Regeneration

Regeneration Themes

Parenthood

Throughout Regeneration, relationships between men are colored by the parent-child dynamic. Dr. Rivers is often referred to as a paternal figure. His patients depend on him for care and guidance, sometimes even becoming dependent, as Anderson does. Sassoon notes that Dr. Rivers’s departure for sick leave reminds him of his father’s departure when he was a young boy. Yet Dr. Rivers is also referred to as a “male mother” by Layard, a former patient, because nurturing is viewed as a feminine trait (106). Later, as he is departing the hospital, Prior tells the psychologist that he reminds him of his supportive mother. Regardless of these shifting gender roles, Dr. Rivers remains a strong parental figure to his patients. This mirrors the relationship many of the officers have with their men. In one scene, Sassoon remembers tending to his soldiers’ blisters. Dr. Rivers himself compares military officers with harried, destitute mothers: both are trying wildly to save lives they cannot.

Love between Men

Regeneration is filled with various intimate relationships between male officers and soldiers. Officers treat their soldiers like sons; Sassoon and Owen build a strong mentorship and friendship; Graves is “very fond of” another male soldier (203). However, the nature of this love is often ambiguous, and these relationships are complicated by questions of sexual orientation. Owen develops romantic feelings for Sassoon and Graves ends his relationship with the male soldier because he is worried about being persecuted for his homosexuality. During this time, men faced serious legal consequences for being homosexual; they could be arrested, publicly shamed, and certainly discharged from military service. Dr. Rivers explains the irony that during times of war, strong friendships between men in combat are encouraged, but there is always a degree of paranoia that these relationships will veer into the romantic realm. 

The Past

In Regeneration, the present is irrevocably tied to the past; memories of the war shape the characters’ lives in disturbing and unexpected ways. This temporal confusion helps Barker to communicate the traumatic nature of combat and its impact on those who experience it. Sassoon’s flashbacks of mangled corpses and hallucinations of dead comrades disrupt his ability to remain safely in Craiglockhart. Likewise, Prior cannot escape his memories of the war; when enjoying a day at the seaside with Sarah, he becomes envious of the surrounding civilians' ability to enjoy themselves. Even Burns, who studiously represses his memories, is yanked back to the battlefield when he sees the remains of gutted fish on the beach. Barker further emphasizes the power of the intrusive past with her language, comparing mundane noises to machine-gun fire, shelling, and explosions. 

Recovery

As in many of Pat Barker’s works, recovery is one of the central themes of Regeneration. The officers at Craiglockhart have lived through unbelievably traumatic experiences; the novel traces their complicated journeys to recovery. Prior’s relationship with Sarah helps him overcome feelings of alienation because of the deep emotional connection with another human being. Sassoon’s patient guidance allows Owen to improve as a poet and to process his memories of the war through his writing. Yet Barker is a realist at heart and depicts the process of recovery as difficult and fraught; many patients remain severely damaged at the novel’s end. Willard, though no longer paralyzed, has not come to terms with the nature of his illness. Burns has finally begun to confront his memories of the war, but he remains skeletal and potentially suicidal. Sassoon’s nightmares have grown worse in Dr. Rivers’ absence, but he has decided to chase death by returning to the front. For all Barker’s characters, recovery is a complex and elusive process, but the possibility of regeneration drives the plot of the novel. 

Emasculation

Throughout Regeneration, men are emasculated by their experiences, both as soldiers and as patients. Rivers reflects that instead of living out scenes of heroics and glory, soldiers are funneled into trenches and forced to sit through constant bombardment while waiting for orders, thus rendering them helpless. The men’s passivity and dependence is reminiscent of the position women are forced to inhabit in patriarchal societies. The emasculation of trench warfare is further reflected in the officers' experiences as patients. Dr. Rivers’s treatment focuses on processing traumatic memories through conversation, but in a society where silent stoicism is synonymous with masculinity, his patients fear that sharing their emotions makes them feminine. Even Dr. Rivers is emasculated by social expectations. Compassion is commonly seen as a feminine trait; therefore, by giving supportive care to his patients, Rivers takes on a maternal role. 

The Absurdity of War

The Great War looms large throughout the novel, providing a setting and context so vivid that, at times, the war seems like a character itself. Barker presents the war as fundamentally absurd, an arena in which young men’s lives are routinely wasted without any identifiable gain. Burns recounts men dying by the dozen while crossing a river that was incorrectly noted on maps. Prior describes the carnage that results from the British army's decision to parade their men across No Man’s Land for the sole purpose of promoting national pride. Sassoon claims that the most unnecessary risks he ever took had nothing to do with bravery or duty, but were simply the result of following direct orders from his superiors. By describing painful sacrifices that are not tied to any greater purpose, Barker is thus supporting Sassoon's claims that the war has devolved into an endless exercise in brutality without any clear goals or objectives.

Shell-shock

Set in a mental health facility for officers in Scotland, Regeneration focuses on the psychological damage wrought by World War I. Many officers are no longer able to function in civilian society because of the violence and death they have witnessed. Anderson has panic attacks at the sight of blood; Prior and Callan cannot speak; Willard cannot walk; Burns cannot eat. All of these men are haunted by flashbacks and memories of the front. Even ostensibly sane men like Sassoon, who has been committed as a result of his anti-war protest, show signs of mental deterioration. The lieutenant’s flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations raise the question of whether shell-shock is truly a mental illness, or simply a sane man’s reaction to the insanity of war. Even Dr. Rivers, a non-combatant, refuses to shelter himself during air raids, exhibiting the same disregard for safety as his patients. The war has thus infected the minds of all who participate in it.