We all have those moments when we run away from our problems. Some may try to skip a school day in order to miss a test, while others try to hide themselves to avoid being picked to openly discuss a topic in front of the class. Although we try to run away from the problems we face in our lives, the only way to solve the problem is to embrace it. Pat Barker reveals this theme not only to our general lives but to those of soldiers facing war neurosis in WWI. Her novel, Regeneration, portrays the various characters’ struggles with combating the effects of war neurosis at the psych ward, Craiglockhart.
Through escape, homosexuality, and the striving for masculinity, the responses of three major characters, Siegfried Sassoon, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, and Billy Prior, are examined to show their struggles toward the traumas of World War I. Each character emphasizes the need to escape from their war neurosis close to and upon arriving at Craiglockhart. “The social environment determines how [each character] will cope with trauma”(Vickroy). Sassoon and Prior’s trauma initially begins in France while Dr. Rivers’ begins at Craiglockhart. Siegfried Sassoon escapes through his avid interest in poetry.
Sassoon is able to relate his own feelings in a manner unlike any other way. Being a respected platoon commander in France, Sassoon has much responsibility. As a leader, he must show dignity and strength. He forces himself not to succumb to crying and weeping in the trenches at night because he believes he is the only thing holding his men together. He finds that through poetry, he is able to release his frustrations. Sassoon is able to “repress his emotions about the war”(Harris). The anxieties of running away from the horrors he witnessed in France become lessened through the use of poetry.
He is able to channel his feelings of anger and frustration in his nightmares away through the use of poetry (Smith). Although he says he still dreams, his nightmares eventually go away. By defining his horrors with flowing, descriptive words in poetry, Sassoon embraces and accepts the horrific events that took place during his time in France. Essentially, Dr. Rivers is similar to Sassoon. He is a very patient, caring, and emotionally strong man. He is able to constantly counsel and help his patients, but as time passes with more patients entering Craiglockhart, he falls into a state of subjectivity.
He starts to see every day as a challenge. He comes to feel subservient to his patients’ needs. “For Rivers the situation often feels impossible and even immoral” (Monteith, xviii). Dr. Rivers sees so many difficulties in trying to help all of his patients. After so many hours with so many patients, Rivers begins to develop his own, obvious stutter. He states, “I already stammer and I’m starting to twitch” (Barker, 203). Rivers feels the cause of this is his subjectivity to Sassoon. In his dedication to helping Sassoon, he feels, he has changed himself (Mukherjee).
Dr. River’s position becomes one in which he is “both the jury and the judge” (Mukherjee). Rivers tries to escape his situation when he vacations with one of his former patients as a checkup. There he is unable to escape from his problem of subjectivity. But he does embrace the situation there. He attempts to help Burns as a friend and a doctor. Contrasting River’s ability to ultimately embrace his situation, Billy Prior comes to Craiglockhart with a loss of speech due to his traumatic experiences. He neglects his problems through dissociation.
Prior is able to dissociate from his own “awareness to avoid pain” (Vickroy). He limits himself to only writing on a pad to communicate. His dissociation, too, causes Prior to back himself into his mind. Priors dreams are extraordinarily clear as he dreams of himself holding a fellow soldier’s eye, named Towers, in his hand. The hole in the eye represents “a hole in reality for him”, and “his narcissistic integrity is shattered” (Mukherjee). Prior struggles to get away from these dreams and society. He feels no civilian in Britain can relate to the experiences he has witnessed.
He tries to shut himself farther from the people in his life. Pat Barker shows this dissociation by making Prior’s inner character hostile to everything in his surroundings. In that case, trying to escape from a problem or a situation causes more problems to develop. Through their struggles with war neurosis, men find themselves facing the problem of showing homosexual feelings and expressing an effeminate status. Sassoon’s homosexual feelings really come into play when he is on active duty in France. The comradeship formed from the war causes Sassoon’s more han special bond to form. Through every moment of their lives, he is always with them during the war, leading them. He comes to care so much for his fellow troops that he converts to pacifism. This thinking of mind allows Sassoon to further care for his own men. He wants war to stop so that his men will be spared from death. Sassoon’s pacifism is affected by his contemplation of his sexuality with Robert Graves (Axtell). Though when they are not in sexual agreement, Sassoon works to renew his poetry and his homosexuality which is later formed from his comradeship with Owen.
While at a time when he is supposed to be a father figure, Dr. Rivers eventually finds himself portraying a motherly figure to his patients. Rivers is told by one of his patients, “I don’t see you as a father, you know, more sort of a . . . male mother” (Barker , 140). Rivers harbors great distaste for this comment, but comes to find that it is true. By noticing himself inherit Sassoon’s pacifism, and become more caring and close to his patients, Rivers ultimately starts to resent representing a male mother figure. Barker presents Rivers as a mother by relating his character.
He is always there for his men in the middle of the night, just like a mother is for her newborn baby. Dr. Rivers is unhappy portraying a figure he does not want to represent and struggles with finding his own masculinity. As Sassoon and Dr. Rivers face their own problems, Prior faces problems of dissociation upon re-entering into British society. Through the dissociation that Prior presents, he becomes angry and hostile to the civilians of Britain for not comprehending the actual horrific events that were happening. Victims are unable to relate their feelings to the “uninitiated and unsympathetic” people back home (Mukherjee).
This causes Prior to have conflicts with individualism. With increased dissociation and individualism, he shows homosexual traits. But Prior is changed when he meets Sarah Lumb. He handles her with hostility, but is yet so gentle with her at first. “There is always a need for impromptu sexual behavior in soldiers” (Mukherjee) that is shown in the relationship that he forms with her. He contemplates the social ignorance of war events with his homosexuality against his need for sexual behavior with his heterosexuality. With this “Prior flaunts social mores through active bisexuality” (Mukherjee).
Prior struggles with being pulled in both directions. Pat Barker shows the breakdown of men through war experiences (Harris). Though there is breakdown among men internally, war in a broader sense is often seen as very masculine and Pat Barker plays off how Sassoon, Dr. Rivers, and Prior try to act out their masculinity to hide their homosexual and effeminate feelings. Sassoon works to combat the exposure of his homosexuality by appealing as a masculine leader to his troops. ” ‘Masculinity in 1918 was manifested in two ways – – in heterosexuality and in war’ ” (Harris).
After witnessing the horrifying events, the everyday state of being emotionally masculine becomes too hard for Sassoon. He tries to cover up his pacifist action of “publicly calling for a peace settlement” (Harris). Unless covered up, Sassoon would face even further problems with his reputation. It is inferred that Sassoon’s great interest in military parade is used to cover up what people think about him. He “exercises ‘self-control’ in his attempts to repress his emotions about the war” (Harris). In a way similar to Sassoon, Dr. Rivers, after being seen as a male mother, becomes more sensitive to his underlying problem. Rivers is changed by his slight conversion to pacifism, but still wants to be more of a father figure. When Rivers lectures Sassoon on how he should “quit being a coward and go back to the front” (Axtell), he is trying to get Sassoon to man up. But at the same time, Dr. Rivers tries to get himself to man up in a sort of way to hide his effeminate status as a male mother. Ultimately, Rivers’ reasons for leaving Craiglockhart are so he can re-establish himself as a father figure for patients to look up to again.
In a different way compared to Sassoon and Rivers, Billy Prior loses much of his masculinity when he starts dissociating himself upon arriving. “Barker’s patriarchal constructions of masculinity colonize men’s subjectivity” (Mukherjee). Prior works to do the opposite of this. He tries to achieve the patriarchal constructions of masculinity through men’s subjectivity. Prior feels he is not secure when not in control of the situation and must regain control to regain his masculinity. Therefore, he has a constant need for control, and when in control is a fierce soldier. Prior’s narration of when e took charge and led his men straight into death is found by him to be what being masculine is about (Harris). For Prior, masculinity is found through authority. In all three major characters, masculinity is very important for covering up an individual’s problems. Barker’s theme of “love between men during war” with such “horrific events” is caused by running away from problems (Axtell). By examining Sassoon, Dr. Rivers, and Prior, the struggle to embrace problems is relevant. And in regards to our world today, difficulties arise because of a reluctance to embrace and solve our original problems.