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Two Contemporary Representations of the Great War between Emotionand Irreverence: William Boyd’s and Pat Barker’s Regeneration

Deux représentations contemporaines de la Grande Guerre entre émotion et irrévérence: The New Confessions de William Boyd et Regeneration de Pat Barker
Isabelle Gérardin
p. 105-118


Cet article se penche sur deux romans contemporains qui se proposent de retravailler le passé traumatique de la Première Guerre mondiale: The New Confessions de William Boyd (1987) et Regeneration de Pat Barker (1991). Nous examinerons la façon dont ces deux romans, bien que d’une manière différente, parviennent à traiter de l’expérience et de l’impact des combats à travers une tension permanente entre émotion et irrévérence, entre sérieux et ironie, visant à exprimer les atrocités de l’épreuve de la guerre tout en rejetant la possibilité même du pathos. Ces deux métafictions historiographiques, parce qu’elles témoignent d’une certaine méfiance à l’égard de l’histoire qui est le sceau d’une sensibilité postmoderne, paraissent ‘maltraiter’ le passé de la Grande Guerre pour mieux le ‘traiter’ et ainsi réinvestir l’héritage des blessures de ce passé.

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  • 1 Several British novelists actively took part in such popular forms of ‘remembrance’. For instance, (...)
  • 2 One could think of several novels such as Les champs d’honneur by Jean Rouaud (1990), Un long diman (...)

1At the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, there was a wave of renewed interest in the memory of the Great War in Britain, not only in fiction but also more broadly. This cultural trend led to a genuine explosion of various forms of ‘remembrance’: films, books, exhibitions of war photography, oral history projects to record the memories of World War One veterans, celebrations and documentaries to commemorate the armistice of 1918, etc.1 Over that period, several novels reworking the past of the Great War were published, arriving on bookshelves at the time when the memory of this war was somehow becoming more and more obsessing: The New Confessions by William Boyd (1987), Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991), followed by The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) by the same author, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (1993), etc. But this was not just a British phenomenon, since novels about the First World War also appeared in France at the same time.2 This wave of renewed interest in the past of the Great War proved that this past was still a troubled and painful one, which is why this conflict continues to haunt our minds.

2In this article, I would like to focus on William Boyd’s The New Confessions and Pat Barker’s Regeneration, two contemporary novels reworking the past of the Great War through a permanent tension between emotion and irreverence, seriousness and irony, as if World War One needed to be re-examined through the particular lens of fiction, but without being treated in a wholly solemn way, that is to say without being regarded as a sacred or untouchable part of human history.

  • 3 About William Boyd’s The New Confessions as a form of parody of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les confess (...)

3The New Confessions by William Boyd is a fictional autobiography written by the ‘I’ of John James Todd. This fake autobiography, whose themes and narrative structure are modelled on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les confessions,3 follows Todd’s hectic life from his very birth in Edinburgh up to his final exile on a Mediterranean island. In this novel, five long chapters are devoted to Todd’s experience of World War One, from his decision, or rather his non-decision, to enrol to his imprisonment in Germany during the last months of the conflict, and the horrors of the war are systematically filtered through Todd’s consciousness. At first quietly stationed in Belgium in Nieuport-les-Bains, he then comes to take part in several dreadful battles, before being relieved from such violence by an old friend of his who enlists him into the War Office Cinema Committee. Todd, even though he actively participated in the war and witnessed the full extent of its atrocities, often appears to recall his memories of World War One with much detachment. The worst horrors are very often described in a flippant or ironic manner, which can be rather disconcerting, and Todd always seems more or less exterior to the war. But such detachment, as we will come to see, is part of a strategy meant to expose the sheer absurdity of a conflict turning every single soldier into a sort of helpless puppet. Therefore, I would like to focus on The New Confessions in order to examine how this novel depicts the Great War, as it was once experienced by the ‘I’ of John James Todd, through a permanent interplay between involvement and detachment, pain and derision. We will, of course, particularly pay attention to the presence of first-person narration in this novel since this narrative device proves crucial when it comes to expressing affects, as it can both help convey and question the formulation of emotions.

  • 4 The term ‘shell-shock’ referred to the numerous psychological effects involved by experiencing the (...)
  • 5 Pat Barker’s Regeneration constantly intertwines genuine historical characters, such as the English (...)

4Regeneration by Pat Barker also takes the First World War as its background, but rather indirectly, since no battles or scenes from trench warfare are to be seen. The horrors of the war are not rendered by the description of atrocious combats, as Barker chose to show the impact of World War One on the bodies and the minds of soldiers suffering from ‘shell-shock’,4 thus setting her novel in Craiglockhart military hospital in Scotland. This novel occupies an unusual place in the canon of literature about World War One, as it focuses not so much on the war itself as on its manifold consequences, on a socio-political level as well as on an individual level. The narrative centres on the complex relationship between William Rivers, a real character who actually practiced as a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart hospital in 1917,5 and Billy Prior, a fictitious character who is provocative, even bullying. Through this very relationship, which is a constant mixture of teasing and sympathising, Barker focuses on the therapeutic link between psychiatrists and soldiers as a reflection of the agonistic tensions inherent in the context of the war. The violence of warfare is thus treated in an oblique way, and there is a constant duality between emotion and derision, between painfulness and playfulness. Indeed, if the therapeutic encounter can be a pure moment of sarcastic and provoking confrontation, it can also be the locus of the potential emergence of compassion.

5Therefore, by focusing on both The New Confessions and Regeneration, this paper wants to explore a certain contemporary mode of addressing the memory of World War One, a mode that is deeply marked by ambiguities, by tonal oscillations, refusing to exalt or to sacralise the gloomy past of this war while stressing the necessity to keep on writing about it as it is a past that is still haunting, thus revealing how fiction can be an instrument in the quest for a better assimilation of certain confused episodes of our common human past that need to be revisited. The two novels we are going to examine are historiographic metafictions anxious to stress the fact that the traumas of the past cannot be revisited without a deep questioning of how those very traumas should be represented, and of which vision of history needs to be conveyed to the reader. The interplay between playfulness and painfulness could be, in this respect, a strategy, operating on an aesthetical level as well as on an ethical level, in order to find a form of ‘appropriate’ distance between empathy and detachment in the representation of the traumatic horrors of the past.

William Boyd’s Vision of History as a Dark and Meaningless Farce6

  • 6 The idea of history repeating itself and becoming a farce instead of a tragedy can be traced back t (...)

6In his fictional autobiography, John James Todd recalls the way he was swept along by the many upheavals of the Twentieth Century. He tells us about his own experience of history, and particularly about how he went through the horrors of the Great War. But Todd, strangely enough, seems both to have participated in history and to have somehow stood out of it.

  • 7 The recurrence of verbs in the passive form throughout The New Confessions reinforces the impressio (...)

7It appears, indeed, that Todd meets history as if by accident. His very decision to enlist in the army is based on a lie. Having travelled to London to confess to his forbidden crush for his aunt, Todd does not manage to voice his feelings and ends up making up a lie so as to justify his presence in London, pretending that he has come all the way to the capital to join the army. It is, of course, a lie he immediately regrets telling: ‘What in God’s good name made me say that? What malign fate put those words in my mouth? If I had only told the truth, think what I would have avoided’ (Boyd 75). Joining the army is, on Todd’s part, a non-decision rooted in an immature lie. History is met, so to speak, by mistake. Far from understanding the historical issues at stake in warring Europe, Todd remains rather selfish, hoping to be able to go through the war without committing himself too much: ‘I wanted merely to get through and get away, while I nursed my private griefs’ (Boyd 99). The ‘I’ of the autodiegetic narrator seems to find it hard feeling connected to a broad human history. It is chance,7 more than choice, which appears to guide Todd’s hectic life.

8Todd’s destiny seems to be controlled by a sort of adverse fate that is really not devoid of humour. Not only does Todd meet history by accident, but he is also doomed to stand out of it, or at least on the brink of it. This feature appears as soon as August 1916, when Todd is depicted as ‘l’homme de l’extrême gauche’ (Boyd 97), because he is the very first man in the line of trenches stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border. , as a result, not only geographically but also physically and mentally only half-involved in the war: ‘The left side of my body . . . felt unusually light . . . . But my right side felt burdened by the immense weight of this chain I started’ (Boyd 97). Moreover, Todd happens to belong to a regiment of ex-public school students who turn out to lack military skills, being therefore ironically referred to as ‘a depleted bunch of unintelligent initiative-less misfits’ (Boyd 98). Such a description is striking because of its numerous privative prefixes and suffixes. It clearly appears that Todd recalls his dreadful experience of the war as being marked by comical helplessness. Besides, every time that Todd thinks he is about to experience a significant encounter with history, something happens that ends up ruining his hopes, and those deflated hopes appear to be rather laughable.

9Most of the time, John James Todd chooses to depict the horrors of war in a playful and detached tone, but this choice might be a way of conveying the painful helplessness endured by soldiers floundering in battles seemingly devoid of justification and of tactical relevance. Throughout The New Confessions are to be found remarks pointing to Todd’s lack of mastery over his own actions: he does not hear the whistle blow before the battle of Frezenburg, he does not remember his first view of no-man’s-land, he cannot see anything in the middle of episodes of heavy shelling, and he truly does not ‘have a clue what [is] going on’ (Boyd 156) in general. Not only does Todd fail to understand the ins and outs of World War One, but he also fails to master his own perceptions on the battlefield, and therefore decides to turn this distressing helplessness into something paradoxically laughable. Of course, such problematical perception is to be linked to Todd’s traumatised condition. As Cathy Caruth puts it, drawing on the work of Freud, trauma is a wound inflicted upon the mind which creates a ‘breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world’ (Caruth 4) and which hinders one from being able to perceive or to remember properly. Todd’s decision to resort to some lightness of tone while dwelling on the mental consequences of his traumatised state is what accounts for the originality of Boyd’s novel.

10Todd also describes physical suffering in a humorous way, resorting to black humour, as if it were the best way of exorcising the horrifying and unjustified violence massively inflicted to the soldiers during the First World War. For instance, when depicting a friend of his shot in the mouth, Todd compares the spurting blood issuing from the nape of his neck to a form of ‘ponytail’ (Boyd 151), although the choice of this unexpected image seems quite indecorous and uncalled-for. Black humour is also expressed through the channel of some words specifically selected so as to create a punning effect. Todd, wishing to help a comrade who has just had one of his hands blown off by a shell, thus declares:

I wondered if I should help him.
‘D’you want a hand?’ I yelled, in all innocence.
‘Very funny, Todd,’ he said petulantly. ‘Hardly the time or place.’
(Boyd 145)

  • 8 Soldiers are, indeed, reduced to dehumanising army serial numbers. Todd, for instance, is ‘PB 30071 (...)

11It seems that black humour is a means of deriding the sheer of the massive physical and psychological suffering endured by men during the Great War. Black humour, here, can be read as a symptom of despair. Black humour and derision are, indeed, the reverse side of a desperation that refuses pathos. If pathos is rejected, it is because the very experience of war dehumanises everything, thus turning unique human beings into ‘no more than ants in an ant heap’ (Boyd 145). If the uniqueness of human beings is denied, soldiers being no more than disposable puppets,8 then pathos and empathy appear to have lost all possible significance.

12It is difficult, therefore, to pass judgment on Todd’s flippant descriptions of the worst horrors of war. His derisive tone seems to point towards a certain detachment or callousness. It could very well be perceived as a sign of impropriety, even of indecency, as if it were a form of provocation. Such disconcerting derision could make the readers uncomfortable, and even more so as the first-person narration is likely to establish a disturbing complicity between Todd and his audience. But it might also be a weapon wielded to retell one’s memories of the war without indulging in pathos. And it might also provide the best way of conveying to the reader the sheer absurdity of a conflict which caused such helplessness and such suffering that it could paradoxically appear laughable, because truly nonsensical. Todd’s sombre past calls for the reader’s empathy, but the way he recounts it creates a true distance, a barrier to pathos, which ends up establishing a genuine form of ‘empathic unsettlement’ (LaCapra 41). The representation of the horrors of a traumatic past, according to LaCapra, can be legitimised by such intertwining of empathy and salutary distance aroused in the reader. Todd’s flippancy is the source of a feeling of estrangement from pathos that points to the fact that the wounds of the past should trigger off an emotional response far more complex than mere compassion or mere identification with the victims of yesterday.

13Todd recalls his memories of the First World War as being constantly marked by ‘twin emotions’ (Boyd 155). The various uncertainties of Todd’s tones and postures when retelling his experience of the war mirror, in a way, the uncertainties necessarily experienced by human subjects swept along by the rush of historical events that they can never fully grasp or assess. By being made to witness those uncertainties, the readers are eventually led to reconsider the way they approach, not only intellectually but also emotionally, the very troubling complexity of the past of the Great War. This is, indeed, what fictional testimony is generally supposed to achieve in ethical terms.

Pat Barker or the Violence of the Great War Seen Through the Oblique Lens of Psychiatry

  • 9 Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991) is the first volume of a trilogy entitled the Regeneration T (...)

14Contrary to Boyd’s The New Confessions, Regeneration9 by Pat Barker is a third-person narrative whose action takes place in Craiglockhart military hospital. If painful and distressing episodes are present, it is solely through the channel of memories, visions and hallucinations. But the absence of gory battles and physical wounds does not prevent the novel from being rather moving and disturbing, since the reader is made to witness the mental ordeals of soldiers suffering from ‘shell-shock’. Pain, as a matter of fact, is not less unbearable for being only in the mind.

  • 10 About ‘conversion’ disorders, see Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895).

15The painful and traumatising quality of the experience of war is made apparent through a diversity of symptoms. We notice the presence of several manifestations of mental distress: visions, auditory hallucinations, nightmares . . . We are also made to witness various forms of speech disorders, such as aphasia or stammering. At last, many soldiers show psychosomatic symptoms, such as violent fits of shivering or paralysis. This is rather typical of ‘conversion’ disorders, particularly studied by Freud,10 a condition in which patients unconsciously convert anxiety into physical symptoms such as numbness, paralysis, seizures, etc.

16Pain is sometimes so extreme that it becomes almost farcical. It is the case for Burns, a traumatised soldier unable to eat or even drink after the explosion of a shell sent him landing, head-first, on a German corpse whose gas-filled belly burst on impact, leaving Burns with his mouth full of rotting flesh. The source of distress, in this case, appears to be so horrific and so devoid of purpose that, as Burns himself puts it, it seems to be nothing but ‘a joke’ (Barker 18). Horror, when it is so absolute and so absurd, leaves the impression of a bitter farce. For Burns, war is a genuine experience of abjectness, an experience which dissolves the self and leads it to ‘where meaning collapses’ (Kristeva 9; my translation). Nothing can make sense to him anymore. This is why he treats his own suffering as a meaningless and tasteless joke.

  • 11 William Rivers, although presented as a particularly humane psychiatrist as opposed to his counterp (...)

17The duality between seriousness and flippancy, pain and derision, is particularly obvious in the way Barker chooses to picture therapeutic encounters between patients and psychiatrists, notably between William Rivers and Billy Prior. Therapeutic encounters, as already evoked, are fraught with a highly agonistic potential. Rivers, as a military psychiatrist, has a duty to cure soldiers. Being a member of the psychiatric institution, which is at the core a controlling institution, Rivers cannot but have a certain coercive function. Not only is it his duty to change his patients, imposing norms and values on them, but it is also a double-edged duty11 because curing soldiers implies sending them back to the front where they will very probably die. The therapeutic encounter, because of this very lack of symmetry, is likely to be agonistic. Thanks to Prior, who is always teasing and provocative, we are made to feel that the relationship between a soldier and his psychiatrist can be essentially conflicting:

‘This may come as a shock, Mr. Prior, but I had been rather assuming we were on the same side.’
Prior smiled. ‘This may come as a shock, Dr Rivers, but I had been rather assuming that we were not.’ (Barker 80)

18Prior is a difficult patient, always very sarcastic, who refuses to discuss his own emotions with Rivers. Whenever he gets close to revealing his feelings or to recalling his painful memories of the war, he deflates the significance of those feelings and memories by mocking them, even if it implies being downright insolent. For instance, when finally admitting that he suffered from headaches because of the permanent strain of combat, Prior manages to turn this confession into a sort of element of domestic comedy: ‘It’s hardly a reason to stay out of the trenches, is it? ‘Not tonight, Wilhelm. I’ve got a headache’?’ (Barker 50) Prior’s remark in italics is rather cheeky, even though it can be received by the reader on two different levels. Indeed, one may find this remark flippant, but pathos may also emerge from such obvious refusal of seriousness and of emotion on Prior’s part.

19Prior, although deeply hurt by his traumatising experience of war, refuses to give up to emotionalism. Significantly, he arrives at Craiglockhart suffering from amnesia and aphasia, as if both his body and his mind recoiled from confronting the horrors of the war. He often refuses to open up to Rivers, telling him about his life in the trenches as if it were actually ‘somebody else’s life’ (Barker 78). This, of course, is a common symptom of traumatic dissociation linked to the inner ‘conflict of the self’ (Freud 38; my translation) endured by Prior who suffers from a form of war neurosis. Prior, who is at the core a bullying character, goes as far as parroting Rivers’s words and theories back to him so as to try and unsettle the doctor/patient relationship. Prior appears to be sarcastic, irreverent towards his psychiatrist, but such caustic flippancy is only a façade to hide his unavoidable distress. He has no stable hold on history, just as he has no real hold on what caused his trauma, trauma being a form of ‘possession’ (Caruth 5) that remains unknown to the patient’s conscious self. And when Prior finally recovers the memory of the traumatic episode that caused his psychic collapse, thanks to hypnosis, he is disappointed since he had expected a sort of ‘epiphany’ that he is denied: ‘“Is that all?” Prior said’ (Barker 104). At that very moment, the façade of sarcastic playfulness eventually starts to crack, and Prior appears as the very helpless and distressed man that he really is. Instead of provoking his psychiatrist through verbal jests, he clumsily seeks some form of comforting physical contact with Rivers, ‘butting him in the chest’ (Barker 104) because he feels vulnerable and confused.

20Barker’s Regeneration examines the past of the Great War as something fundamentally haunting, precisely because it is impossible to assess this very past in any conclusive or stable way. We are doomed to remain ‘unconsoled’ in the face of this never-ending past. This trauma fiction about the wounds inherited from World War One offers a genuine ‘postmodern vision of history’ (Whitehead 678) characterised by the compulsive return of a past whose repressed ghosts cannot be laid. Certain memories can be saved from oblivion, certain narratives can be written about the past, but history is condemned to remain opaque to those who experience its traumas as well as to those who inherit them. Barker’s fictional endeavour to rework the past of the war does manage to revive this past for a contemporary audience, but it presents history as a matter of gaps and enigmas, the knowledge of which can offer no consolation whatsoever.

Reworking the Past Through the Tension Between Emotion and Irreverence: A Symptom of Postmodern Sensibility?

21Both The New Confessions and Regeneration testify to the fact that it is still necessary to write about the past of the Great War even though it is difficult to do so: difficult to find a tone that can be truly adequate, difficult to articulate and even more to heal the wounds of the past. It is precisely because certain features of this past do resist narrativisation and historicising that trauma fiction remains needed in order to try to come to terms with the ‘specters compulsively [haunting] the present’ (Whitehead 692). We have inherited the traumatising ghosts of World War One, ghosts which keep on coming back at us against our will, and this is why the past of this conflict still needs to be reworked, and maybe exorcised, through fiction.

22However, both The New Confessions and Regeneration somehow appear to question the capacity of fiction to make decisive connections between individual lives and the large tides of history. We have to bear in mind that those two novels belong to what Linda Hutcheon terms ‘historiographic metafiction’. This means that they are novels of history which are ‘in part the investigation of [their] own possibility, the possibility of conferring direction and narratability upon the past’ (Connor 199). They stage characters who seem to consider history from quite a decentred perspective, as if they did not really belong to it or as if they could not feel truly connected to the flow of historical events in any coherent way. This is, according to Steven Connor, rather characteristic of several contemporary works of fiction dealing with the past in which ‘history is repeatedly decentered, . . . looked at askew, or experienced through the lives of characters detached from rather than significantly connected to history’ (Connor 134).

23What matters, both in The New Confessions and in Regeneration, is to picture individual experiences of history marked by traumatic fragmentation. Both novels point to the fact that, in life as well as in fiction, history can only be approached in a subjective and fragmentary way. John James Todd and Billy Prior, who appear to be rather contemporary characters, perceive history, not as something consistent and continuous, but as a series of meaningless non-events, in a world full of contradictory forces and painful coercions. This can account for the fact that they seem at a loss to figure out the best way of talking about their experience of the war. The interplay between seriousness and irreverence we find in the two novels that we have studied in this paper could indeed testify to a certain postmodern distrust of history and distrust, as well, of the very possibility of writing historical novels today. Historiographic metafictions often hover between playfulness and painfulness when reworking the past because they wish to point to the fact that our approach to history is doomed to be inconclusive, to be denied the comfort of ‘any firm guarantee of meaning’ (Hutcheon 55). Hence the noticeable presence of recurring tonal oscillations that prove apt to mirror such epistemological instability.

  • 12 About the interesting links between war and irony, see the chapter entitled ‘A Satire of Circumstan (...)

24Deciding to resort not only to pathos but also to grim humour and even bitter irony to rework through fiction the past of the Great War is a very significant choice. Bearing in mind Paul Fussell’s12 famous words, we could say that irony is somehow directly linked to the very experience of war, since war can be perceived as a fundamentally ironic action: ‘Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends’ (Fussell 7). This was all the more relevant about World War One, as this conflict constituted an unprecedented experience of total war, which led to the deaths of millions of men in particularly violent and dehumanising ways, thus reversing all possible faith in human progress through history: ‘The Great War was more ironic than any war before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the idea of Progress’ (Fussell 8). World War One emphatically helped cast doubts as to the relevance of the myth of progress, leaving human history in ruins, as Walter Benjamin, among others, spelt it out. If both William Boyd and Pat Barker resort to grim irony to rewrite the past of the First World War, it is because this might be the most appropriate tone in order to conjure up the memory of this conflict which was, at the core, a deeply absurd existential experience, an experience which shattered the faith in a certain humanistic vision of historical progress. Irony, as a matter of fact, is what is left when all hope is gone. The interplay between seriousness and irony could be the symptom of a certain disenchanted relation to history that is the token of postmodernity.

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Barker, Pat, Regeneration, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991.

Boyd, William, The New Confessions, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987.

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Connor, Steven, The English Novel in History: 1950 to the Present, London: Routledge, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund and Sandor Ferenczi, Les névroses de guerre, Paris: Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 2010.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, London: Routledge, 1988.

Kristeva, Julia, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Paris: Seuil, 1980.

LaCapra, Dominick, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

Vitoux, Pierre, ‘The Uses of Parody in William Boyd’s The New Confessions,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42.1 (2000): 79–92.

Whitehead, Anne, ‘Open to Suggestion: Hypnosis and History in Barker’s Regeneration,’ Modern Fiction Studies 44.3 (1998): 674–694.

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1 Several British novelists actively took part in such popular forms of ‘remembrance’. For instance, Pat Barker herself presented the Armistice Day programmes for BBC Knowledge on November 11th 2000.

2 One could think of several novels such as Les champs d’honneur by Jean Rouaud (1990), Un long dimanche de fiançailles by Sébastien Japrisot (1991), or La chambre des officiers by Marc Dugain (1999).

3 About William Boyd’s The New Confessions as a form of parody of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les confessions, see Vitoux.

4 The term ‘shell-shock’ referred to the numerous psychological effects involved by experiencing the strain of battles. It was not a satisfactory term since not all affections could be strictly designated as shocks and since the explosion of shells was not the only exciting factor causing those affections. The nature of ‘shell-shock’ as well as the medical and political responses to this condition were hotly debated during and after World War One. More recently, in the wake of the Vietnam War, the general category ‘shell-shock’ has come to be replaced by the acronym PTSD (standing for ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’), a pathological condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.

5 Pat Barker’s Regeneration constantly intertwines genuine historical characters, such as the English neurologist and anthropologist William Rivers or the famous English war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, with purely fictitious characters.

6 The idea of history repeating itself and becoming a farce instead of a tragedy can be traced back to the work of Karl Marx.

7 The recurrence of verbs in the passive form throughout The New Confessions reinforces the impression that Todd is but the toy of a deeply malevolent fate.

8 Soldiers are, indeed, reduced to dehumanising army serial numbers. Todd, for instance, is ‘PB 300712’ (Boyd 109).

9 Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991) is the first volume of a trilogy entitled the Regeneration Trilogy. The other two volumes are The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). The same characters, historical as well as fictional, are to be found throughout the three novels.

10 About ‘conversion’ disorders, see Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895).

11 William Rivers, although presented as a particularly humane psychiatrist as opposed to his counterpoint Lewis Yealland, is aware that he is, however, always ‘in the business of controlling people’ (Barker 238) and he grows more and more uneasy about it throughout Regeneration. Indeed, Rivers controls his patients by forcing them to remember the source of their traumas, which is always a painful process.

12 About the interesting links between war and irony, see the chapter entitled ‘A Satire of Circumstances’ in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

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Isabelle Gérardin, « Two Contemporary Representations of the Great War between Emotionand Irreverence: William Boyd’s and Pat Barker’s Regeneration »Études britanniques contemporaines, 41 | 2011, 105-118.

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Isabelle Gérardin, « Two Contemporary Representations of the Great War between Emotionand Irreverence: William Boyd’s and Pat Barker’s Regeneration »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 41 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2015, consulté le 23 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Isabelle Gérardin

Université Paris Diderot — Paris 7.
Isabelle Gérardin ‘studied’ at the École normale supérieure (Ulm). She is a temporary lecturer (AMN) at the Université Paris 7-Denis Diderot where she teaches British literature as well as translation. She is currently writing a PhD thesis on the representation of the haunting traumas of the First World War in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy under the supervision of Professor Catherine Bernard. Her main field of research is contemporary British fiction.

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