Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.


The idea of "regeneration" functions in the novel to inform and develop the concepts of healing, changing, and regrowth. It occurs several times, most notably in the nerve regeneration experiments Rivers practices on Head, and in the figurative regeneration of men's "nerves" in the War Hospital. Rivers also undergoes a sort of regeneration in the novel. Through observations of his patients, reflections on his upbringing, and most importantly his interactions with Sassoon, Rivers questions many of the assumptions of war and duty that he previously held. This motif highlights the comparison between mental and physical healing, and it emphasizes the regrowth and change in a man who has been confronted with the reality of war.


Emasculation appears in the novel in a wide variety of forms. Sassoon remembers the young boy in the bed next to him who has been castrated on the battlefield. Anderson dreams he is tied up with corsets. Prior recalls his weakness against his father and the influence of his mother. Sassoon mentions to Rivers the topic of homosexuality and the idea of an "intermediate sex." Rivers reflects on the "feminine" nature of healing and caring for one another on the battlefield.

Emasculation signals the powerlessness that soldiers feel when confronted with the shocking reality of war. Although they try to do the manly thing by enlisting in the war and fighting for their country, they must face society's judgment that it is decidedly unmanly to suffer a breakdown. In the hospital, Rivers's method of treatment involves more ostensibly unmanly actions, as the patients are forced to release their emotions and discuss their feelings. Willard is so opposed to the unmanliness of his condition that he refuses to believe he has anything other than a physical problem. Yet, Rivers achieves results in a sympathetic manner; he helps his patients to improve and lead a normal life once again. Through further "emasculation" the patients are able to improve. Ultimately, Barker's exploration of emasculation in the novel challenges traditional notions of manliness.