Regeneration Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 14-16


Chapter 14

While on sick leave, Dr. Rivers visits his brother Charles, a chicken farmer. They attend church together, during which Dr. Rivers fixates on Christ’s crucifixion and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on the stained glass windows. The psychologist notes that Abraham and his son look smug. He reflects that “the bargain” of civilization is the promise that if sons are totally obedient to their fathers, they will one day inherit their fathers’ world. Yet Dr. Rivers is disturbed, knowing that the war is ensuring that very few sons will be left to step into their father’s places.

Later in the day, Dr. Rivers helps Charles move hens into a new coop. That evening, Charles and his wife leave for dinner while Dr. Rivers stays home alone and looks over their accounts. He struggles to write a letter to Sassoon but abandons the task. Dr. Rivers notices a painting of the Apostles of the Pentecost receiving the gift of tongues. It used to belong his father, a priest and speech therapist. Rivers feels that the apostles look “unchristianly smug” (154). He remembers rejecting his father’s approach to treating speech impediments with physical exercises and giving a lecture to his father's speech therapy group denouncing the Bible and promoting evolution. That was the first time Dr. Rivers's father was able to hear the content of his son's speech and not just his stuttering delivery. Despite his youthful rebellion, Dr. Rivers realizes that he is a lot like his father: a therapist who treats men with stutters. After reminiscing, the psychologist finally pushes himself to start the letter to Sassoon.

Owen comes to Sassoon with a heavily revised poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which Sassoon loves, describing it as “a revelation” (157). Yet the lieutenant has one misgiving: the poem argues there can be no consolation for the damage wrought by the war, but the ending indicates the soldier's pride in having participated in the war. Owen defends the ending, claiming that Sassoon’s poems often contain the same contradiction.

Back in town, Sarah and her co-worker Madge go to the hospital to visit Madge’s wounded fiancé, who is in a ward filled with mildly injured and brightly optimistic young soldiers. Sarah leaves Madge alone with her fiancé so they can have some privacy and wanders into the back lawn of the hospital. She sees a greenhouse, which she thinks might be a good place to rest. However, Sarah quickly realizes the structure is filled with badly wounded and disfigured men. She exits in a panic and reflects that the sudden presence of a “pretty girl” might serve to remind the men of their condition (160). She feels angry that these men are hidden from sight.

Meanwhile, Prior is in the same hospital to have his asthma assessed. The doctor treats him poorly, insinuating that “nerves” aren’t a legitimate reason to leave combat. Prior is given a card and told to return for the results of his tests in three weeks. As Prior exits the hospital, he sees Sarah emerging from behind the building and realizes how fond he is of her. They greet each other happily and Sarah runs to tell Madge that she is leaving with Billy. When she returns, Prior gives her a freshly-purchased bouquet of flowers.

Dr. Rivers visits his good friend Henry Head, the man on whom he experimented to chart nerve regeneration. He has an amiable chat with Head’s wife before his meeting with his old co-worker. Head tries to convince Dr. Rivers to leave Craiglockhart and accept a more prestigious position studying patients with spinal injuries at the Central Hospital in London. Dr. Rivers initially rejects the offer, insisting that he cannot abandon Bryce. However, Head pushes him to reconsider, arguing that Craiglockhart is isolating him.

Chapter 15

Still on health leave, Dr. Rivers travels to visit Burns, who has been released from Craiglockhart and is living at his family’s vacation home on the English shore. As the two walk to the Burns home from the train station, razor wire and sandbags remind the psychologist of the front, even though Burns seems oblivious to the connection. Burns explains that he is alone in the cottage and that his parents have remained at home in London. He is seemingly benefitting from the fresh air and community spirit of the country town. He attempts to make the doctor comfortable but reminds Dr. Rivers of a child trying to remember how adults act when receiving a guest. He reflects that the war does not make men mature but instead, gives them a “curiously ageless quality” (169).

Despite his commitment to his method, Dr. Rivers is reluctant to force Burns to relive his memories for reasons he cannot fully articulate. Burns's nightmares have gotten worse and he fails to eat anything during the psychologist’s visit. Dr. Rivers is determined to let Burns introduce the topic of war on his own, but Burns strictly avoids talking about his condition or his memories. Instead, the pair spends the next few days taking quiet walks along the seashore and visiting local pubs, avoiding any sensitive subjects.

Dr. Rivers uses the time to work on a paper about the effects of suppressing war memories and worries that he has done Burns a great disservice by not forcing him to relive his experiences. He realizes that he may be categorizing Burns’s predicament as mythical, akin to Jonah being in the belly of the whale, instead of addressing it as a practical psychological issue. The psychologist thinks about the awful things his other patients have endured, recalling that corpses are often used as haphazard building material in the trenches. Therefore, Rivers cannot classify Burns’ experience as definitively worse than Prior’s or anyone else’s.

On one of their walks, Burns and Rivers pass the area where fishermen gut their fish, leaving the heads and bloody entrails all along the shore. The sight of the gore disturbs Burns. Once they return to the house, Burns begins to speak about mundane things in a manic and disconnected manner.

That evening, Dr. Rivers awakens to the sound of a boat crashing into the shore. The sound is similar to that of a bomb exploding. Dr. Rivers leaves his room and realizes that Burns is no longer in the house. Concerned, the psychologist runs out into the heavy storm. A local woman points him in the direction of a small defensive fort. When he reaches the low, squat building, Dr. Rivers finds Burns nearly catatonic in the cellar, which is completely submerged at high-tide. Instinctively, Dr. Rivers thinks, “Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing.” (180). With some gentle prodding, Rivers is able to drag Burns back to the house and coax him into bed.

The next morning, Burns finally begins to speak about his experiences in the war. He says that he was tasked with writing letters home to the families of men who had died. Burns tells of a useless charge in which 80 percent of the men in a single company were killed. He admits that he used to constantly volunteer for patrol in the hopes that he would be hit by a bullet, get a clean wound, and be discharged. After his narrative is complete, the officer reflects that what is so horrifying about Christ’s crucifixion is that someone had to be evil enough to invent the punishment.

Though Burns does not speak about the specific incident that triggered his shell-shock, Dr. Rivers believes that his speaking about the war at all demonstrates great improvement, even if Burns seems unstable. He thinks that Burns’s experience really is worse than that of the others because it as so completely destroyed the man he once was. The psychologist reflects, however, that the process of transformation often resembles further deterioration. He tries to imagine a future for his patient but admits that Burns has “missed his chance of being ordinary” (184).

Chapter 16

Dr. Rivers returns to Craiglockhart and tells Bryce about the job offer in London. Bryce encourages him to accept it, explaining that he will most likely leave soon anyway due to his ongoing disagreements with his superiors on how the hospital should be run. Dr. Rivers cannot imagine being at Craiglockhart without Bryce and and Bryce feels the same. Yet Dr. Rivers still sees his work at the hospital as meaningful. 

Later, Sassoon comes to see Dr. Rivers and asks him for a new roommate. His current one is insufferable, Sassoon claims, because he waves away the pain and damage of the war with simple platitudes. Dr. Rivers encourages Sassoon to wait the ten days until his roommate’s transfer.

Sassoon then starts describing his hallucinations, explaining that they are subdued enough to feel real. Dr. Rivers shares that he once heard the whistling of the dead when he was studying native practices in the Solomon Islands. He was attending a funeral, during which the dead are expected to make noise; Rivers cannot be sure whether he was pulled into a mass hallucination or if he really heard dead souls whistling. Sassoon explains that in his visions, departed soldiers look at him puzzlingly, wondering why he is not on the front lines. Consumed by his guilt, Sassoon tells the doctor that he has agreed to return to the front.


In Part III of Regeneration, Barker explores the theme of religion. The young men in the novel have been called upon to sacrifice their lives like the Biblical figures of Jesus Christ or Isaac, yet Dr. Rivers senses that this sacrifice is deeply unfair. The religious establishment has supported the government in a brutal, senseless, and continuous war. Like the apostles in his father’s painting, Dr. Rivers describes Isaac and Abraham as smug, which is reminiscent of the self-satisfied way in which middle-aged civilians speak of honor while younger men die in the mud. In Dr. Rivers's eyes, religion has become a weak justification for slaughter, and it also distracts from the horror of the war. Meanwhile, even Dr. Rivers has used religion to escape the reality of war, imaging Burns as Jonah or Jesus Christ in order to prevent Burns (and himself) from having to confront the indignity of his experience.

If Regeneration seems to condemn religion, it treats the supernatural with more ambiguity. Two of the most sane and logical characters in the novel, Sassoon and Dr. Rivers, have experiences that could qualify as supernatural. Both characters seem inclined to believe that what they heard or saw was something truly outside of the natural world. The book neither substantiates nor denies these feelings, allowing the visions to remain ambiguous. While the experiences could easily be hallucinations, Pat Barker stops short of providing decisive evidence.

In these chapters, readers also become more acquainted with Dr. Rivers’s background. We learn that the psychologist had a complicated relationship with his father, both rejecting and imitating his life’s work. This reflects the complex dynamic between Dr. Rivers and his patients, who become surrogate sons that both need and push away their paternal figure. The psychologist's childhood memories and his time on the farm serve to humanize him, showing him in a less authoritative and more personal light. Since Dr. Rivers acts a bridge character, pulling together the disparate experiences of his patients, it is important that readers identify with and trust him. The character not only holds the novel together structurally, but also illustrates changes in English society. Likely because he is several decades older than his patients, Dr. Rivers begins the novel with a traditional perspective that allows him to rationalize the war. As the novel goes on, however, Rivers evolves, and, like English society, he eventually comes to admit that there is no justifying the incredible toll of the war. 

Compared to the other mental health professionals depicted, Dr. Rivers is deeply compassionate. He believes that he has found his purpose at Craiglockhart and is inclined to reject an incredible job offer because of his loyalty to his superiors and patients. Moreover, he readily spends his medical leave caring for a man who has been released from hospital custody and is no longer his responsibility. In contrast, the hospital where Sarah and Prior meet is run with a stunning lack of compassion: the most severely wounded men are hidden from view in a greenhouse behind the building. When Prior attends his appointment, a contemptuous doctor implies that his shell-shock is an excuse to avoid combat. In response, Prior speaks very little, determined not to share any personal information with the obnoxious doctor. Barker shows this contrasting reality in more explicit detail later in the novel when Dr. Rivers witnesses a callous psychologist treat a mute patient.

Part III focuses heavily on the breadth of the war's effects on England. Dr. Rivers reflects that the death rate is so high, it has disrupted society’s central bargain with young men: do what we say and you shall inherit the world. In his mind, there soon won’t be anyone left to inherit anything: too many men have lost their youth on the battlefield. Even though Dr. Rivers is a military psychologist tasked with defending the war, he despairs after witnessing Burns’s meltdown, pronouncing that nothing could justify so much anguish. The man or, more accurately, the boy that Burns once was no longer exists; an emaciated wraith has taken his place. Burns’s memories of war align with Prior and Sassoon's experiences: men being slaughtered for useless and absurd reasons. Like his fellow officers, Burns courted injury to be able to escape the thresher of combat. Furthermore, unimaginable horror like what Burns experienced is widespread; Dr. Rivers reveals that in the trenches, dead bodies are often used “to strengthen parapets, to prop up sagging doorways, to fill in the gaps in the duckboards” (173). 

At the end of Part III, guilt finally overwhelms Sassoon and he decides to return to the front. Despite his condemnation of the war, Sassoon feels a tugging loyalty to his men, many of whom are still fighting, and he is embarrassed to stay at Craiglockhart any longer. The lieutenant’s humiliation implies that he believes the refusal to fight to be dishonorable, while the honorable choice is to return to combat. Owen’s poem encapsulates the irony of Sassoon’s beliefs—that the war is aimless and must be stopped but there is still pride in fighting. Neither Sassoon nor Owen can bear to face the futility of war - both cling to the hope that these men have not died in vain, but that their service is worthy of pride. Despite the fact that Sassoon is disturbed by this contradiction in Owen’s work, he still wants to return to the front.