Pat Barker

The Eye in the Door

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The Eye in the Door Summary

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The Eye in the Door (1993), a novel by British writer Pat Barker, is the second volume in her Regeneration trilogy, which examines the effects of shell shock (PTSD) on British soldiers during the First World War. The Eye in the Door focuses on the fictional Billy Prior, a minor character from the trilogy’s first volume, Regeneration; the real-life figures Siegfried Sassoon and Dr. William Rivers, the main characters in Regeneration, also return. The trilogy’s third volume, The Ghost Road, won the 1995 Booker Prize, and the trilogy as a whole is considered a landmark of contemporary British fiction.

The novel opens as Billy Prior is released from Craiglockhart Military Hospital, where he has been treated for shell shock by the brilliant but neurotic Dr. William Rivers. The war is still rumbling on, and Prior has been assigned to a Ministry of Munitions intelligence unit investigating the activities of pacifists in the U.K. Although the worst of his symptoms are over, Prior experiences episodes of memory loss.

Prior is sent to interview Beattie Roper, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for her involvement in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. As a child, Prior briefly lived with Beattie, and her daughter Hettie was his close friend and, briefly, girlfriend. The idea that Beattie would be involved in an assassination plot strikes Prior as unlikely, and as he interviews her, Prior begins to suspect that she has been framed.

Beattie claims that she was asked to participate in the assassination plot by would-be deserter Lionel Spragge. In Spragge’s version of events, the plot was Beattie’s idea. Investigating further, Prior discovers that Spragge works for the Ministry of Munitions. He concludes that the Ministry set Beattie up, either as a scapegoat or because she was the weakest link in the network of pacifists.

Prior has a sexual encounter with the upper-class government official Captain Charles Manning, who has also been treated for shell shock by Dr. Rivers. Manning is twitchy and paranoid, and Prior learns that he is being blackmailed by anonymous letters threatening to out him as homosexual. Meanwhile, Prior’s episodes of memory loss are becoming longer. He knows he continues to function during these episodes, but he has no memory of what he says or does.

The Beattie Roper investigation requires that Prior return to his hometown, against Dr. Rivers’s advice. There Prior interviews Beattie’s daughter Hettie. He learns that Hettie’s husband, Mac—whom Prior also knows from childhood—is opposed to the war, seeing it as a form of violence by the government against its own citizens. Hettie claims not to know where Mac is, although it is clear that there is a man living in her house. Prior announces that he is going for a walk to a favorite childhood play-spot. Mac meets him there and threatens Prior with violence if he betrays him to the government. Although he is not intimidated by Mac, Prior decides not to betray him, because he is a childhood friend and because he’s only doing what he believes to be right.

On a walk through London’s botanical gardens with his fiancée Sarah, Prior catches Spragge following him. As he goes to confront Spragge, he suffers a prolonged episode of memory loss. Afterward, he asks Sarah what happens during his blackouts. She tells him that he continues to behave lucidly, although his personality changes and he becomes more pro-war and resentful of anyone who hasn’t been on the front lines.

Prior begins to worry that he is developing a “Jekyll and Hyde” complex, and at the same time wonders if he should return to the front lines. Assuring him that even if his personality is divided, he does not have an evil persona, Dr. Rivers helps Prior to understand that his dissociative blackouts are rooted in his ambivalence about the war. Prior turns the tables on Rivers, asking him what repression underlies Rivers’s own mental disability, a lack of visual memory. Later, as he treats Sassoon, who has been invalided home again, Rivers begins to recognize that he is not immune to the homosexual desires Sassoon describes.

Mac is arrested, and Prior visits him in custody, hoping to find out who betrayed him. Mac is convinced that it was Prior: no one else knew where Mac was. Prior talks to Spragge and learns that he betrayed Mac during his blackout. Prior is devastated.

With Mac in prison, Prior’s intelligence unit is disbanded. Prior doesn’t know where he will be sent next; to keep him in London, his lover Captain Manning offers Prior a job in his ministerial department. Prior refuses, deciding that he will return to the front lines in France.

The Eye in the Door, hailed as “a moving anti-war novel” by Publishers’ Weekly, is a penetrating reassessment of the legacy of the First World War in British culture, focusing on the betrayal of working-class and homosexual Britons by the government’s war effort.