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Literature / The Regeneration Trilogy

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Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated lieutenant in World War I before he published this letter of protest and declared that he would no longer take part in the war. His friend Robert Graves persuaded the Medical Board not to court-martial him, and instead Sassoon was sent, to his disappointment, to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh. There, among the many other shell-shocked soldiers, he was assigned to Dr. William Rivers in the hope that Rivers would "cure" him of his delusions and make him fit to be sent back to the front.

This is the opening, real life premise of The Regeneration Trilogy, by British author Pat Barker, which takes place in 1917 and 1918 in Britain and France. Although the books are fictional, they feature several historical figures such as William Rivers, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Lewis Yealland, Lewis Carroll, as well as many, many more. They explore the effects of war on the minds of soldiers and civilians, the ethics of psychological treatment, the spectrum of sexuality, and different forms of duality. In general they mix serious philosophical discussions with fascinating characters and an in-depth portrait of wartime England.

The first book, Regeneration, mainly takes place at Craiglockhart. Its principal subjects are the relationships between Rivers, his patients, and the other men at the hospital, as they attempt to deal with their trauma and the overarching philosophical and ethical questions in their treatment and past experiences. Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, and Rivers has some extremely challenging patients, including Billy Prior, who is a central character for the next two books.

In the second book, The Eye in the Door, Prior leads a double life in many complicated ways—as a bisexual, Ministry of Munitions employee and friend of a pacifist family, who observes sexual and social class hierarchies from a working-class background, and who struggles against a developing split personality. Throughout all this, he maintains a relationship with his girlfriend Sarah Lumb, whom he met in Regeneration. The government is prosecuting pacifists, and prejudice against homosexuals rises when a “black list” starts to circulate in the paranoid wartime society. Sassoon and River’s stories also continue.

In the third book, The Ghost Road, several main characters return to the front. Rivers, taking care of his sick sister and worrying about his patients who are back in the war, remembers his experiences as an ethnographer in the Pacific Melanesian Islands before the war, as he meditates on different methods of curing and cultural views towards death.

Regeneration was made into a movie in 1997, called Regeneration in the UK and Behind Enemy Lines in the US. It was directed by Gillies McKinnon and starred Jonathan Pryce as Rivers, James Wilby as Sassoon, and Jonny Lee Miller as Prior.

Tropes in The Regeneration Trilogy:

  • A Father to His Men: Sassoon—he's more of the age to be a big brother, but still fits the trope.
  • Afraid of Blood: Anderson, a former surgeon, who can’t stand the sight of blood after his experience in battle.
    • Actually, he was a surgeon who was given a patient, on a busy day, who spoke no English, and was so filthy that Anderson couldn't see a huge wound as he stitched minor ones, until the boy bled to death in front of him.
  • Armchair Military: The people to whom Sassoon appeals with his letter, and the main people he hates, for their War Is Glorious attitude and disregard of the rising death toll.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Rivers is very good at these.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The headhunters on the Eddystone Islands, who are under British rule, who Rivers lives with and studies as an ethnographer.
  • Based on a True Story
  • Beleaguered Childhood Friend: Mac and the Roper family for Prior.
  • Cannon Fodder: Every soldier. Including Prior and Owen’s unit at the end of the books and the war.
  • Crapsack World: Both in the war and back home.
  • Cure Your Gays: Discussed. Many people in the Real Life British World War One government would like to see this happen.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Prior, all the time. Sassoon can also be quite snarky when he’s angry.
  • Death Seeker: Sassoon in The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. He ends up surviving the war, after sustaining a serious head wound.
  • Does Not Know How to Say "Thanks": Prior does thank Rivers at the end of Regeneration, but he’s extremely awkward about it.
  • Domestic Abuse: Prior’s father, the Alcoholic Parent.
  • Double Consciousness: This is a major theme throughout the books. Rivers, Prior, and Sassoon have many dilemmas of conflicting professional, sexual, social, and familial identity—and that’s just the beginning.
  • Downer Ending: Only natural in a book about World War I, and the reader might already know about some of the historical characters' deaths.
  • Electric Torture: Lewis Yealland, who has a very condescending view towards mental illness, uses electroshock therapy on his patients.
  • Eye Scream: One of Prior’s worst war memories is of picking up one of his soldier’s eyeballs, after a bomb hits their trench and kills two men.
  • Faceless Eye: A recurring theme—as well as the Eye Scream above, the jails have a hole in the door to spy on prisoners, which Prior sees as an actual eye.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: After Prior’s “Mr. Hyde” self betrays Mac to the police, he visits Mac in jail and tells him this fable, bitterly asking how Mac and the Roper family, the farmers, could have expected anything else of Prior, the viper.
  • General Failure: The junior officers have nearly all been given unbelievably stupid orders by superiors who either don't know what the front looks like or are just out to make grand gestures whatever the cost. Though one of the men's greatest horrors is having made- or thought one has made- a terrible mistake oneself.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Made even more difficult when the characters are questioning their own sanity.
  • Hero-Worshipper: Arguably how Sassoon and Owen's relationship began, although they were much closer friends than this trope usually implies. In any case, Owen's emulation of Sassoon and Sassoon's profound influence on his style are well documented in Real Life. In Regeneration, Owen, as a fan of Sassoon's poetry, asks him to sign some books; in return, Sassoon persuades Owen to show him some of his own writing, and helps him to start writing about the war.
  • Internalized Categorism: What happens when you’re a male soldier in love with another male soldier, and those in charge tells you that gays are depraved and that homosexuality is a threat to the nation’s security? You could become Armored Closet Gay, or end up in a place like Craiglockhart as a result of a Freak Out. Barker also makes some interesting points about internalized classism. And the self-hatred of the men who feel they shouldn't have broken down at all.
  • It's All Junk: Sassoon throws his military cross, an award for extreme bravery, into the river. He explains that he wasn’t in agony—he was upset.
    • He did this in Real Life, and explains that it wasn't an act of protest; he was just in a bad place mentally and wanted to destroy something valuable to make himself feel better. His MC ribbon just happened to be all he had to hand, and one of his pre-war sporting trophies would have done just as well.
  • Mercy Kill: Manning has to do this after one of his men is injured and slowly drowning in a mud pit.
  • Missing Time: This starts to happen to Prior in The Eye In The Door. Some of the effects:
    • Split Personality: he describes it variously as Jekyll & Hyde or the Enemy Within.
    • Gollum Made Me Do It: When he goes to see Rivers in the “fugue state” and also when he betrays Mac.
    • The Heartless: “I was born in the trenches…”
      • Though despite all this, when Rivers meets the other Billy Prior, he doesn't consider him evil, as such- Rivers' overriding impression is of someone emotionally immature.
  • North East England: Where Prior and Sarah are from. Oop North. Prior likes to satirize this.
  • Parental Substitute: By the end of the trilogy, Rivers realizes that he has become closer to a father figure than a therapist for many of his patients.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Yealland might qualify, though Rivers subverts this. That doesn't stop him questioning his own sanity.
    • It's very ambiguous with Yealland- partly because of Values Dissonance, but because all treatment of the mentally ill was in its early stages- both doctors' approaches were still experimental. (The doctors at Craiglockhart also vary a bit in what they try for therapy).
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The reason people come to Craiglockhart, after they have crossed the Despair Event Horizon or experienced Heroic BSoD. A few of their symptoms:
  • Team Dad: Rivers. As well as:
  • Team Mom: The role that the officers play.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: Many patients at Craiglockhart suffer from this, including Prior. He eventually remembers under hypnosis.
  • Troubled Fetal Position: often after the nightmares.
  • Twitchy Eye: and many other tics.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Rivers often takes on this role.
  • Second Love: Prior, for Sarah.
  • Shoot the Dog: Wartime standard procedure. It even happens literally in The Ghost Road.
  • Single-Issue Psychology: Deconstructed. The characters often have one incident that particularly bothers them but its explained that these were just the little nudge needed to push them over the edge.
  • Speech Impediment: Rivers, whose father was a speech therapist, stuttered badly as a child, and still works to control it.
  • The Stoic: Sassoon.
  • Straight Gay: Sassoon, Owen, Manning and (its implied) Rivers
  • To Be Lawful or Good: For everyone. Sassoon’s decision of how to speak out against the war, Graves’ decision of how to respond to that, and Rivers’ decision of how to deal with Sassoon just start off the story.
  • The Un-Favorite: Rivers is implied to be this, especially since his parents’ friend Lewis Carroll preferred girls.
  • War Is Hell: Truth in Television.
  • Warrior Poet: Sassoon, Owen, and Graves, the Young Future Famous People.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Rivers constantly asks himself this, after he declares Sassoon fit for duty.