'So, you agree with his views but not his actions? Isn't that rather an artificial distinction?' 'No, I don't think it is. The way I see it, 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.'
This dialogue between Rivers and Graves is found in Part One, Chapter 3, of Regeneration. Rivers asks Graves to explain his views about war and about Sassoon's protest. Graves responds that he does not see it as artificial to agree with someone's views but disagree with his actions. Graves's response is important because it reveals a complex attitude toward war and protest, one shaped by a traditional English public education and traditional values. Although Graves agrees with Sassoon that the war is wrong, he cannot condone Sassoon's method of protest. He believes that when one agrees to fight for one's country, one is bound by an unalterable contract. Graves's words are based upon traditions of duty and honor, concepts that have been taught to the English people—and especially to the English upper classes—for centuries. Graves cannot imagine anything worth risking one's honor. Rivers, however, skeptically draws Graves's distinction into question, asking whether one does not have a duty to his beliefs as well as to his contract. This question, which is unresolved in the novel, is a central conflict that drives the plot.
She belonged with the pleasure-seeking crowds. He both envied and despised her, and was quite coldly determined to get her. They owed him something, all of them, and she should pay. He glanced at her. 'Shall we walk along?'
These lines are Prior's thoughts about Sarah Lumb in Part Two, Chapter 12, of the novel. On an excursion one day, Prior takes Sarah to the beach, where they see crowds of people, all trying to enjoy every ounce of beauty in the day. Everywhere Prior sees people with ice cream, laughing, and strolling on the beach. Sarah is pleased and amused by the scene. Prior resents her happiness; he feels completely excluded from the joy of other people. He contemptuously watches as these people, who have escaped Edinburgh for the day, also seem to have succeeded in momentarily escaping the war. Prior is envious because he can never mentally escape the war; everything brings back memories for him. Furthermore, he is not so certain that he wants to escape it; he feels he is betraying the poor men who are fighting by so blatantly trying to forget them. Prior's anger becomes focused on Sarah: as a woman, she has been protected from all the horrors of war. He is jealous of her ignorance and innocence, which affords her an unburdened happiness he can never achieve.
A dispiriting way to bring girls up, Sarah thought; to make marriage the sole end of female existence, and yet deny that love between men and women was possible. Ada did deny it. In her world, men loved women as the fox loved the hare. And women loved men as a tapeworm loves the gut.
This quote is from Sarah's thoughts in Part Four, Chapter 17, of Regeneration. Sarah reflects upon the way her mother, Ada, has brought her up. Ada has taught her daughters a hard realism learned from difficult personal experience. The similes of the fox and the hare, the tapeworm and the gut are meant to be bluntly unromantic. As Ada sees it, there is nothing romantic about marriage; marriage is merely a symbiotic relationship for mutual net gain. Ada wants her daughters to marry, but the ideal marriage would involve quickly becoming a widow and keeping a late husband's pension.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were few career opportunities for women, who were left virtually dependent on men for their support and subsistence. Ada encourages her daughters to make marriage an ultimate goal, ensuring their financial security. But Sarah does not so easily accept the lessons her mother teaches her. As a consequence of the war, Sarah has been able to work and make a good salary; consequently, she does not see herself as entirely reliant on any man. When she responds that she loves Prior in return, she rejects the harsh realism that says that love between men and women is impossible. Underlying this quotation is the idea that the war has improved women's lives and prospects. The war has, ironically, perhaps made romance possible by giving freedom to an entire generation of women.
A horse's bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. 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 they had—however unconsciously—rejected. He found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work.
These lines are Rivers's thoughts in Part Four, Chapter 22, of the novel. After witnessing Yealland's treatment of his patients with electro-shock therapy, Rivers has a nightmare in which he is a doctor trying to shove something into the mouth of a patient who resists him. After he wakes, he realizes that what he was trying to shove into the mouth was a horse's bit, and that the patient who resisted him in his dream was Sassoon. This passage evidences Rivers's thought process as he works out the meaning of his dream. He reasons that the bit, an instrument of control, must symbolize the control he has over his patients—how he forces them into roles they no longer desire.
Throughout the passage, Barker skillfully employs short, incomplete sentences to mimic Rivers's train of thought. These sentences draw emphasis to the bit, which turns out to be the key to understanding the dream. Rivers's nightmare underscores the theme of control in the novel, and forces us to consider the difference between the methods of Rivers and Yealland. The nightmare raises the question of whether the method of control matters if the end is the same. As an arm of the state, a society whose values Rivers now questions, he is forced to reconsider his role as a healer to his patients.
One of the paradoxes of war—one of the many—was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was domestic. Caring. As Layard would undoubtedly have said, maternal. And that wasn't the only trick the war had played. Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They'd been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricting they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure—the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they'd devoured as boys—consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.
These lines are some of Rivers's reflections in Part Two, Chapter 9, of the novel. They are important because they highlight the immense ironies of World War I: the ultimate act of manliness results in domesticity; mobilization results in men being wedged into a hole; and the heroic adventure is not nearly as heroic as the soldiers could have hoped. Part of the madness, and of the incredible frustration with the war, is due to expectations being frighteningly different from the reality. In previous wars, there could be individual heroism—there were rules to war, a gentlemanly way to fight. The Great War is a total war; trench warfare and machine guns mean that all the rules have changed. There seems nothing heroic in crouching in a hole for months, waiting to die. Wilfred Owen's famous poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" confronts these themes: the absence of heroism and the false tale of a "sweet" death. This passage emphasizes the realism and de-romanticization of the war.