Regeneration (novel)

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For the 1997 film adaptation of the novel see Regeneration (1997 film).

First edition cover
First edition cover
Author Pat Barker
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre War novel
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
30 May 1991
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 288 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-670-82876-9 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 27011391
Dewey Decimal 823/.914 20
LC Class PR6052.A6488 R4 1991
Preceded by The Man Who Wasn't There
Followed by The Eye in the Door

Regeneration is a prize-winning novel by Pat Barker, first published in 1991. The novel was a Booker Prize nominee and was described by the New York Times Book Review as one of the four best novels of the year in its year of publication.[1] It is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War, the other two being The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1995.[2] The novel is loosely based on the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.[3]

Background and inspiration[edit]

Barker attributes the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist familiar with the writings of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his experiments with nerve regeneration.[1] However, in a 2004 interview with literary critic Rob Nixon in the journal Contemporary Literature, Barker also imagines the choice to write the novel as a response to how her earlier fiction was being received; she said,

I felt I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a northern, regional, working-class, feminist—label, label, label—novelist. It's not a matter so much of objecting to the labels, but you do get to a point where people are reading the labels instead of the book. And I felt I'd got to that point. And also, I'd always wanted to write about the First World War. One of my earliest memories was of my grandfather's bayonet wound and his stories of the First World War. I knew I wanted to do that. I also knew I had to wait until I'd got a way of doing it that wasn't just a copy of what had already been done. It takes a long time to have an original idea about something which has got whole libraries devoted to it.[4]


The novel has been treated both as a war novel and an anti-war novel. In her 2004, interview with critic Rob Nixon, Barker describes her conceptualization of that boundary:

It's not an antiwar book in the very simple sense that I was afraid it might seem at the beginning. Not that it isn't an antiwar book: it is. But you can't set up things like the Somme or Passchendaele and use them as an Aunt Sally, because nobody thinks the Somme and Passchendaele were a good idea. So in a sense what we appear to be arguing about is never ever going to be what they [the characters] are actually arguing about, which is a much deeper question of honor, I think. "Honor" is another old-fashioned word like "heroism," but it's very much a key word in the book.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

Part I[edit]

The novel begins as Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, learns of poet Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration against the continuation of the war. Sassoon is labelled "shell-shocked" and is sent to the hospital by the military authorities in hope to discredit his public oppositional views. Rivers states that he feels uneasy about Sassoon entering Craiglockhart, doubting that he is shell-shocked and feeling uncomfortable about sheltering a conscientious objector. Sassoon's friend and fellow poet Robert Graves had persuaded the medical board to intern Sassoon Craiglockhart in lieau of a court-martial, believing that he is helping his friend and that the war is unlikely to end. Soon after Sassoon arrives, Rivers meets him and they discussion why Sassoon objects to the war: he objects to its horrors, not out of a particular relgious belief. Though troubled by these horrors, Rivers affirms his job is to return Sassoon to combat. Sassoon struggles with the idea that he is safe in Craiglockhart while others are dying.

In addition to Sassoon's conflict, the opening chapters of the novel describe the suffering of other soldiers in the hospital. Anderson, a former surgeon, now cannot stand the sight of blood. Burns is haunted by terrible hallucinations after being thrown into the air by an explosion and landing head first in the ruptured stomach of a rotting dead soldier; the memories of this experience cause him to vomit whenever he eats anything. Another patient, Billy Prior, suffers from mutism and will only talk to Rivers through the use of a notepad. Prior eventually regains his voice, but he remains a difficult patient for Rivers as he does not wish to discuss his memories of the war. Prior is visited by his working class father, an unfriendly man who beat his wife and emotionally abused his son, whose education and predisposition create resentment.

Part II[edit]

After some time at the hospital, Sassoon meets the young aspiring poet Wilfred Owen. Realizing that Owen is an admirer of his writing, Sassoon offers to review Owen's poetry. Sassoon also begins regularly playing golf with Anderson. While they are at golf, Prior goes into Edinburgh and meets a girl called Sarah Lumb, whose boyfriend was killed at the Battle of Loos. They come close to having sex, but Sarah refuses Prior at the last minute.

Prior's absence from Craiglockhart causes him to be confined to the hospital for two weeks as punishment. During that time, Rivers tries hypnosis on Prior to help him recover holes in his memories of the trenches. Soon, Rivers admits a new patient, Willard who was injured in a graveyard when, under heavy fire, parts of a gravestone injured his buttocks. While no physical damage prevents Willard from walking, he insists that there is an injury to his spine.

Rivers invites Sassoon visits the Conservative Club. At the lunch, Rivers realises that although it would not be difficult to convince Sassoon to continue fighting, he does not want to force him. Later Owen and Sassoon talk in Sassoon's room, and Owen convinces Sassoon publish some of his poetry in the hospital magazine The Hydra. Prior goes into town to meet Sarah and explains why he did not show up for their arranged meeting. They take a train to the seaside and walk along the beach together, where he feels relieved, though he struggles to relate to the people around him, thinking only fellow soldiers understand his emotions and experiences. While he and Sarah get caught in a storm and later have sex in the shelter of a bush, cementing their relationship.

The taxing work of caring for the shell shocked soldiers, leads Rivers to exhaustion, and, to resolve this, he is ordered to take three weeks holiday from his work at Craiglockhart. Rivers' departure resurrects for Sassoon his feelings of abandonment when his father left him, and he realises that Rivers has taken the place of his father.

Part III[edit]

Part III begins with Rivers attending church near his brother's farm. While in church he reflects on how the war sacrifices younger men for the desires of the older generation in an act of mass-slaughter. The time on his brother's farm, though full of tiring labor, becomes a cathartic release allowing him to reflect on his experiences. During one flashback, Rivers reflects on his father's role in his life, remembering his father's speech therapy practice on both himself and Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon helps Owen draft one of his most famous poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth." During Sarah accompanies her friend Madge to a local hospital, so Madge can visit her fiance, who has been wounded. Sarah gets lost and walks into a tent filled with injured amputee soldiers. She is angry at her shocked reaction as well as the fact that society hides these injured soldiers away.

Prior is examined by a medical board. Prior fears that they suspect he is faking illness and want to send him back to war.

Rivers meets with some old friends, Ruth and Henry Head, who discuss Sassoon. Rivers suggests that Sassoon has the freedom to disagree with the war. However, Rivers reaffirms that it is his job to make Sassoon return to military duty. At the end of their conversation Head offers Rivers a top job in London. Although it would be a career leap, Rivers is unsure whether he should take it.

Burns, who has since been discharged from hospital, invites Rivers to visit him at his seaside home in Suffolk. Rivers expects to talk to Burns' parents about his condition and is surprised to discover that Burns is alone. They spend a few days together, with Rivers not bringing up the topic of the war. One night, when there is a severe thunderstorm, Burns walks outside and hides in a tunnel which floods at high tide, suffering flashbacks to his experiences with trench warfare in France. The trauma causes Burns to finally open up and talk about his frontline experience. He describes to Rivers the sheer horror he felt when taking part in the Battle of the Somme and how he hoped he would suffer a minor injury so he could be sent home.

When Rivers returns to Craiglockhart, he tells Bryce that he will take the job in London. In another appointment Sassoon has with Rivers, Sassoon describes how he has been having hallucinations of dead friends knocking on his door. Sassoon admits he feels guilty about not serving with his friends and decides he should return to the front. Rivers is pleased with Sassoon's decision, but at the same time the doctor worries about what may happen to him there.

Part IV[edit]

Sarah tells her mother, Ada, about her relationship with Billy Prior. Ada scolds her daughter for having sex outside marriage; she reminds Sarah that contraception is not always reliable (repeating a rumour that every tenth condom is purposely defective) and declares that true love between a man and a woman does not exist.

Sassoon meets his friend Graves and tells him of his decision to return to war. Graves lectures Sassoon on the importance of people keeping their word. Graves then tells Sassoon about a mutual friend, Peter, who has been arrested for prostitution and is being sent to Rivers to "cure" his homosexuality. Graves stresses that he himself is now writing to a girl called Nancy, implying that he is not homosexual. This conversation leaves Sassoon with a feeling of unease, implying that he himself may be unsure or worried about his sexual orientation.

The girls at the munitions factory joke that many of the men serving are gay. When Sarah asks why one munitions worker called Betty is not there, her co-worker Lizzie replies that Betty is in the hospital after attempting a home abortion with a coat-hanger.

Sassoon talks to Rivers before he is sent back to France, and they discuss Peter and the larger question of the official attitude towards homosexuality. Rivers theorises that during wartime the authorities are particularly hard on homosexuality, wanting to clearly distinguish between the 'right' kind of love between men (loyalty, brotherhood, camaraderie), which is beneficial to soldiers, and the 'wrong' kind (sexual attraction).

The medical board meets to review the cases of various soldiers and to decide on their fitness for combat. According to the board, Prior should have permanent home service due to his asthma. Prior breaks down at the news, fearing that he will be seen as a coward and ashamed that he will not be able to find out what calibre of soldier he is. Sassoon tires of waiting for his turn to see the board and leaves to have dinner with friends. Rivers, angry at this flippant behaviour, demands an explanation, at which Sassoon apologises and admits that he was afraid. Sassoon assures Rivers that although his views of the war have not changed and he still stands by his "Declaration," he does want to return to France.

Prior and Sarah meet again and admit their love for one another. Sassoon and Owen talk in the Conservative Club about how awful it will be for Sassoon to remain in Craiglockhart for another while without Rivers or Owen there; Owen is deeply affected by his imminent departure. Before he leaves Craiglockhart, Sassoon comments to Rivers that Owen's feelings towards Sassoon may be something more than mere hero worship.

Rivers spends his last day at the clinic saying goodbye to his patients, then travels to London and meets Dr. Yealland from the National Hospital, who will be his colleague in his new position. Dr. Yealland uses electro-shock therapy to force patients to quickly recover from shell-shock; he believes that some patients do not want to be cured and that pain is the best method of treatment for such reluctant patients. In a horrifying scene, Yealland demonstrates his brutal 'therapy', which is vastly different from Rivers' own approach and which makes Rivers question whether he can work with such a man.

Sassoon is released for combat duty; Willard is able to overcome his psychosomatic paralysis and walks again; Anderson is given a staff job.

The novel ends with Rivers completing his notes, meditating on the effect that the encounter with Sassoon, and the last few months, have had on him.


Siegfried Sassoon – The fictional Siegfried Sassoon is closely based on the real Sassoon. Sassoon's father abandoned the family and died shortly afterwards, when Sassoon was still a child. In the novel Rivers is portrayed as a paternal figure to Sassoon, which reflects their actual relationship. (The real Sassoon is said to have been rather shocked by Rivers' sudden death in 1922.) Despite the fact that Sassoon was a decorated soldier, his experiences in World War I caused him to publish an anti-war declaration. Although the character in Regeneration eventually returns to the front (as did the historical Sassoon), Barker gives the impression that he remains deeply ambivalent about warfare. In addition to his ambivalence about military combat, Sassoon's ambiguous feelings about his sexuality are modelled on the actual Sassoon's biography as well. Although Sassoon got married to Hester Gatty in 1933, he did have homosexual affairs with several men after the war.

Photograph of W.H.R. Rivers

Dr. W.H.R. Rivers – A character based upon the real-life W. H. R. Rivers, an English anthropologist, neurologist, and psychiatrist, who worked at Craiglockhart War Hospital between 1916–1917 and was a treating physician for Siegfried Sassoon. His experimental research into nerve regeneration, performed together with his friend, Henry Head, inspired the title of Barker's novel as well as some of the trilogy's major themes, such as trauma, injury, and healing. (The historical Rivers' ethnological studies play a central role in the sequels to Regeneration, especially in The Ghost Road.) In Barker's portrayal, Rivers suffers throughout the novel from the moral dilemma that he is treating soldiers in order that they can return to war. He watches the harsh treatment used by Dr. Lewis Yealland and wonders whether his (seemingly gentler and kinder) methods are just as painful for the men in his care. The (somewhat oversimplified) contrast between the two doctors and their way of dealing with shell-shock touches upon further themes pivotal to understanding Barker's war trilogy: various kinds of institutionalised violence, mutism and silence as a sign of trauma or a form of resistance, the horrors of warfare as a challenge to language itself. In this context, it is important to note that Rivers is struggling with a nervous stammer he has had since childhood, even though his own father used to be a speech therapist.

Billy Prior- Prior is one of the few purely fictional characters in the book. Prior is a soldier at Craiglockhart who suffers from mutism and asthma. Prior is a difficult character for Rivers to deal with as he often reflects Rivers' own dilemmas, insecurities, or shortcomings, for instance, Rivers' unconscious class prejudice. Prior is a working-class officer who has risen to the rank of lieutenant despite his background. Straddling the class divide, the perceptive and cynical Prior sees the British army mirroring the class system, even in the trenches. Prior appears envious of those who are not involved in the war experience, such as Sarah, his love interest in the novel. In the later novels of the Regeneration Trilogy, we learn that Prior is bisexual, but this is not apparent in the first book. However, this reveal of Prior's sexual orientation then adds another facet to his characterisation as a man fundamentally at war with himself: torn between his working-class roots and his army career, between his officially acknowledged love for Sarah and his "forbidden" sexual attraction towards other men, between his violent father and his fussing mother, his longing for peace and his hatred of civilians unaffected by the horrors of trench warfare.

David Burns – David Burns is another patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital, a fictionalised version of one of Rivers' real patients as described in the psychologist's case studies. Burns has been unable to eat after a bomb explosion threw him headlong into the gas-filled belly of a corpse, which caused him to swallow some of the rotting flesh.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen- Owen is another character based upon a real-life poet. Wilfred Owen is considered one of the great poets of World War I. He died in 1918 just before the end of the war. Barker depicts Owen as initially unsure of the standard of his own poetry. His sexuality is also questioned, as Sassoon comments that Owen's feelings towards him seem to extend further than mere hero-worship.

Anderson – Anderson is another patient at Craiglockhart War hospital. Once a surgeon, Anderson's experiences of war have made it impossible to continue practising medicine because he now hates the sight of blood after experiencing a mental breakdown.

Sarah Lumb – Sarah is a completely fictional character. The girlfriend of the character Billy Prior, she is working-class, "Geordie", and works in a munitions factory in Scotland producing armaments for British soldiers. Ada Lumb, her mother, appears briefly and has a very hardened attitude towards love and relationships.

Dr. Lewis Yealland – A foil to Rivers, Yealland is based on a doctor of that name at the National Hospital in London who used electro-shock therapy to treat his patients. Yealland is portrayed as arrogant and uncaring. He believes that the characters that breakdown during the war are "weak" and says that they would break down in civilian life anyway.

Callan – Callan is a patient of Dr. Yealland who has served in every major battle in World War I. He finds himself in the care of Dr. Yealland after suffering from mutism. Callan tries to fight against his doctor's treatment but eventually gives in to it.

Robert Graves – Another real life character, Graves is a fellow poet and friend of Sassoon who sees the war as unjust and immoral. However, Graves does not want to make his life more difficult by protesting. Graves sees it as his duty to serve his country regardless of his own moral beliefs.

Major themes[edit]


Madness is a key idea in Regeneration. Madness is exhibited through symptoms such as mutism, fear of blood, and Sassoon's angry anti-war declaration. Because such behaviour is deemed unacceptable Sassoon is given the label "shell-shocked" to discredit his views. For many of the characters in Regeneration attempting to treat their symptoms only serves to make them worse. Rivers eventually questions whether it is "mad" for these soldiers to have broken down in war or to blindly follow the orders which they are given. Rivers also questions whether it is right to treat this "madness" only to send soldiers back to the war which made them mad in the first place.


Love between men is another theme explored. In war the bond between men is a desired quality, and Sassoon is commended for the love that he shows towards his fellow men. However, Rivers makes it clear to Sassoon that outside of the war his homosexuality is considered unacceptable to much of society and could be used to discredit his views on the war. Rivers suggests that people's views may be more intolerant in wartime than peacetime.


The tension between traditional models of masculinity and the experiences within the war runs throughout the novel. Critic Greg Harris identifies Regeneration along with the other two novels in the trilogy as profiling the non-fictional experience of Sassoon and other soldier who must deal with their internalized model of masculinity common to Britain during this time: a model of masculinity focused on honor, bravery, mental strength, and confidence.[5] In an interview with Barker in "Contemporary Literature", Rob Nixon distinguishes between these ideas of "manliness" and the concept of masculinity as a larger sense of identity. Barker agrees with his assessment saying "And what's so nice about them is that they use it so unself-consciously: they must have been the last generation of men who could talk about manliness without going "ugh" inside."[4] In his discussion of the novel, Harris describes these "manlines" as becoming, for Parker's characters, "Unrealistic militaristic-masculine ideals"; practices such as the deliberate repression of emotion, consume the novel's characters creating psychological instability, as they did for the real life Sassoon and other shell-shocked WWI soldiers.[5] Harris describes Rivers' character, and Parker's authorial intent, as using his treatment of the soldiers as an opportunity to shape and rethink this model of masculinity, asking the men to reinvest emotions in their experience of the war.[6]


Parenthood is explored at several points during the novel. One is the caring relationship between Rivers and the men under his command. Many patients also refer to Rivers as a father figure; one of River's former patients, Layard, refers to Rivers as a "male mother". It is through this compassion that the soldiers are able to "regenerate" – the motif of the novel from which the title is taken. Rivers explores the fact that his role in helping the soldiers to express their painful experiences means that he requires the skills and traits typical of a woman. He dislikes the idea that nurturing is a uniquely female trait. Rivers also throughout the novel is constantly trying to be a 'fatherly figure' to his patients. This is emphasised by the job that he does.


This is a theme brought up many times in Regeneration, usually metaphorically. Through use of windows and light, Barker explains the feeling of Sassoon and certain other characters of being trapped inside Craiglockhart (and occasionally other settings such as the train).

Freud in Regeneration[edit]

  • Rivers was influenced by the writings of Freud on neurosis. While Rivers disagreed that neurosis was due to sexual factors he considered Freud's work to be of "direct practical use in diagnosis and treatment".[7] Rivers felt that Freud was right that his patients actively suppressed their experiences of war. Freud's ideas emphasised dreams, sexuality, and parental issues.
  • At Craiglockhart, a hospital only for officers rather than ordinary privates, patients were encouraged to talk about their experiences of war rather than suppress them. Some in Regeneration were unwilling to do this. This treatment was pioneered by Freud.


The novel, like its two sequels, relies heavily on allusion to and appropriation of both historical and literary texts. Each book's "Author's note", as critic Allistair M. Duckworth points out, explicitly outline historical texts that she relied on when writing that novel.[8] The following are some of the most prominent intertextual components in the novel:

  • Part of Barker's inspiration for the novel are the accounts of Sassoon, written by Rivers in his book Conflict and Dreams, which treats. To give anonymity to Sassoon in publishing, the book refers to him as the alias "Patient B".
  • Sassoon refers to Edward Carpenter's writing on sexuality The Intermediate Sex. It is implied that Sassoon is a homosexual as he states that writings made him feel normal about his sexuality.[9]
  • The women in the bar, including Sarah Lumb, are based on characters from a scene in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.[citation needed]
  • Prior reads one of River's anthropological studies The Todas.[10]
  • Owen and Sassoon frequently discuss Craiglockhart's publication The Hydra, which was early publishing space for several WWI writers who became prominent after the war, like Owen and Sassoon.
  • Owen and Sassoon are shown working on Owen's famous poem "Anthem for Doomed Youth" together.
  • Literary critic Alistair M. Duckworth describes the novel building on narratives and thematic elements from both Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War (1928).[8]

Pat Barker's views[edit]

Barker stated in an interview with Wera Resch that "The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts". She goes on to state that "One of the things that impresses me is that two things happen to soldiers in war: a) they get killed or b) they come back more or less alright. It's really focusing on the people who do come back but don't come back alright, they are either physically disabled or mentally traumatised."[2]

Barker states that she chose to write about World War I "because it's come to stand in for other wars, as a sort of idealism of the young people in August 1914 in Germany and in England. They really felt this was the start of a better world. And the disillusionment, the horror and the pain followed that. I think because of that it's come to stand for the pain of all wars."

On the role of women in her books Barker states that "In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry; basically, this is the typical feature. And the women in the trilogy are always deeply significant, and whatever they say in whatever language they say it in, it is always meant to be listened to very carefully." Barker points out that the women in the munitions factories were expected to produce weapons to kill thousands, but a woman who attempts to abort her unborn child is criticised.

Further reading[edit]

  • Continuum Compemporaries: Pat Barker's Regeneration by Karin Westman (ISBN 0-8264-5320-2)
  • An interview with Pat Barker on the Regeneration novels [11]
  • Freud and war neurosis in Regeneration[12]
  • The Todas, anthropological work by W.H.R. Rivers[13]


  1. ^ a b Regeneration: Context. SparkNotes. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  2. ^ a b Reusch (english). (26 April 2001). Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  3. ^ The War Poets at Craiglockhart. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Barker, Pat; Rob Nixon (2004). "An Interview with Pat Barker". Contemporary Literature 45 (1): –21. doi:10.1353/cli.2004.0010. ISSN 1548-9949. Retrieved 2014-03-09. 
  5. ^ a b Harris 290-292
  6. ^ Harris 294-295.
  7. ^ Freud and War Neuroses: Pat Barker and ''Regeneration''. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  8. ^ a b Duckworth, Alistair M. (2004). "Two Borrowings in Pat Barker's Regeneration". Journal of Modern Literature 27 (2): 63–67. doi:10.1353/jml.2004.0072. ISSN 1529-1464. Retrieved 2014-03-09. 
  9. ^ Edward Carpenter: ''The Intermediate Sex''. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  10. ^ W.H.R. Rivers: A Founding Father Worth Remembering. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  11. ^ Internet Archive Wayback Machine. (26 April 2001). Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  12. ^ Freud Museum ~ About Us. Retrieved on 21 October 2011.
  13. ^ [1][dead link]

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]