Explore the psychological and moral impact of war on soldiers and civilians in Pat Barker’s Regeneration and Wilfred Owen’s poetry. In the course of your writing show how your ideas have been illuminated by your response to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and other readings of both core texts.
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Wilfred Owen’s poetry and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 can all be categorised as subjective war texts as the main structural principle is not dominated by character’s actions, but rather, this is subordinated by the moral and psychological processes upon those individuals. Here the authors have used war to present a larger theme or moral implication, by centring the literary texts on war’s impact, whether that be a physical or a psychological manifestation of war’s disturbing effects.
Barker wanted primarily to focus her novel on the lasting effects of war, specifically WWI in which this novel is set. In order to do this she has used horror sparingly, allowing her to still show the suffering of the characters without detracting from the point of the novel. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Barkers use of vivid flashbacks to make the soldier’s torment apparent. For example, Burns a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital is left psychologically damaged, after being thrown ‘head-first, on a corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact’. Barker intended that her novel be focused on the psychological and moral processes of war, in order to educate the public as to the extent of wars reach, in an attempt to prevent the continuation of war. The chronological ordering and interlinking protagonists results in a sense of fluidity, where the ease of reading and direct writing style allow Barker to more effective present her argument, although the novel allows us to draw our own conclusions.
Heller’s novel set in WWII focuses on the damage inflicted by the war on the soldier’s minds, both in driving them to madness and in blurring the line of moral duty and conscience. Heller never addresses the psychological impact formally: Instead he broaches the subject using satirical dialogue, whereby he shows the men to have been driven to madness and that it is just accepted in war time. But this callousness is mocking, as is made apparent by the underlying dark humour, which demands this novel be taken seriously. Heller intensifies the dark mood of the text with snapshots of horrific imagery and blunt observations. The circling non-linear order of the story appears haphazard; this reflects the illogical nature of war. Heller’s structuring, as commented by Russ Allbery, ‘requires that the reader pay close attention to maintain the order of events’: Thereby ensuring that the reader fully engages in the text and is able to appreciate Heller’s moral implications. Allbery also commented on Heller’s last structural technique, as the ordering ‘does lead to an effective juxtaposition at the climax of the book’.
Many people have commented that Owen uses horror in order to shock the reader into the realization of what war can do. A prime example of this is EXPOSURE, based on Owens own experiences it ‘exposes’ the reader to the realities of war. The poem centres on the physical conditions of the soldiers who are ‘exposed’ to the elements, which are so horrendous that the men long to go into battle as they see the bullets as ‘less deadly than the air ‘. The weather is personified ‘His frost’, as the elements are now the enemy that are slowly killing them. It is also a reflection of the mental conditions of war, as Owen details what the men are subjected to we see their progression into despair and probable depression. Owen shows the environment is quick to impact the soldiers as from the first line they have all ready been worn down by the unrelenting winter, ‘our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds’.
The soldiers then become frustrated and anxious, ‘but nothing happens’, ‘we cringe in holes’. Stanza’s s five and six are more heavily punctuated to show the soldiers exhaustion, until ‘slowly our ghosts drag home’. These soldiers may not have been fighting on the front lines, but this is no less serious, as they died slowly and agonisingly. Wilfred was aware when writing EXPOSURE that the public would not have realised the true severity of life in the trenches.
Indeed all his poems are in an attempt to educate civilians as to the true horror of war, in a bid to prevent more men being put to death or derangement. The last stanza reiterates just how dangerous and brutal their surroundings were: ‘Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,’ the weather has taken all the warmth and life out of them, leaving bodies so disfigured they are unrecognisable. Wilfred Owen’s letter’s home to his mother from the front line during WWII show the inspiration for the traumatic images in his poetry, as he confides in her that ‘It has passed the limits of my Abhorrence.’
In order to focus Regeneration on the impact of war Pat Barker uses Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart, as the central character. As Rivers comes into contact with other characters displaying symptoms of having been impacted by war, Barker is then able to follow individual cases fully exploring the lasting impression that war has left. This also allows her to provide a historical structure as Rivers has extensive knowledge about the war and particularly its psychological effects, which he communicates throughout the novel. Rivers then provides a historical structure in another sense. Inevitably, in war literature there is an element of realism due to historical basis, but Pat Barker emphasises this though intertextuality.
She interviews historical context such as Rivers’s character, who is drawn from Dr. W.H. Rivers who conducted experiments on nerve regeneration in the early twentieth century, integrating him with her fictional characters. The inspiration for Rivers came from her husband who was a neurologist familiar with Rivers’s work. Indeed, the immediate inspiration for Regeneration came from Barker’s husband. Barker then links directly with WWI through the use of famous persons or institutes associated with WWI such as Sassoon, Owen and Craiglockhart.
The first case within Regeneration to be examined was that of Sassoon. Barker shows Sassoon to have been labelled ‘shell-shocked’ in order to discredit his declaration. It is clear from the outset that not all people, specifically those in high command, take war neurosis or in this case, neurasthenia, seriously. Rivers states that ‘Langdon doesn’t believe in shell-shock’, Rivers is Barkers voice, though him she establishes the relationship between the mental institutions and the Government. Throughout the novel emphasis is put on the lack of awareness by civilians as well as officials, so that the reader may gage the importance of understanding in order to prevent these atrocities from reoccurring.
Wilfred Owen’s centralisation on the psychological manifestation of wars effect’s, is so that he may proceed to look at a larger theme and moral implication. Owen intended to demonstrate to the public the extent to which these men were pushed, under which conditions they are driven to the verge of madness. Owen’s hope was to rid the public of their ignorance, providing them with the understanding of how crippling our attitudes can be. In his PREFACE he stated that he was ‘not concerned with poetry’…’Poets must be truthful’, by this he meant that he would not write to glorify war, but to warn and try to stop the war.
SELF INFLICTED WOUND shows the pressure put on one particular soldier, by not only the horrific conditions of battle and war, where he was forced to undergo the ‘torture of lying machinally shelled’, but the expectations on him to be able to cope with it and ‘show the Hun a brave man’s face’. Owen creates an atmosphere of entrapment, ‘roofed in with creeping fire’, reflective of that that the soldier must have lived in. Contained by the expectation of his family that is made clear ‘Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!’ The dangerous conditions in the trenches are emphasised by listing, ‘trench foot, shock’ etc.
But ‘death seemed still withheld’, Owen shows the soldier to have become suicidal because of the physical as well as mental pressures of war. The ‘English ball’ in the third stanza is an English bullet; they made different bullets so that they could tell if someone had committed suicide. The two suicides in the poem were not then isolated incidences, if there was a need for this ‘English ball’. In the last verse they bury the soldier with the ‘muzzle his teeth had kissed’, this is perverse because he kisses his killer. Yet there is a sense of relief in the line ‘Tim died smiling’, as he is now free of the pressure of war. The structure of S.I.W. is incongruent and arbitrary, the rhyme scheme and rhythm vary particularly after the Prologue, as he had then experienced the horror of war.
Barker’s apt placement of Sassoon’s declaration ‘Finished with the War,’ at the beginning of Regeneration establishes that the continuation of war can be stopped, ‘by those that have the power to end it’. Everything that follows in novel is consequential to the decisions made by those in authority; because of the introduction the reader is aware that all the suffering shown can be prevented. Barker accentuates the point of this omnipotent leadership condemning the men to the inevitable suffering and mental torture demonstrated by the very existence of Craiglockheart.
But more importantly, to the devolvement of power whereby officers and civilians are party to the continuation of war, and so, to the continual sentencing of death and derangement for all those conscripted. This is what Sassoon feels duty bound to protest against; he refuses to ‘be a party to prolong these sufferings’. Sassoon is used both as a symbol of the soldiers condemned to follow orders until they are of no use, and of the officers condemned to sentence the soldier to their inevitable death. Sassoon, along with Rivers epitomises the conflicting moral obligations thrust upon soldiers and civilians alike.
Sassoon and Rivers battle with the idea of ‘duty’, a value brought to the forefront in 1914 with the beginning of war. Barker’s protagonists discover that when fulfilling ‘their obligations to king and country’ their duties conflict with their personal duty to individual freedom and belief’s. It has been remarked that Barker cleverly plays these two characters off one another, in order for them both to examine where their duties lie and how best they will serve society. In highlighting their conflict Barker encourages the reader to contemplate what war asks of the individual. Rivers is given Sassoon’s case by the Board to assess Sassoon’s mental state in view of his declaration. But it soon becomes apparent to Rivers that he is completely sane, in their first interview Rivers admits as much to him, ‘of course you’re not mad’. This then puts Rivers in an awkward position, as he realises his paradoxical role as army doctor means that because Sassoon’s ‘a mentally and physically healthy man.
It’s his duty to go back, and it’s my duty to see that he does’. He confided in Bryce (a fellow psychiatrist,) that he was ‘hoping’ to find something wrong with Sassoon. Rivers feels as a doctor and fellow sufferer a need to protect Sassoon, but as an officer is forced to send him away into danger. Rivers’s role as a doctor is somewhat conflicting, within the novel he tries to justify or suppress the idea that these men are being sent to him to be cured, and as soon as he helps them they are being sent away to either come back to him or be killed. The curing process is also at odds with his character, as he finds in his attempt to prevent further suffering he must make his patients recall horrifying memories of their pasts.
Burns, one patient in particular, had such an unbearable experience that Rivers no longer had the heart to try to make him talk about it; ‘I can’t make myself think about it’. His duty as a doctor to induce pain in his patients is at variance with his duty as a human to prevent the pain of his friends. Rivers is able however, to help Sassoon in resolving the tension between his duty to his country and duty to his citizens, by encouraging him to return to war for the sake of the soldiers. Although at the end of the novel Rivers clearly sympathises with Sassoon, contemplating that ‘a society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.’ This mirrors as well as confirms Sassoon’s declaration, ensuring that the reader retain Barkers most important moral.
Heller’s Catch-22 is drawn from his own experiences during WWII; in 1942 he joined the Army Air Forces to become an officer and bombardier, much of what he saw is reflective in the novel and much of his consequential views are also present. Heller completed his sixty missions and was awarded an Air Medal as well as a Presidential Unit Citation with his honourable discharge. ‘Honour’ and integrity feature heavily in Catch-22, as Heller reflects on the psychological and moral process upon those impacted by war. It is not as easy for those in Catch-22 to leave their service as it had been for Heller, particularly for Yossarian. Yossarian struggles throughout the novel to rid himself of his duties to his country and is finally presented an opportunity by Colonel Korn. Yossarian has refused to fly any more missions and the Officers are worried that others will follow his example, but if they send him home it will look like a reward.
So Colonel Korn proposes that Yossarian be made a Major and sent home as a hero, (provided that Yossarian tells the other men how wonderful he generals are), or they will court-martial him. Yossarian initially thinks that it’s ‘a pretty scummy trick’, as it’s not really giving him any choice, to which Colonel Korn replies ‘Odious’. Here Yossarian is faced with a moral dilemma; in order to save himself he might ‘serve as an inspiration to them to fly more missions’. Yossarian caves, deciding that the others can stand up for themselves and agrees to the deal. Upon leaving his new ‘pals’ he is promptly attacked by Natley’s whore, who some critics have suggested embodies Yossarian’s conscience and symbolises an attack of guilt. During Yossarian’s stay at the hospital (as a result of the attack), he is able to reflect on the deal and who his real ‘pals’ are.
Yossarian’s moral conflict results in him realising that he can’t go through with the deal because it would be at the expense of the other men. He tells Major Danby ‘I’m breaking the agreement’, Danby is horrified but Yossarian turns the tables on him asking how he can work with people like Cathcart and Korn, to which Danby replies ‘because it’s my duty’. Here Heller uses the idea that war results in conflicting moral obligations much the same as Barker does, Danby must help those that misuse power as they rank above him and it is his ‘duty’.
Yossarian then discovers the missing pilot Orr actually escaped, Yossarian feels liberated as now he knows how he can leave without causing harm to his fellow soldiers and can help the young girl. When Danby protested saying; ‘your conscience will never let you rest’. Yossarian laughed and replied ‘I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings’. Heller intended the reader to see that war is immoral and we should be ruled by our conscience. This is emphasised at the very end where Nately’s whore (a symbol of his conscience) tries to kill him again, but this time she misses as Yossarian has done the right thing. He finally resolves the struggle of his conscience.
Within FUTILITY Owen question’s why creation is destroyed with no seeming purpose, in particular the creation of man. Owen questions the destruction of life in order to show how precious it is, yet in war we not only intend to kill our ‘enemies’ but sentence our own soldiers too. Owen hoped to show the moral implications of war and it’s psychological impact on the soldiers. He uses the sun as a symbol of creation, as it ‘wakes the seeds’ and gives life to the earth. But although so much has gone into making man, ‘so dear achieved’, in the end the ‘fatuous’ sunbeams are powerless. Here Owen sets natures power to create life against the futility of extinction. There is a sense of ambiguity in the last line as the poem comes to nothing; this is reflective of the fact that there is no reconciliation for the miracle of creation being laid to waste.
Which is mirrored in the first stanza where the ‘fields unsown’ is used both as a literal example of the life that the dead will never go back to, as well as a metaphor for the tragedy of life left unfulfilled. The last line can also be linked to Owens poem EXPOSURE, as that too comes to nothing ‘but nothing happens’, giving no relief to the soldiers. The tone of FUTILITY is made peaceful through use of natural imagery and soft words such as ‘gently’. The diction is simple and used together with one syllable words shows the deep felt mood, creating a factualness through it’s simplicity.
Yet it is mournful and has a sinister undertone, the endless sleep is a referral to death and the continual questioning in stanza two creates a sense of despair. Owen is quick to avoid smoothness by shortening the first and last line of each stanza. He further disturbs the natural rhythm through pararhyme; ‘sun-sown’, ‘once-France’ etc. Pararhyme has been commented to be a favourite among Owen’s techniques; it is particularly apt to describe war due to it producing an effect of dissonance and failure.
Pat Barker, Wilfred Owen and Joseph Heller each explore wars processes upon the individual, in particular the psychological and moral impact. The texts do not glorify war, but rather, show the un-sung horror and extent of its true reach. The act of war is forgotten, as the authors place the significance on society’s power a whole and the power of the individual, to prevent the reoccurrence or continuation of war.