How Barker Establishes the Theme of Emasculation in Part 1 of ‘Regeneration’.
Masculinity, especially in the context of the early twentieth-century, can be defined through the ability to dominate and control. Throughout Part 1, Barker draws our attention to the way in which the war itself has become responsible for a situation in which thousands of men are broken, traumatised and in crisis. She does this through the characters W.H.R. Rivers, an exhausted war doctor, and his ‘shell-shocked’ patients. Among these are Burns, who cannot keep his food down after a disgusting experience, Anderson, a physician terrified by the sight of blood, and the mute amnesiac Prior. It is through Rivers’ treatment of these patients that Barker conveys the emasculating effect of life on the front line.
It is mostly from Dr Rivers’ point of view that Barker presents ideas about emasculation in Part 1 of Regeneration. Barker places Rivers, who was a real man with the rank of Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), as the central character of ‘Regeneration’. This plays an important unifying function within the novel. For the most part, Rivers is the figure around whom all the other characters revolve. The treatment of his patients leads to his ultimate realisation at the end of Chapter 5 that ‘In advising them to remember the traumatic events that had led to their being sent here, he was, in effect, inflicting pain’, this pain being closely linked to emasculation. The men cannot again become ‘what it is to be a man’, when the treatment takes that away. Rivers himself does not feel emasculated, but Barker uses his point of view to give the reader insight into the emasculation of the patients in Part 1.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of an emasculated character in Part 1 of Regeneration is Billy Prior. In this case, Barker uses the symptoms of mutism and amnesia to present ideas about emasculation. In Chapter 5, when Barker first introduces us to Prior, he repetitively uses the note ‘I DON’T REMEMBER’ as well as the presentation of the note ‘NO MORE WORDS’ in response to Rivers’ assertion that he will regain his memory. These short sentences, which provide no medically useful information, evokes the question of whether Prior does not actually remember his service, or if he does not want to remember his experience as it will be emasculating. In this sense, Barker presents emasculation as something that Prior, and the patients in general, wish to avoid.
Of all the characters in ‘Regeneration’, it is Barker’s portrayal of Burns that most clearly expresses the emasculation caused by the horror of twentieth-century warfare. Based upon an actual figure treated by Rivers, Burns’ experience is repellent in the extreme, and even Rivers can find ‘no redeeming feature’ that will enable him to help Burns come to terms with it. When describing the surreal episode when he strips himself naked in the countryside outside Craiglockhart, Barker makes use of sensual imagery to relate the scene to experience of the frontline. She says that ‘he listened for the whine of shells’ and that ‘his fingers touched slime’. This shows how the content of his mind becomes imprinted on the landscape, transforming it into the image of the battlefield he cannot leave behind. It is clear that this scene links to the concept of emasculation when he ‘cupped his genitals in his hand’. The idea that ‘they didn’t seem to belong to the rest of him’ suggests that the war has emotionally castrated him and taken away his manhood. This is truly indicative of the emasculating effect of war.
Barker also establishes the theme of emasculation through the case of Anderson. His descriptions of his dream of being tied up in ladies’ corsets and beaten with a stick which has a snake coiled around it symbolically expresses Anderson’s deep anxiety regarding his masculine identity. The snake is a Freudian phallic symbol, but it also relates to his medical career. The RAMC, of which both Anderson and Rivers are members, uses as its emblem a staff with a snake coiled around it. The dream indicates that Anderson is emasculated, not only by his traumatic war experiences, but also by his inability to continue his everyday life away from war. The principal symptom of his war trauma, a deeply rooted phobia of blood, not only makes it impossible for him to continue to work as an army doctor, but also affects his long-term ability to provide for his wife and child which means that his position as the traditional masculine husband is jeopardised.
It seems that Barker’s purpose for the establishment of the theme of emasculation in Part 1 of ‘Regeneration’ is to convey the central paradox of war. Although being a soldier is a traditionally manly pursuit, it can deprive a man of his masculinity; causing surgeons to collapse at the sight of blood and courageous fighters to become weeping, trembling hysterics. Barker’s wide scope of characterisation means that most aspects of wartime emasculation are successfully conveyed.
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