Regeneration

Regeneration Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 8-9

Summary

Chapter 8

During one of his sessions, Prior describes participating in an attack in a detached and taunting manner. When Dr. Rivers presses him about his feelings, Prior responds frankly and aggressively that the experience was “sexy” and he felt a “burst of exultation” at seeing wounded soldiers on the ground. He reveals that during the attack, he was knocked unconscious by a shell. He awoke in a crater with his soldiers and they drank from his flask and laughed when another soldier slid down into the crater. Despite his injuries, Prior woke up speaking and was not sent for treatment at the time. When Dr. Rivers suggests that he and Prior are on the “same team,” Billy retorts that they are not (80).

Another patient, Wilfred Owen, comes to visit Sassoon in his room, asking him to sign five copies of his book of poetry. Owen is intimidated by the lieutenant’s “good looks,” aristocratic bearing, and poetic talent, which exacerbates his nervous stammering (81). Sassoon is welcoming and kind, asking Owen to sit down with him after he enthusiastically recites lines from the lieutenant’s poems. Owen articulates his feeling that the war is blurring into the wars before it. Disturbed but in agreement, Sassoon intimates that he has also imagined himself in the future, looking back at the ghosts of this war.

After an awkward pause, Owen asks Sassoon to contribute poems to the Hydra, Craiglockhart's literary magazine of which Owen is the editor. Sassoon agrees and invites Owen to bring him copies of his own poetry. Owen is embarrassed, admitting that he does not write about the war because he prefers to keep poetry his refuge from the “ugliness” (84). Sassoon teases him about this but still encourages him to bring his poems, no matter what they are about.

Sassoon and Anderson play a round of golf. The medic has an embarrassing outburst of rage when he misses an important shot and threatens to hit Sassoon with a club. Sassoon reacts politely, laughing off the incident, but both officers are disturbed by Anderson's anger. They have lunch afterward, careful not to talk about anything but golf. Anderson reflects that talking about the war would force intimacy into their relationship. He has read Sassoon’s published letter and although, like Dr. Rivers, he agrees with the lieutenant's assessment of the war, Anderson believes that the conflict must be seen to completion.

Billy Prior wanders into a bar in town where he orders fish and chips. He overhears four female employees of a munitions factory laughing and telling stories a few tables over. One of them, Sarah Lumb, approaches Prior and teases him about eating so quickly. The other women excuse themselves, giggling, and Sarah and Billy look for a place to have a drink. As many bars don’t allow women, they walk towards a hotel. Sarah explains that she is earning five times as much as she was before the war. Prior reflects that the war has expanded the world for women while shrinking it for men.

They arrive at the hotel bar and order several rounds. Sarah reveals that she lost her boyfriend in the attack at Loos, during which British gas blew back into British trenches. She refers to the incidents of the battle obliquely, simply saying that her boyfriend was at Loos. She is haunted by the absurdity of his death, caused by his own country's weaponry. After several drinks, she further intimates that her mother doesn’t believe that men and women can really love each other. Billy says he doesn’t know whether they can, either. Furthermore, Billy is surprised at the amount Sarah can drink.

They walk to a graveyard where Billy tries to have sex with Sarah on a tombstone, but she pushes him away. He decides in his mind that the more aggressive he is, the longer he will have to wait, so he gives her a teasing kiss and walks her home. They agree to meet again the following Sunday. As Prior walks back to Craiglockhart, he checks the time on his watch and realizes that he will not make curfew.

Chapter 9

During his meeting with Dr. Rivers, Prior expresses his anger at being confined to the hospital for two weeks after missing curfew. Prior explains that he was out looking for a woman and teases the doctor, asking whether or not he will be interrogated about it. When Dr. Rivers fails to respond, Billy changes the conversation and starts asking about officers and mutism. Dr. Rivers explains that mutism is common among enlisted men and rare among officers, presumably because mutism comes from a desire to say something that could trigger grave consequences. Therefore, lowly soldiers are much more afraid of expressing themselves than officers.

Dr. Rivers adds that officers often stammer, instead. He also asserts that officers have more complex dreams than soldiers do. Prior brings attention to Dr. Rivers’ own stammer, catching him off-guard. The psychologist tries to explain that his stammer is life-long and not the result of trauma, but Billy insinuates that Rivers has been trying not to say something for fifty years. When Prior finally leaves, Dr. Rivers feels deeply irritated.

Seeing that he has a few moments before his next patient, Dr. Rivers decides to go walking. Out on the hospital lawn, he watches two officers cutting grass with scythes. The figures remind him of death. Later that night, Dr. Rivers is compiling a list of patients who are ready to go back to the battlefield when Prior interrupts him to apologize. He admits that his nightmares mix visions of bloody combat with sexual elements, and that worries him. Dr. Rivers finally suggests that they try hypnosis.

Billy, who turns out to be highly suggestible, falls into a trance and describes the events leading up to his breakdown. He was walking through the trenches and stopped to chat with two men frying bacon and making tea over a weak fire. He continued on and a few seconds later, an explosion destroyed the area, killing the two men. Afterwards, Billy shoveled the remains of the men into a bag that one of his soldiers was holding. When he was done, he looked down and saw an eyeball staring at him from below the duckboards. Prior delicately picked it up and then held it out towards the soldier saying, “‘What am I supposed to do with this gob-stopper?’” (103). Billy continued working, covering the area with lime, and then realized that his lower jaw had gone numb. His soldiers later took him to the medics. 

When he awakens from the hypnosis, Prior is angry that something so mundane triggered his breakdown; he had shoveled gruesome remains many times before. Prior had assumed that he was traumatized because he had somehow caused the death of his men. Prior begins crying and butting his head against Rivers's stomach, reminding the psychologist of a kid butting a nanny goat. Dr. Rivers explains that trauma is often the result of stress eroding someone’s defenses over time, rather than the fallout from one single event. Nevertheless, Billy doesn’t want to be the kind of man who breaks down. Dr. Rivers assures him all kinds of men break down under the stress of war.

Dr. Rivers, exhausted, begins to prepare for bed. He reflects that fathers are opaque to their children, like psychologists are to their patients. He is disturbed once again by Prior’s ability to read him and remembers a similar patient named Layard. Layard once told Rivers that he was like a “male mother” (107). He resents that nurturing is considered a female trait, even when practiced by men. Dr. Rivers thinks about the officers who care so much for their soldiers and compares them to impoverished mothers. They are both "totally responsible for lives they have no power to save” (107). The psychologist thinks to himself that this war, which promised mobilization and adventure, has only left men helpless in the trenches, waiting to die.

Analysis:

In order to benefit from his psycho-analytic method, Dr. Rivers expects his patients to recount horrifying and grotesque stories within the safe and comfortable environment of Craiglockhart. This irony highlights the unknowable nature of war for non-combatants. These gory stories seem to come from a different world far beyond the hospital’s protective walls. Dr. Rivers, like most readers and the author, cannot fully understand or imagine what it feels like to go through such experiences. In interviews, Pat Barker has expressed that she deliberately chose a non-combatant viewpoint for the story’s central character to highlight a perspective often excluded from war novels and to draw the reader towards a perspective similar to her own (Nixon 8). The impossibility of describing the horrors of war comes up in the narrative when Prior reflects on Sarah’s use of the word “Loos” as a euphemism for the brutal battle in which she lost her boyfriend. No amount of descriptive words can do the horrific incident justice, so she uses the name of the place as a convenient linguistic code.

In Regeneration, Barker depicts war as generating significant temporal confusion. Past memories invade the present and even the future. Owen describes war as a continuous “ancient” state that encompasses all conflicts: past wars intrude on the current one, while the present battle reshapes the past (83). Sassoon adds to this vision, claiming he can see himself in the future looking back at the decimation of the present. Later, the soldiers with scythes symbolize the intrusion of war and violence into the idyllic Scottish landscape surrounding Craiglockhart. 

The beginning of Part II raises the specter of friendly-fire. Billy imagines that being an officer who mistakenly orders British soldiers to fire on their comrades is the worst possible fate. Later, Sarah Lumb reveals that her boyfriend died because he was poisoned by British gas. These incidents are particularly haunting because they reinforce Sassoon’s charge that the carnage on the front is in vain; deaths by friendly fire are absurd accidents that serve no military purpose.

Disturbingly, Prior finds the bloody carnage of war to be sexually exciting. He finally admits that his nightmares are a mix of gory battle scenes and sexual content, but he remains vague about the specific images of sexuality. Regardless, Prior feels disgusted with himself and keeps the nightmares a secret as a result of his shame. His desire to submit to hypnosis is likely the result of the tension between Prior’s need to discuss his emotions and his impulse to repress any embarrassing elements. If hypnotized, Prior will not have to make a decision, he will be compelled to speak by forces beyond his control.

Dr. Rivers and Prior talk extensively about verbal symptoms like mutism and stammering, which Rivers claims result from the desire to say something that may carry severe consequences. He tells Prior that soldiers are more likely to become mute, because they will be subject to more severe consequences as a result of speaking out, while officers tend to stammer. Many of the officers that Barker depicts —Sassoon, Owen and Dr. Rivers—stammer, suggesting that they are all trying to hide something. Later in the novel, Owen is revealed to be hiding his homosexuality, just like Sassoon. Billy Prior, torn between positions of power and subservience, is mute like a soldier but has an officer's complex dreams. His mutism is tied to a clever pun: he falls silent when he picks up the “gob-stopper” (103) (a soldier's eyeball). His gob, British slang for mouth, literally stops. However, Barker never fully discloses Dr. Rivers’ "secret." 

Prior and Dr. Rivers develop a complex relationship. Billy is deeply uncomfortable with the power imbalance inherent in therapy and uses strategic lies and well-placed barbs to even it out. Billy’s distrust of therapy mirrors Anderson’s earlier suspicions that Rivers will use Freudian theories to project embarrassing motivations onto his dreams and behavior. Dr. Rivers’ methodologies are highly experimental for the time period, engendering a lot of curiosity and distrust in both patients and observers. Even Rivers' insistence that prolonged stress can induce shell-shock in otherwise good, well-adjusted men is not widely accepted. Sassoon demonstrates this kind of thinking when he disdainfully refers to his fellow patients as lunatics. 

With the introduction of Sarah Lumb, the novel expands its consideration of gender. Sarah describes the limits that women face but also demonstrates the expanding roles that the war opened for them. While women in the novel are still not allowed to entertain men in their rooms, they can hold jobs, stay out late with co-workers, talk to men in pubs, and drink as heavily as their dates. This new reality shapes Billy and Sarah’s relationship. Sarah is the one who approaches Prior and successfully asserts herself when she feels that their physical intimacy is progressing too quickly. Barker is careful to note that both Billy and Sarah are the same height, underlining their equal stature, both physical and metaphorical. Their relationship mirrors not only these evolving gender norms but also the fact that the brutality of war is all encompassing; it is more powerful than societal constructs of gender. Appropriately, their first sexual encounter takes place in a graveyard, where they are surrounded by the dead.

If the war has expanded the world for women, it has shrunken if for men. Dr. Rivers notes that men who go to war are mobilized for great adventure, only to sit passively in trenches waiting for a shell to kill them or someone else to tell them what to do. This helplessness and dependence is similar to what women feel in a sexist society, leading the psychologist to argue that war emasculates men. He compares an officer's role to that of a poor mother attempting to raise her children; both parties are aware that their nurturing efforts are doomed to fail.

Like war, therapy is also seen as emasculating in Regeneration. Dr. Rivers reflects angrily on a patient who once referred to him as a “male mother” because of his nurturing personality (107). Earlier, while watching Billy suffer a small breakdown, Rivers involuntary thinks of himself as a nanny goat and Prior as his ill-behaved kid. In this way, strict gender roles play a decidedly negative role in the recovery process, discouraging both patients from being forthcoming and doctors from being caring. Dr. Rivers likes to imagine himself as a paternal figure but is uncomfortable in his relationship with Billy because it casts him in a more feminine role.