|Pat Barker's Regeneration|
"An Unexpected Message from Our Past"
Debbie Swann (Spring 2004)
Who decides that being different is a trait to be looked down upon? In the late 19th century, it was the English Parliament with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, specifically outlawing all forms of male homosexual expression. This law, combined with the already negative attitude surrounding the gay community before and after World War I, implied that homosexuality was something to be ridiculed and scorned. This trend unfortunately continues yet over a century later. Pat Baker's Regeneration, starting on page 54 and continuing throughout the novel, repeatedly uses a non-fictional character, Siegfried Sassoon, to exhibit the unnecessary hurt that homosexuals experienced throughout history, an angle that was often neglected when homosexuals were discussed one hundred years ago. Regeneration displays the conflict that many homosexuals are tormented by when deciding whether to live for themselves and their personal needs or whether to conform in order to blend in with society.
In the late 19th century, the purity movement was well underway in England. Serious efforts made by those involved in legislation were creating "a climate where immorality could be tackled seriously" (Mort 114). With the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill in 1885, the first steps were taken toward an "improved moral climate in the country" (Mort 129). While this new law included some positive improvements such as elevating the age of sexual consent for women from 13 to 16, a surprising addition was made just before the final vote was taken in Parliament. Henry Labouchere, a liberal in the House of Commons, introduced a clause "outlawing all forms of male homosexual contact" (Mort 129). The public embraced the addition and the "general negative attitude toward homosexuality" continued to grow with the law on its biased side as well (Robb 57).
Ten years later, circumstances for homosexual males continued to look grim. On May 25, 1895, Oscar Wilde, a renowned playwright, was found guilty of engaging in homosexual activity and sentenced to the maximum punishment allowed: imprisonment for two years with hard labor. The judge, disgusted with Wilde, declared, "People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame," and he deemed the sentence inapt for such a vial criminal (Barger). In the years following, little change was made to ease the growing tension. When Edward Carpenter published his book The Intermediate Sex in 1909, he encouraged the acceptance and understanding of people with different sexual preferences and practices than those who found themselves in the majority. Trying to invoke his audience's sympathy, he described homosexual men and women as unfortunate people "forced . . . to marry and even have children" in order to fit into society, but still never overcoming "their own bias" and need for a partner of the same sex (Carpenter). Unfortunately, little was accomplished with his daring publication.
With the start of World War I, cultural anxiety and prejudice continued to escalate. According to George Robb, there was "no aspect of human sexuality aroused greater anxiety during the [First World] war than homosexuality" (56). The trenches provided an all-male environment, encouraging "intimate friendships between men . . . [furthering] the expression of male emotion" (57). However, once boundaries of decency and morality were crossed, punishment was quickly enforced and reputations were ruined. During the war, "22 officers and 270 soldiers were court-martialed for homosexual acts in the British Army" (Robb 57). Homosexuality was viewed as a practice that would not be tolerated. The actions of the courts revealed the narrow-mindedness of society again and again. The unfounded fear was still alive and destructive.
Pat Barker, in her fictional novel about a non-fictional man, delves deep into the oppression that homosexuals felt, and continue to feel, about how society views them. In a session with Dr. Rivers on page 53 of Regeneration, Sassoon inadvertently reveals a precious secret: he is gay. Along with this information, he also discloses that because of its positive outlook on homosexuality, Carpenter's The Intermediate Sex saved him from despair. After reading it, Sassoon was reassured, knowing that he "wasn't just a freak" (54). Even though the secret could "disqualify [him] for military service," he believes he should not be ashamed of that which makes him who is his (70). Although Rivers concurs with Sassoon, Rivers warns him that though "there's nothing more despicable than using a man's private life to discredit his views," it is sadly a practice "frequently done"; for that reason, Sassoon better be careful (55). Making a Declaration against the war and also being a homosexual, Sassoon is currently a double threat to many important people; therefore, his future could be in danger. Inserting these details into the scene, Barker displays the common conflict many homosexual males found themselves in during World War I: torn between living the life they wish to live or the life society forces them to lead.
Barker further illustrates the negative aspects of English society in an encounter Sassoon has with his friend Robert Graves on page 199. After telling Sassoon about a male friend caught "soliciting outside the local barracks," Graves timidly confesses, "since that happened my affections have been running in more normal channels" (199). He is dating a woman, a practice more suitable in society's eyes. Graves, epitomizing Carpenter's previously mentioned argument, shows the apprehension felt at the thought of being caught in homosexual practices "even in thought" (199). When Sassoon's friend views his homosexuality as "abominable" and "disgusting," Sassoon compares himself to "a precipice on a country road" and out of place in a heterosexually driven world (203). Already vulnerable in the law's spotlight due to his anti-war declaration, Sassoon is frustrated that he has so few options. His hopes that attitudes about homosexuality were improving were misconstrued, so he must hide his secret or conform with society, just as Graves has done. "Nobody should live like that," Sassoon decides (205). It is not justified that society's irrational fear pressures someone into hiding who they really are.
Though Rivers sympathizes with Sassoon's unfortunate situation in a prejudiced society, he bluntly tells Sassoon that he must face the reality of the world he lives in. Rivers explains that though society could, in the future, become more accepting, it is not likely "that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime" (204). "It's time [Sassoon grew up and lived] in the real world," whether or not he agrees with it (205). Society is not accepting, making no exceptions, especially to one who is already a threat to the war-front because of his "pacifist" views. "You're vulnerable," Rivers tells him, and there is "no point pretending [that he is] not" (204). Though it may not be just, Sassoon must choose to be persecuted or hide his means of expression. The world does not care if it is fair; it only knows that it does not approve of those who are different.
At the end of the novel, the reader is still left with an unyielding, homophobic society and, consequently, an unsettling ending for Sassoon. Deciding to go back to war, Sassoon has conformed in an important area of his life. Though he claims he "[wants] to go back" because of his duty to his men, one must wonder how much of himself he is sacrificing with this difficult choice (213). It is possible that this trend of sacrifice could cross over into other areas of his life. This disconcerting tone causes the reader to reevaluate his or her own views about those who find themselves in the oppressed minority and how society may treat them. Sassoon's characterization facilitates a possible change in the reader's perspective. He is a compassionate character who cares for his men on the field who risk their lives everyday. Such a quality should be admired and cherished, regardless of all else, even homosexuality. So why must he change who he is? Because society says so; at least, that is the reason society forces others to accept.
It is true that society came a long way in the seventy years between the Great War and Regeneration's publication. It has come even farther in the years since 1991 as well. However, unnecessary prejudice remains, forcing many who are deemed as a "canker of immorality" to hide who they really are (Mort 113). Terrible events, like genocide and war, are caused by the closed-mindedness of those who fear the minority. Bringing a prejudiced perspective from history to modern-day readers, Barker hopes to plant a seed for change. Using Sassoon's historical background and charismatic personality, Barker encourages the reader to question the irrational alarm that society still possesses today that associates characteristics that people do not or cannot understand with the creation of unnecessary prejudice and hate. The reader can thus seize this message that Barker has instilled and take the much-needed steps away from hate and toward acceptance.
Barger, Jorn. "Oscar Wilde's 1895 Martyrdom for 'Indecent Acts.'" 1999. Instinct.org. 19 April 2004. <www.robotwisdom.com/jorn/wilde.html>.
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.
Carpenter, Edward. The Intermediate Sex. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1909. Marxists.org. 2000. 19 April 2004. <http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/carp/interm.htm>.
Mort, Frank. Dangerous Sexualities. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1987.
Robb, George. British Culture and the First World War. New York: Palgrave, 2002.