Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Human Necessity"

Kristen Ackerman (Spring 2004)

Today, we live in a world where the question, "why?" proceeds nearly every statement or action. We live in a society where faith alone, for most, is not enough to justify belief. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker shows us this need to question by referring to the Gospel of Saint Luke. On page 106, Dr. Rivers recites Luke 4:23 to himself: "Ye will sure say unto me this proverb. Physician heal thyself." Barker uses this Biblical reference to develop a theme concurrent with the entire novel: our innate human need to seek justification for actions.

The phrase, "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb. Physician heal thyself," is spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Saint Luke tells us that at the age of 30 Jesus began his public ministry. Prior to his preaching, he had worked as a simple carpenter in the city of Nazareth (New International Version Bible, Luke 3:23). Upon hearing about the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus left Nazareth and went to Capernaum, a city close to the Jordan River. In Capernaum, Jesus began his teachings. Jesus would preach in synagogues and perform miracles: casting out demons, making the paralyzed walk, and relieving deadly fevers from the sick ("Capernaum").

News of the coming of a Messiah spread all over Galilee, including to Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, where the residents had never known Jesus as the Messiah, or as a man who could perform miracles. To the residents of Nazareth, Jesus was merely a simple carpenter. For thirty years, the people of Nazareth had referred to Jesus as "The Perfect Man," but never had witnessed a miracle or anything that would prompt them to think more highly of Jesus (Gledenhuys 167). The residents of Nazareth had heard of Jesus' miracles at Capernaum and were eager to see if this man, whom they had known since birth, was what he claimed to be. Jesus began preaching to the Nazarenes, but as he spoke the residents began to grumble and question each other: "Isn't this Joseph's son?" (New International Version Bible, Luke 4:22). They did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, because they had not seen any physical evidence; they had not witnessed a miracle. Jesus, sensing their lack of faith, says to them, "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb. Physician heal thyself" (New International Version Bible, Luke 4:23). Jesus would not perform a miracle simply for the sake of performing a miracle, so he left his hometown and all the people he had grown up with.

In his commentary of the passage, Norval Geldenhuys points out that the reason Nazarenes do not choose to accept Jesus is because "an exceptional person is never recognized and treated as a great man by those who know him well" (Gledenhuys 106). Gledenhuys says the reason the inhabitants of Nazareth lack faith is because they do not have any concrete proof before them. They need some evidence that this former native, whom they witnessed struggle with poverty most of his life, has raised his circumstances and improved his position (Geldenhuys 168). Jesus says that the residents will say to him, "Physician heal thyself," meaning, save your own reputation by proving to us that what you say is true. By not performing for his former neighbors, Jesus makes the point that "People are more ready to see greatness in strangers than in those they know well" (Morris 107). Since Jesus had never demonstrated any of his powers for them in his thirty years living in Nazareth, there was no way to justify these powers suddenly appearing; therefore, Jesus had to be lying or simply crazy. In a translation of Luke 4:23 from the Contemporary English Version Bible, Jesus says to the residents, "You will certainly want to tell me this saying, 'Doctor first make yourself well'" (Contemporary English Version Bible, Luke 4:23). This interpretation of Jesus' words suggests something somewhat different than other translations. By saying, "Doctor first make yourself well," Jesus is implying that the citizens of Nazareth believe that before Jesus can heal others, he has start with himself, and deal with his own demons. The citizens do not yet understand that their "Doctor" does not have any demons within himself. Their lack of faith in Jesus does not allow them to submit to his teachings. The people of Nazareth are unable to justify a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, because of his unwillingness to perform a miracle for them.

In Barker's Regeneration, Rivers finds himself identifying with Jesus and the scripture from Luke. Rivers, who is literally a "physician," quotes to himself the Biblical passage. Barker's reference to Luke 4:23, finds Rivers feeling overwhelmed by his emotions towards a war story told to him by Prior. Initially having trouble getting Prior to open up, Rivers finally learns Prior's story and now cannot seem to get the grotesque nature of it out of his head. Rivers struggles to force himself not to think about the story, not wanting to have to take leave because of his mental state. Trying to put Prior's experience out of his mind, Rivers says the verse from Luke to himself: "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb. Physician heal thyself." Rivers understands that his peers and patients expect him to be their therapist, father, and friend. Rivers wonders if he is up to the task. As he quotes Luke, Rivers is staring at his own reflection in the mirror, speaking to himself. Rivers is wondering if he himself is "healed," and if he isn't, how can he heal others?

Rivers' recollection of this scripture prompts memories of Rivers' own father and his own reluctance to submit to his father's authority. Barker's narration tells us that this scripture was a favorite of Rivers' father, yet Rivers has never really given a lot thought to why he liked the verse so much. Rivers begins to wonder why his father would chose to quote this specific verse most often. This fixation with Luke 4:23 is something that has always remained unclear to Rivers. He begins to reflect on the relationships between fathers and sons. He believes most fathers are "opaque" to their sons, just as most doctors are "opaque" to the patients they care for. However, Rivers believes that Billy Prior is an exception to this rule. To Rivers, Prior is one of the only patients who does not see him as opaque or unclear. Prior seems to understand the inner torment which Rivers is experiencing. Realizing Prior's knowledge, Rivers feels inadequate in his ability to complete his job, because he knows Prior sees through him like no other patient can. Prior's insight into Rivers' psyche works to increase Rivers' anxiety in his ability to perform therapy.

The innate need for justification for our actions, an underlying theme of Regeneration, can be seen on numerous occasions in the novel. Throughout the novel, men are constantly questioning the purposes and justification behind actions, just as the Nazarenes questioned Jesus when he went back to Nazareth. The first example of a human need for justification can be seen in Sassoon's declaration against the war. In his declaration, Sassoon says, "I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust" (Barker 3). One might think that Sassoon has fallen into the beliefs of pacifism, but Sassoon denies these claims. Unlike a Pacifist, Sassoon does believe that some wars can be justified; when talking about whether the war is justified he says, "Perhaps this one was when it started. I just don't think our war aims -- whatever they may be -- and we don't know -- justify this level of slaughter" (Barker 13). Sassoon makes the protest because while searching for justification of his actions as a soldier, he is unable to find any. Before he can continue fighting, Sassoon needs some proof that what he was participating in is actually for a greater cause. However, since he can not justify the cause he was working for, he can not be a part of it. Sassoon's actions imply that his innate need for justification was not fulfilled.

Another example of need for justification can be seen in the Army's decision to lock up an officer, Sassoon, in a mental institution. The men who hold power in the army see no explanation for Sassoon's sudden reversal of conviction about the war. In their search to justify Sassoon's actions, they find that the only possible explanation that would save face and explain this bold statement would be insanity. In actuality, Sassoon appears to be quite sane, at least to Rivers who, early on, explains to Sassoon that he does not think that Sassoon has war-neurosis at all: "You seem to have a very powerful anti-war neurosis" (Barker 15). After Rivers makes this comment, Sassoon and Rivers look at each other and laugh. This laughter signals their own personal understanding of the army's motives in trying to discredit Sassoon as a soldier; Rivers and Sassoon realize that the only way the army could justify Sassoon's declaration would be to lock Sassoon up, regardless of what his mental state actually is. To the army, it would be impossible to try to explain how a man of high stature could suddenly take a seemingly unpatriotic stance against the war. Needing to justify Sassoon's declaration, the Army proclaims that Sassoon is "shell-shocked" and sends him to Craiglockhart for treatment, even though they had no evidence that Sassoon was indeed mentally ill. The final decision of the army to send Sassoon to a mental hospital therefore helps to further develop the theme of the entire novel.

The innate need for justification is also demonstrated in the patient/doctor relationship between Rivers and Prior. Upon entering Craiglockhart Hospital, Prior is very skeptical of the treatment given, and specifically Rivers. Having an insight into Rivers that no other patient has, Prior questions whether Rivers has the ability to heal those with war neurosis, when Rivers himself seems to have symptoms. When explaining to Prior about that nature his stammer, Rivers clarifies that his stammer was not caused by the war, that it is lifelong. Prior replies back, "Now that is lucky isn't it? Lucky for you, I mean. Because if your stammer was the same as theirs -- you might actually have to sit down and work out what it is you've spent fifty years trying not to say" (Barker 97). This deeper knowledge of Rivers and his personal torments makes it difficult for Prior to believe in Rivers' powers as a physician. Knowing that Rivers is unable to even "heal" his own war neurosis, makes it hard for Prior to submit to his therapy. Prior needs some sort justification for believing in Rivers' abilities and it is difficult for him to find it because he knows Rivers all too well. Prior says to Rivers, "You know one day you're going to have to accept the fact that you're in this hospital because you're ill. Not me" (Barker 97). Prior is suggesting to Rivers, "Doctor, first make yourself well." Prior needs some absolute proof that the hands that heal him are capable before he can surrender himself their treatment. Prior's need of reassurance in Rivers' abilities as a doctor points to Barker's theme of the innate need of justification for our actions. In Prior's case, as well as others', the action is offering themselves to Rivers as a patient. Without complete faith in their physician a patient cannot submit to the "healing" that is being offered to them.

In Regeneration, there are many examples of men who need justification for actions, search for it, and find it. Ironically, one of the centerpieces of the novel, Rivers, never seems to find the justification he is searching for. Rivers struggles throughout the entire novel to find some sort of justification for sending men back to war. Rivers comes to find his answer while attempting to help Burns. However, Rivers' revelation may not have been the answer he was looking for. Rivers says to himself, "Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing" (Barker 180-181). Barker reminds us that although we, as humans, may seek justification for our actions, in certain situations we may never find it.

Works Cited

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

"Capernaum." Daily Bible Study. 17 April 2004 <>.

Gledenhuys, Norval. Commentary on The Gospel of Saint Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Holy Bible. New International Version. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984.

Holy Bible. Contemporary English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1995. 19 Mar. 2004 < english&version=CEV>.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to St. Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.

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