Gender related expectations held by the home-front and the soldiers themselves, due to their cultural upbringing which instilled a false idea of masculinity, hold the notion that a man doesn’t feel emotions such as fear. The stress involved in the suppression of these emotions to fulfill those societal standards leads to shell-shock. Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration puts these stereotypes under close and critical examination. Rupert Brooke wrote poetry which proved that society’s high standards of masculinity were attainable. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Repression of War Experience” depicts how attempting to withhold a masculine image affects the thought process of shell-shocked soldiers when dealing with their memories. Greg Harris, a Miami University student, and Elaine Showalter both wrote articles pertaining to Sassoon and River’s specific instance of shell-shock treatment. Using Regeneration, Brooke’s and Sassoon’s works, and Elaine Showalter and Greg Harris’s articles, this essay will show masculinity expectations of the early 20th century, the contradiction those expectations have with trench warfare, how that combination creates shell-shock, and how shell-shock’s treatments show the opinions society had for these men.
When World War I started, British culture was still holding onto Victorian concepts of gender and masculinity. Society generally believed that men should only show emotions or traits like courage, anger, strength, loyalty, camaraderie for fellow men, and passion and love of war. They were feminine or cowardly if they felt any fear, nurturing, pain, love towards other men, guilt, anguish, passivity or dislike of war. (Harris) Rupert Brooke’s poetry is a good example of how a man was expected to feel towards war. While the natural reaction to dying in war would obviously be fear, men were really expected to feel the way Brooke claims in his poetry. Lines like “dying has made us rarer gifts than gold,” and “[h]e leaves a white/Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,/A width, a shining peace, under the night,” show he believes dying in war is no cause for fear because you will be honored. Lines like, “If I should die think only this of me:/That there is some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed,” (Brooke 156-57) confirm the idea that one should be thankful to their country to be given the chance to die for their it. (Brooke 156-57)
Elaine Showalter came across a war pamphlet entitled “Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action” which she quoted in her article. The pamphlet describes what was seen as the ideal attitude for men in battle. They should be “cheery, even in adverse circumstance” and “blood-thirsty and forever thinking how to kill the enemy.” (Showalter) In Regeneration, Sassoon mentions a man named Campbell who would give lectures over “The Spirit of the Bayonet,” and talked about murder strategies as if it were stand-up comedy. Campbell would say things like, “Stick him in the kidneys, it’ll go in like a hot knife through butter,” while the men would laugh but Sassoon knew that really, “They hate it.”(Barker 117) When Britain joined the war, lots of propaganda was floating around stating that these manly men should all be excited and gearing up for the Great War, “the Great Adventure”. Marching along, battling the classic imagined scene, and making heroes of themselves was what Britain promised the war would do; but as Regeneration describes, instead of “Mobilization.
The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move…crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.” (Barker 108) Men arrived to the front expecting this great manly experience to be awaiting them, but instead they were “worrying about socks, boots, blisters, food, hot drinks.” In other words, behaving in ways they were raised to believe were feminine or maternal. These “’manly’ activities had actually delivered ‘feminine passivity,” and made them act in ways opposite of what society expected of them and what they expected of themselves. (Harris) Homosexuality was unacceptable in Britain and in the trenches but trench conditions fostered it. Trenches were putting lots of men who were full of testosterone and ready to fight together in small, cramped holes in the ground to do nothing at all. They watched each other struggle with emotional and physical pain and at times had to take care of each other. Over time this lifestyle and closeness will obviously form love and a lot of times the conditions they were under made the love deeper than the definition of friendship allows.
Friendship, was encouraged while homosexuality was hated, and there is a very thin line placed between the two in the trenches. (Harris) Rivers put this predicament in perfect perspective: After all, in war, you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men–comradeship–and everybody approves. But at the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right kind of love? Well, one of the ways to make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind were. (Barker 204) The pacifism and homosexuality being forcibly created in the trenches were actual crimes punishable by law in Britain. Post-war, Britain banned all people who publicly opposed the war, all pacifists, from voting for five years. If homosexual activity, deemed “gross indecency,” were caught in the trenches, it was penalized with two years in prison. (Harris) The lifestyle trench warfare requires is opposite the lifestyle society expects. While society expects a man to be fearless and brave, a trench surrounds him with terror at every explosion, dead bodies, and unbearable living conditions.
Society expects him to be passionate and supportive of a war that has taken many close friends and given him the most disgusting memories. Society claims to love camaraderie and despise homosexuality, while the trenches are empty of women (and therefore correct sexual opportunity) and require love between men. Society expects him to be a hardworking, physical provider while the trenches need him to be a passive, loving, nurturing caregiver. The war was like an intensified version of the same pressures these men had felt all their lives, and men had felt for generations before them. Trying to uphold societal standards under multiplied pressures was too much, but the men still refused to admit it; thus we have shell-shock, the illness of repression. (Showalter) Sassoon’s Poem “Repression of War Experience” shows how he and many others repressed their thoughts. “No, no, not that, – it’s bad to think of war,/When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to/scare you;” Shows him consciously aware he is repressing his memories because, “it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad/Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts.” He pushes his memories away attempting to be the controlling, steady, free of war pain man he is expected to be. “Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen…Why won’t it rain?… Books…Which will you read?”(Sassoon 214-15) He runs through different little thoughts, sounding extremely controlled, trying to keep his mind where it should be.
At the end these conscious efforts prove worthless and he realizes, “O Christ, I want to go out/And screech at them to stop – I’m going crazy; /I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”(Sassoon 214-15) These ironic, backwards expectations and situations clashed in the minds of soldiers. They can feel and see reality as it happens, but everyone around them is denying it. The reaction for many men was shell-shock. They were stricken with mutism, blindness, deafness, paralysis, nausea and vomiting, nightmares, anxiety, insomnia, and more. (Showalter) In Regeneration, Rivers says to Prior, “Mutism seems to spring from a conflict between wanting to say something, and knowing that if you do say it the consequences will be disastrous. So you resolve it by making it physically impossible for yourself to speak.”(Barker 96) Rivers goes on to say he believes all physical symptoms of shell-shock stem from the same concept. The nightmares, insomnia, and other mental symptoms are a result of a more complex mental activity but also stem from the same cause. (Barker) The concept that all men must fit into these perfect masculine ideals gave way to many fake diagnoses to occur as well.
This could have been political and medical powers rejecting the reality of the warfare or the soldiers denying their feelings or maybe River’s thoughts that “[A]s soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than of his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue,” (Barker 115) that resulted in many shell-shock cases being misdiagnosed and the cause of shell-shock to remain undetermined for some time. A shell-shocked man cried so continuously and intensely that it affected his performance and required some sort of treatment; this man was diagnosed with over active lachrymal glands, which are glands in the eyes. For a long time, shell-shock was believed to be a nervous disorder caused by physical injury (possibly the brain being shaken during shell explosions) instead of a disorder caused by extreme stress brought on by repression of memories and emotions. This happened because men having emotions was almost a mythical concept to a society raised to believe that every real man was a “Golden Warrior.” (Showalter)
Shell-shock was also unaccepted because it was seen as malingering by political powers, medical powers, and a majority of the home-front. As Harris quoted Joanna Bourke as saying in his article, shell shock was seen as “a disease of the ‘will’ rather than of ‘nerve force’” which “made men increasingly blameworthy for their own illness.” Men were believed to be weak or lazy, in other words unmanly, if they developed shell-shock. (Harris) Because of this opinion, a lot of shell-shock cases were treated with methods other than what we see at Craighlockhart in Regeneration. At the end of Regeneration, Rivers begins to work with air officers who are receiving different types of treatment, such as electroshock therapy. Therapies of this nature were meant to be quick cures administered with the purpose of returning men to war as hastily as possible. Showalter explains them perfectly in saying, “These were in fact semi-tortures designed to make the hysterical symptom more unpleasant to maintain than the threat of death at the front.” (Showalter) It is easy to see this is the true goal when reading about Callan’s treatment.
Yealland obviously doesn’t care about Callan’s well-being and seems to believe his patients to all be malingerers. Yealland only wants to complete his job as quickly as possible, without understanding what truly causes the symptoms he “cures.” Many in the medical profession thought of shell-shocked men the same way he does and treated it accordingly. (Barker) Forty percent of the casualties of the war by 1916 were shell-shock victims; 80,000 men were treated by the end of the war. This makes World War I one of the first substantial epidemics of mental illness. No one handled it well and the soldiers were often not treated with the care they deserved. Society and government put burdens on these men their minds and bodies weren’t ready to handle. They responded with unconscious protest, rendering them able to do what they couldn’t achieve through verbal request, to quit letting society’s bias affect their actions. (Showalter)
Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Dutton, 1992. Print. Brooke, Rupert. “1914: The Dead” The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. 156-57. Print. Harris, Greg. “Compulsory Masculinity, Britain, And The Great War: The Literary-Historical Work Of Pat Barker.” Critique: Studies In Contemporary Fiction 39.4 (1998): 290-304. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. *This article, written by a student at Miami University named Greg Harris, describes the view of masculinity as it deals with trauma during WWI. Harris uses Pat Barker’s
trilogy and characters to describe the ideas of WWI misconception of the illness. This will connect perfectly with my article which will also make use of Pat Barker’s work. Sassoon, Siegfried. “Repression of War Experience.” The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. 214-15. Print. Showalter, Elaine. “Rivers and Sassoon: The Inscription of Male Gender Anxieties.” Behind the Lines: Gender and the two World Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Print. *Elaine Showalter focuses on the situation between Siegfried Sassoon and Dr. Rivers in her essay. She discusses Sassoon’s treatment from Rivers and how shell-shock effects masculinity. She shows how the time the two spent together changed their views of masculinity as well. It will relate directly to my use of Sassoon’s poems and Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration.