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Regeneration | Symbols

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Mutism and Stammering

Some of the soldiers at the military hospital are so traumatized by their horrific wartime experiences they are unable to speak. Their muteness is a physical manifestation of the inability to process the horror of the things they experienced. Mutism therefore represents the repression of unspeakable, unbearable trauma. It also symbolizes the unspeakably horrendous conditions and suffering of soldiers fighting World War I.

Similarly, stammering is a soldier's physiological manifestation of the inability to confront and talk about his terrible experiences fighting the war. Stammering is not the result of a physical abnormality but rather a psychological trauma so intense it cannot be given voice. Stammering is another representation of the human mind's inability to process the traumatic horrors of war.

Old Men

In various parts of the text characters express sneering contempt or vicious hatred for the powerful "old men" who started and perpetuate the war. These "old men" symbolize the narrow self-interest, mindless and anachronistic pseudo-patriotism, and callous indifference of the powerful to the suffering of soldiers fighting at the front, which were manifested in the time of the war in English society.

In this context the "old men" are the politicians, businessmen, and military bigwigs who sent hundreds of thousands of Britain's young men to fight the war. They are seen as not knowing and not caring about the suffering of the troops. World War I had no real cause or purpose to justify its enormous cost in lives lost. "Old men" therefore symbolizes the willful ignorance and utter indifference of the powerful men who were snug and safe at home, to the unimaginable suffering of soldiers in combat.

Trenches and Mud

World War I was fought from trenches—deep, winding excavations in the earth the soldiers on both sides lived in and emerged from, "over the top," to fight the enemy. As deep furrows in the ground, trenches are symbolic of graves. In fact, they acted as graves for countless soldiers who died in them—from bombs and from diseases that ran rampant in the trenches. Life in the rat- and lice-infested trenches was so harrowing it continued to haunt the soldiers at the hospital.

As parts of the trenches were open to the sky, rain accumulated at the bottom of them. Thus, trenches were often layered in deep mud. In the novel, some soldiers being treated at the hospital walk in, fall in, or are otherwise covered in mud. Mud, too, represents death in this war. Mud was also what covered the continually bombarded "no-man's land" between the trenches of opposing armies. Many thousands of soldiers died in the mud of no-man's land as they charged across it to attack the enemy and, perhaps, gain a few yards of territory.

Horse's Bit

A horse's bit represents control. At the end of the novel, Dr. Rivers has a nightmare in which he's trying to force a horse's bit into the mouth of a restrained soldier/patient. When he awakes, Rivers understands the symbolism of his dream. A bit is part of a horse's harness the rider puts in its mouth to control the horse. In the context of Rivers's dream, the horse's bit represents an inhuman, even torturous, means of controlling soldiers.

Rivers's recognition of his complicity in controlling mentally wounded soldiers to get them back to the front as quickly as possible is a turning point for him in the novel. He comes to realize he represents and acts in the interests of the powerful men who have control over the soldiers in combat. The horse's bit that so horrifies him in his dream is an apt symbol of this inhumane control.

Yellow

Yellow is a symbol of the war and how it poisons people both physically and mentally. In society the color yellow represents cowardice. Some of the soldiers at the mental hospital have yellow-tinted skin or eyes. Their mental breakdowns and their yellow bodies seem to reinforce the idea they're cowards—a notion that Rivers emphatically denies. Yet the yellow color marks these men as victims of war.

The women who work in the munitions factory also develop yellow skin from working with the TNT used in combat. The yellow-colored chemical in TNT is now known to cause severe liver disease, and women who worked in munitions factories were often sickened or killed by exposure to the chemical poison. For the munitionettes, having a yellow color was a mark of patriotism, of doing one's duty for the war effort. Unlike its symbolism for soldiers, yellow-skinned women were not stigmatized but rather respected for their contribution to the war.

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