoon fears for his safety at the hospital when so many of his peers are dying in combat.

There are other suffering soldiers there as well. There is a surgeon, Anderson, who cannot stand the sight of blood after having a breakdown. Burns, after being thrown into the air by an explosion and landing headfirst on the ruptured stomach of a dead soldier, is repulsed by the act of eating. Another soldier, Billy Prior, is mute and cannot communicate except through writing.

Sassoon meets the aspiring poet Will Owens, whom he helps to write a poem. He also becomes Anderson’s golf buddy. Meanwhile, Prior heads into Edinburgh where he meets Sarah, a woman whose boyfriend was killed in one of the battles. They nearly have sex, but she refuses him at the last minute. When he returns, he is confined to the hospital for two weeks as punishment for being gone so long, and Rivers begins hypnosis to try to help him recover from his memories.

Rivers convinces Sassoon to publish his poetry and invites him to the Conservative Club. He realizes that it will be difficult to persuade him to return to war. Prior goes to meet Sarah and explains the reason that he was gone for so long. They reconcile, and when they are caught in a storm, they have sex while sheltering.

Rivers is sent away on a forced vacation, and while he is gone, Sassoon realizes that Rivers has become like a father to him. He experiences flashbacks of his own father’s abandonment. While Rivers is away, he attends church near his brother’s farm and considers the sacrifices made by younger men in the war. He experiences a release while laboring on the farm, and he remembers back to his father’s speech therapies, on himself and on a man later known as Lewis Carroll.

Sarah accompanies her friend Madge to the hospital, but becomes separated and ends up in the tent for amputees. She is horrified that they are hidden away. Prior is up for review but fears that the board will think he is faking an illness and send him back to the trenches. Rivers is offered a job in London, but he is unsure if he should take it because he wants to fulfill his duties at the hospital.

One night Rivers visits the family home of the patient, Burns. While there, a storm comes in and Burns experiences flashbacks that allow him to talk about his experiences in the war. Because of this, Rivers decides to take the job in London. When he tells Sassoon, Sassoon admits to having guilt for not returning to the trenches and decides that he will.

Sarah tells her mother about her and Prior’s relationship, but her mother isnot pleased. Sassoon tells his fellow writer Robert Graves of his decision to return to war and wrestles with his sexual orientation. The board officially puts Prior on home duty, and he and Sarah affirm their love for one another.

When Sassoon returns to war, Graves is deeply affected. Rivers travels to his new position in London where he meets his colleague, Dr. Yealland. Yealland believes that pain is the best method for shell shock, and Rivers wonders if he will be able to work with a man who uses therapiessuch as electroshock.

The novel ends with Rivers reflecting on his experiences at the hospital. He looks over his notes and thinks about the effects his encounters have had on him.

One of the novel’s major themes is the horror of war. Civilians were largely removed from battle and had difficulty understanding what returning soldiers had seen. The official accounts of the war left out visceral accounts.The novel is anti-war at its core. It attempts to dispel some of the myths surrounding the glory of war.

It also dissects cultural ideologies like masculinity and national pride. Masculine ideals contradict the idea that men would experience breakdowns after experiencing the horrors of war. They also dictate what kind of relationship is good between men (friendship, loyalty) and what kind of relationship bad (sexual attraction).

This idea of manliness causes a great deal of introspection and discomfort as the men in the novel wrestle with their healing and the thought of returning to war. Manliness suggests they should be ready and willing to return, but for many of them, this is a conflict of feelings.

It also touches on the differences between Rivers’s techniques and those of Yealland. Yealland holds the belief that many soldiers do not want to be cured and that they would have broken down whether they were in the war or in civilian life. Rivers, on the other hand, shows his patients compassion and understanding.

The novel is an anti-war work of historical fiction. Barker spent a long time researching this period, and through her work, we are able to see through the eyes of realistic characters the trauma and healing of such times.