|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"Love Between Men"
Candice Axtell (Spring 2003)
In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker uses character development to emphasize the various themes in the novel. Pat Barker includes Robert Graves, a well known poet and writer, as a secondary character in a fictional setting. We are first introduced to Robert Graves on page five, where he meets with a very good friend Siegfried Sassoon in the lounge of the Exchange Hotel. During their conversation, they express, through their actions and language, a deep love for one another. In Barker's Regeneration, the importance of love and intimate friendship between men during war develops from the relationship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.
As Miranda Seymour tells us, Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, near London. He was the first born son to Amalie von Ranke Graves and Alfred Perceval Graves. He was a handsome little boy with wide gray eyes and black curly hair. He attended seven different schools throughout his life. As a child he attended Wimbledon branch of King's College, but then was removed for using inappropriate language. He then was sent to Rokeby and made his name as a quarrelsome bully. Soon there after, he attended a school near Rugby "where he learned the forceful style of English which enabled him to appeal to a lay audience even with the most obscure subjects" (Seymour). Finally, his last preparatory school was Copthrone which was located in Sussex (Seymour). In 1913 he received a scholarship to study at St. John's College, Oxford but soon after, in 1914, he enlisted as a Junior Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers ("Robert Graves").
As a solider in World War I, Graves became injured in the battle of Somme. During his recovery, he published his first poetic collection, Over the Brazier. Although confused about his sexuality as an adolescent and about his innocent crushes on boys, he married, at the age of twenty-two, the eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson with whom he had four children. With the war memories haunting Graves, he and his wife moved so he could go back to Oxford to teach at St. John's College. Though he was a teacher and a writer, Robert Graves considered himself a poet. According to Graves a poet is "one who uses all the resources of language and his own talent to articulate man's overcoming of the cruel face of one's historical period" ("Biography"). The early poetry of Robert Graves' deals with natural beauty, rustic pleasures, and the consequences of World War I. Graves' early poetry was a way for him to overcome his nightmares, hallucinations, and tortured memories of death from his war experience ("Biography"). This early poetry was considered to be Georgian, lyric poetry while maintaining the late-romantic style ("Graves"). Over the Brazier and Fairies and Fusiliers gave Graves the reputation as an accomplished war poet ("Robert Graves").
Later, Graves' writing changed style to terse and ironic poems written on personal themes. This significant change was influenced by a well-known American poet Laura Riding, with whom he ran off after he and his wife had permanently separated. The vacation to Majorca with Laura was cut short due to the breakout of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 ("Robert Graves"). Robert Graves continued to write through this time and was recognized for his many books and essays. In all, Graves has published 140 books including fifty-five collections of poetry, fifteen novels, ten translations, and forty works of nonfiction, autobiography, and literary essays. Toward the end of his life Graves was a professor of poetry at Oxford. In his later life, he went back to Majorca where he lived until his death. He died at the age of ninety in 1985 ("Robert Graves").
Robert Graves is placed in Regeneration for the reader to grasp the theme of love between men. Barker has chosen to place the introduction of Graves' character in the beginning of the novel on page five. The scene opens with Siegfried Sassoon remembering his last meeting with Robert Graves. He thinks of how he was so excited to see Graves that he jumped up and ran across the lounge of the hotel to greet him. Graves was there because of a letter -- or, rather, Declaration-- Sassoon had written protesting the war. Sassoon's declaration was illegal and went against all that was right, according to his military contract. As Graves will emphasize in chapter three, he feels that a man should obey and be faithful to his contract. Graves wanted to talk to Sassoon in person and offer some advice. The consideration Graves shows Sassoon by coming to visit him before he was sent to Craiglockhart is the first introduction into this theme of love between men. They are both compassionate and caring toward one another.
Throughout Regeneration, there are numerous relationships that contribute to this same theme, originally introduced by Graves and Sassoon, notably, the relationship between Sassoon and his men. One of the main reasons Sassoon decides to go back to the front is he doesn't want to let down the men in his division. In chapter 16, Sassoon tells of how he feels guilty he isn't there for his men and says to Rivers: "They [Sassoon's men] can't understand why I'm here" (Barker 189). This guilt demonstrates dedication, comradeship, and the love he has for them. Society favors this kind of love because it engenders a better army overall.
The other love between men brought in through numerous parts of Regeneration is that of homosexuality. This "wrong" type of love is looked down upon by society, especially during war. Rivers advises Sassoon in chapter six not to let his sexuality become known because it would discredit his political views. Knowing Sassoon's sexuality leaves the reader with the question of Graves' sexuality, given they are such close friends. The question of Robert Graves' sexuality is not answered but it is implied that he and Sassoon were once intimate; however, in Chapter 17, Graves clearly says that he is not a homosexual "even in thought." Graves tells Sassoon that his "affections are running in normal channels now" and he would "hate for him to think he was homosexual." Graves also makes it apparent that he is now writing letters to Nancy Nicholson, a girl who he has been writing for a while now (Barker 199). The sexuality of the characters plays into the theme of love between men by offering another example of the love men can share with one another.
Another loving relationship between which men Pat Barker emphasizes in the novel is the relationship of Dr. Rivers and his patients. Rivers offers a sort of fatherly, and in some cases motherly, affection. He listens to all of his patients and does whatever it takes to help them recover, in most cases from shell shock. In chapter two, Rivers is sitting down with Sassoon to have some tea so that he can better understand and evaluate Sassoon's mental stability. Rivers is very honest and demonstrates it when he says he is an army psychiatrist and one of the paradoxes of it is "that you don't get very far by ordering your patients to be frank" (Barker 12). Rivers is having a conversation with Sassoon rather than Rivers asking a series of questions and Sassoon answering, or Rivers lecturing Sassoon on how he should quit being a coward and go back to the front. He wants his patients to be able to talk about their tragic war experiences rather than forget them. He is always there for his patients and is willing to listen, offer advice, and give them a love that is comforting, like a mother's love.
In addition to a fatherly/motherly relationship, as seen with Rivers and his patients and comradeship as seen with Sassoon and his troop of soldiers, we have a brotherly love formed between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. They each have a great interest in poetry, which they share with one another, and they are opposed to the war. Both of these men are homosexuals, but despite their sexual preference, their relationship is a loving friendship. Sassoon offers Owen advice on his writings as an older brother would do for his little brother. In addition, Sassoon also thinks of Owen as a "junior officer" because when they met, Owen wanted an autograph and he stood at his elbow just as a junior officer would (Barker 83). Owen and Sassoon both use poetry as their therapy to escape from their haunting memories and have each other there to listen and understand.
In Barker's novel, we see many loving relationships formed between various characters which makes the theme, love between men during war, more prominent. The fact that men can share a love for one another during such a horrific war is because with a fellow solider you can say exactly what you want and be understood. It is easier if the experience is discussed with someone who is familiar with the situation. The importance of Graves is to be supportive yet concerned for his good friend Sassoon and to be there for him. He understands what Sassoon is going through because he has been through everything that Sassoon has. This relationship offers the introduction of the theme, love between men during war, a theme not only represented in the novel but in all times of war.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.
"Graves, Robert Von Ranke." Encarta Microsoft Encyclopedia Standard. 2002 ed. CD rom. Microsoft Corporation, 2002.
"Biography of Robert Graves." Robert Graves Website Project. 13 April 2003.
"Robert Graves." Academy of American Poets. 13 April 2003. <www.poets.org>
Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. 1995. 14 Apr. 2003. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/style/longterm/books/chap1/lifeonedge.htm>.