The Novel “Regeneration”

The novel produces an eloquent statement against the madness of war. The story is closely based on the publications and annotated literary papers of three men who actually met at Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh, in 1917: psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers and the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Barker probes the tenacious role of class within the military hierarchy, while the society, which it defends, is rapidly transformed by the converging lives of domestic servants and aristocrats.

Her descriptions are powerful: the yellow skin of women who work in the munitions factory; the surgeon who can no longer bear the sight of blood; the young soldier who cannot eat because his nose and mouth had once been filled with rotting flesh when he was hoisted by a grenade into the decomposing belly of a dead German. These descriptions all put the war exactly how it was. No pleasantries. No lies. Just honesty and candid details. The author portrays the experience of severe traumatic stress principally through the interactions between several soldiers and their physician, Rivers.

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All of the characters are recreations of known people. Rivers was a distinguished neurologist and social anthropologist whose published work informs the clinical aspects of the novel. The “shell-shock” patients were known individuals. Siegfried Sassoon was a major English poet and an army officer decorated for gallantry under fire. Wilfred Owen was another poet who, subsequent to the hospital stay depicted in the novel, returned to the front and died in action in 1918.

From my reading of Regeneration, I believe that Barker has cleverly used her sources to re-create a sensitive and gifted therapist interacting with patients we would perceive as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers. The then current concept was “shell shock” and it was a controversial diagnosis. Also a matter of debate and of discrepancy in practice was the approach to treatment. The language of Craiglockhart and other medical institutions mentioned would have been a special challenge to the novelist, one that I find she has managed extremely well.

There is sufficient probing and personal revelation to illustrate psychological work, but little interpretation or counselling, no psychological jargon, which would divert the focus from the painful encounters on the part of both patient and therapist. We get some insight into “compassion fatigue” as well, as Rivers struggles with the realisation that he desperately needs a break from his involvement with his patients. The principal focus is on the dialogue between Rivers and Sassoon and on Sassoon’s desperate attempt to direct the nation to negotiate rather than continue the trench warfare, or as he put it: ” … o prolong these sufferings for ends to which I believe to be evil and unjust”.

His nation might have had him shot, but foretelling the modern age as we know it, had him referred for psychiatric care. When I was reading the novel, I decided the extent to which his actions stemmed from was less from emotional damage, but mostly from rational outrage. There is little ambiguity, however, in the recollected accounts of the hellholes that were the trenches of France and of the conditions and events that led to his extreme act of defiance, which had very little chance of success.

Barker is a great novelist, so rather than idealistic musings, she portrays the interplay of character, feeling, duty, and the horrible reality of military conflict and its emotional aftermath. One might expect expression of moral revulsion at any violence towards persons, but Pat Barker is true to the historical characters and presents a developing realisation of Sassoon’s position that the national leaders had betrayed the soldiers by abandoning the initial purpose of the war, “defence and liberation”, in favour of “aggression and conquest”.

By living through events in the psychiatric hospital over several weeks, we as readers get to live with several shell-shocked soldiers as they struggle to regain a stable level of functioning. Their caring treatment by Rivers is contrasted at one point with the treatment devised by Yealland. That dramatic account showed the extremity at how different each doctor was in his methods of “curing” the patients. I feel Pat Barker was extremely successful in her presentation of the characters. She effectively and persuasively combined fact and fiction to create a powerful and evocative novel.