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Pat Barker's Regeneration offers insights into what the lives of her "characters," most real-life figures, might have been like. Utilizing the actual poetry penned by the characters in the story, the distinction between fiction and reality becomes blurred. It is the power of that poetry, however, that lends Regeneration its greatest emotional depth.
Regeneration is about the effects of war on the psyche of those sent to fight. It is about the intrinsic complexity involved in dealing with emotional issues rather than the clearly visible and irrefutable physical disabilities like amputated limbs that unquestionably attest to the inability of a wounded soldier to return to the front lines. In addition, one is confronted by the political ramifications of acknowledging the mental toll war takes on soldiers. In one passage, the Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a figure closely based on the real-life individual of the same name, contemplates the difficulties of reconciling the mental toll of war on the political agendas driving it:
“And as soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue."
That sentence also suggests the theme of Regeneration. The mental wounds suffered by soldiers are every bit as debilitating as the physical wounds, and decisions to send "recovered" patients back to combat are morally deprived.
Among the novel's characters, in addition to Rivers, the psychiatrist who treats the convalescing patients, and who struggles daily with the question of whether to send these soldiers back to combat even when he knows they are physically capable, there is Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, also a real-life figure, is a poet whose war-time service results in his being sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital, and whose rumination on war and mentoring of Wilfred Owens (another real-life poet who fought in the war) results in the latter's growing emotional dependence on him. Sassoon, unlike the other "walking wounded" in Craiglockhart, is less "shell-shocked" than depressed about the scale of death and suffering he has witnessed, depression compounded when he learns of the deaths of two of his friends back in France. He was dispatched to the mental institution because his anti-war views ran counter to the prevailing wisdom.
Wilfred Owens is younger and more impressionable than his new mentor, Sassoon, and is more deeply affected by what he has witnessed and endured in the trenches. With Sassoon as his mentor, Owen develops his poetry, which unsurprisingly is heavily focused on the horrors of the war. [Owen's death in the war -- he was killed one week before the war's end -- provides the novel its most melancholy element.]
Billy Prior is a fictional character. Arriving at the hospital a mute, his condition becomes associated less with any physical ailment than with a desire to isolate himself from the realities of the war. Prior's attempts at human contact with Sarah is a thread running throughout the novel.
Robert Graves, another real-life figure, is Sassoon's friend in whom he confides, who shares Sassoon's anti-war views, and who attempts to extricate his friend from the entire affair.
David Burns is a fictional character and a deeply mentally wounded soldier who has lost his ability to digest food as a result of a the impact of a bomb explosion sending him into the rotting, contaminated corpse of a fellow soldier.
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