Regeneration

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

The unusual thing about British novelist Pat Barker’s new book is that it manages to convey the horror of trench warfare during World War I without ever taking the reader to the battlefields in France. All the descriptions of shellings, futile charges into machine-gun fire, and piles of mutilated corpses are conveyed through the memories of hospitalized British officers who were unable to force themselves to go on. They suffer from nightmares, hysterical blindness, muscular paralysis, loss of speech, and other afflictions. These shattered men are seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Dr. William Rivers, who is one of several historical personages to appear in this work of fiction.

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Another character who was a real person is the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who caused a public uproar in July of 1917 by publishing a short article titled “A Soldier’s Declaration,” which began with the words: “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

Sassoon’s case became a cause celebre because a great deal of antiwar sentiment had been aroused in Great Britain by the horrific casualties in the stalemated trench warfare in France. The military authorities did not want to court-martial Sassoon, who was an aristocrat as well as a war hero; instead, they sent him to Rivers as “mentally unsound.” The loosely structured plot revolves around Rivers’ efforts to persuade Sassoon to return to duty.

Ironically, when Rivers succeeds in “curing” the idealistic poet of his nonexistent affliction and sending him back into battle, it is Rivers himself who is left with grave doubts about the sanity of carrying on with the internecine war.

A third real-life personage who appears in this work of fiction is the poet Wilfred Owen, who becomes friends with Sassoon while hospitalized for shell shock. Owen, who was later killed in action, is best known for his pacifist poetry, and in one interesting scene, based on fact, Sassoon helps with the revision of one of Owen’s best-known poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (1917), which begins with the lines: “What passing bells for these who die like cattle?/—Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”

REGENERATION is a beautifully written, highly distinctive novel about a topsy-turvy world in which the lunatics are running things while the sane men are all locked up in mental wards.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXVIII, April 15, 1992, p. 1500.

Boston Globe. April 12, 1992, p. 44.

Library Journal. CXVII, March 1, 1992, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 12, 1992, p. 6.

New Statesman and Society. IV, May 31, 1991, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, March 29, 1992, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, August 10, 1992, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 20, 1992, p. 46.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 24, 1992, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, March 29, 1992, p. 12.

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