In the novel Regeneration the theme of heroism is quite prominent. There are many characters that are heroic and are revealed to be heroic through the narrative. One of these characters is Dr Rivers. He is the main protagonist in the novel and it is through his personal journey that the story is told. The omniscient narrator is a key element of the story telling; we find out what each of the characters are thinking and feeling without them having to spell it out with dialogue. This is a good way for the reader to understand more about each character than they are willing to give away to each other. Rivers’ journey can be shown through his struggles with his duty and his strong values about honour. His heroism comes to the fore metaphorically as he reaches the conclusion to carry on helping his patients even after he has realised that not everyone can be ‘fixed’.
His heroism is also shown literally when he risks his own life against the rising tide to save the life of David Burns from suicide by drowning. Rivers compares himself to Dr Yealland, looking at his work and seeing the results that Yealland can achieve in such a short space of time. Rivers sees his own method as doing his duty; to send the men back to the war front ‘better’ and ready to fight. Yealland’s methods are cruel and sadistic, but they also work, they make the men able to fight again. So in theory he is doing his duty as well. It is this juxtaposition between his own methods and Yealland’s that Rivers has problems with.
He shows us, however, that just because his methods take longer and are less cruel, that he is showing some elements of caring for his patients that are more like a father figure would. It takes a lot more strength to send a now mentally stable man back into the chaos and craziness of war when you care about them and their welfare. Rivers says ‘obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role that they had – however unconsciously – rejected’, (chapter 22, page 238). His journey to the conclusion that he did in fact help people, no matter what his feelings about the war and the paradoxes it draws, is shown by Barker as heroism.
It is reflected in his actual act of heroism; one that comes at the end of a novel filled with him being unwell and mentally questioning himself and his actions. It shows that he can both be physically and mentally heroic and that he was never a weak or cowardly man. His dedication to his work and his sense of duty is seen when Graves says ‘When you put the uniform on, in effect you sign a contract. And you don’t back out of a contract merely because you’ve changed your mind’, (chapter 3, page 23) Rivers agrees with Graves, he says ‘I couldn’t agree with you more’, but he also sees that the best way to stand up for your principles is to ‘do the job’ and change people’s minds in a different way. Pat Barker has in her novel used a heroic yet gentle and caring protagonist that reflects her personal understanding of the war and its effects on her grandfather who fought in the First World War.
She could see how the war had affected him and used this knowledge and understanding in a very poetic and moving way within the novel. Her patients are all deeply troubled and even Dr Rivers himself. Using this very human and relatable way of portrayal she makes the character of Rivers very believable and sympathetic. The empathy of the audience and the hope that he will be able to ‘fix’ himself as well as ‘fixing’ his patients is what makes the novel compelling and intense. Her way of writing is very subtle and lyrical.
There are moments when you lose yourself completely in the images in your head. The visions of the trenches throughout the text are very memorable. Seeing the halls of Craiglockhart as trenches, with ‘the long narrow passage with its double row of brown doors and the absence of natural light. ‘Like a trench without the sky.’’ (chapter 2, page 17) is symbolic of Rivers’ views about wishing he could see the front again, ‘Rivers pulled the curtains to, and settled down to sleep, wishing, not for the first time, that he was young enough for France.’ (chapter 9, page 108). The symbolism and imagery of the trenches is also about how trenches are in fact just the massive graves of the young men killed in battle, where other soldiers have to live and breathe there in the open graves of others.
When Prior, after being hypnotised, recalls what he was repressing and it was cleaning up the trench after his patrol was killed, Rivers says to him ‘You did your duty. You’ve nothing to reproach yourself with. You even finished cleaning the trench’, (chapter 9, page 105), it pulls both elements together: The trenches and the idea of duty and honour above breaking down and being weak. Rivers’ beliefs about duty and honour are tested when he questions himself, especially after seeing Yealland’s work. He believes that the way Yealland works is too emotionally and physically sadistic, too cruel to be of lasting help and concludes that his own way of working is better as it exerts no control over the patient but allows the patient to control their own recovery.
Rivers’ heroism is that he rejects Yeallands ideals and remains a good doctor, who helps people and he can feel proud and good about the methods he uses and the people he has saved. He gets from Head the reassurance he needed when he felt guilty about Sassoon’s decision to go back to the war. Head says ‘You and Yealland doing essentially the same thing. Good God, man, if you really believe that it’s the first sign of dementia,’ and ‘get it clear whose decision it was that he went back’, (chapter 23, page 240-241).
Sassoons decision calls into question the definition of madness for Rivers. Is Sassoon mad for wanting not to fight, against all honour and duty? He decides to go back to be with his men that need him, not to make a stand about the war, but if he were to, that would be the better way to do it, rather than rebelling. Rivers questions whether he himself is mad, for sending broken men that he’s ‘cured’ back to the front to face death again. The question of duty and honour is not black and white in war time. The heroism that Rivers shows is in accepting the fact that war cannot be stopped, and making any difference that he can is worth it because he can sleep easily at night knowing that he saves lives.