Regeneration Quotes and Analysis

"The way I see it, when you put the uniform on, in effect you sign a contract. And you don't back out of a contract merely because you've changed your mind."

- Graves, pg. 23

Graves explains to Dr. Rivers how he is able to agree with Sassoon’s assessment of the war but disagree with his protest. He invokes a sense of duty and honor that revolves around institutional loyalty and the power of an individual’s commitment. Graves holds that since Sassoon has agreed to serve as an officer, his ultimate responsibility is to the British military, regardless of his views on the war. This understanding of duty departs from Sassoon’s own, however - the lieutenant feels a stronger sense of loyalty to his fellow soldiers. In his mind, his responsibility to stop the needless slaughter comes before his responsibility to fulfill his job. Ultimately, the novel vindicates Sassoon’s conception of duty when Dr. Rivers, the primary protagonist, comes to adopt Sassoon's perspective at the end of the novel even though Sassoon himself has returned to fight. 

"They seemed to have changed so much during the war, to have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space."

- Billy Prior, pg. 90

In this selection, Prior reflects on the ways in which women have changed since the war broke out several years ago. The war-time shortage of male labor has allowed women to step into traditionally masculine roles. Prior’s girlfriend, Sarah, is a worker at a munitions factory, where she makes several times more than she did as a governess. During World War I, many women like Sarah had an increased earning potential, which allowed them to support themselves financially; Prior notes their newfound independence when he first meets Sarah. She and her co-workers drink, talk loudly, approach men, have pre-marital sex, and stay out late. Meanwhile, the war has increasingly forced men into a single role: the soldier. An entire generation of young men has been sitting immobilized in narrow trenches, waiting for orders. The wide world of possibilities they were once afforded has shrunk; it now fits in a fox-hole.

"The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down."

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 108

War was - and still is - largely perceived as a series of masculine adventures. The Great War, as World War I is often referred to, seemed to promise an opportunity for young men to become, in essence, action heroes. The reality of combat departed starkly from this vision, however. Men were forced into muddy trenches where they awaited death for weeks and months at a time. Near constant shelling wore down the sanity of even the most stoic soldiers. Wholly dependent on orders from their superiors, soldiers therefore came to embody the passive role that women had long been forced to occupy in patriarchal societies like that of early 20th century England. In Regeneration, Dr. Rivers compares war neuroses to the hysteria that often affected women during this time; trenches render men helpless, while strictly proscribed social roles have had the same effect on women. In both cases, these prolonged feelings of forced vulnerability play a large role in triggering neuroses.

"She belonged with the pleasure-seeking crowds. He both envied and despised her, and was quite coldly determined to get her. They owed him something, all of them, and she should pay."

- Billy Prior, pg. 128

Prior walks along the beach with Sarah, resenting both his date and the carefree tourists for their ability to escape from the war. Like Sassoon, Prior resents civilians for their oblivious apathy towards the human toll of the war. Yet he also envies their ability to escape the shadow of war; Prior is constantly reminded of his combat experiences, suffering through persistent flashbacks and unwanted thoughts. The war has robbed him of the ability to lead a normal, care-free life. Therefore, Prior feels that British society owes him for his painful sacrifices and hates the crowds for failing to give him his due. Prior thus comes to think of Sarah as a reward: a prize for his service. This mindset illustrates some of the period’s more disturbing sexism. Despite women’s expanding roles, men often still thought of them as items to be possessed, rather than as human beings.

"The bargain…If you, who are young and strong, will obey me, who am old and weak, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice your life, then in the course of time you will peacefully inherit, and be able to exact the same obedience from your sons. Only we’re breaking the bargain, Rivers thought. All over northern France, at this very moment, in trenches and dugouts and flooded shell-holes, the inheritors were dying, not one by one, while old men, and women of all ages, gathered together and sang hymns." 

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 149

Dr. Rivers reflects on the bargain that underlies patriarchal societies while sitting through a church service. In his estimation, the bargain demands compliance in the present while holding out the promise of future power. Yet the psychologist notes that this deal has been effectively annihilated by the current British government; the generation that would have inherited the world is dying in muddy trenches. Meanwhile, the civilians are singing hymns that praise blind adherence to God’s will, reflecting the unquestioning commitment they expect from the young men they send to die. The quote appears at the beginning of Part III of the novel, during which the psychologist’s opinions on duty, war, and protest start to transform. Here, Dr. Rivers suspects that the "bargain" is no longer fair and that it is not in the young men’s best interest to adhere to it any longer. 

"Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing." 

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 180

When he finds Burns waiting to drown in the darkened cellar of a lighthouse, Dr. Rivers finally accepts the injustices of the war. Burns’s suffering has no redeeming quality; his wartime experience has stripped him of honor and dignity. Dr. Rivers senses this truth early on in his visit, which is why he is reluctant to force Burns to relive his horrifying memories. Acknowledging the depth of Burns’ anguish leads Dr. Rivers to finally conclude, as Sassoon has, that the political reasons for the war cannot justify the damage it has caused. This revelation proves problematic for the psychologist, who has been tasked with mentally preparing his patients for return to the battlefield. Once Rivers concludes that the war is not worth the human cost, the irony of his task becomes that much more apparent. The mounting stress of this realization haunts the psychologist throughout the rest of the novel, making him physically ill at various points.

"You must speak, but I shall not listen to anything you have to say."

- Dr. Yealland, pg. 231

Dr. Yealland orders Callan to speak but makes it clear that he is not interested in his patient's thoughts. Dr. Rivers notes that Callan’s silence is an extremely effective form of protest; by refusing to speak, the soldier communicates his condemnation of the war and the system that perpetuates it. When Dr. Yealland uses electroshock therapy to force Callan to speak, he is, ironically, silencing him. This quote illustrates Dr. Yealland’s complete lack of compassion and aggressive superiority over his patients. He, like the British government, is not interested in facing the damage the war has wrought, but only in continuing it. Though Dr. Rivers is a much more compassionate figure, he finds himself thinking that his treatment mimics his colleague’s. He too induces mute patients to speak and, most damningly, pushes Sassoon to silence himself and return to the front.

"A horse’s bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. And instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people."

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 238

After witnessing Dr. Yealland’s disturbing electroshock treatment, Dr. Rivers dreams that he is in his colleague’s place, forcing an electrode and then a horse’s bit into a patient’s mouth. A "bit" is the device that riders use to direct a horse; as Dr. Rivers explains, it is an “instrument of control.” The image of the bit therefore expresses the psychologist’s anxiety that he has been unduly controlling his patients just as Dr. Yealland does: both men are tasked with ensuring that their patients resume fighting, regardless of their desires. However, Dr. Rivers’ anxiety is connected to one patient in particular: Sassoon. The psychologist dreams that he is attempting to bridle and direct the lieutenant, subconsciously expressing his guilt over the role he has played in Sassoon’s decision to return to battlefield.

"And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure."

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 242

While doing research in the Solomon Islands, an interaction with the native people causes Dr. Rivers to conclude that English culture is not the standard by which other cultures should be measured. The psychologist realizes that there are no universal rules for human behavior. This belief is known as cultural relativism. Subsequently, Rivers treats the islanders as equals, not inferiors. The humility with which Rivers approaches other cultures also affects his conduct as a psychologist. Dr. Rivers treats his patients with the same openness. Ultimately, he allows himself to be changed by Sassoon, embracing the lieutenant's criticisms of the war. Part of Prior’s ability to taunt Dr. Rivers can be attributed to the psychologist’s willingness to share personal information with his patient. Dr. Rivers does not see himself as a figure of ultimate authority, as Dr. Yealland or many of his other colleagues do, but simply as another human being.

"A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance."

- Dr. Rivers, pg. 249

By the end of the novel, Dr. Rivers agrees with Sassoon. They both believe that the British government’s conduct in the war precludes automatic allegiance to the same. When Regeneration opens, Dr. Rivers firmly believes in his responsibility to the military even though he spends his days hearing about the horrors of war firsthand and working to heal those who have experienced them. Throughout the arc of the narrative, however, Dr. Rivers slowly comes to realize the extent of the pain and anguish the war is causing. His growing cynicism leads him to realign his views, and he eventually comes to the decision that his primary responsibility is to the damaged men he treats and not to the authorities that want them cured only to send them back to the trenches. Burns’s suicide attempt is the key turning point in Rivers's perspective. Afterwards, Dr. Rivers is increasingly haunted by the role he has played in Sassoon’s return to the war, caring far more about the fate of the soldier then the needs of the military.