Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Restoring the Balance"

Alicia Bowman (Spring 2004)

World War I was a war of new technology. There were machine guns, gas bombs, and trenches. Because of this new technology, World War I was also a war filled with atrocities. The men fighting in the war experienced horrors that no human being should have ever experienced. The novel Regeneration by Pat Barker addresses the question of how these soldiers were supposed to recover from these horrors. For Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, there was only one answer -- psychology. On page 29, a patient of Rivers' named Anderson tells Rivers, "That's what you Freudian Johnnies are on about all the time, isn't it? Nudity, snakes, corsets." Freudian therapy is also alluded to on pages 31 and 46, although Freudian methods of analyzing dreams, recognizing symbols, and understanding the unconscious are constants. Rivers helps to bring the traumatized soldiers back to a reality where they can accept life and the duties that they must fulfill through the use of a psychology which draws upon Freud's theories. The appearance of Freudian psychology in Regeneration helps to acknowledge the frailty of the human mind, body, and soul. Rivers' use of psychology is a way to restore the delicate balance of life, giving renewal to a life thought hopeless by its possessor.

Sigmund Freud's life work as a psychologist and psychoanalyst has been very influential. Sigmund Freud (1856-1931) attended college in Vienna where he started writing his many treatises and theories on the psychoanalytical approach. In 1881, Freud got his doctor's degree in medicine. From 1885-86, Freud spent time studying the effects of hypnosis and studied hysteria. From 1900 to 1916, Freud wrote many of his most famous works, such as The Interpretation of Dreams, and gave many lectures. Of all his works and theories, Freud is most known for his theories on the unconscious and for the importance he puts on sex (Thornton). With the start of World War I, Freud began studying several patients suffering from hysteria and shell-shock. He died of cancer in England in 1931.

Freud studied and wrote several theories on neurosis and the use of psycho-analysis as a form of therapy. Freud said that there were several forms in which neurosis appears, including repression, regression, and fixation. Freud felt that in order "to effect a cure, he must facilitate the patient himself to become conscious of unresolved conflicts buried in the deep recesses of the unconscious mind, and to confront and engage with them directly" (Thornton). From here, Freud developed his theory on hysteria. Freud believed that hysteria was "the biological conversion of trauma into symptoms -- that 'psychic pain,' for example, 'often became transformed into physical pain'" (Wain 126). Some of the believed symptoms of hysteria are delusions and paralysis. Freud's descriptions and treatment of hysteria were new discoveries and just being put into use by the start of World War I (Wain).

Freud's methods of treatments focused on facing your fears and working through them slowly. Working through problems slowly with the use of psychology was a new school of thought to the armed forces in World War I. They believed that the soldier / patient was "an unruly child that must be educated with a firm hand" (Binneveld 114). Some, however, believed differently. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers was, in fact, "the most prominent representative of the psychoanalytical approach" (Binneveld 116). Rivers' job was to cure the soldiers so that they could go back to the front. He felt that therapy was the best way to heal the minds of the soldiers. The treatment he performed at Craiglockhart aimed "at bringing out in the open again traumatic experiences that had been repressed and teaching the patient to live with these experiences" (Binneveld 118). The ideas, theories, and works of Freud were behind this aim.

Freud is mentioned several times in Regeneration to show how strong Freud's influence is and how this influence is perceived by both doctors and patients. Barker's first reference to Freudian Psychology is a sarcastic one. It is spoken by a patient named Anderson, a surgeon who can't stand the sight of blood. He calls Rivers a "Freudian Johnnie" (Barker 29). This derogatory term helps to convey the anger that Anderson feels about being ill. It also conveys a sense of disdain that he feels for the Freudian form of treatment. Rivers responds to Anderson's beliefs of Freud being about nudity, snakes, and corsets as being "misconceptions" (Barker 31). Rivers perceives the snake to possibly represent medicine, referring to the snake as the one on the "caduceus badge of the RAMC which he [Anderson] wore on his tunic" (29). Rivers is a psychoanalyst who believes in many of the theories and ideas of Freud. The only problem Rivers seems to have with Freud is his emphasis on sex and wish fulfillment. It is through this non-sexual interpretation that Rivers reveals his psychoanalytic self which accompanies his Freudian self. Despite this question of Freud's emphasis on sex, Rivers is a true psychoanalyst. He uses psychoanalysis to help all of his patients.

By using psychoanalysis, Rivers is able to help many of his patients rebuild their lives and regain the balance that they lost. Billy Prior, like many of the patients, arrives at Craiglockhart as just a remnant of his former self when suffering from these nightmares. It is Rivers' job to restore the delicate balance of his life. This delicate balance of life and the frailty of the human condition caused by an unbalance is a constant theme in Regeneration. We first meet Prior in chapter five. He is a 22-year-old Second-Lieutenant who is mute, yet who has such terrific nightmares that he keeps his roommate up at night. From what we are told of Prior, he resembles nothing of his former young and vibrant self. The balance of his life has been upset by the death of a fellow soldier and the frailty of the human condition is evident. Rivers' only hope to bring back Prior's original self is through psychoanalytic therapy. Unlike Yealland who, later, treats a mute patient with electric-shock therapy, Rivers uses psychoanalysis. Rivers eventually decides to try a psychoanalytic method of hypnosis which does reveal Prior's reason for breakdown. After finding the reason for Prior's breakdown, only talking and facing the truth can help Prior to move on and consider a life with Sarah. The balance of his life is eventually regained.

Rivers also restores balance to Willard's life through psychoanalysis. Willard is suffering from a condition that Freud described in his study of hysteria: he is paralyzed from the waist down for no apparent reason. As mentioned earlier, psychic pain is often transformed into physical pain. This transformation of pain has happened to Willard. Rivers talks to Willard and tells him, "There was no injury to the spine" (Barker 112). Willard responds by asking, "If there's no injury to the spine, then why can't I walk?" In the psychoanalytic conversation that follows, Willard makes the realization that "I can't walk because I don't want to go back" (112). Willard's condition is purely psychological and Rivers helps him to realize the reason of his psychological pain through psychoanalysis. Also through Freudian psychology, Rivers is able to restore the balance to Willard's life so that he can walk again. Time after time, Rivers faces the hardest cases and uses Freudian methods to help. Rivers uses psychology to restore balance to his frail patients' lives.

Psychoanalytic therapy is a huge part of the novel Regeneration. Rivers uses Freudian methods to help most of his patients and himself. It is a valuable tool. For those patients whom psychoanalysis doesn't seem to restore the balance of life, such as Burns, Rivers tries to do the best he can to make their lives livable. Whether success or failure, the use of psychoanalysis to help patients helps us to realize the theme in the book of how a balance must be maintained in life. Rivers' use of Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis gives hope to patients, restoring balanced life to those frail patients who think it impossible.

Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1993.

Binneveld, Hans. From Shellshock to Combat Stress: A Comparative History of Military Psychiatry. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.

Thornton, Dr. Stephen P. "Sigmund Freud." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001. University of Tennessee. 17 Apr. 2004 <>.

Wain, Martin. Freud’s Answer. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

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