Gender Roles in Wilfred Owen’s Regeneration
Pat Barker sets her novel Regeneration in Craiglockhart War Hospital during the First World War. Craiglockhart is where the traumatised and shell shocked British soldiers are sent to be cured under the watchful eye of army Psychiatrist Dr William Rivers. Not only are the soldiers suffering from shell shock, they’re also fighting to save their manliness. Masculinity and gender roles play a massive role in the novel and this essay will show that Barker explores these themes through the thoughts and feelings of the shell shocked and sometimes confused soldiers.
One theme that Barker explores throughout the novel is the theme of homosexuality, and even though it’s not clear, Barker implies that Dr Rivers is homosexual. Barker uses homosexuality in certain parts of the novel and the relationship between Dr Rivers and Craiglockhart patient Siegfried Sassoon is interesting. The first sign of Rivers’ feelings came early in the novel as Rivers was filling out a report for Sassoon, he said to Rivers, “My intimate details disqualify me from military service”, and that’s when, “River’s looked up and smiled.
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I know”. Rivers knew Sassoon was homosexual, and he also knew he could never admit to having feelings for him, as he would have lost everything, so it must have been very difficult for him to deal with. It is clear the relationship between Sassoon and Dr Rivers is growing when they start to see each other outside of the hospital and the feelings of Dr Rivers start to show at a dinner date when Barker writes “None of this prevented him from watching Sassoon’s continued poring over the menu with affection as well as amusement”.
Although this shows the affection Dr Rivers has for Sassoon it is also clear that these feeling might be more than just friendly when during the same dinner date Barker writes, “Rivers watched him as he pored over the menu and thought how much easier his life would have been if they’d sent Siegfried somewhere else”. If Rivers had to suppress these feelings this must have had a detrimental effect on him throughout his time at Craiglockhart, and this would also explain the way Rivers seems to stutter every time he is close to Sassoon. The soldiers of World War One went to the trenches thinking this would prove
their masculinity, but the opposite happened. Barker uses gender roles when she writes, “The war that had promised so much in the way of manly activity had actually delivered feminine passivity”. The men had signed up to fight and prove they were real men, but because of all the time doing nothing down the trenches it had started to starve the soldiers of their manliness, it seems to be a complete role reversal and this is ironic as most of the soldiers are now fighting to save their masculinity as well as their sanity in Craiglockhart with a condition none of them know much about.
These men see shellshock as madness, and if they are mad, they can’t be real men. Every time the patients show any weakness they are ashamed of themselves, and the only way they can prove that they are real men is to get sent back to the trenches, without realising this was the reason they were shell shocked in the first place. The trenches starved the men of action and this in turn took away their masculinity. The one Craiglockhart patient that tries to prove his masculinity more than the others is Officer Billy Prior.
Prior arrived at Craiglockhart as a mute, but his speech returned after a few meetings with Dr Rivers. Prior uses aggressive language towards Dr Rivers, and when he say’s to him, “I did once think of asking you if you ever fucked any of your head hunters”, it is more likely he was just showing male bravado, other than talking about Dr Rivers’ sexuality. Prior tries to prove his masculinity at every opportunity and this could be down to his upbringing, as his mother and father are from two very different walks of life.
Mr Prior is a very hard man, who thinks a bullet in his son’s backside wouldn’t do him any harm, but Mrs Prior is the complete opposite, trying to protect her son from the violence. This is clear during a meeting between Mr Prior and Dr Rivers when Dr Rivers says, “You must be proud of him being an officer? To which Mr Prior replies, “Must I? I’m not proud. He should’ve stuck with his own. Except he can’t, can he? That’s what she’s done to him. He’s neither fish nor fowl, and she’s too bloody daft to see it”. This could be the reason Prior seems confused throughout the novel.
It takes time for Dr Rivers to get through to Prior and at times Prior seems to play games with Dr Rivers. This is clear at one meeting when Prior says “You’ve no right to say I don’t want to get better”, to which Dr Rivers replies, “I didn’t say that”. Sometimes it seems like Prior is testing Dr Rivers and seeing how far he can push him. When Prior meets his girlfriend Sarah, Barker uses gender roles to show Priors confusion when she writes, “He didn’t know what to make of her, but then he was out of touch with women.
They seemed to have changed so much during the war, to have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into smaller and smaller space”. The way women were when Prior went to war is a complete role reversal to when he came out. This is hard for Prior to accept and could be part of the reason he tries so hard to prove his masculinity. The possibilities for women are endless during World War One and Prior can see this in Sarah.
He feels like he is losing his masculinity and women like Sarah are getting more masculine, it may be that prior feels threatened by Sarah in a way. This is clear during a walk on the beach when Barker writes, “He both envied and despised her, and was quite coldly determined to get her”. For Prior to think like that shows what kind of frame of mind he was in and it also shows the contrast between love and hate. The majority of the shell shocked patients in Craiglockhart suffer from nightmares. The experience of the trenches would have been a daunting one to come to terms with.
Barker uses strong imagery when she writes, “A pair of ladies corsets. They fastened them round my arms and tied the laces”, referring to a dream patient Anderson was telling Dr Rivers about during one of their sessions. This dream is also a metaphor for control and a link for gender roles as Anderson feels trapped, tied up in pair of ladies corsets and locked up in a hospital having a nervous breakdown, he’s not a real man any more. It’s ironic that a former army surgeon can’t stand the sight of blood. Out of all the patients in Craiglockhart.
Anderson is the one who has accepted his fate in a way. He could never go back to the front line, and doesn’t want to. Maybe being a doctor is different from being a soldier. Anderson doesn’t feel the need to go back to France and save his masculinity as he doesn’t feel like a real man anymore, and that could be the reason he has these nightmares. Barker sums up the theme of masculinity and gender roles when she writes, “Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feel fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures, not men”.
The patients were afraid to feel fear, afraid to cry, they would bottle all their feelings up and let it out in one burst of emotion. Prior shows this kind of emotion in one session with Dr Rivers when Barker writes, “Prior seized Rivers by the arms, and began butting him in the chest, hard enough to hurt”. Everything Prior has bottled up was coming out. He wanted to show Rivers he wasn’t a sissy or a weakling, and this is the only physical contact Prior is comfortable with. This was Prior’s way of proving to himself and Dr Rivers he is a man.
This is also the first time Prior opened up to Dr Rivers, but he had to do it with aggression, to prove his masculinity to himself, but in reality the only way Prior wanted to do this was to get sent back to the front, something that never happened, and this would have had a detrimental effect on him. Barker explores the theme of homosexuality again with the relationship of Siegfried Sassoon and war poet and Craiglockhart patient Wilfred Owen. Owen wrote all of his famous poems during his time in Craiglockhart, but he couldn’t have done this without the guidance and help of Sassoon.
Although there isn’t any direct quote in the novel to prove the way Owen feels about Sassoon there is a feeling that Owen wants more than just friendship when on Sassoon’s last night Owen say’s to Sassoon, “This is our last evening and I feel as if I’ve just met you”, or it could just be Owens character. Owen was sent back to France at the end of the novel and was killed three months later. Pat Barkers Regeneration is a powerful piece of writing by a thoughtful author. The way she combines real and fictional characters is a joy to read.
The men who fought in World War One and were subsequently sent to Craiglockhart with shell shock had lost everything, even their role as men. This essay shows that Pat Barker explores the themes of masculinity and gender roles throughout the novel by focusing on relationships such as Dr Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, and the argument that Dr Rivers could possibly have feelings for Sassoon. The way war has affected the shell shocked patients of Craiglockhart war hospital, and how they are fighting with every inch of their lives to save their masculinity, desperate to get back to the
front line to prove to themselves that they are still men. This essay also looks at Officer Billy Prior and how he has to prove his masculinity at every opportunity by showing aggression towards Dr Rivers. Although this could have a lot to do with the way he was brought up by Mr and Mrs Prior. And the role reversal that has taken place between men and women in the time Prior’s been in France. Anderson’s nightmares and the way they are a metaphor for control as he feels trapped. How can he be a man when he’s had a nervous breakdown?
The themes of masculinity and gender roles in regeneration are linked to every character in it, and although it is not the overall theme of the novel, Pat Barker explores them well. Anyone who reads Regeneration will realise how much these men struggled, and as it was a time a man had to be a man, masculinity played a big part in their lives. For these soldiers to have a breakdown meant they were not classed as real men, and the feeling amongst the men of Craiglockhart was that they would do anything to prove their masculinity. Even take the chance of getting killed back on the front line in France.