Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Religion: A Vehicle for Peace"

Sarah Siemer (Spring 2004)

In Pat Barker's novel Regeneration, one of the main characters, Dr. Rivers, is presented with a patient who is not mentally ill at all, but very sane. In trying to "heal" this patient, Rivers begins to have an internal conflict about the job he is doing and the job he should be doing. He is fighting with himself until on page 149, he is in a church where they are singing a very popular hymn, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." At this point, Rivers is able to begin resolving his conflict. By using this hymn, Barker is able to emphasize one of the novel's theme: in times of war, reflection on religion not only brings peace to a country, but can bring peace within yourself.

The author of the famous hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" is William Cowper. He was born to John Cowper and Ann Donne on November 26, 1731. In 1768, Cowper moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire ("William Cowper"). Three years later, he started what would be known as the "Olney Hymns," but because of severe melancholy, Cowper did not finish this work until 1779. The very last hymn in this book is "Light Shining out of Darkness" (Cowper). This hymn is the one that most Christians all over England would know as "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." Even though the hymn may not have been as popular among the soldiers on the battlefield, according to Alan Wilkenson's book, The Church of England and the First World War, "[a]t home, 'God moves in a mysterious way' was a very popular hymn" (157). Historians did not comment on why this particular hymn was so popular during the war. However, the verses in the hymn remind Christians that God is watching over them, and that He has a purpose for everything He does (Cowper). This idea may have provided some reassurance to the families and friends of soldiers on the battlefield. Those with loved ones serving their country may have found comfort knowing that God had a plan, and that He was watching over their soldiers.

Other hymns, as well as religion in general, were an important part of the soldiers' and officers' lives. Over forty million prayer books, hymn books, and Bibles were distributed among soldiers during the first two years of war by several different agencies. Many of the books had the typical inscription: "Please carry this in your pocket and read it every day" (Wilkinson 153). Hymns were also a very important part of the soldier's life because they were considered "a link with home." During the war, hearing soldiers sing was a very frequent occurrence. Some of the popular hymns were "Eternal father, strong to save," "Sun of my soul," and "Onward, Christian soldiers." The favorite hymn among soldiers at the front that were going up to the line was "Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling doom" (Wilkinson 153-157). The titles of these hymns are very suggestive, and one can clearly understand what the lyrics are probably about. By singing these hymns, soldiers may have been comforted by the feeling that someone (God) was watching over them. Also, by singing in unison with other members of their unit, the soldiers may have felt less alone, and some of the pressures of battle may have been relieved.

Religion was not only important to soldiers during the Great War. Citizens across the country began to fill the churches of England (Wilkinson 71). During the years of the war, church membership actually increased by 288,496 (Marrs). Because of the dramatic increase in attendance and participation in church services, it was believed that there would be a "religious revival" in England (Wilkinson 71). Religion was an important part of daily life for the regular citizens as well as the soldiers, so it was easier for the soldiers to feel more connected to home, and for families to feel more connected to members on the battlefield. World War One in England was clearly a time when religion became increasingly important, no matter who you were.

Barker eloquently emphasizes the importance of religion in her novel on page 149, when chapter fourteen opens with Dr. Rivers in church hearing the announcement, "Hymn No. 373," signaling that it was time to stand up and sing. In this church's hymnal, "Hymn No. 373" is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." The first two lines of the hymn -- "God moves in a mysterious way/ His wonders to perform..." -- are quoted as Rivers realizes how popular this hymn has become; he realizes that he could not count the number of times he has heard it since the Somme -- a battle that was supposed to be a "decisive breakthrough," but turned out to be a "decisive failure" ending with approximately 420,000 British casualties ("Battle"). By including a scene where Rivers is in a church that is singing this hymn, the importance of hymns during this time in history, especially "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," is emphasized to the reader. Barker also emphasizes the irony of battles becoming disasters rather than victories during the war by mentioning the popularity of the hymn "since the Somme" (Barker 149). This hymn was probably popular after this battle because it helped people cope with the unexpected terrors of war. By using the character of Rivers, who is thinking about the hymn and the irony of battle, readers can better understand the thought process that he is going through that will eventually lead to his peace.

Singing a hymn is not the only religious aspect that has an impact on Rivers' character in this scene. In the middle of the hymn, as Rivers' eyes begin to wander around the church, he sees Abraham and Isaac painted on the east window and his mind also begins to wander. He begins to think about "the bargain" that patriarchal societies are based on, in which the young men must obey their fathers and be prepared to sacrifice their lives, and in return, they will receive an inheritance and the same bargain with their sons. Rivers then realizes that this war is causing the citizens of England to break this bargain -- all the young men actually are sacrificing their lives, while the older men and women of society do nothing to stop it. It is at this point when Rivers' thoughts are interrupted by the final four lines of the hymn, which defer all understanding to God, and then he sits down to wait for the sermon. Just as the sermon begins, the church scene ends and Rivers' thoughts of "the bargain" are not mentioned again. There is tremendous significance in this scene of the novel, because religion is what causes Rivers to start questioning his views on war and the job he is doing. He begins to question the sacrifices his country is making, and whether or not those sacrificed lives are senseless. Unlike the other members of the congregation, at this point Rivers is not comforted by the hymn. In fact, it is the hymn that prompts the questions that will eventually lead to a resolution.

Rivers' religious experience becomes a turning point in Barker's novel because it eventually leads to him finding peace within himself after much thought. The hymn that was sung in church leads to a re-evaluation of himself and his job. It is at this point in the novel when Rivers begins to understand that being a medical officer who helps soldiers and officers return back to the battlefield is a position he no longer desires. Even though he genuinely cares for all of his patients, on page 238 of the novel, after a very suggestive dream about his patients and his role with them, Rivers realizes that he is not really helping these men, he is merely silencing them. He begins to realize that just because he is discharging these men from the hospital does not mean that they are well, and just because the men were admitted into the hospital, does not mean that they were ill. Rivers is finally able to see the gravity of the situation he is putting each one of the patients in after he discharges them. He finally realizes that he wants to get out of the situation he is currently in, and once he does, he knows that he will have peace within himself.

Dr. Rivers' new perspective on his job is brilliantly exemplified through one of his patients -- Siegfried Sassoon -- who helps him understand how he can finally obtain peace. Although Rivers understands that Sassoon is being placed in the hospital for other reasons than being "mentally unsound," he thinks that he can treat Sassoon like his other patients -- he would do his job and return Sassoon to the battlefield. However, after Rivers' religious experience, and grasping a deeper understanding of "the bargain" that he was breaking, he is finally able to understand that he does not want to break it any longer. The character of Sassoon, along with religion, are the two main reasons why Rivers is able to better understand himself and the position he has been in for so many years -- the position he wants to get out of. Thankfully, he is offered another job, and he gratefully accepts it. Because of his insight, Rivers understands that he does not want his job anymore, and by accepting a new one, he is at last able to find peace.

While the hymn only occupies two pages of text in Barker's novel, the significance of it is immeasurable. Dr. Rivers' experience in church that morning is one that he walked away from completely changed, and more in sync with himself. His response to religion caused him to question his established beliefs and ideas and decide to get a new job, which eventually lead to a resolution. After reading Regeneration, the readers will appreciate the role religion can have when one is faced with adversity -- it can bring peace in unexpected ways.

Works Cited

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

"Battle of the Somme: 1 July- 13 November 1916." World War One. 13 March 2002. BBC. 20 April 2004. <>.

Cowper, William. The Complete Poetical Works. Boston: Gould & Lincoln. 13 April 2004. <>.

Marrs, Clifford. "Changing Scenes: Church and Society 1900-1945." Papers on Mission. 16 April 2004. <>.

Wilkinson, Alan. The Church of England and the First World War. London: SPCK, 1978.

"William Cowper 1731-1800: Brief Biography." The Cowper and Newton Museum. 16 April 2004. <>.

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