Literature Study GuidesRegenerationPart 1 Chapters 1 3 Summary

Regeneration | Study Guide

Pat Barker

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Regeneration | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Chapter 1

Chapter 1 begins with Siegfried Sassoon's open letter, or Declaration, opposing World War I. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a well-known psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, Scotland, is reading the letter, which its author admits is a "willful defiance of military authority." The letter says soldiers are being sacrificed for an "evil and unjust" war. Sassoon is a well-known poet who was a military officer in France. His Declaration had been published in a British newspaper. The military has decided to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart for "treatment" of mental instability rather than respond to or allow wider publication of his anti-war Declaration.

Rivers wonders if Sassoon is, indeed, shell-shocked, or suffering from stress because of his war experiences. Rivers discusses the case with Dr. Bryce, another Craiglockhart psychiatrist. Bryce is worried about the publicity the hospital will get when Sassoon arrives. As Rivers is aware, by claiming Sassoon is "suffering from a severe mental breakdown," the military does not have to take his anti-war letter seriously. Rivers tells Bryce he'll accept Sassoon as a patient.

Sassoon is on the train heading for Craiglockhart. He had expected to meet his friend the writer Robert Graves, but Graves never shows up. Sassoon cannot stop thinking about Graves. Sassoon remembers telling Graves he wrote his Declaration to publicize his opposition to the war. He hopes the anti-war letter will lead to his court-martial. Sassoon wants a court-martial because it will further publicize his anti-war message and, he hopes, turn the public against the war.

Sassoon recalls an earlier trip to the seaside with Graves, where they discussed Sassoon's Declaration. At the time Graves warned Sassoon the military might have him locked up "in a lunatic asylum" to shut him up. Sassoon is fearful as he remembers his awful hallucinations of corpses. Graves implores Sassoon to realize the military will never court-martial him, because they don't want the publicity it would generate for his anti-war ideas.

Rivers waits for Sassoon at the hospital. He reads the citation on the medal Sassoon received for his bravery in battle. He wonders why Sassoon has thrown the medal away. Rivers thinks about Sassoon's true state of mental health. Rivers is a bit uneasy because "he wanted Sassoon to be ill" to avoid court-martial. He thinks about how he might treat Sassoon if the letter is purely a statement of his conscience and principles and not a manifestation of mental disturbance. Sassoon arrives at the hospital in a taxi.

Chapter 2

Rivers is meeting with Sassoon for the first time. He notes Sassoon has no outward signs of trauma such as tics or a stammer. Sassoon tells him, rather sardonically, his Medical Board review was rigged. Rivers says that's a serious charge and asks Sassoon to describe the questions he was asked at his Board hearing. Sassoon admits he'd told the Board he no longer dislikes Germans—the enemy in the war. This is an enormous change; after a friend was killed in battle, Sassoon went out into No Man's Land either looking for German soldiers to kill or hoping the Germans would kill him.

Sassoon describes some of his more horrific war experiences. Then he describes his nightmares and hallucinations, horrors he sees in his dreams and when he awakes. Once he saw Piccadilly—a famous square in London—"covered in corpses." He sees "men with half their faces shot off, crawling across the floor." Sassoon is not sure if he's shell-shocked. Sassoon then tells Rivers he's not a pacifist; he believes some wars may be justified, but this one is not. Nothing, he says, can "justify this level of slaughter." During questioning by Rivers, Sassoon admits that the dislike he once felt for Germans he now feels for the complacent civilians who prosecute the war but do not make any sacrifices for it.

Sassoon and Rivers discuss the Board's arrangement to send Sassoon to the hospital to prevent him from publicizing his Declaration in a court-martial. Sassoon explains he threw away his medal because he was upset about the war. Rivers says Sassoon is not mad or insane; he just has a "very powerful anti-war neurosis." It's a joke, and they both laugh.

Later Rivers sits with Bryce, his fellow psychiatrist, at dinner, and he tells Bryce he can find nothing wrong with Sassoon, whom he likes. Sassoon, Rivers says, just wants "some kind of limitation on the [war and killing]."

Sassoon is in the dining hall too, but at a different table. He cannot talk with his table-mates because they stammer so badly. He remembers a particularly harrowing day during the war when mortar bombs fell on the trenches. A man at his table, Ralph Anderson, RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), asks Sassoon if he plays golf. Sassoon responds with an enthusiastic yes. They arrange to play one day soon. Then a commotion starts as a soldier begins choking and vomiting. He's hurried out of the dining hall.

Rivers leaves the dining hall to see to the choking victim, David Burns, who is in bed and being cleaned up by VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurses. Burns is emaciated, and Rivers puts his arms around him to calm him down. Burns's experience of falling into the distended, exploding body of a dead German soldier has rendered him unable to eat or sleep normally. Rivers offers to put a bowl of fruit in Burns's room, and Burns accepts.

Rivers leaves Burns and goes to an outdoor tower at the hospital. He contemplates the ways men like Burns deal with "unbearable experiences." Burns relives his war terror each night and at each meal. Rivers recognizes that Burns's "suffering was without purposes or dignity."

Chapter 3

Sassoon greets Robert Graves when he arrives at the hospital. After he settles in, Graves meets with Rivers. They discuss Sassoon's condition and the awkward, even dangerous, position he's in with the military brass. Graves admits to being horrified by Sassoon's Declaration, and he worries Sassoon wants to "destroy himself." Graves admits he rigged the Board decision to have Sassoon sent to the mental hospital for a "nervous breakdown" rather than have him face a more dire punishment. And after all, Sassoon is ill with nightmares and hallucinations. Getting Sassoon admitted for a nervous disorder was rather a feat, Graves explains, because some of the Board members did not believe in the existence of shell-shock. But because Sassoon was such a fine officer—he nearly received a VC, or Victoria Cross medal, for his valor—they sent him to Craiglockhart. Graves admits he agrees with Sassoon's opposition to the war—at least "in theory." Graves wonders if Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938, an aristocratic patron of the arts) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970, a philosopher and sometime pacifist) influenced Sassoon's decision to oppose the war and publish his Declaration. Graves is not worried about himself; he thinks he'll be able to go home to Litherland, a town near Liverpool, England.

After Graves leaves, Rivers opens the envelope Graves had given him. It contains three of Sassoon's anti-war poems. The first describes the horrors of trench warfare and the agony of wounded soldiers. The second, titled "The General," castigates the powerful men, the "incompetent swine" who perpetuate the war. The third poem, "To the Warmongers," describes the horrific memories of the dead and dying Sassoon will carry with him throughout his life. Rivers is surprised the poems deal with remembering the war. Most soldiers at Craiglockhart repress the memories of their war experiences. Rivers's job as a doctor as he sees it is instead to help traumatized soldiers remember these repressed war memories. Rivers realizes he'll have to approach Sassoon's treatment differently. Rivers wonders if writing the Declaration had a somewhat healing effect on Sassoon.

As he starts his rounds Rivers runs into Campbell, a soldier who's gotten Sassoon as a roommate. Campbell asks Rivers if Sassoon is a German spy because of his first name—Siegfried. Rivers reassures him he's not.


Sassoon's Declaration in opposition to World War I opens the novel and expresses his conviction that the war is inhumane, "evil and unjust," and perpetuated by powerful men who benefit from it. Sassoon knows the soldiers who sacrifice their bodies, minds, and lives are doing their duty, but they are paying in blood for the "political errors" made by the warmongers. Sassoon has written the Declaration because he could no longer ignore his conscience, which forces him to protest strongly and publicly against the slaughter.

The military Board exercises its power by locking Sassoon away in something akin to a "lunatic asylum" to silence him. Sassoon, a well-known published poet, is denied the power of self-expression because he might persuade others to oppose the war. The military Board is determined to suppress Sassoon's statement of principle and to use their power to propagandize in favor of their war. Sassoon feels it is his duty to use his limited power as a well-known poet to try to end it. The Board was "going to certify" Sassoon as insane, which might have kept him in an asylum for the duration of the war. Yet Rivers recognizes Sassoon's Declaration "was motivated less by a desire to save his own sanity than by a determination to convince civilians that the war was mad." The Declaration was principled, not self-aggrandizing.

The inhumanity of the war leads inevitably to the trauma the soldiers endure. This is evident in the experiences remembered by Sassoon and repressed by David Burns. Sassoon's visions and Burns's disabilities arise from their war experiences. Both men—like all the soldiers being treated at Craiglockhart—are experiencing shell-shock, which was the term for such trauma at the time. Graves's experience testifying for Sassoon before the Board confirmed the military's indifference to the soldiers' trauma: "I got the impression they didn't believe in shell-shock at all. As far as they were concerned, it was just cowardice." Rivers, however, assures Sassoon that "hallucinations in the half-waking state are surprisingly common ... [are] not the same thing as psychotic hallucinations." Rivers exhibits compassionate understanding of the symptoms of trauma, or "war neurosis," something the military brass seem unwilling to do.

Sassoon's Declaration is the clearest statement of conscience and principle in the novel. Sassoon is well aware the Declaration could be dangerous for him. Yet he is determined to face the consequences of his outspokenness. He had to write the Declaration because his conscience no longer permitted him to ignore the agony and outrage of this misguided war. He heeded his conscience and acted on principle to do something he hoped might help end the fighting and the needless suffering it caused.

Sassoon strengthens his principled stand when he says he's not a pacifist. He's impelled to act and speak out because "this [war doesn't] ... justify this level of slaughter." Limiting his opposition to this particular war shows that Sassoon's Declaration is based on principle and conscience, not on seeking publicity or "conscientious objector" status. The latter would label Sassoon a dishonorable coward.

The other main character, Rivers, is conflicted by duty and conscience. Throughout the book he struggles with two opposing forces: his compassion for the soldiers in his care and his duty as a military doctor and officer. Sassoon presents a particularly difficult case because he wants to be court-martialed to publicize his views, but Rivers's job is to cure him so he can go back to the front. Rivers's conscience and principles are constantly challenged by the requirements and expectations of his professional position.

Graves brings up another aspect of principle and doing one's duty in the war. He agrees with Sassoon's assessment of the war but insists "You can still speak up for your principles ... but in the end you do the job." Graves's attitude raises several questions. What is the good of "speaking up for your principles" if the speech is suppressed because those in power don't like the principles? Further, if duty always trumps principles—which can be mentioned but not acted on—what is the point of having them?

When Rivers puts his arms around the terribly distressed Burns, he is, in effect, challenging the prevailing attitudes toward manliness. Rivers is not afraid to show compassion and caring to another man, even if most British men of the time would condemn such behavior. But Rivers is a man whose empathy and compassion live near the surface, and he easily and unselfconsciously expresses these feelings when soldiers are in need of comfort.

The symbol of the color yellow appears here. Burns is described as a "thin, yellow-skinned man." The yellow color comes from exposure to the chemicals in TNT, an explosive used in World War I. Yet the color yellow also represents cowardice when applied to soldiers. The color also references the determination of military brass to define shell-shock, or trauma, as cowardice, as revealing the soldier as a coward or yellow-belly.

Sassoon's first poem uses the image of trenches to express the indifferent and cruel power of the military. An officer strides through a tunnel until he trips over a huddled soldier in the dirt. He kicks the soldier to awaken him ("Wake up, you sod!") but then sees the horrible face of the long-dead soldier. The connection between trenches and death is clear. They do not shelter the men as much as they imprison them in the struggle and often hold them there long after death. It is a particular horror to encounter death in the midst of one's own life, unthinkingly.

The second poem, "The General," refers to the powerful men—the "incompetent swine"—who started the war and who are determined to see it continue. The general is so deluded or indifferent he "smiles [at] the soldiers ... most of them dead." The poem refers to Arras, a bloody battle in France in April 1917 between the British and Germans.

"The General" references Sassoon's idea about the "old men," those in power who sit comfortably at home, promote the war, and callously ignore the suffering they cause. Sassoon says they are the men who "sit around in clubs cackling on about 'attrition' and 'wastage of manpower.'" Sassoon is contemptuous of these soft, safe, and complacent warmongers, saying, "You don't talk like that if you've watched [soldiers] die."

The third of Sassoon's poems, "To the Warmongers," is a rhyming anti-war poem that unflinchingly describes the trauma of the battlefield and the writer's experiences there. Its imagery is of horror, pain, and trauma. Yet the last stanza is ironic in its description of the dead as emblematic of glory and pride; that's how the warmongers who have never been there view them. Sassoon punctures that callous viewpoint by revealing that he cannot glorify the carnage: "the wounds in my heart are red,/ For I have watched them die."

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