Literature Study GuidesRegenerationPart 3 Chapters 14 16 Summary

Regeneration | Study Guide

Pat Barker

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Regeneration | Part 3, Chapters 14–16 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 14

Rivers is on rest leave. He's in church listening to a hymn that has become popular since the battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle of World War I and really the worst in all of history. It took place between July 1 and November 18, 1916, on the Somme River in France, and left one million men dead or injured. Rivers looks around at the stained-glass windows, especially the one showing Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Rivers thinks about the powerful old men who demand the sacrifice of soldiers in the war.

Rivers is staying with his brother Charles who raises chickens on his farm. Rivers is awkward with chickens, but is more helpful working on Charles's accounts. Rivers is aware the farm is not doing well financially. Rivers knows he should be writing letters to Burns, who'd invited him to stay a few days at his family's cottage, as well as to Sassoon. When he's done the accounts, Rivers tries to finish his letter to Sassoon. Yet he's sidetracked by memories of his father, who was a priest and speech therapist. Rivers recalls his father trying to rid his son of his stammer. Rivers also remembers visits from the Reverend Charles Dodson (1832–98, an Anglican deacon, more famously known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland among other books). Dodson was a friend of the family and a patient of Rivers's father. Rivers remembers outings with Dodson, as well as Dodson's preference for the company of young girls. Another memory involves Rivers's father listening to his son give a talk on Darwin's theory of evolution. The subject infuriated the senior Rivers, but his son was proud of having "forced his father to listen to what he had to say, and not merely to the way he said it." Rivers returns to the letter but has trouble finishing it.

Back at Craiglockhart, Sassoon and Owen are working on a draft of one of Owen's poems. Sassoon has high praise for the latest version of the poem. With Sassoon's support for his work, Owen is gaining confidence and his stammer is getting better. In its current form, the poem is so good that Sassoon offers to help Owen have it published in a journal (the Nation) under the now-famous title "Anthem for Doomed Youth."

Sarah is accompanying her friend Madge to visit her lover in a military hospital. His wound is not serious; when it's healed he'll return to the front. Sarah leaves them together to walk around the grounds. She notices a ward in a conservatory at the side of the hospital. She looks inside and sees rows of wheelchairs and figures "who were no longer the size and shape of adult men." Sarah is shocked by the awfulness of the men's injuries. The men stare at her blankly or with fear. Sarah backs out of the building and realizes her presence has only increased their torment. Outside she feels helpless and then angry because these terribly injured soldiers are hidden away, out of view.

Prior awaits his respiratory examination by Dr. Eaglesham. The doctor asks Prior if he's "keen to get back." Prior becomes quietly enraged, but the doctor remains noncommittal. Prior has no idea what the doctor will say to the Board when the time comes. As he leaves, Prior sees Sarah, and she describes the soldiers she saw in the conservatory.

Rivers spends a few days with Henry Head and his wife, Ruth, in Hampstead in north London. Ruth tells Rivers she "rather enjoys ... air raids" over London. They exhilarate her. Then Ruth admits she supports Sassoon's Declaration. Rivers almost apologizes for his responsibility to get Sassoon, like other soldiers, to return to the front. After dinner that evening Rivers and Henry Head talk together. Rivers describes some of the traumas suffered by the men he's treating at Craiglockhart. Then Head tells Rivers there's a job opening, right for him, for a psychiatrist at a military hospital in London. Rivers says he's interested but is not sure he can leave Craiglockhart. He wants to continue working with Bryce. Rivers has three weeks to decide if he'll take the job.

Chapter 15

Rivers takes the train to Aldeburgh, and an emaciated David Burns is there to meet him. The pair walks along the seaside. When they get to Burns's house, Rivers thinks Burns looks unhinged. Rivers's evening with Burns passes pleasantly. Rivers notes the strong love Burns has for his home county of Suffolk in eastern England. Burns waxes enthusiastic about local craftspeople, and Rivers thinks Burns is acting like a teenager. Rivers understands that experiencing the war does not mature soldiers as is commonly believed. Nothing is mentioned about Burns's breakdown or illness.

The next day is cold and shrouded in mist. Rivers had been awakened during the night by Burns's nightmares. The men walk a path around the marshes. Rivers becomes aware that the town is surrounded by water, with the River Alde on one side and the North Sea on the other. Rivers asks about a small defensive fort (Martello) nearby, and the two men head toward it. It is a stone structure surrounded by a high moat, which appears to be filled with debris brought in during floods. Burns says as a boy he and his friends liked to imagine the horrible ways people might have died by drowning in it.

Rivers goes out to buy some food and is gratified when Burns eats some. Then Rivers excuses himself to work on a paper, "Repression of War Experience," for a presentation at a meeting of the British Medical Association. As he writes Rivers wonders why he accepts at face value Burns's presentation of himself. Rivers chides himself for going along with Burns's suppression of his war trauma. He decides Burns's war experience was not so different from the other men Rivers has been treating. Later the men go to a pub and are regaled with old Suffolk tales by the crusty Old Clegg who's teaching Burns to make flints.

The next morning Rivers sees a storm coming. Burns had slept badly, tormented by nightmares. Burns rises late and goes out to see Clegg, while Rivers stays in to work on his paper. When Burns returns, he asks Rivers to take a walk with him, but Rivers hesitates because of the imminent storm. Burns dismisses the weather even though the fishermen have hauled in their boats. Rivers takes a long walk with Burns. On returning they walk through an area covered with bloody fish heads left by the town's fishermen. Burns "stops dead in his tracks ... with his mouth working." After a while Burns seems to recover himself, but back at the house Burns refuses food as he had at Craiglockhart. Later Burns chatters on almost incoherently. Rivers would like to talk about Burns's condition, but Burns wants to go to bed early.

Rivers is awakened by what sounds like a bomb exploding. It takes him a few seconds to realize the sound comes from a maroon—a loud, booming rocket used as an alarm or warning to call on needed lifeboats. Rivers hears Burns walking down the hallway, and he decides to join him in the kitchen for some tea. But Burns is not in the kitchen; in fact, he's not in the house.

Rivers goes outside into the storm to look for Burns. Rivers has the idea that Burns may be in or near the tower. Soon he's running through the rain and mud shouting Burns's name. Rivers peers into the moat, but it's too dark to see anything. He gropes his way down into the moat and in the moonlight sees Burns "huddled against the moat wall." Burns is staring and seemingly unaware of Rivers. Rivers gets Burns on his feet. At first Burns's body is rigid, but then it collapses into Rivers who somehow gets Burns out of the moat and back to his house.

At home Burns says he felt like he "couldn't seem to get out of the dream" he was having. Then the boom of the maroon sent him over the edge. Rivers gets Burns into bed, and he sleeps for a while. The lifeboat comes back the next morning. For the first time Burns begins talking of his war experience. He describes having to write death letters to the families of those killed at the front. He talks about an attack—meant to be a diversion—that killed almost all his men. As Rivers listens he understands the trajectory of the trauma, from fear to indifference to unbearable fear. Burns talks for an hour about his war experiences. The men discuss how evil and cruel people can be. Rivers contemplates the way healing often manifests as decay; how degeneration precedes transformation. He wonders if Burns, who has undergone a "complete disintegration of personality," still has the ability to recover.

Chapter 16

Rivers returns to Craiglockhart on a stormy autumn day. He goes to see Bryce, and they discuss the letter Rivers had sent about the job at the London hospital. Bryce urges Rivers to take the job, as Craiglockhart's future is uncertain. But the military might remove Bryce from this duty, and Rivers can't imagine working at Craiglockhart without him. Later, looking at his appointment book makes Rivers realize how much he likes working at Craiglockhart. The work gives his life meaning and gives him peace.

In Rivers's first session with Sassoon, the poet again complains about his overly religious and self-righteous roommate. After a while Sassoon begins to tell Rivers about his hallucinations, both aural and visual. When Sassoon hesitates, Rivers tells him about impossible, seemingly supernatural sounds he'd heard as a field anthropologist in the Solomon Islands. The experience was wholly irrational, yet Rivers knows he heard what he heard. He tells Sassoon it might have been an instance of mass hypnosis or even an incident lacking a rational explanation. Then Sassoon tells Rivers about the tapping and the vision of Orme. Sassoon says the hallucinated men he sees have a puzzled expression. He has written a poem about it, which he shares with Rivers. The poem makes Rivers weep. Sassoon tells Rivers he's decided to go back to France to fight. Rivers is pleased.

Analysis

Rivers contemplates how powerful people demand the sacrifice of the young, not for a specific purpose but merely to exert their power. In church Rivers equates God's demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac with the powerful men of Britain who also seem to demand the sacrifice of the nation's young men. Both demands seem equally meaningless to Rivers. He thinks of the issue as "a bargain" common to patriarchal societies: those who are young and able will obey the old and (physically) weak. The powerful but indifferent old men who demand sacrifice while they remain comfortably at home represent for Rivers the unacceptable inhumanity of the war.

The complacency of the British public is maintained largely by hiding the more hideous effects of the war from view. Those in power who prosecute or support the inhumane war make sure the most atrocious effects and traumas suffered by the soldiers are hidden away. When Sarah sees the horribly wounded soldiers in the conservatory, she feels angry they are hidden away. But those in real power, unlike her, refuse to look. When Prior meets up with Sarah, he sees that she "faced [up to the war] honestly," and he admires her for it.

As a young man Rivers had felt happy and "inwardly triumphant" when, despite his stammer, he gave a good speech about Darwin. Rivers vanquished the personal power his father had over him because he'd "forced his father to listen to what he had to say, and not merely to the way he'd said it." This statement seems related to Sassoon and his Declaration. Young Rivers's speech had fortified his self-confidence and reduced his stammer in the same way Wilfred Owen's stammer subsided as he gained confidence as a poet.

Aldeburgh, the town in which David Burns lives, contains many reminders of war, undermining Burns's ability to bring into consciousness the horrors that led to his psychic trauma. The town is described as having "tangles of barbed wire" and is fortified with sandbags—used in France to strengthen trenches. The tower and moat are defensive leftovers from previous conflicts and remind Burns of the "violent deaths ... the bloodthirsty horrors" of war. Burns is still dealing with his war trauma; he has nightmares and is unable to talk about his war experience. Rivers thinks he looks deranged. Yet when Rivers turns to look at the 22-year-old Burns, he realizes that his retreat to his family home in some way helps him repress his trauma because "Burns seemed not to see the wire" or anything else that might remind him of the war.

When Burns and Rivers walk through the area covered with bloody fish heads, the sight brings back the war trauma to Burns, and he "stopped dead in his tracks." Yet a few minutes later, when they're back in the house, Burns "pretend[ed] everything was normal." Burns continues to suppress his trauma, which accounts for the screaming nightmares that shatter his sleep. The booming of the maroon alarm tips Burns into a distressed state. He says, "I couldn't seem to get out of [my] dream." When Rivers rescues Burns from the moat, it's as if Burns's mind is paralyzed.

After the storm Burns releases some suppressed war memories, and Rivers feels there's hope he'll begin to recover. Burns describes the war's relentless traumas, such as the "little diversion" planned by "old men" who were clueless and indifferent to the danger they put soldiers in. When Burns is able to talk about his trauma, Rivers feels he's on his way to healing and recovery. Rivers realizes the process of healing often "mimics deterioration," and "the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay." Rivers thinks Burns's journey through a psychic hell might now lead to healing.

When he finally opens up, Burns explains his shame at the possibility that he feigned trauma to avoid having to fight. According to the British definition of manliness, a real man is never afraid and would never admit he wanted to be wounded to avoid fighting.

Rivers and Burns have an insightful discussion about human nature and humanity's capacity for cruelty and evil. Burns references the Bible and Christ's crucifixion, and Rivers says the worst part of the crucifixion is thinking of someone devising this method of death. Inhumanity—whether in war or in life—seems inescapable. Burns quotes the Bible: "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." This quote explains the inexplicable evil of the war and the unimaginable suffering it caused. However, if what Burns says is true, can the war truly be called inhumane, something not human? According to Burns, and the Bible, the human capacity for atrocity is in fact limitless.

Rivers's sense of duty is challenged when he's offered a job at a military hospital in London. He feels a duty to remain with Bryce at Craiglockhart, but he's drawn to the more prestigious hospital, where he'll also have an opportunity to do research. Yet when he's back in his room at Craiglockhart, Rivers realizes that "the work he did in this room was the work he was meant to do, and, as always, this recognition brought peace." Dealing openly with trauma is healing for Rivers as well as for his patients.

Rivers's primary war trauma is the battle between his opposition to the war and his duty to send healed soldiers back to the front. Yet Rivers is pleased when Sassoon says he's going to return to the fighting, somehow feeing it's right for him to do. In this case Rivers's duty to the military and his need to "heal" win out over his principled opposition to the war.

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