Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1810
In many respects The Eye in the Door is a sequel to Pat Barker’s 1992 novel Regeneration. Barker found the sources for both novels in accounts of the lives of two historical figures—the famous antiwar poet Siegfried Sassoon and William Rivers, a neurologist who treated soldiers who had returned from the front in World War I. The real Rivers actually worked at Craiglockhart, a hospital in Scotland, and he did treat Sassoon there in 1917 and in London in 1918. Barker’s imagination transforms these historical sources and creates complex literary characters who interact with one another and with a variety of wholly imagined characters. One of the imagined characters in Regeneration was Billy Prior, who suffered from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. He was discharged from the hospital and assigned to permanent home service. Sassoon was discharged to active duty in November, 1917. The Eye in the Door continues Barker’s exploration of their lives and adds Charles Manning, an officer wounded in France and now suffering panic attacks. Prior is Rivers’ patient in his London clinic, and Sassoon appears late in the novel when he is sent to an American Red Cross hospital in London after suffering a minor head wound at the front. Rivers is called in by Sassoon’s attending physician because of recurring symptoms of emotional distress.
In Regeneration her focus was on the psychological impact of war on the combatants. The horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder are made vivid by the soldiers’ nightmares and flashbacks. In The Eye in the DoorBarker broadens her approach to include an indictment of repression and paranoia on the home front. The issues she raises reflect the contradictions and incongruities that are the basis of people’s lives in a country at war.
Billy Prior’s psychological crisis dominates The Eye in the Door. After successful treatment at Craiglockhart, Prior is discharged and sent to London to work in an intelligence unit in the Ministry of Munitions. There he investigates the activities of notorious pacifists. The woman he is sent to interview in a prison outside London is Beattie Roper, an elderly woman with whom he lived for a year when he was a small child. Her daughter, Hettie, was one of his closest friends. Prior’s return to his roots forces him to address the question of his allegiance—to the people he grew up with and to his country.
When Prior interviews Beattie, he begins to suspect that she was framed. He knows that she is a pacifist who hides deserters and helps provide them safe passage to Ireland. She is in prison, however, because she has been implicated in a plot to assassinate the prime minister. Actually, she had no part in such a plot: An informant, Lionel Spragge, hired by the Ministry of Munitions, altered the facts to implicate her. Why this need to imprison an old woman for life? Prior suspects that the Ministry of War has made Beattie a scapegoat. She will be a lesson to others. Clearly, Beattie is not under the control of German spies or other agents of a secret British organization. Her allegiance is to her children and to the young men she believes should not be sent to die in the trenches of France. In a time of war, however, governments will not tolerate any actions that may be construed as attacks upon the established order. Everyone must be on the same side; thus Beattie is sacrificed to “the cause.”
Another instance of the government’s repression is its treatment of homosexuals during the war. Certain people within the War Ministry believed that gays and lesbians were part of an intricate German plot to undermine the foundations of British culture and the British government. One of the people most afraid of exposure is Charles Manning. He returned from the front with a severely damaged knee and knows that he will never be sent back to the trenches. Still, he has repeated flashbacks of horrific scenes, and he suffers from panic attacks. Manning is happily married, and he loves his children, but he also has a secret life as a gay man. He has come to accept that part of his identity, but he is vulnerable because his homosexuality defines him as a pervert and as a criminal. He is terrified that someone will turn him in.
The fears that are provoked when paranoia and repression hold sway are evoked by the guiding metaphor of the novel, the eye in the door. In the prison cells that hold war deserters and pacifists there is a literal eye on the door; that is, around the circular opening of the keyhole is a painting of a realistic eye. The eye suggests that someone is always watching the imprisoned person. Who is watching? The guards? The State? God? One’s conscience? A spy? Billy Prior first encounters the eye in the door when he visits Beattie Roper in her prison cell. At first he is disconcerted by this crude metaphor; then he is deeply troubled by it. He even has a nightmare about the eye in the door. What does the metaphor mean? Certainly it represents the power of the government to spy on its citizens, to oppress those whose viewpoints do not conform to the “party line.” The eye in the door also may refer to the fear felt by people like Manning, who are oppressed in a society that condemns homosexuality as a crime and a perversion.
The metaphor of the eye in the door is given another meaning in Prior’s psychological crisis. After visiting Roper in prison, Prior meets her daughter Hettie and an old childhood friend, Paddy MacDowell, who is a deserter. Days later, Prior discovers that there are gaps in his experience that he cannot recall. Some gaps are thirty minutes long; some are as long as three or four hours. Eventually he realizes that he has multiple personalities. He fears that a shadow self is controlling him. Perhaps his shadow self is a monster, a Mr. Hyde. Perhaps Prior has murdered someone and does not even know it.
In the headnote to the novel, Barker quotes The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson. In that novel Dr. Jekyll learns that his character is intimately related to the character of his shadow self. For Prior the “eye in the door” represents his fear that his shadow self is a cruel, sadistic force watching his every move and dominating his life. In one of his nightmares he strikes at the eye in the door with a knife, as if to destroy a part of himself that is monstrous.
Fortunately for Prior, Rivers is able to assist him in resolving these fears. Late in the novel Prior’s alter ego confronts Rivers and claims to know everything about Billy Prior. He maintains that he is superior to Prior because he feels no fear and feels no pain. Eventually Rivers discerns that this personality is called forth by Prior in the face of overwhelming traumatic events. The logic of Prior’s unconscious is absolute: If he cannot stand the pain or fear, his other personality will bear it for him. Prior began resorting to this safety valve in order to cope with horrifying experiences in the war. Actually, he has called forth this personality before, when he was a child and felt helplessness and anxiety when his father brutalized his mother. Through therapy he learns that his shadow self is neither evil nor sadistic.
Throughout the novel Rivers struggles to help the men in his care overcome the demons that control their lives. When Manning’s panic attacks persist, Rivers hospitalizes him and provides aggressive therapy to help him face the horrors of life in the trenches. In reliving his story and admitting a terrible deed, a “mercy killing” of a young recruit, Manning begins to free himself from another “eye in the door”—his self-imposed guilt and anxiety.
The third character who faces a psychological crisis is Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon and Rivers are the most complex characters in the novel. Their interactions are subtle, challenging, and deeply felt. It is evident that they are fond of each other. Sassoon sees Rivers as his father confessor, someone who can rescue him from his guilt and anxiety. Rather like Prior, Sassoon found that the only way he could survive at the front was to split his consciousness into two parts—one a gung-ho commander, the other a loving father-figure. Now he tells Rivers he fears that he will not be able to save all of the men in his care.
Rivers understands Sassoon’s dilemma. In some respects he faces a similar crisis himself. His role is analogous to a company commander on the Western Front. He heals patients so that—in many cases—they can be sent back to fight again. His fate is the same as Manning’s, Prior’s, and Sassoon’s: These officers have witnessed unspeakable slaughter, but their job is to send men over the tops of the trenches again and again. Neither Rivers nor the officers can do anything to save the young men running into the line of fire. These contradictory and irreconcilable truths are at the core of the madness of war and the psychological disabilities felt by men in war.
How to resolve this dilemma? Rivers notes that in time of war the love between men is glorified in order to form community among the troops, but this arouses anxiety because of society’s fears of homosexuality and deviance. Finally, he concludes, his allegiance is to the men in his care, just as the allegiance of the company commanders is to the men in their care. In both cases, the feelings of love for those in one’s care is a vital and positive force against the brutality of war.
Regeneration and The Eye in the Door are companion novels, best read in order. The latter completes the stories that were introduced in the former. In both novels Barker conveys the sense that war is an all-encompassing experience that is impossible to communicate to anyone who has not experienced it, and perhaps too overwhelming to be understood by those who have experienced it. In some respects they are classic antiwar novels, because they admit to the ambiguities and complexities of the individual’s and the society’s responses to war.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. May 22, 1994, XIV, p. 1.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, March 15, 1994, p. 317.
Library Journal. April 15, 1994, p. 108.
London Review of Books. XV, October 21, 1993, p. 22.
New Statesman and Society. VI, September 10, 1993, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, May 15, 1994, p. 9.
The New Yorker. LXX, September 5, 1994, p. 111.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 14, 1994, p. 63.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 10, 1993, p. 21.
The Washington Post. May 20, 1994, p. C2.
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