Reinvigorating WWI with Pat Barker’s Regeneration

I advocate assigning Pat Barker’s contemporary novel Regeneration (1991) as part of any undergraduate literature module that covers World War I. Specifically it is most fruitfully taught in conjunction with the war poetry that Barker refers to in the novel. Regeneration is a work of historical fiction that evokes the war’s visceral reality and trauma through its depiction of the symptoms and stories of officers suffering from “shell shock.” Set in 1917 at the historical Craiglockhart War Hospital, the story focuses on the historical figure of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers who treated the psychic wounds of British soldiers, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon, via psychoanalysis. Readers of Regeneration encounter an unblinking account of the personal and emotional costs of war, as seen through the lives, or case histories, of soldiers both real and imagined. Barker skillfully blends fact, fiction, and feeling, the analysis of which trains students to cultivate an empathetic closeness while retaining enough distance to comprehend the importance of the historical moment. The benefit of reading a contemporary novel is that it allows for the comparison of people’s perspectives on, for example, gender, class, and war in 1917 with these issues now. Barker’s novel creates a trans-historical view that invokes the past in order to “reinforce its sense of crisis and instability.”[1] This approach reinvigorates student engagement with the period and invites them to draw parallels to our own time.

Students responded powerfully, some stonily and others sympathetically, to the novel’s depictions of war neuroses. Indeed Barker’s text demands a mode of reading that is both analytical and affective. Students reported that this was one of the biggest challenges: keeping up with the novels’ unrelenting demand for them to engage with the psychic and emotional consequences of the war. Many found it difficult to comprehend the complete erosion of personality that can come from war neuroses. This led students to conclude that the soldiers were “faking it” in order to escape the horrors of trench warfare. This position can be productive in the classroom as it reflects the dominant medical discourses at the time, characterized by Dr. Yealland in the novel. Ultimately this imaginative and empathetic failure leads to weak analyses of the novel. Assigning poems taken from the novel that address war neuroses directly is useful in facilitating students acceptance of shell shock as a real trauma (see list below).

Barker’s postmodern use of intertextuality within the novel calls for an intertextual method in the classroom. The close reading required by the poetry slows the students down and helps them to comprehend the sensorium of war. Poetry’s techniques of imagery, emotion, and distilled language, among others, changed students’ understanding of the soldiers’ affective experiences, and they brought this understanding back to their interpretation of the novel. Certainly in many cases war poetry can, and should, be read in its own right; however, reading Regeneration and the poetry to which it refers not only gave students more detailed accounts of the conditions at the front but also deepened their understanding of why thousands of soldiers ended up in facilities such as Craiglockhart.

 

Poems to read alongside Regeneration and a suggested prompt for students[2]

After splitting the students into small groups I allocated 2-3 poems for each group to close read. I gave students the following prompt, and a whole-class discussion followed each analysis: “Paying close attention to the tone, imagery, and diction within the poem, consider how it communicates a sense of war. Offer a close reading of the poem to the class, and end your analysis by linking the themes of the poem to concerns, or scenes, within Regeneration.”

Useful for getting a sense of life in the trenches

  • “The Rear Guard,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 24
  • “The Dead-Beat” Wilfred Owen, p. 124
  • “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Wilfred Owen, p. 157
  • “The Troops,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 157
  • “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Wilfred Owen*

Useful in discussing literature as political resistance, and to pair with Sassoon’s “Declaration” (p. 1)

  • “The General,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 24
  • To The Warmongers,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 25
  • “They,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 81
  • “The Redeemer,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 82

Poems that address war neuroses and mental breakdown directly

  • “Sick Leave,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 189
  • “Repression of War Experience,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 243
  • “S.I.W.” Wilfred Owen*
  • “Mental Cases, ” Wilfred Owen*

Useful as a counterpoint to Sassoon and Owen’s poetry

  • “The Soldier,” Rupert Brooke*
  • “Song of Songs,” Wilfred Owen, p. 124

Useful for exploring ideas of loss

  • “The Death Bed,” Siegfried Sassoon, p. 82
  • “The Next War,” Wilfred Owen, p. 141

 

Wendy Truran, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


[1]Philip Tew cited by Nick Hubble, The 1990s: A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, Ed. Nick Hubble, Philip Tew, Leigh Wilson (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 167.

[2] Page numbers appear consistent across the UK and USA Penguin versions and the 1991 and 2008 editions of Regeneration. Poems marked with an asterisk (*) were not referred to in Regeneration but are useful supplements. The additional Owen poems were started at Craiglockhart, and Sassoon’s reference to the book he completed (Counter Attack, 243) at Craiglockhart implicitly refers to his additional poems. 

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