Regeneration Literary Elements


Historical Fiction

Setting and Context

Britain, 1917, several years after the start of World War I.

Narrator and Point of View

The novel has no clear narrator or point of view; rather, the narrator adopts the point of view of whichever character the plot is focused on. When the narrative follows Dr. Rivers, Barker expresses his internal feelings; when following Sassoon, she expresses his; and so on. The novel jumps from character to character, often several times within the same chapter, weaving together disparate stories and contrasting view points.

Tone and Mood

The novel's thoughtful tone matches its melancholy mood. Other than a few, rare moments of humor, the writing engages very seriously with its topic. Barker, who describes the brutal and sometimes impossible journey to recovery, allows readers to retain some optimism at the end of the story: Prior and Sarah have fallen in love; Sassoon and Owen have developed a strong friendship. However, the novel focuses more prominently on the horrors of the war. The ending, in which Sassoon returns to France to die, is disturbing and tragic.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonists: Dr. Rivers and his patients; Antagonists: War, British military leadership, Dr. Yealland

Major Conflict

The novel contains two major related conflicts. The first one surrounds the question of whether or not Sassoon will return to the front; the lieutenant has been placed in Craiglockhart mental hospital for opposing the war and Dr. Rivers is tasked with convincing him to go back to France. The second conflict is more subtle and revolves around the tension between Dr. Rivers' compassion for his soldiers and his role in a system that perpetuates war. The compassion he feels for his patients is frequently at odds with his duty to patch up damaged men so they may be sent back to face more injury and death. In the end, Sassoon returns to France, as the actual Siegfried Sassoon did, and Dr. Rivers concludes that the war cannot justify the horrors it causes.


The novel climaxes when Dr. Rivers witnesses Dr. Yealland treating Callan with electroshock therapy. Dr. Yealland is a cold and cruel man who relishes the power he has over his patients, delighting in shocking and essentially torturing a mute young soldier. This moment encapsulates the brutality of the war and the government's apathy towards the resulting pain. This scene also triggers Dr. Rivers's moment of self-realization, in which he despairs thinking that he, like Dr. Yealland, asserts control over soldiers in order to force them back into battle.


As the novel is based on historical events, so any reader with knowledge of World War I and its poets will know the novel's conclusion from the beginning.


Barker uses understatement to underline Billy Prior's forced emotional detachment from the war in Chapter 8. During a session with Rivers, Prior describes a brutal attack in a mundane way, explaining, "You blow the whistle. You climb the ladder, then you double though a gap in the wire, lie flat, wait for everybody else to get out... and then you stand up. And you start walking. Not at the double. Normal walking speed" (78). His flat, emotionless delivery draws attention to the fact that Prior is understating the intensity of his emotions; it also makes it clear to Dr. Rivers that Prior is downplaying the emotional resonance of these events, eventually leading Prior to admit that he was terrified.


As a work of historical fiction, the novel alludes to innumerable individuals, events and ideas directly or indirectly related to the experience of World War I in Britain. Most importantly, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Dr. W.H.R. Rivers were all real people; Pat Barker used their documented words and deeds to meticulously reconstruct the characters that appear in Regeneration. The poems and protest letter in the novel are real-life works by Sassoon and Owen. The pacifists that champion and harass Sassoon by turns, Bertrand Russell and Ottoline Morrell, are also historical figures. Furthermore, all the battles Barker mentions are real historical battles that occurred during World War I and the competing views of psychology mirror a contemporary debate over the growing field. Ultimately, Billy Prior is the only major character that scholars believe to be completely fictional.


Pat Barker uses imagery to effectively communicate the horrors of combat and the way they bleed into life beyond the front. In her descriptions of decomposing corpses, severed body parts, and bloody explosions, she uses vivid language to paint a disturbing picture. Once men have left battle, these images haunt their daily lives. A hallway becomes a "trench without a sky" (17). The sound of a tree scratching against a window pane becomes the sound of "machine-gun fire" (37). Through imagery, Barker effectively communicates how the experience of combat violently intrudes on the lives of the men who survive it.


The novel's central paradox revolves around the figure of Dr. Rivers. The psychologist is a kind man who cares deeply and genuinely about his patients. Yet by healing them he is ensuring they will be returned to the front where they will likely experience further damage. By facilitating their recovery, Dr. Rivers is also facilitating their mental and physical injury and potentially their death.


The novel, which weaves together many contrasting stories, often uses parallelism to draw comparisons between these smaller narratives. In Chapter 17 both Sarah and Sassoon discover the dangers inherent in expressing their sexuality, highlighting the parallel challenges women and homosexual men faced in a conservative, patriarchal society. Throughout the novel, Prior and Sarah and Sassoon and Owen develop strong relationships simultaneously, drawing attention to the healing power of human connection. Moreover, many of the officers suffering from shell-shock have similar experiences of being haunted by unwanted thoughts, intense flashbacks, and disturbing hallucinations.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

- "The result of my string pulling is to get you another Board" (7). This is an example of metonymy because Graves is using the word "Board" to mean "a meeting with the members of the Board."
-"The men worship him - if he wanted German heads on a platter, they'd get them" (21). This is an example of synecdoche because the word "men" refers to the specific soldiers serving under Sassoon, not all men in general.
-"In his dream, he'd spoken in favor of continuing to the point of German collapse" (86). This is an example of metonymy because Barker is using the word 'German' to refer to the opposing army.
-"We couldn't afford Cambridge without a scholarship" (135). This is an example of synecdoche because Rivers is using the word "Cambridge" to mean "Cambridge University," not the entire city of Cambridge.


- "That's probably the first poem that even attempts to look at the war realistically" (82). By personifying the poem here, Sassoon underlines the importance of art as a lens through which to look at life.
-"The wind went on rising all evening. By the time Sassoon left Owen's room, it was wailing round the building, moaning down chimneys, snapping branches off trees with a crack like rifle fire" (142). By personifying the wind, Barker emphasizes the antagonistic power of Sassoon's memories of war; they are omnipresent in his life and as dangerous as enemy soldiers.