Monday, April 24, 2006

Y13: A copy of that essay that I went through the other day- a great model of how you integrate AO4 and AO5 type comments.

Compare and contrast the different narrative voices in Pat Barker’s Regeneration and the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon

The most obvious and important differences between the novel and the poetry, as far as narrative voice is concerned, are the density of viewpoints and the conflicting opinions and psychologies that can be displayed through the literary types. The wider architecture of the novel allows a detailed evaluation of psychology and character while the poetry is more focused into one specific idea and only presents characters as symbols or stereotypes rather than realistic interpretations. The specific elements of literary construction in both of the separate types, such as expansive dialogue in the novel and verse in the poetry, contribute to the overall narrative technique.
The lack of a consistent or clearly defined narrator leaves the plot of Regeneration to be developed by the characters themselves. The plot is not driven by unfolding events in a storyline or a changing world, but rather by the developing psychology and viewpoint of the characters in already established situations. The narrative duties are swapped between several characters during Regeneration. The author narrates in a neutral style that makes the narrator difficult to identify as a character in itself. The directly influence role of the author is to move the characters into focus when their viewpoint is relevant to the current situation and in this respect Barker takes the role of a coordinator rather than a storyteller. This technique leaves the dominant characters, particularly Dr Rivers, to appear, in the novel, to have a greater voice in the style of narration than the author.
The central development in the plot is the transformation of both Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, who is a patient at Craiglockhart. The nature of this plot would seem to specifically require a narrative technique that allows a transparency of every character’s thoughts and viewpoint that is unmediated by associated statements from an assertive narrator. It is here that Barker employs a free indirect style that removes any narrative elements that would hinder the transparency of the character’s viewpoint. Peter Kemp takes this further by suggesting that her style allows Barker to present so much trauma ‘without a tremor of sensationalism or sentimentality.’ It is the lack of a reaction from the narrative voice to the situation at Craiglockhart that allows Regeneration to focus on the development of its characters.
A first person narrator would have less clarity and would not allow for the diverse range of perspective that Regeneration has. The free indirect style allows, for example, Sarah Lumb’s personal concerns regarding the effects of the war and Billy Prior’s observation on the changing gender roles to both be represented. Every view is, of course, created by the author but the complex range of perspectives on the situation would not have the same validity in the mind of the reader if they were expressed by only one character or narrative voice. The feeling of physical inadequacy that the injured soldiers have is best translated via a woman while psychology requires the viewpoint of a psychiatrist. So while it is true that several characters speak as individuals, they are doing so as vehicles for a wide-ranging perspective created by a single author.
Rivers has the largest influence on the narrative and, by giving a character that is psychiatrically trained this influence, Barker both demands the reader’s own Freudian interpretation of events and further illuminates the psychology of those interacting with Rivers. The protagonist, by his presence, makes the situations in Regeneration psychologically themed but does not do the same to the narrative itself because he is not the narrator.

Light from the window behind River’s desk fell directly on to Sassoon’s face. Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes. Apart from that no obvious signs of nervous disorder. No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.

Here, Rivers is indirectly providing the narration for the scene by being the chosen vehicle for the free indirect narration. This viewpoint consists also of Rivers’ clinical thoughts that results in a description of Sassoon in the form of medical notations that change the linguistic style of the narrative to suit his character.

Sassoon had started pulling at a loose thread on the breast of his tunic. Rivers watched him for a while. ‘You must’ve been in agony when you did that?’

This shows the indirect influence of Rivers’ perspective on the story that is told to the reader. Here, Rivers, with his psychologically trained mind, directs the focus of the narrative to the Freudian signal that Sassoon is giving about his lost medal and then Rivers himself comments on the scene. As well as directing the focus of Barker’s free indirect narration, Rivers has a more explicit influence on the narrative. The character’s conventional voice comes from dialogue that Rivers speaks and thoughts that are directly attributed to him. Rivers’ personal opinion of Sassoon is given in the pair’s first meeting where the doctor is said to interpret his patient’s posture as ‘shyness rather than arrogance.’ This is directly stated as being the character’s thoughts as opposed to it being an implication made through the free indirect narration. The contrasting technique is employed during a similar meeting between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Everything about Sassoon intimidated him…the way he had of not looking at you when he spoke – shyness perhaps but it seemed like arrogance.

The reader becomes more involved with the narrative when this indirect style is used, as the connection between the character’s thoughts and the absolute authority of an omniscient narrator becomes more blurred.
While the author’s thoughts are never obviously on display, they do exist within the novel. Barker’s decision to focus on issues like the use of progressive therapy, an accepting attitude to homosexuality and a positive focus on the working class reflects her own thoughts as much as any of her characters. The characters that are of the opposite persuasion are given no time and are often as ‘comically symbolic’ as Sassoon’s ‘General’. That is not to say that the character of Rivers, for example, is created with Pat Barker’s own views in mind. Rivers’ lack of awareness of Prior’s class difference is evident when he admits that ‘hearing Prior’s voice for the first time had the curious effect of making Prior look different.’ Rivers eventually begins to call Sassoon by his first name, but Billy Prior always remains ‘Mr Prior’ which exposes Rivers apparent unease when trying to associate with a different class. Rivers’ individual voice is important enough for him to become distinguished from the author’s own views.

The silence deepened like a fall of snow, accumulating second by second, flake by flake, each flake by itself inconsiderable, until everything is transformed.

It is unclear who is responsible, in narrative terms, for this poetic image. The idea of a slow process of change is something Rivers notes about his patient’s conditions, particularly Anderson’s, and his own mental state after working for so long as an army psychiatrist. The poetic style here may well be one of the few occasions where the author intervenes directly in the narrative to offer a more expansive and meaningful view of the situation than Rivers. This highlights Barker’s role as the author of Regeneration as more of a translator than a storyteller.
Barker never gives a detailed description of the Craiglockhart war hospital. Graves can only utter an overwhelmed ‘my God’ upon seeing the building and intended tone is given more clarity when Sassoon wakes ‘to the sound of screams and running footsteps.’ This distinctly horrific setting, because of the lack of a physical description of the building, has the effect of adding an element of gothic psychodrama to the novel rather than giving and specific details on the place in which the plot takes place. The setting is, therefore, another voice through which to translate the fear being felt by the neurasthenic patients. Jackie Wullschlager feels that Regeneration is weakened by being ‘caged in a distinct time and place’ and having the inevitable lack of authenticity that plagues most period fiction. Barker’s imagination does have self-imposed boundaries that are required to maintain a realistic authorial voice. This creates a conflict between imagination and realism that is not present for Sassoon, whose experiences allow him to speak with self-evident authenticity at all times.
Psychology is the dominant theme in Regeneration and Sassoon does not ignore it in his poetry. ‘Repression of War Experience’ discusses the idea that ‘soldiers don’t’ go mad/Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts’ and shows Sassoon unable to do just that. The sight of a moth ‘[scorching its] wings with glory’ reminds him of the futility of war and shows how deep inside of his thoughts the war is buried. This idea of repression in psychology tells the reader about the setting in which both Regeneration and Sassoon’s poems take place.

The whistle blew. Immediately, he saw lines of men with grey muttering faces clambering up the ladders to face the guns. He blinked them away.

The link between this episode from Regeneration and poems like ‘Counter Attack’ is that similar events are being experienced at different times. Both Sassoon and Barker set their works during the Great War and that means Sassoon writes directly from the trenches more often than Barker, who writes about a place much removed from the fighting in physical terms, but not in the minds of the soldiers. It could be suggested that Sassoon’s poetry itself shares the basic principles of flashbacks and recalling memory. If it is assumed that Sassoon did experience the events in some of his poems then the process of writing about them is very much akin to the process of dreaming or hallucinating, in that a past event is being brought into the present. Rivers says that patients who write poetry recover more quickly for the very reason that they are experiencing and expressing their fear. From this perspective, Sassoon’s poetry does not seem different from Prior being hypnotised so that he can deal with his fear. The poetry’s potential significance to its author, therefore, marks a difference between it and the novel, which is deliberately removed from its author’s own experience.
There seems to be a similarity in literary intention in Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry and Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Printed at the beginning of Regeneration is Sassoon’s ‘Declaration’ in which he complains about the public not having ‘sufficient imagination to realize’ the reality of life in the trenches and both his poetry and Barker’s novel are attempts to give their audiences just that. Instead of a more definitely factual history involving events in the conflict, both authors deliver an account of the conflict from a personal and emotional perspective, which is just as relevant to the war as more legitimate history.
Sassoon’s real experiences of the war manifest themselves in poems of intense realism. The vivid details of battle that appear in ‘Counter Attack’, when coupled with the knowledge of Sassoon’s life, create confusion between fiction and reality to an extent that does not happen in Regeneration. That is not to say that Barker does not manage believable situations, but it is the possibility for the reader to view Sassoon’s work as a historical account of trench life that gives his poetry an added realism. There are definite similarities, however, between Barker’s technique and those used by Sassoon in ‘The Hero’; it was not based on any specific case but rather a general truth. In this way, Sassoon’s knowledge of the war allows him to create a realistic fiction in exactly the same way Barker does with her novel. This is shown further by an almost uncharacteristically ordered rhyme scheme that seems to distance Sassoon’s own emotions from the situation. In fact, it is highly likely that Barker retrieves the detail of Sassoon’s fictionalisation from his poems and constructing a novel with these is no different from Sassoon writing a poem based on stories that others have told him.
The idea of imaginative voice holding the therapeutic key to war trauma is also presented in the subject matter of both the poetry and the novel. In Regeneration, the imagination of the soldiers is both a torment and a healing influence as they are persuaded to relive their experiences by Rivers. The most obvious example is Prior’s hypnosis, during which his imagination gives past events a voice in the present and helps him accept what has happened. In ‘Attack’, there is the suggestion that the final line, ‘O Jesus make it stop!’, makes the previous images of war more likely to be a dream or hallucination that Sassoon does not want to be having. It is also possible that Sassoon is setting himself in the battle and is pleading for an end from there. The poem was written while Sassoon was at Craiglockhart but apparently based on notes he had made while witnessing a battle, which leaves the placement of the narrator entirely ambiguous.
The versification of Sassoon’s experiences is a highly significant aspect of the narrative that he uses. Poetry tends to be more abstract than prose and this encourages, often forces, the reader to places their own interpretation onto the images. The rhythm in ‘A Working Party’, for example, adds to the realism as it allows the reader to experience the poem on a level beyond the actual words. The mix of regular rhythm, when the soldier is walking, and broken rhythm, when he stumbles, creates a reading experience that itself is more associated with the events of the poem. The lack of rhyme and, at times, obvious metrical structure shows this as less of a poem, more of an account written in prose such as a diary entry. However, the inclusion of an instance of dialogue begins to associate the poem with more typical types of prose that include characters and those types of interchange between them. There are no characters of name in ‘A Working Party’ but rather a symbolic figure that all readers can relate to. There is no need for specific names, as Sassoon is attempting to create a single situation in the reader’s imagination, rather than a complex and extended narrative that requires the viewpoint of this soldier that requires more than just his presence.
Perhaps wanting to distinguish himself from the more patriotically traditional poems of the time, Sassoon often breaks from established forms. ‘Does it Matter’, for example, uses a rhyme structure that is similar to that of a limerick but is inverted with a sharp final rhyme that gives the poem a cynical tone. ‘Repression of War Experience’ shows Sassoon struggling with the unpatriotic side of the war and he expresses this with his jumbled and his deliberately unsatisfying structure. His dismissive, ironic and even child-like voice conveys to the reader the impossibility of speaking normally amid the pressure of trauma. This is represented in the voices of Regeneration through the patients’ stammers and mutism.
Other poems have a different emphasis because of the way the poet’s ideas are versified. The actual events in ‘Stand-to: Good Friday Morning’ seem more like a diary entry than ‘A Working Party’, a first-person narrative that recalls a past event from a personal perspective, but its more traditional rhyme scheme adds a tone of fiction and makes it seem more like art than history. The two styles are combined in ‘The Death Bed’. The rhythm is slowed by the frequent ends of sentences and sped up where the solider feels a burst of pain by an episode of enjambment. As well as being narrative art, these techniques also have the effect of portraying a very realistic account of a death by including the soldier’s broken memories and fading senses.
Sassoon’s own voice within his poems is much more obvious that Barker’s presence in Regeneration. ‘To the Warmongers’ presents Sassoon’s personal enthusiasm for hating those responsible for the continuation of the war. Short, quick lines with strong rhymes give the poem a vitality and energy that the subject matter, thoughts of the ‘tormented slain’, would not usually warrant. It is likely that it is Sassoon’s enthusiasm for attacking the ‘warmongers’ that forces the pace of the poem. Perhaps more direct is ‘The General’, in which Sassoon creates a dramatic scene with a highly effective final, solitary line, ‘But he did for them both with his plan of attack’, that exposes the incompetence of the war tactics.
Much of Sassoon’s personal perspective is hidden, although not well hidden, in irony. The most striking example is ‘Does it Matter?’ in which Sassoon tells the reader that this is ‘such splendid work for the blind’ and so war injuries are almost meaningless. Clearly, if the narrator is interpreted as being Sassoon himself, the propositions of the poem are bitterly sarcastic. However, it is also possible to view the poem as Sassoon evoking a character, almost certainly an ignorant civilian, to better translate his message. In either case the poet does intend the reader to interpret the poem as irony. ‘The Hero’ is more ambiguous in its intent, but still uses the same technique. It is not clear whether the title is supposed to be ironic or not and the reality is probably that it is both simultaneously. The boy is not a real hero to those who know how he died but he is a ‘brave and glorious boy’ to his Mother, who has been lied to. It is unlikely that Sassoon’s title is sardonically mocking the situation as the even and regular rhythm only suggests a calm acceptance.
Sassoon also hides his personal perspective behind symbolic characters, which are often intended to be viewed ironically. Sassoon assumes the voice of an ignorant civilian that can only refer to the mass of wounded and dead as ‘They’ in the poem of the same name. Even when presented with the specific horrors, the Bishop continues his denial. This is similar to the fashion in which Barker evokes the voice of a psychiatrist to better discuss psychology.
There is irony in Barker’s presentation of the ‘duty’ debate in Regeneration, where it is a doctor’s job to cure soldiers so that they are well enough to go to France and die. This sort of situational irony in represented by Sassoon most obviously in ‘Decorated’ where the irony of people’s attitudes to war and murder are exposed as complete double standards. There is no directly spoken irony in the text, but the dramatic effect achieved by leading the reader to understand the incongruity between the situation and the differing attitudes to it is certainly a poetic example of dramatic irony.
Both Pat Barker and Siegfried Sassoon base their work at similar times and on similar themes but the similarity of the setting is not the only literary aspect that the two have in common. Both authors seek to represent the story of the Great War in a more personal and emotional way than typical history. Both evoke their imaginative voice during their work, but it is the basis of real experience that Sassoon has which separates his narrative voice from Barker’s. Sassoon has the opportunity to speak directly to the audience about the subject matter while Barker has a fictionalised voice with realistic characters. Sassoon does use elements of fiction in his work. Irony plays a significant role in Sassoon’s voice and he often distances himself from the situations in a manner that mimics Barker’s free indirect style. The strongest link is the theme of war trauma. It affects the characters present in both the novel and the poetry and there are parallels between Sassoon’s personalised poetic reaction and Regeneration’s psychological perspective on this aspect of The Great War.

Word count: 3290

War Poems Siegfried Sassoon ed. Rupert Hart Davies Faber and Faber London
Regeneration Pat Barker Penguin London 1993


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