Regeneration (novel)

Regeneration (novel)

"For the 1997 film adaptation of the novel see Regeneration (1997 film)."infobox Book |
name = Regeneration
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Pat Barker
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = War novel
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = 30 May 1991
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 288 pp (first edition, hardback)
isbn = ISBN 0-670-82876-9 (first edition, hardback)
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. [ [ SparkNotes: Regeneration: Context ] ] 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. [ [ Reusch (english) ] ] The novel is based on the real-life experiences of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. [ [ The War Poets at Craiglockhart ] ]

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. [ [ SparkNotes: Regeneration: Context ] ]

Plot summary

Part I

The novel begins with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital (a mental institution at the time), reading poet Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration against the continuation of the war. Sassoon’s "wilful defiance of military authority" has led to Sassoon being labelled "shell-shocked", a label which the authorities hope will discredit his views on the continuation of the war. Rivers states that he feels uneasy about Sassoon entering Craiglockhart, doubting that he is shell-shocked; he is uncomfortable about the prospect of sheltering a "conchie".

Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Robert Graves advises Sassoon to give up his protest against the war; although he shares Sassoon’s feelings he still feels it would be impossible to stop the war. Sassoon had hoped for a court-martial so that his views could be publicly aired, but Graves, thinking that he is helping, manages to persuade a Medical Board that Sassoon should be sent to Craiglockhart instead.

Rivers meets Sassoon and their discussion demonstrates that while Sassoon objects to the sheer horror of the war, he does not have any religious objection to fighting. Rivers warns Sassoon that since his job is to return Sassoon to combat, he cannot therefore claim to remain neutral. This troubles Rivers, as he knows the horrors soldiers suffer when sent back. Sassoon struggles with the idea that he is safe in Craiglockhart while others are dying.

The opening chapters of the novel describe the suffering of soldiers in the hospital. Anderson, a former surgeon, now cannot stand the sight of blood. Burns has been crushed by the war and has terrible hallucinations which cause him to vomit whenever he eats anything.

Another patient, Prior, suffers from mutism and will only talk to Rivers through the use of a notepad. Prior eventually regains his voice but remains a difficult patient for Rivers as he does not wish to discuss his memories of the war. Prior is visited by his father, an unlikeable man who beat his wife and emotionally abused his son.

The last chapters of the first section of "Regeneration" deal with the ideas of class. Prior states that there are class distinctions in the British Army even during times of war. Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, a young man who also writes poetry. He asks Sassoon to sign some copies of his work and Sassoon offers to review Owen's poetry. Sassoon goes off to play golf with Anderson and 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 pushes Prior away at the last minute.

Part II

Prior’s absence from Craiglockhart causes him to be confined to the hospital for two weeks as punishment. Rivers admits that it may be a good idea to now try hypnosis on Prior. This hypnosis causes Prior to remember the gruesome death of two soldiers in his platoon.

A new patient, Willard, is examined by Rivers. Willard was injured in a graveyard when under heavy fire parts of a gravestone were shot into his buttocks. While there is nothing preventing Willard from walking he insists that there is an injury to his spine.

Sassoon visits the Conservative Club with Rivers, who notices that Sassoon is depressed after learning of the deaths of two close friends. He realizes that it will not be difficult to convince Sassoon to continue fighting but does not want to force Sassoon because Rivers realizes that Sassoon will eventually want to return to the fight on his own.

Later Owen and Sassoon talk in Sassoon’s room. Sassoon gives Owen some poetry to publish in the hospital magazine The Hydra. In exchange for Owen publishing some of his own work Sassoon agrees to mentor Owen on his poetry.

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. Prior explains to Sarah how he has to censor the letters of soldiers before they are sent home. He is eager to return to France as he feels unable to relate to anyone back home – he feels as though only fellow soldiers understand his emotions and experiences. He and Sarah get caught in a storm and later have sex in a bush. On the train back to town Prior has an asthma attack.

Rivers, suffering from exhaustion, is ordered to take three weeks holiday from his work at Craiglockhart. As a storm sounds outside Sassoon and Owen work on poetry together. 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

Part III of the novel begins with Rivers attending church with his family. He contrasts the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac with the war where soldiers are sacrificing each other. This is an allusion to Wilfred Owen's "Parable of the Old Man and the Young"; Barker makes use of the poem's central metaphor and actually quotes its final line: "And half the seed of Europe, one by one."

Rivers recalls the visits of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, to his family home as a child.

Back at Craiglockhart Sassoon helps Owen draft one of his most famous poems, "Anthem for Doomed Youth."

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 it is right that Sassoon has the freedom to disagree with the war. However, Rivers realizes that it is his job to make Sassoon return to war. At the end of their conversation Head offers Rivers a top job in London. Although it is a career leap, Rivers is unsure whether he should take it.

Burns, who has since been discharged, 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 storm 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 experiences of war. 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 his decision but at the same time worries about what may happen to him there.

Part IV

Sarah tells her mother, Ada, about her relationship with Billy Prior. Ada scolds her daughter for having sex so soon in a relationship; she reminds Sarah that contraception is not always reliable (repeating a story that every tenth condom is purposely defective) and states 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 maintaining 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 leaves Sassoon feeling 'like a precipice on a country road.'

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, Lizzie replies that Betty is in the hospital seriously ill 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 theorizes that during wartime the authorities are particularly hard on homosexuality, wanting to clearly distinguish between the 'right' kind of love between men (loyalty, brotherhood, team spirit), which is beneficial to soldiers, and the 'wrong' kind (sexual).

The Board meets to review the cases of various soldiers and decide on their fitness for combat. They decide that Prior should have permanent home service due to his asthma. Prior breaks down at this news, fearing that he will be seen as a coward and ashamed that he will not be able to return to war and 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 behavior, 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 in Craiglockhart for Sassoon without Rivers or Owen there; Owen is deeply affected by his departure.

Rivers spends his last day saying goodbye to 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 curing these reluctant patients. In a horrifying scene Yealland demonstrates his brutal method of 'treatment' which is vastly different from Rivers' and which makes Rivers question whether he can work with such a man.

Sassoon is released for combat duty and Willard walks again. Anderson is given a staff job. Sassoon comments to Rivers that Owen’s feelings towards Sassoon may be something more than mere hero worship.

Rivers completes his notes, meditating on the effect that Sassoon, and the last few months, have had on him.



to treat patients and asks whether his methods are just as painful for his patients.

Billy Prior- Prior is one of the few 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's own dilemmas and insecurities. Prior is a working-class officer who has risen to the rank of lieutenant despite his background. He 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 his love interest in the novel, Sarah. In the later novels of the "Regeneration Trilogy" we learn of that Prior is a sexual predator and bisexual, but this is not apparent in the first novel.

David Burns - David Burns is another patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital, a fictionalised version of one of Rivers's real patients. Burns has been unable to eat after a bomb explosion forced him into the gas filled belly of a corpse, resulting in his digestion of the rotting flesh. Rivers describes the incident as turning the young officer who rose to the rank of captain into a "fossilized schoolboy".

"'- 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.

Willard - Willard is a patient who is paralyzed from the waist down. However, he regains his ability to walk by the end of the novel.

Henry Head - A friend of Rivers from their days at Cambridge, based on a real character. Together they worked on theories of nerve regeneration.

Bryce - Based on William H Bryce, the real-life commandant of Craiglockhart until 1917, Bryce in the novel is an undeveloped character and Rivers's boss.

Lizzie - A friend of Sarah Lumb. She is older than the other girls, and it is hinted that she was abused by her husband.

Charles Dodgson - Another real life character, the real name of Lewis Carroll, who is remembered by Rivers while thinking of his childhood.

Major themes


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 behavior 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 break 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 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 idea of a loss of masculinity runs throughout the novel. Anderson has dreams where he wears female corsets; Rivers contemplates the feminine qualities needed for his caring profession. Sassoon describes a male soldier who loses his genitals in a war accident and also contemplates the idea of an "intermediate sex". Rivers also remarks on the fact that soldiers serving in the trenches – confined, powerless, forced to do nothing for long stretches despite intense stress – suffer similar symptoms as do women during peace-time.


Parenthood is explored at several points during the novel. One is the caring relationship between Prior and the men under his command. Many patients also refer to Rivers as a father figure; one of River's former patients 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.

Freud in Regeneration

*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". [ [ Freud and War Neuroses: Pat Barker "Regeneration" ] ] 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.

Allusions/References to other works

*The real Rivers writes about Sassoon giving him the alias "Patient B" in his book "Conflict and Dreams"
*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. [ [ Edward Carpenter: The Intermediate Sex ] ]
*The women in the bar, including Sarah Lumb, are based on characters from a scene in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.
*Prior reads one of River's anthropological studies The Todas. [ [ W.H.R. Rivers: A Founding Father Worth Remembering ] ]
*Owen makes reference to Craiglockhart's publication The Hydra.
*Reference made to The Importance of Being Earnest character Lady Bracknell, and mentions the play's author, Oscar Wilde.

Pat Barker's views

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." [ [ Reusch (english) ] ]

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

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


External links

* [ Introduction to the novel]
* [ Notes on the plot]
* [ Sparknotes on Regeneration]
* [ An essay on Freud and War neuroses in Regeneration]
* [ A website with information on Craiglockhart hospital and the Regeneration novel]
* [ A BBC radio interview with Pat Barker on the subject of military hospitals] Audio File
* [ An interview with the author Pat Barker]
* [ A site giving some historical and critical context to the novel]
* [ An essay of masculinity in the Regeneration trilogy]
* [ Background information on the character of Rivers]
* [ A Lancet paper by Rivers]

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