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The protagonist of the novel and a practicing psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Originally an anthropologist, Dr. Rivers has spent a good part of his life studying the culture and customs of man. As a psychiatrist, he is a sensitive doctor who cares about his patients immensely. Though he is dedicated to doing his duty by healing the men so that they may return to fight, Rivers feels conflicted about the amount of control and influence he has over his patients.
Read an in-depth analysis of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers
In real life, a distinguished soldier and Great War poet. In the novel, Sassoon is both of these things as well. He is depicted as being truthful, self- composed, morally upright, and slightly arrogant. Though he strongly opposes the war, Sassoon has not had a breakdown, and he feels uncomfortable around the other patients in the hospital. He looks to Rivers as a father figure. In the end, Sassoon returns to his duty, though he maintains his belief that the war is wrong.
Read an in-depth analysis of Siegfried Sassoon
An initially difficult patient with a bad attitude who suffers from mutism and severe asthma. Prior is a complicated character; though he gives the staff a hard time he truly wants to get better. He challenges Rivers to apply some analysis to himself by turning the doctor's questions back around on him. As a young man from the working class who has risen to the rank of officer, Prior tackles with issues of social class. Above all, he is conflicted: he is torn between wanting to return to France to prove himself as a soldier and a man, and wanting to save his own life.
Read an in-depth analysis of Billy Prior
A patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital who has been unable to eat since a bomb threw him into the body of a gas-filled German cadaver. The emaciated Burns refrains from talking about his problems. Always aware of others, he does not want to bother anyone. He rose to the rank of officer at a very young age, but he is only a shell of the man he once was. Rivers thinks of Burns as a "fossilized schoolboy."
In real life, the most famous of the Great War poets, dying in 1918 just before the end of the war. In the novel, Owen is depicted as a young man still unsure of himself and his work, though his confidence is growing. A closeted homosexual, he seems to develop a crush on Sassoon. Owen is deeply affected by the war, and he works to express it in his own words.
A patient in Craiglockhart War Hospital who was formerly a war surgeon but who has had a mental breakdown and is now unable to bear the sight of blood. Anderson doubts that he will ever be able to once again practice civilian medicine. Once a strong, self-assured man, he is now reduced to a childlike state.
The girlfriend of Billy Prior. Sarah is a young, working-class woman who works in a munitions factory in Scotland. Like her mother, she is very practical. She is not sure that true love between a man and a woman is possible, but she is willing to give it a try. As a woman, Sarah has been shielded from many of the horrors of the war. Nevertheless, she is angered that a society that sends its sons out to be killed refuses to face the consequences of the war.
The mother of Sarah Lumb. Ada is a practical woman who does not believe in love between a man and a woman. She desires nothing more than for her daughters to be the beneficiaries of a stable pension from their deceased husbands. Ada is very involved in her daughter's life, and she cautions Sarah about the risks of pregnancy. Ada is toughened by the reality of raising two daughters alone in a time when women do not make much money.
A doctor at the National Hospital in London who uses electro-shock therapy to treat his patients. Dr. Yealland is arrogant in his speech and tends to try to play God. Yealland believes any problem can be cured in one session of therapy. Rivers notes Yealland's need to exert control over other people.
Read an in-depth analysis of Dr. Lewis Yealland
Dr. Yealland's patient at the National Hospital in London, and one of his more interesting cases. After serving in almost every major battle of the First World War, Callan finds himself in the hospital suffering from mutism. He appears insolent in his illness, merely smiling at the doctor who offers to cure him. Callan initially fights back against the treatment, but eventually resigns himself to it. Rivers notes that Callan appears broken.
A fellow poet and soldier and a good friend of Sassoon. Although Graves agrees with Sassoon that the war is evil and unjust, he refuses to protest. Graves feels that regardless of his personal beliefs, it is his duty to honor his contract to his country. Sassoon thinks Graves is hypocritical for this stance. Nevertheless, Graves is a true friend to Sassoon; he always tries to do what is best for his friend, even if he does not do what is best for his cause.
A patient who comes to Craiglockhart relatively late in the novel. Although there is nothing physically wrong with his spine, Willard is paralyzed from the waist down. Yet he refuses to believe there is anything psychologically wrong with him. Willard quickly grows frustrated by his feelings of powerlessness, but by the end of the novel he recovers his ability to walk.
An old friend of Rivers from their days at Cambridge. Like Rivers, Head is now a practicing psychiatrist. At Cambridge, the two men worked together on research charting nerve regeneration in the arm and hand. Head is a dedicated scientist who believes strongly in the merits of his research, and is a good friend to Rivers.
Another psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Rivers's boss and close friend. Bryce is a sympathetic, affable man who believes in the benefits of psychotherapy. His character is not very developed in the novel.
Billy Prior's parents. Mr. and Mrs. Prior are extraordinarily different from each other, both in personality and in relation to their son. Mrs. Prior is a nervous woman who always protected her son to the point of making him more sensitive than was socially accepted at the time. She wants him to achieve in life and ascend up the social ladder. Mr. Prior, in contrast, is a rough, working-class man who believes that his son must grow up the hard way. He believes it is presumptuous and wrong for Billy to reach beyond his class and station.
A friend of Sarah Lumb. Lizzie is a fellow worker in the munitions factory in Scotland. Her husband abuses her, and she is happy that war has given her the freedom to work and be separated from him while he is off at war. Lizzie is very blunt, using frank language and always telling it like it is.
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