Literature Study GuidesRegenerationPart 1 Chapters 4 5 Summary

Regeneration | Study Guide

Pat Barker

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Regeneration | Part 1, Chapters 4–5 | Summary



Chapter 4

Rivers is listening to his patient Anderson, a surgeon, describe his terrible and strange nightmares. Anderson tells Rivers he can no longer abide the sight of blood. His horror of blood began in France when he failed to notice and treat a serious wound on a mud-covered French soldier. The soldier bled to death. Anderson is seriously concerned not only about his traumatic nightmares but about how he will make a living for himself and his family. How can he be a doctor when he can't stand the sight of blood? Rivers attempts to analyze Anderson's nightmares, hoping he can free Anderson from his fear and enable him to practice medicine again. Anderson's hospitalization and his questionable future compromise his sense of manhood and so complicate his future.

Sassoon and Graves go for a swim in the hospital pool. Graves notices Sassoon's scarred shoulder, and Sassoon sees the shrapnel wound high on Graves's thigh. As he swims, Sassoon thinks Graves is luckier than another soldier in a hospital who'd been wounded in the groin.

Rivers returns to his room to find Sassoon waiting for him. Sassoon has slept well. The pair discuss Graves's role in having Sassoon sent to Craiglockhart. Sassoon feels Graves overemphasized Sassoon's mental breakdown to get him sent to the hospital. Sassoon feels that emphasizing his breakdown allows Graves not to do anything about the war that he, too, opposes.

Sassoon compares himself to Richard Dadd, a painter who murdered his father—one of the powerful men he thought "deserved to die." Sassoon discusses his childhood and youth, explaining how his father and brother died. He describes a privileged but lonely childhood. Rivers asks Sassoon why he "joined up on the first day," and Sassoon explains how enthusiastic he was about the war in 1914. During their talk Rivers realizes Sassoon "can't bear to be safe," which somewhat embarrasses Sassoon. Rivers says that if Sassoon keeps up his protest he may be kept safe in England for the duration of the war and he "might find being safe while other people die rather difficult." Sassoon replies angrily, "Nobody else in this stinking country seems to find it difficult. I expect I'll learn to live with it."

Outside, it's a rainy day, but Burns takes the bus into Edinburgh anyway. He gets off in the countryside and walks through a ploughed field. As he reaches the crest of a hill he realizes he should find shelter from the rain. But the mud on the field drags at his footsteps, reminding him of the mud in combat. He sits and rests under a tree. He starts walking again and brushes against something slimy that scares him. He sees it's a dead mole hanging from a tree branch. Burns looks up and sees the whole tree covered with suspended dead animals "in various stages of decay." In panic Burns runs from the tree and back into the field. As he runs, he hears Rivers's voice tell him "If you run now, you'll never stop." So Burns turns back toward the death-bedecked tree. Slowly he unties each dead bird and small mammal from the tree. He arranges their small corpses in a circle on the ground around him, and he sits in the circle's center. He thinks they all can naturally dissolve into the earth. When he realizes he's dressed—and thus denied this natural decaying—Burns takes off his clothes. He remains seated in the center of the circle as it gets darker and colder.

Burns's long absence from the hospital raises concerns among the staff. Rivers and Bryce even consider calling the police to conduct a search. But at six o'clock in the evening Burns returns, "trailing mud, twigs, and dead leaves." A nurse sees Burns entering his room. She scolds him but gets hot water for his bath. Before he can bathe, Burns starts to fall asleep. He thinks of the wood and himself circled by the dead animals. "There is no reason to go back," he thinks. "[I] could stay here [Craiglockhart] forever."

When Burns wakes up, Rivers is sitting by his bed. Rivers does not scold Burns for disappearing; he's only glad he came back. Burns realizes he'd come back to the hospital for this—for Rivers and his empathy.

Chapter 5

Rivers makes his nightly rounds and meets Prior, a new patient who has terrible nightmares and is mute. Rivers finds Prior lying on his bed reading. When Rivers questions him about his nightmares, Prior answers in the only way he can—by writing his reply in large capital letters on a notepad. Prior claims not to remember his nightmares. There is nothing wrong with Prior physically, so Rivers knows his muteness arises from trauma. Rivers tries to engage Prior by writing, but eventually Prior gets disgusted and writes, "NO MORE WORDS."

Sassoon is at the train station where Graves is about to leave. Sassoon admits he's frightened about coming so close to a complete mental breakdown. Sassoon leaves Graves and begins walking back to Craiglockhart. He finds he hates every civilian he passes on the street. As he leaves Edinburgh and strolls along the bucolic lanes back to the hospital, Sassoon is reminded of the battlefront in Arras, France. Everything had been destroyed by bombing. It was, he thinks, a Golgotha, the place where Jesus Christ was crucified, whose desolation was unimaginable. Sassoon then realizes that what Rivers had said about his hating safety was wrong. Some part of Sassoon longs for safety and delights in the comforts of the hospital.

At the end of a long day, Rivers gets ready for his nightly bath. As the bath fills, Rivers wonders what to do with Prior, whose terrible nightmares keep his roommate sleepless. Once immersed in the bath, Rivers becomes suddenly furious at the "overcrowding and the endless permutations of people" at Craiglockhart. Before he goes to bed, Rivers thinks Sassoon is wrong to attribute selfish motives to those who support the war. Rivers must support the war effort because of his job, but he'd selfishly prefer to be back at university doing research.

Rivers awakens early from a startling nightmare, which he writes down as soon as he's awake. The nightmare is about research he'd done on Henry Head when they were at Cambridge University. As in life, in the dream Rivers was testing Head's sensitivity to pain. Rivers is using various instruments to map protopathic areas—skin sensitive to strong, crude sensory stimuli—on Head's arm. Then the nightmare changes, and Head is holding a scalpel to test pain sensitivity in Rivers. Head is making an incision in Rivers's left arm when Rivers wakes up from the dream.

Rivers analyzes the nightmare's meaning. The basic subject of the dream mirrored the research on nerve regeneration he and Head had been doing in a London hospital. As part of the research, Head had offered himself as an experimental subject. Rivers had severed one of Head's nerves, and then the two researchers charted the process of regeneration. Early in the process, protopathic sensitivity was restored, as determined by very painful experiments done on Head. Even small pinpricks caused him "extreme" pain. Causing pain distressed Rivers, yet he did not stop the experiments.

Further analysis reveals to Rivers that his nightmare was about his "distress at causing pain." The "fear and dread" he felt on awakening reinforces this interpretation. Rivers becomes aware of the conflict between doing one's duty—carrying out the painful experiment—and his innate "reluctance to cause pain." In the dream as in his work at Craiglockhart, there is a conflict between Rivers's duty and his compassion and kindness. Rivers recognizes that his "belief that the war must be fought to a finish ... and his horror that such events as those which had led to Burns's breakdown should be allowed to continue" have created an insoluble internal conflict for him.

Rivers realizes "almost all [his] dreams ... centered on conflicts arising from his treatment of particular patients." Further, his treatment methods are experimental. By having soldiers remember their war trauma, Rivers is causing them pain. Then Rivers realizes the experiment he's conducting is one of eliciting emotion from the soldiers through his caring for them. He understands he's going against society's dictate that men must "repress feelings of tenderness for other men" and that it's unacceptable for a man in psychic pain to cry. By calling forth traumatic memory in his patients, Rivers is freeing their emotions. Rivers recognizes he is "redefining what it meant to be a man," but he is also freeing his patients from fear and crippling trauma.


In Chapter 4 Anderson dreams he's wearing a woman's corset. Anderson interprets this dream image to mean he has been emasculated by "being locked up in a loony bin." Anderson's identity as a man has also been undermined by his "extreme horror of blood," which makes him incapable of again taking up his profession of medical doctor. He's terribly worried about how he will support his wife and children. Being unable to provide for a family makes him feel unmanned. Rivers, however, tries to help Anderson overcome his terror of blood, which emerged while he was working as a doctor at the front, so he can reenter his profession. In one part of his dream, Anderson was wearing a "post-mortem apron." This worries Rivers, who thinks Anderson may feel so emasculated that he's thinking of committing suicide.

Burns too exhibits a less extreme form of emasculation when he's sitting in the center of the circle of dead animals. After removing all his clothes, Burns "cupped his genitals in his hands, not because he was ashamed, but because they looked incongruous, they didn't seem to belong with the rest of him." In his stressed-out state, Burns does not feel his manhood is really a part of him. Burns wants to be one with the dead animals, to decay with them into the earth in a natural way, but somehow his identity as a man must be disconnected from that. In some way Burns must feel unmanned to become one with the dead animals surrounding him.

In Chapter 5 Rivers's nightmare clearly reveals how thorny the issue of manliness is for himself, for his patients, and for Englishmen in general. Rivers understands his dream was about "the distress he felt at causing pain," such as the pain of recalling war trauma. He encourages his patients to remember and fully feel their painful, repressed memories of the war to free themselves from the physical or mental disabilities brought on by trauma. But revealing emotions and feelings is something British society thought of as unmanly and unacceptable. Rivers wisely understands that "feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right"; by accepting these feelings in his patients, Rivers is going against his—and their—upbringing. Yet he knows it's the only true way to cure his patients.

Prior's muteness represents his inability or unwillingness to speak about the horrors he experienced in the war. He communicates only in writing to indicate that he doesn't remember anything about his wartime experiences or his shattering nightmares. His muteness is a manifestation of Prior's trauma, but he also seems to use it as a way to hide himself from other people—especially Rivers. When he finally can speak, Burns replies to each of Rivers's gentle inquiries with claims of ignorance or with sarcasm.

Anderson's breakdown occurred when he failed to heal a soldier covered in mud. The thick mud hid the wound that made the soldier bleed to death. Mud was an indicator of death for that soldier. Ever since that incident, Anderson associates mud with blood and death, and he's had a traumatic aversion to both blood and mud.

As Burns treks through the field toward the tree, his feet are sucked down by mud, reminding him of the wartime feel of slogging through mud. After his slog Burns seems to be ready to die. Again, mud indicates, or represents, death. After moving through the mud and removing his mud-covered boots and clothes, Burns is ready to die along with the animals he has placed on the ground. He has been through death (mud) and has now left it behind. He is naked and unmuddied, so he can accept a natural death. In some ways, passing through the mud and the experience in the circle of dead animals has freed something deep inside Burns.

Sassoon stammers a bit when he's talking to Rivers about Graves's testimony before the Board. Yet once Sassoon launches into his scathing attack on the "old men" who perpetuate the war, his stammer largely disappears. He cites a patricide he seems to admire for making "a list of old men in power who deserved to die." In many ways Sassoon feels an equal—if not homicidal—hatred for the "old men" who support the war. The symbol of the "old men" as reviled warmongers is clear here. When Rivers asks Sassoon if he'd find it hard to be safe while others die in the war, Sassoon notes that no one else seems to find it hard; it's likely Sassoon is thinking primarily of the "old men" who have sacrificed nothing for the war.

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