Dr. Rivers, a psychologist at Craiglockhart Hospital, is the primary protagonist in Regeneration. The doctor connects the novel’s disparate characters in a single narrative arc, serving as a guide through the lives of his patients and colleagues. As a non-combatant, Dr. Rivers shares the perspective of most readers, allowing the audience to identify with his struggle to fathom his patients' violent experiences. Kind and compassionate, Dr. Rivers embodies humane methods of psychological practice; the deeply wounded men heal significantly under his care. As a result, Dr. Rivers often finds himself in the role of a parental figure, both paternal and maternal, to his patients.
Siegfried Sassoon, a lieutenant who writes a public letter protesting the brutality of the war, often serves as the novel’s moral center. He elegantly articulates the devastating, unnecessary, and absurd nature of the so-called Great War. Yet Sassoon is not a simplistic character: he is divided by his deep loyalty to the men he served with and ultimately returns to the front to appease his guilt. This turn of events presents a contrast with the lack of human compassion shown by the political pacifists featured in the novel. However, despite his internal contradictions, Sassoon is a man of great integrity and his fate at the end of the novel—willingly returning to France to die— serves as the book’s central tragedy.
Billy Prior arrives at Craiglockhart a mute but quickly regains his speech and uses it to challenge Dr. Rivers and the system he represents. As an officer who elevated himself from a working-class upbringing, Billy Prior has an understanding of the inherent classicism and prejudice of English society. Prior is ambitious and eager to assert himself, often using his intelligence and keen perception to cut down those with power. His uncanny ability to deconstruct people and his excitement about risk and violence initially suggest that Prior may be a somewhat dangerous figure. However, his detached and hostile nature begins to soften when he meets and falls in love with Sarah Lumb, a munitions factory worker.
Mr. Prior, Billy Prior’s father, is an abusive tyrant who beats his wife and induces asthma attacks in his son. A blue-collar worker, Mr. Prior feels disdain for his son’s upper-class aspirations and ridicules him for his mental breakdown.
Mrs. Prior, Billy Prior’s mother, is her husband’s opposite. She is genteel, quiet, and incredibly supportive of her son, whom she loves dearly. Yet Billy resents his mother for separating him from his blue-collar background; he feels that as a result he belongs neither in the working class nor the aristocracy. At one point, Prior reveals that Dr. Rivers reminds him of his overly-nurturing mother.
Burns, a skeletal soldier who is unable to eat without vomiting, is one of the novel’s more tragic characters. After landing in the stomach of a rotting German corpse, all food reminds Burns of the taste and smell of decomposing flesh. His suffering is uniquely undignified and Dr. Rivers is reticent to force him to remember the incident, despite championing processing traumatic memories as a method for recovery. It is Burns’s pain that ultimately leads Dr. Rivers to conclude that the war is not worth its cost.
Wilfred Owen, an aspiring poet and patient at Craiglockhart, seeks out Sassoon and quickly builds a strong friendship with him. Sassoon steers Owen towards writing war poetry and encourages him to publish his pieces. Owen is in awe of his mentor and develops unrequited romantic feelings for him.
Anderson, a combat medic, has an intense fear of blood after watching a mud-covered soldier slowly bleed to death. This crippling phobia is paired with explosions of rage when he loses golf games and a deep sense of denial about the nature of his trauma. Eventually, Anderson must face the reality that he will not ever be able to return to the medical field.
Willard is injured retreating through a graveyard and becomes paralyzed even though there is no physical damage to his spine. However, even after therapy with Dr. Rivers cures him, Willard insists that his condition is physical, claiming the psychologist performed surgery and reattached his spine.
Dr. Yealland, a cruel and uncaring doctor at a London hospital, serves as a foil for the compassionate Dr. Rivers. Dr. Yealland takes great pleasure in the power he holds over patients, gleefully using shock-therapy to treat them. Unlike Dr. Rivers, Dr. Yealland does not believe in mental illness, attributing all diseases to physical causes. His apathy towards the soldiers’ well-being reflects Sassoon’s criticism that the British public and government are apathetic about the extent of the emotional damage the war is causing.
Callan, a mute soldier, is Dr. Yealland’s patient and victim. Through his silence, Callan communicates his disapproval of the war and the system that perpetuates it. Using repeated electrical shocks, Dr. Yealland forces Callan to speak, ironically silencing his protest in the process.
Henry Head is Dr. Rivers’s longtime friend and co-worker. As a young man, Head volunteered to have the nerve in his arm severed to help chart its regeneration. Dr. Rivers would then prick his friend with a pin and measure his pain responses. Their friendship mirrors the nurturing relationships that Dr. Rivers forms with many of his patients. Like Dr. Rivers, Head is a kind, supportive, and dedicated man.
Bryce is the Commanding Officer at Craiglockhart and Dr. Rivers’s supervisor. His role is to ensure the smooth operation of the hospital. Bryce is a caring leader, forcing Dr. Rivers to take sick leave when his health deteriorates due to the stress of his position. When he is offered a new job, Dr. Rivers is reluctant to leave Bryce, who selflessly encourages him to take advantage of the opportunity.
Graves is Sassoon’s close friend, but he uses lies and manipulation to protect him. Though Graves agrees with Sassoon’s anti-war protest, he believes that his friend must remain loyal to the British military because he signed a contract agreeing to serve. Graves cares deeply for Sassoon but many of his actions are questionable. His lack of integrity—he denies his opinions for the sake of propriety— helps to highlight the trait in Sassoon.
Sarah Lumb, who works in a munitions factory, becomes Billy Prior’s girlfriend after the two meet at a bar. A woman whose world has been deeply affected by the war, Sarah helps to illustrate the wider roles and increased freedom women experienced during this time period. She leads an independent life and occupies an equal role in her relationship with Prior.
Ada Lumb, Sarah’s mother, articulates a deep-seated cynicism about relationships between men and women. Believing romantic love to be impossible, Ada encourages her daughter to marry for financial stability. She worries that her daughter’s liberal sex life will leave her pregnant, destitute, and alone. Her views have come from a life-time of poverty, struggle, and mistreatment at the hands of men.
Lizzie, one of Sarah’s co-workers, highlights the freedom that the war afforded women, as well as the challenges they faced in a deeply sexist society. The wife of an abusive husband, she claims that the start of the war brought her peace because her husband left to serve. She fears the day her husband will return.
Betty, another one of Sarah’s co-workers, is badly injured when she attempts to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger. Betty represents the potentially dangerous consequences of liberal sexual mores - her experience supports Ada's warnings to Sarah.
Madge, who works with Sarah at the munitions factory, is also greatly impacted by the war. When her fiancé returns lightly wounded, the two celebrate together.
Regeneration Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Regeneration is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Regeneration study guide contains a biography of Pat Barker, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis. Regeneration is the first novel in the Regeneration Trilogy.
Regeneration essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Regeneration, the first novel in the Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker.