The specter of Adolf Hitler has made the Second World War stand head and shoulders over what was originally known as the Great War. Oftentimes, casual students of history think of mustard gas, trench warfare and the odd grotesqueness of mounted cavalry meeting armored vehicles in combat and then mentally move on to the images of concentration camps and nuclear holocaust, which are the trademarks of World War II. However, Pat Barker’s Regeneration turns our attention back to the war waged by Kaiser Bill, starting with the open letter of Siegfried Sassoon, dated July of 1917. Its theme is the general insincerity associated with the Great War; the letter has gone viral (at least as viral as letters could go in the age before television, let alone the Internet), and British society is up in arms. Rather than court-martialing Sassoon for his effrontery, the War Board agrees that Sassoon needs mental treatment, and so off he goes to the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. There he meets Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, who treats patients from the military by asking them to relive their memories as part of a healing process. It is the journey of both men that makes up the story of Regeneration. Part of their exploration together travels the thin line that winds its way through both gender identity and sanity; the end result is a novel that shows that the two are closely related.
Sanity is what the doctors and nurses at Craiglockhart want to restore to their patients. Depending on the patient in the hospital, madness can manifest in the form of an unusual fear of blood to a simple inability to consume food, to vocal dissidence against the war itself. In other words, madness is simply the inability to live inside the lines that society has drawn for itself and defined as “Logical.” Because these men can no longer live inside those boundaries, they are considered “shell-shocked” and pigeonholed in facilities like this one until they are better. Rather than using the more positive forms of treatment that would emerge later in the 20th century, the practitioners here are given a sense of shame and robbed of their masculinity. As a result, true healing is virtually impossible. This question of what actually constitutes “madness” is the driving theme of the story – and a question that Barker leaves for the reader. The very fact that Rivers starts to question whether madness is really a disorder after all gives the novel its true sense of “regeneration.” As Rivers goes through the story, he questions more and more of the lines that society has drawn for itself. He even begins to wonder if the process of healing patients, only so that they can be thrown back into the maw of the war machine, is not insane in itself.
Another facet of regeneration is the affection that begins to grow between men in the story; all of the physicians and doctors on men. Out on the battlefield, expressions of love between men are not only expected but desirable. Sassoon receives accolades for the dedication he shows toward his fellow men. This camaraderie leads to a more effective military. However, there are limits that society places on this love. Homosexuality appears as a cautious theme in this story – more as an implication than an explicit statement. Rivers suggests that society would react even more harshly to incidents of homosexuality during war than it would during peace, because violating any sort of norms when one is supposed to be at war might well seem a dereliction of duty. Just like the victims of shell shock in the hospital, homosexuals are also living outside the boundaries that society has drawn – as such, they also suit the definition of “madness.” This means that Sassoon’s own homosexuality is ultimately a threat to his military organization and to his society, even though he is praised for the dedication he shows to his men. This makes his gender identity and his sanity interact in ways that Rivers cannot even begin to puzzle through completely; the resolution is ultimately left for the reader.
The puzzle that connects sexuality and sanity is one that still roils modern society. In our own time, the right of any sort of couple to marry is coming more into common acceptance – a change that gays and lesbians see as an extension of a civil right. What is certain, no matter what the outcome of the marriage debate, is that the ability to express oneself sexually is an important element of one’s emotional and physical stability – of one’s ability to manage life within as many of society’s other boundaries as possible. If the possibility of a true romantic connection is denied to one, simply because that connection crosses a boundary of society that is not connected to fidelity, then one must question the validity of that boundary – just as assuredly as all of society questioned the validity of the use of mustard gas, and found it to be even abhorrent on the field of battle.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, c1993. Print.