Regeneration Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Nerve Regeneration

The experiments Dr. Rivers conducted with Henry Head on regenerating Head's severed nerves serve as a symbol for the psychologist’s treatment of his patients. Dr. Rivers recalls the deep guilt he felt while conducting the tests, which caused his friend excruciating pain. Similarly, re-living and processing traumatic wartime experiences cause the psychologist’s patients incredible anguish, triggering Dr. Rivers’s well-developed sense of guilt. However, like the nerve regeneration experiment, which charted healing and re-growth, the doctor’s psychoanalytic method is necessary to lead these men to recovery. Therefore, Dr. Rivers commits to both the experiment and his method despite his hesitance to cause pain.

Horse's Bit

Traumatized by the treatment he witnesses at Dr. Yealland’s office, Dr. Rivers dreams that he is in his colleague’s place, trying to push an electrode and then a horse’s bit into a patient’s mouth. A bit, used to direct and control a horse during riding, is a symbol of control. The dream represents Dr. Rivers’s anxiety about his role in silencing Sassoon, who plays the role of the patient in his dream. Both he and Dr. Yealland are tasked with exercising control over patients, forcing damaged men to return to the front, often against their will. By contributing to Sassoon’s decision to go back to France, Dr. Rivers fears that he is guilty of the same apathy and cruelty as Dr. Yealland.

Stuttering and Mutism

Several characters in the novel suffer from some kind of abnormal speech. Owen and Dr. Rivers stutter when they are nervous; Sassoon imperfectly hides his own stutter. Prior and Callan are silent altogether. The psychologist attributes both stuttering and mutism to a person's desire to voice something that he or she knows will result in dire consequences; the speech impediments symbolize an unarticulated protest. For example, Dr. Rivers's stutter reappears when he speaks with Dr. Yealland about patient care; he is disgusted with his colleague’s cruelty but fears the professional consequences of articulating his disapproval. In the case of mutism, Dr. Rivers notes that silence can effectively communicate condemnation and disdain, as both Prior and Callan demonstrate.

Men with Scythes

Dr. Rivers sees men with scythes preparing to cut grass while he is walking on the front lawn of Craiglockhart. The morbid figures remind him of “Time and Death invading the Arcadian scene” (98), thus symbolizing the war's intrusion into the idyllic English landscape. Images and sounds from the battlefield—curling barbed wire, slippery mud, booming guns—have invaded the home front, bringing the horrors of war with them. Burns experiences this altered version of the English landscape when he takes a walk during a stormy day; his boots sink in thickening mud until he happens upon death in the shape of a tree hung with animal carcasses. In Regeneration, the shadow of the war is unavoidable, even in a pastoral and innocent space. The grass-cutting patients Dr. Rivers spies so perfectly symbolize this intrusion that he thinks it “comic” (98).


Trenches are a recurring motif in Regeneration. The nature of trench warfare, which forces soldiers to be passive and dependent, is, in Dr. Rivers’s estimation, a primary cause in cases of shell-shock. Soldiers’ memories of the narrow passages—dug into the ground and filled with mud, lice, rats, and the bodies of the dead and wounded—haunt them. These experiences bleed out into their lives beyond the front; one patient describes a hallway as “‘like a trench without the sky’” (17). Thus, these men cannot escape the trenches even when they are back home in England. Furthermore, the trenches often become undignified graves: Dr. Rivers explains that corpses were often used to reinforce walls.