“Regeneration is a novel that focuses on Seigfried Sassoon’s rejection of the war, but the character of Dr William Rivers becomes insistently prominent.”
Based on your reading of the first five chapters, what interests you about Barker’s presentation of Rivers?
After considering this question for some time, I decided to look at Barker’s presentation of Rivers’ personality and his professional status independently. However I soon noticed that there is little information purely about Rivers’ private life in this novel. It was only then I realised how intertwined his career and his personal life really were. Barker constantly brings Rivers’ personality into focus whilst he is talking to his patients. Not only does this show how personal his relationships with the characters such as Sassoon, Anderson and Prior are, but it also shows that the line between patient and associate seems to be growing hazy for him. The emphasis on his commitment to his patients and work becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses. This delicate approach of Rivers’ that Barker brings to light in the confidential conversations between him and his patients has lead him to treat each character as an individual and in turn has lead him to take a different approach to each of the patients.
Almost instantly it is evident in these early chapters that Rivers is well respected and has an excellent reputation. He seems renowned in his field. It is suggested that work is being offered to him more frequently than would be normally expected. This, I presume is at least partly because of this reputation,
“So they’re sending him here?”
Bryce smiled. “Oh, I think it’s rather more specific than that. They’re sending him to you.”
Barker goes further with her presentation of rivers and his commitment than simply showing how he operates whilst talking to his patients. It is clear that Rivers gives the time he thinks is necessary to understanding each case,
He’d been working on the file for over an hour, but although he was now confident he knew all the facts, he was no closer to an understanding of Sassoon’s state of mind.”
This effort has not gone unnoticed. It would seem that Rivers is somewhat overworked. In a conversation with Bryce early on in the novel it is suggested that Rivers is to talk to Sassoon. Rivers responds to the idea jokingly,
“You mean I am being offered a choice?”
“In view of your case load, yes”.
Barker also makes it apparent that it is not only his colleagues who have noticed the qualities in Rivers that are if not unique to Rivers, then are at least uncommon in doctors of his status. His patients also would seem to find Rivers a preferable option to other doctors.
“Rivers was puzzled by the slight awkwardness. He was used to being adopted as a father figure – he was after all, thirty years older than the youngest of his patients – but it was rare for it to happen as quickly as this in a man of Sassoon’s age.”
The last sentence suggests that Rivers is often seen as a father figure and someone to look up to, but more importantly that many of his patients in allowing him to assume this role, are in some way searching for his approval. They are giving him authority and respect they otherwise may not give to another doctor. Barker provides us with a multitude of reasons why Rivers is so well liked. I think it is not least because of his sympathy towards the characters and his reassurance he is constantly offering them,
“I don’t know whether that’s abnormal”
“I hope not. It happens to me all the time.”
“Do you think I’m mad?”
“Of course you’re not mad, did you think you were going mad?” He is so affirming in his agreement.
To retrace slightly, the aforementioned commitment has allowed Rivers to become sensitive to each case and personality. He has a subtlety about his manner. He is also highly empathic, adding to his sensitive treatment of them and his striving to understand each of his patients as best he can. I think this point is best illustrated by Rivers’ attention to detail, which is ever present,
“Rivers looked down at Burns’s forearms, noting that the groove between radius and ulna was even deeper than it had been a week ago.”
I think that it is particularly admirable that Rivers is not only aware of the mental health of his patients but the physical health also. Granted, his job requires him to be observant. However, in this instance, it seems that Rivers registered this because of his genuine care for Burns rather than a factor to add to his ‘case file’. Another instance in which it is made clear that Rivers is a superb listener and again illustrates his attention to detail and his consciousness of every detail mentioned is in a conversation he has with Sassoon,
“It was like being three different people… there was the riding, hunting, cricketing me, and then there was the… the other side … and I didn’t seem able to… know them together”
“and the third”
“You said three.”
I noticed that most of our knowledge of Rivers comes from his conversations with other characters in the book, but more specifically his patients. From discovering this, I then realised that these conversations would seem to make up the basis of the novel up to this point. It was then that I noticed the distinct difference in the dialogue between when Rivers is talking to a patient and when he is not acting in a working capacity. Although Rivers seems to be allowing work and life to merge somewhat, the dialogue clearly distinguishes between the two occasions. He talks significantly less than his patients in their meetings. In fact, as Anderson points out, Rivers’ has become notorious for his long silent pauses. Rivers knows how to provoke his patients into talking, and consequently releasing their suppressed emotion. There is a stark contrast between these conversations and those that he has with characters such as Mrs Cooper in the kitchen who he happily banters with. However we see in chapter three, in his conversation with Graves, that Rivers’ questions are carefully planned to prompt him.
Graves, it is evident, does most of the talking. Although Graves is not a patient, Rivers is still using the same tactics to ease information from him about Sassoon, as he would use in a situation where he would be helping a patient. His speech has a similar format – all simple questions or open-ended statements for Graves to pick up on. He may or may not have noticed this merge in how he approaches certain colleagues/friends and how he approaches his patients. Rivers talks to a great deal of the characters in the book. He seems to have an association with most of the major characters in the book so far, unusually. I think this shows one of his character traits to be how easy he finds it to talk to people.
I do find it interesting that Barker’s portrayal of Rivers in the first five chapters of the book is no less than glowing. There is little negative that she has to say about him, and yet the character is no less believable. Admittedly there is an instance where Rivers seems to disappoint himself, “Sassoon lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.
Rivers turned away from the window, feeling almost ashamed of having witnessed that small, private victory over fear.”
For me, however, this just adds to my fondness for Rivers as a character. He wants to spare Sassoon any embarrassment he might feel, which is a commendable quality.
In conclusion, Barker’s presentation of Rivers as a caring, sympathetic and committed doctor is not only believable but also interesting. All the qualities in him that his patients come to admire and respect him for – such as his dedication, his effort and his never ending search for reason and understanding in his patients actions also attract our admiration of him. His sympathy for these other characters that is fuelling his constant workload, causing him tiredness and stress, “After Graves had gone, Rivers sat for a while resting his eyes, then opened the envelope Graves had given him,” evokes similar feelings in us for him.