Literature Study GuidesRegenerationPart 2 Chapters 8 9 Summary

Regeneration | Study Guide

Pat Barker

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Regeneration | Part 2, Chapters 8–9 | Summary



Chapter 8

Prior tells Rivers about his experience fighting on the front lines in France. He tells how soldiers get ready for an attack; how they calm themselves before they're ordered to go "over the top." Prior recalls the April 14 attack, when many soldiers are killed as they emerge from the trenches. Others are mowed down by enemy fire as they charge "toward a line of machine guns." Prior insists the whole operation was a ridiculous event. Rivers says Prior relates events with "inhuman detachment." Prior describes the open ground as pitted and "covered with ... writhing" bodies, "like a fish pond that's drying out." Prior is sent flying by a shell blast, and he wakes up in a crater with other soldiers. At that time Prior could speak. The men leave the crater after dark and return to their line. Rivers probes for more information, but Prior insists he remembers nothing after this. The session ends in feelings of antagonism.

Sassoon is cleaning his golf clubs when a young soldier approaches carrying five copies of Sassoon's book. The soldier stammers as he asks Sassoon to inscribe his books. The soldier introduces himself as Wilfred Owen and says he writes poetry too. Sassoon mentions his brother died at Gallipoli (in Turkey, 1915–16; a foolhardy Allied attack and bloodbath that killed 46,000 and wounded 250,000). Owen is intimidated by Sassoon's good looks and "aristocratic" bearing. To keep the conversation going, Owen praises Sassoon's poems. The pair discuss poetry and writing. Then the topic turns to religion and pacifism. Owen says a true Christian would have to be a pacifist even though he, like Sassoon, is not. The conversation turns to the trenches and the horrors of the war. They are lost in their memories of war until Sassoon says he's late for golf. Before he leaves, Sassoon asks Owen to bring him some of his poetry to read. Owen is thrilled at Sassoon's attention and interest.

Anderson and Sassoon are in the bar of the golf club after their game. Anderson apologizes for almost violently assaulting Sassoon on the green, but Sassoon shrugs it off. At the club they talk only about golf, never the war. Anderson especially does not want to delve too deeply into his trauma and his feelings about the fighting. Anderson thinks about Sassoon's Declaration, resenting its implication that anyone who disagreed with it is callous. Anderson doesn't believe he is callous, even though he thinks the war should be fought to victory.

Prior is in a pub in Edinburgh. He gets hungry and goes into a café, where he notices a group of women. The yellowness of their skin makes it clear they work in a munitions factory. The women are gossiping and laughing, talking about clothes and men. As Prior eats, a young woman in the group, Sarah, begins talking to him. Prior is attracted to Sarah's beautiful hair. He asks her out for a drink, and she accepts. Sarah Lumb tells Prior about her job making detonators. She works long hours, six days a week, but the money is good. Sarah is a "Geordie"—a native of Newcastle in northeast England—but she came to Edinburgh for the work. Her former boyfriend was killed by poison gas released by his own side (during a battle in Loos, France, in 1915). She and Prior talk about whether there can be love between a man and a woman. She doubts it; Prior says he doesn't know. They leave the pub and go for a walk, ending up in a church graveyard. Prior starts to touch her but she pushes him away. Prior is tired of this game. Sarah allows him one kiss and agrees to see him again the next Sunday. Prior realizes it's so late that the gates to Craiglockhart are locked for the night.

Chapter 9

Rivers explains to Prior why he's being punished for being out so late the night before. Prior is grounded for two weeks, which he thinks is too severe. Yet he'd crudely insulted members of the staff when he'd been let in. Rivers ignores Prior's complaints and begins to question him again about his war experience. Prior repeats he has no memory of what happened to him after the battle on April 14. Prior asks Rivers to explain why mutism is less common among officers than "private soldiers." Rivers thinks it's because "the consequences of [an ordinary soldier] speaking his mind are always going to be far worse than they would be for an officer." Officers, he explains, are more prone to stammering, a physical symptom that may mask psychological trauma. When Rivers suggests officers are smarter than regular soldiers, Prior is furious. He attacks Rivers by asking why he himself stammers. Rivers is taken aback but explains his stammer likely comes from some internal conflict. Prior is so astute and insightful in his analysis of Rivers's stammer that Rivers cuts the session short.

Rivers takes a walk around the hospital grounds before his next appointment. He sits on a bench and watches two patients using scythes to cut the grass. They remind him of Death, whose scythe cuts down the living.

That evening Rivers is compiling a list of men to be boarded, or assessed for their fitness to return to duty. Rivers dislikes this task, as his recommendation to the Board might determine whether a soldier lives or dies. Prior enters Rivers's room and apologizes for their earlier confrontation. They begin talking about Prior's nightmares, which he says are "muddled up with sex." Prior, like many men, is struggling with the enforced celibacy of life in the hospital. Rivers suggests they try hypnosis now.

When Prior is under hypnosis he seems to wake in a dugout. An officer calls the soldiers to "Stand to." The trench is filled with mud. Prior has "first trench watch," and he begins patrolling it. He chats with two soldiers cooking a makeshift breakfast. It's a relatively quiet day with little bombardment. Suddenly Prior hears a shell screaming toward them; then he realizes it's exploded inside the trench. He hears men screaming. One soldier has been blown to bits; he's barely recognizable. The two breakfasting men met the same fate. Another soldier, Logan, opens a sandbag, and Prior begins shoveling "soil, flesh, and splinters of blackened bone" into it. He's almost finished shoveling when Prior looks down and sees an eye on the ground. He holds it in his palm, and then offers it to Logan with the words "What am I supposed to do with this gob-stopper?" Logan "tips the eye into the bag." Logan and Prior spread lime over the area where the men were killed. Prior begins to feel numb. Back in the dugout Prior admires the complex movements he sees in the faces of soldiers who are speaking. Prior tries to speak but cannot. Logan takes Prior to the casualty clearing station. Prior is cheerful, even exultant and feels no fear. At the station Prior sees a soldier with a back or spine injury who is beyond help. Prior sits on a bench and clearly recalls what happened to the two dead soldiers.

While Prior is under hypnosis, Rivers watches "the play of emotions" on his face. When Prior is brought out of his trance, he asks angrily, "Is that all?" Yet soon Prior's rage turns to bewilderment, and he begins to cry. Prior grabs Rivers and begins butting him in the chest—the closest he can come to human contact. Prior then describes what he'd seen under hypnosis. He admits he'd been convinced he was to blame for the death of the two soldiers in the trench. He describes the chaos of the lines and a deadly incident involving friendly fire. A British soldier had fired on his own troops and thus had experienced "the worst thing"—harming your own men, even inadvertently.

Rivers returns to his room and realizes he's extremely stressed. Perhaps he needs some leave. In the bath Rivers remembers a patient he'd treated, John Layard. Layard was like Prior in his deft wit and insight into Rivers—in his "outrageous frankness." Layard had said he viewed Rivers as his "male mother," an expression Rivers dislikes. Rivers recognizes that he's "touched by the way in which young men ... [felt] like fathers" to their troops. They worried about them as poor, single mothers worry about their children. Rivers contemplates the paradox of the war, which is "the most brutal conflict" but sets up a caring relationship between officers and their men in a "feminine" way.


Inhumane war and its resulting trauma are explored in these chapters. Prior seems "inhumanly detached" from the horrors of his experience in the inhumane war. He describes horrific experiences casually and with seeming disinterest. He says that when he and the soldiers went "over the top" they moved "In a straight line. Across open country. In broad daylight. Toward a line of machine guns." He smiles and shakes his head at this, calling it "extremely ridiculous." What he describes in the aftermath of a shell exploding in the trench is appalling, but Prior can remember the horror in detail. His offhand way of describing such horrors is a coping mechanism to protect himself from feeling the inhuman horrors of the war. He tells Rivers, "you can make me remember the deaths, but you will never make me feel."

Hypnosis reveals the incident that precipitated Prior's mutism. Prior is in the trench after bombardment. After shoveling soldiers' remains into a sandbag and finding an eye in the mud, Prior's mind snaps and his face becomes numb. He "watches people's lips move" as they speak and finds these movements amazing. But when he tries to move his mouth and face to talk, he realizes that he had no idea "how they combined together to make sounds." Yet the "worst thing"—the ultimate trauma—leading to Prior's muteness was the idea that he'd been responsible for the deaths of the men who died in the trench. The paralyzing sense of guilt—of having failed in his duty to protect his men—terrified Prior and made him mute.

In their conversation Sassoon and Owen discuss poetry and religion, debating whether a Christian must be a pacifist. The issue is one of conscience and principle, and neither man can accept pacifism as an acceptable response to the war. Yet Sassoon expresses the idea that war may be an eternal and inevitable result of humanity's inhumanity. In France, he says, "at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side ... like mushrooms. ... It's as if all other wars had somehow distilled themselves into this war ... I seemed to be seeing [the war] from the future. A hundred years from now they'll still be ploughing up skulls ... I think I saw our ghosts." The war is like a cosmic presence, always there, his words reveal. In its unparalleled inhumanity, World War I seems to contain within it all the inhumanity of all wars ever fought or ever to be fought.

Anderson, too, struggles with his principles, conscience, and ideas about the war. Although he has lost his livelihood as a doctor because of his horror of blood, Anderson still believes the war "had to go on." Anderson bridles at the arrogance of Sassoon's Declaration because it makes anyone with opposing principles seem callous. Anderson rejects the idea that his principles make him indifferent to the suffering of others.

Prior says Rivers "will never make him feel," which for Rivers is a precondition for healing and recovery. Rivers's treatment requires men to open themselves to their repressed emotions—a direct challenge to prevailing notions of manliness. After hypnosis has released Prior's repressed emotion, he clings to Rivers as if to a father. Yet once he stops crying, Prior apologizes to Rivers for this unseemly display of unmanly emotion. Rivers tells Prior a mental breakdown is not something one "kind of person" does, implying a weak or unmanly soldier. It can happen to anyone who is under enough stress or who experiences frequent trauma.

Rivers's experience with John Layard, his former patient, evokes uneasy feelings that seem to challenge his manliness. Layard had told Rivers, "I don't see you as a father, you know .... More a sort of ... male mother." The remark made Rivers uncomfortable; he "disliked the term 'male mother'" and the implication that nurturing was a female activity, even when it was done by a man—"as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen from women." Rivers likens Layard's idea to the ancient practice of couvade, rituals men performed when their wives were pregnant. Yet in treating his patients, Rivers tries to open them up to emotions British society thought of as feminine. Rivers had often "been touched by the way in which young men ... spoke about feeling like fathers to their men." A horrific war brought out the caring and comradeship British society deemed unacceptable in men. By calling the relationship between officers and their men "maternal," Layard reveals his disengagement from his own emotions and his ability to care for others. The conflict between the call to stereotypical manliness and the necessity of caring contributed to the trauma and breakdowns soldiers suffered.

Wilfred Owen feels intimidated by Sassoon's "aristocratic voice" and "bored expression." Owen is acutely aware that Sassoon is from the upper classes. When Owen approaches him, Sassoon is wearing "a purple silk dressing gown" and polishing a golf club. The reader gets the idea that Sassoon's innate snobbery is toned down during this meeting only because he recognizes in Owen not only a reader but also a fellow poet.

The relationship between Prior and Rivers is shaped partly by the differences in their social class and a hint of Rivers's snobbery. Prior is outraged when Rivers says, "officers [have] a more complex mental life" than lower-class soldiers, which is why they stammer rather than suffer mutism. Prior is an officer, but he rose from the working class. He rages at the idea that the "gaggle of noodle-brained half-wits" has "a complex mental life." Rivers says it's "generally true." Yet this assertion, partly due to snobbery, is belied by previous parts of the novel faulting the upper-class "old men" for the chaos, incompetence, and horrors of the war. Even Rivers agrees with this. The question arises: how can he elevate the upper-class officers when a part of him blames such privileged men for perpetuating a war he hates? When Prior attacks Rivers for his snobbery, Prior points out that Rivers also stammers. Rivers is taken aback, but Prior nails him when he says, "If your stammer was the same as theirs—you might actually have to sit down and work out what it is you've spent fifty years trying not to say." Shocked by the truth of this statement, Rivers cuts short the session. From what the reader knows of Rivers, his stammer may arise from "the conflict between wanting to speak and knowing that what you've got to say is not acceptable." Rivers wants to protest the inhumane war, but his adherence to duty prevents him from doing so.

Prior had a shared class identity with Sarah Lumb, which may be why he's so comfortable pursuing her. Both are working class and speak freely in a dialect that reflects their similar background. The budding relationship between Sarah and Prior involves Prior's first attempt to reach out to make contact—in this case at first just in pursuit of sex—with another person. Human contact is a path to healing and recovery. Prior's psychic healing is also evident in his actions after hypnosis. Prior tries to diminish the emotional weight of what he discovered under hypnosis, saying "It was nothing," but he cannot maintain his detachment for long. Prior breaks down and cries while he butts his head against Rivers's chest. Rivers realizes, "It was the closest Prior could come to asking for physical contact." And it is a breakthrough in Prior's recovery.

Prior's thoughts contemplate the expanding role of women during World War I. He thinks, "[Women] seemed to have changed so much during the war, to have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space." In many ways the war liberated women, who were entering the workforce. Men, on the other hand, were being ground down and trapped in claustrophobic trenches.

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