Literature Study GuidesRegenerationPart 4 Chapters 17 18 Summary

Regeneration | Study Guide

Pat Barker

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Regeneration | Part 4, Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17

Ada Lumb, Sarah's mother, is visiting her daughter and giving her an earful about her relationship with Prior. Ada is vehement in warning Sarah "to keep her knees together" because "men don't value what's dished out free." She also wishes Sarah had a more respectable job than the one at the munitions factory. Even working as a waitress in a tea room would be more respectable than factory work. Sarah realizes her mother wants her to be unlike her and have a better life because Ada struggled to bring up two daughters on her own, without a man. Ada has never told her daughters who their father was or what happened to him. Sarah understands her mother's old-fashioned view of male-female relationships in which "love between men and women was impossible." Sarah asks her mother if it's okay for her to bring Prior to their house when he's on leave. Ada is skeptical, but agrees.

Sassoon meets Graves at the club bar. Sassoon says golf is the only thing keeping him sane. Graves is rather snide when Sassoon talks about Owen and his gift for writing poetry. Sassoon reveals that Owen will probably be sent back to the front lines in a few weeks. Sassoon then tells Graves he's decided to return to the war as long as the military sends him back to France. Sassoon refuses to withdraw a word of his Declaration yet hopes this won't stand in the way of his posting to the front. Graves says he thinks Sassoon is obsessed with being anti-war and thus can no longer make plans for the future. Sassoon says he's thought of little besides stopping the war since the Somme battle, where so many troops were slaughtered. He seems to accuse Graves of not caring enough about the enormous number of war casualties. Graves thinks Sassoon's opposition to the war is "not behaving like a gentleman." Sassoon says Graves's argument is "just suicidal stupidity" because the powers that be are indifferent to the fate of soldiers.

Graves tells Sassoon a mutual acquaintance named Peter has been arrested for soliciting sex near a barracks. Graves is so shaken by the news that he's started dating a young woman. He insists he's not a homosexual. Sassoon is amazed to hear that Peter will be sent to Craiglockhart to be treated by Rivers and "cured."

Sarah is trudging to work for the night shift at the munitions factory, which she thinks looks like hell in the darkness. The women in the changing room are chatting together, and Sarah talks with her friends. Lizzie asks Sarah how her mother's visit went, and Sarah says, "I swore I wasn't gunna tell her about Billy [Prior], but she winkled it all out of me." Sarah is angry because her mother hinted she wasn't good enough for Prior, an officer. Sarah describes her mother's attitude as an insulting "What does he see in you?" Madge says boys' lack of exposure to females in school and university tends to make them gay or to avoid women and spend most of their time with other men at their club. The women go onto the factory floor and begin their dangerous work.

Sarah looks around and asks in a whisper where Betty is, since she's not at work. Lizzie says Betty is pregnant, although she's tried nearly every remedy to terminate her pregnancy. Then Betty resorted to a coat hanger but mistakenly punctured her bladder instead of her uterus. Betty has become extremely ill—but she's still pregnant. Lizzie visited Betty in the hospital the day before, and she says Betty is in terrible shape. The doctors treat Betty badly, telling her "You should be ashamed of yourself" instead of being understanding.

It's the evening before the Board meets, and Rivers is making his rounds. He spends extra time with his patients who will up before the Board the next day. Rivers finds Sassoon in his room, but Rivers has no news from the War Office about what they intend to do with him. Sassoon tells Rivers about Peter, the young man arrested for soliciting near a barracks. He says Graves was devastated by the incident. Sassoon tells Rivers that Peter is being sent to a psychiatrist to be cured of his homosexuality. Rivers notes that psychiatric care is better than a stretch in prison. He says prosecution of homosexuals has increased since the war because of the close relationships, some of which develop into homosexual relationships, that develop among soldiers at the front. Rivers shares a rumor about the Germans: supposedly they have a "Black Book" listing the names of eminent Brits whose private lives make their loyalty and support for the war questionable. As a friend of Robert Ross, Sassoon might be vulnerable. Sassoon refuses to conform his entire life to others' opinions in order to save his reputation.

Chapter 18

Prior is sitting before the Board, but answers their questions with monosyllabic answers. Rivers is concerned because Prior wants to return to the war despite his asthma, which could prove deadly there. For this reason Rivers believes Prior should not be sent back to fight.

Sassoon sits in the waiting room for his turn before the Board. He's been waiting about an hour, and another patient, Pugh, is still in line ahead of him. Pugh is a "living museum of tics and twitches." A freak accident with a grenade at the front had killed all the men in his platoon except Pugh, who's in very bad shape. Sassoon is getting nervous, and he worries he'll miss his appointment for tea later. A soldier with a terrible stammer asks Sassoon what's taking so long with the Board. Sassoon does not know, but he decides to get up and leave.

Bryce and Rivers are sitting on the Board, and they too wonder why they had taken so long with Prior's interview. Bryce tells Rivers, "at least you got what you wanted. In the end," indicating the Board ruled Prior will remain in Britain. The Board makes quick work of Pugh and the stammering soldier, Thorpe, who says Sassoon seems to have left.

Prior had been crying over the Board's decision. Rivers goes up to Prior's room and tries to explain the decision was made because Prior is not fit for combat. Rivers reminds Prior he'd collapsed during gas attack training. Because Prior's problem is now considered wholly physical, he is no longer Rivers's patient. Prior tries to explain to Rivers how ashamed he is of having failed as an officer because he's not returning to the fighting. Rivers tries to comfort Prior by reminding him that he didn't choose home service, the Board forced it on him. So there's no shame in it. He says, "Everybody who survives feels guilty." As Rivers starts to leave, Prior asks if they might stay in touch after the war, and Rivers says, "I'd be delighted."

At dinner Rivers notices Sassoon is missing; he has still not returned to the hospital. Rivers wonders if Sassoon is on a social visit or if he's deserted. Rivers's thoughts are interrupted by an officer who's arguing vehemently against "racial degeneration [and] the falling birth rate" among upper-crust Britons. The officer rails against the over-breeding of the lower classes in relation to the upper classes. Rivers is relieved when dinner is over, and he leaves a message with a nurse to contact him as soon as Sassoon returns.

Sassoon returns very late. Sassoon explains he left because "I was late for tea with Sampson." After making a few lame excuses, Sassoon admits "he couldn't face" the Board. Rivers expresses surprise at Sassoon's cowardly behavior. Sassoon says he's been considering consulting Dr. Charles Mercier (1851–1919; British psychiatrist specializing in forensics and insanity) for a second opinion. Sassoon reiterates he wants to go back to France to fight.


Ada Lumb is most concerned about class—about respectability and gentility in Sarah's behavior. She wants her daughter to act as if she's of a higher class than she really is. Ada even "switches to a genteel voice" when she speaks to a waitress to pretend she's not working class. Ada's class consciousness tends to be paradoxical and contradictory, and her sense of class extends so far as to chide her daughter for working with rough women at the munitions factory. She wants her daughter to have a more respectable job, even if it pays almost nothing. At the same time, Ada criticizes and insults Sarah for going out with Prior because he's an officer, and Ada assumes this means he's too high-class for Sarah. She says Sarah's "a bloody fool" to step out with a young man above her station.

Class affects how women view their rightful role in society. Sarah reflects on Ada's view in which "marriage [is] the sole end of female existence," but love between men and women isn't really possible. For Ada, and perhaps for most women of her class and era, the male-female relationship is one of manipulation to get what you want or need. Love has little or nothing to do with it. Her view of women as suited only for (loveless) marriages is challenged by her daughter's fierce independence and, in her eyes, unseemly employment.

The women's discussion of Betty's pregnancy reveals further indignities and restrictions on women's lives despite their newfound freedom of employment. Betty is forced to try to abort her fetus herself, and she almost dies in the process. In the hospital the doctors treat her with contempt instead of compassion, telling her she should be ashamed of what's she's done. Madge touches on a truth about British society when she explains the male-only schools that upper-class boys go to tend to bring out any latent homosexuality they may have. When they marry—perhaps for appearance's sake—the men are keen on avoiding their wives and instead spend time at their fancy men's club.

The women's work in the munitions factory also highlights the inhumanity and indifference of those who support the war. The women have yellow skin from the poisonous substances they work with. The gas masks they wear do not fit, allowing toxins to enter their lungs. Yet their bosses are indifferent to the danger the women face every day. Sarah thinks, "All the women were yellow-skinned ... We don't look human ... [we look] like machines." The inhumane war has rendered women as well as men less than human.

Graves says Sassoon, as a gentleman, must keep his word after he agreed to serve. To do otherwise would be "bad form." Graves uses the strictures and expectations of the upper classes to try to convince Sassoon to return to the fighting. To his credit Sassoon dismisses this class-based argument, calling it "suicidal stupidity."

Sassoon's impatience while waiting for his Board hearing—and his departure from the hospital to keep an appointment for tea—likely arises out of his sense of upper-class privilege. When he returns and talks with Rivers, Sassoon even admits to deliberately acting out of petulance, like a rich, spoiled adolescent. Yet the reader learns Sassoon's rather arrogant departure was due partly to his fear of what the Board might decide. He just used his class privilege to avoid having to face it.

Class prejudice—bordering on something akin to racism—is also undeniable in the major who rails during dinner against "racial degeneration." His is an attitude toward class taken to its extreme. His contempt for the working classes and "the [lesser] supply of heroes" produced by the worthy upper classes reveals his extreme snobbish bigotry.

Graves and Sassoon argue about acting on principle versus doing your duty. Graves again says Sassoon has a duty to return to combat. Sassoon understands this, but he's also struggling with how his duty can be reconciled with his principled opposition to a meaningless war. Later Sassoon disagrees with Rivers and asserts his adherence to his principles and his conscience, saying he can't live otherwise and no one else should either.

Graves, like the others, struggles with his homosexuality and the idea of being "manly" in the strictest British sense. Sassoon is less devastated by a soldier's apprehension for soliciting sex at a military barracks, but he too must contend with being attracted to men in a way that surpasses what was then acceptable, and not conforming to British ideals of manliness. Graves has started dating a woman; he thinks this shows he's "cured" of any homosexual feelings he might have had. He tells Sassoon, "I'd hate you to think I was homosexual even in thought." Sassoon knows Graves's true sexuality, so he can't think how to respond to this statement.

The tension between manliness and homosexuality is increased by the war, where fighting men often care deeply for one another. In speaking to Sassoon, Rivers says, "you've got this enormous emphasis on love between men—comradeship—and everybody approves. But there's always this ... little anxiety. Is it the right kind of love? Well, one of the ways you make sure it's the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are." The encouragement of manly love in combat must be controlled by the threat of prison if it becomes more than comradeship. Caring for one's fellow soldiers is considered by society to be an example of true manliness. Yet if this manliness gets out of hand it must be punished, Rivers explains. Sassoon replies, "What you're really saying is, if I can't conform in one area of life, then I have to conform in the others. Not just the surface things, everything. Even against my conscience. Well, I can't live like that. Nobody should live like that."

Prior, too, is distraught about what he sees as the diminishment of his manhood when he's given permanent home service by the Board. He admits he feels shame at not being man enough to fight alongside the other soldiers at the front. Rivers tries to reason with Prior saying, "I do think you should look at the shame [you feel]. Because it's not really anything to be ashamed of, is it? Wanting to stay alive?" Yet the code of manliness is so internalized that Prior—like many other men—cannot endure the guilt and emasculation he feels at being excused from combat.

Pugh and Thorpe, who are waiting for their Board hearing, exemplify the physical and mental breakdown soldiers suffer in the war. Pugh has a near-constant "tic and twitch" accompanied by gasps and screams. Thorpe stammers so badly he can barely be understood. Both conditions represent the trauma war inflicts on soldiers and the trauma's physical and psychological manifestations.

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