The Eye in the Door

Barker, Pat

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Jun-08-2020


The Eye in the Door is the second volume in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (the first and third volumes, Regeneration and The Ghost Road are also annotated in this database).  It continues the story of Dr. William Rivers and the soldiers he treats for shell shock, what we today would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in World War I era Britain.  The action has now shifted from Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to London; and while Rivers remains a primary character, seeing patients now at a London clinic, this volume focuses on Rivers’ relationship with Billy Prior, an officer who was treated at Craiglockhart after a service-related nervous breakdown. 

Billy Prior, released from service on the Front and now serving on “home duty,” is working in the Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of Munitions, a domestic information-gathering and surveillance unit.  England, on wartime footing, is rife with paranoia and conspiracy theories, and the primary objects of state surveillance are two groups of people felt to be disloyal or untrustworthy:  conscientious objectors, or “conchies,” and homosexuals, who are seen as both abnormal and subversive.  The state is unremitting in its hounding and pursuit of these two groups, and is in fact “the eye in the door,” always watching and ready to pounce. 

Although Billy is an officer and has a position in the surveillance apparatus, he is living a double life, and is doubly at risk in this environment.  He is bisexual; the book opens with him failing to complete the seduction of a young woman and promptly thereupon having a liaison with a fellow officer whose wife and children are out of town.  This officer, who also works in the Ministry, has been vaguely threatened about his association with the presumed network of homosexual subversives.   In addition, while Billy is not a pacifist, he has friends from his childhood in working-class northern England who are conscientious objectors.  These friends may or may not have participated in terrorist activities, are either currently in jail or wanted by the police, and are no surer than Billy is as to exactly whose side he is on.  

Prior plays a dangerous double game, attempting to use his position in the government to help his old friends, and continuing treatment with Dr. Rivers, as his past psychological traumas continue to intrude upon, and complicate, his personal and professional lives, building to a powerful conclusion.


The book’s narrative is set in the context of two very real historical events:  the Maud Allan libel trial, with its stories of a homosexual fifth column purportedly sabotaging the war effort, and an attempt by a radical anti-war group to poison Prime Minister David Lloyd George.  William Rivers was a real psychiatrist who treated shell-shocked soldiers sent home from the war, at the very real Craiglockhart Hospital.  Many of the other characters were real as well, including Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, all treated by Dr. Rivers.  Billy Prior is a fictional character through whose experiences Barker has license to create a story. 

The Eye in the Door
—indeed, the entire trilogy—looks at war through the lens of the destruction of young men’s psyches, and thereby makes a powerful anti-war statement.  We see in great detail the symptoms and the toll of shell shock, and we are privy to psychotherapy sessions, dream analyses, and the occasional more invasive therapeutic modality.  We also hear the voice of the pacifist movement, which includes people like the patrician Sassoon, whose poetry contains devastating war imagery, as well as the working class “conchies” on the run from the law, whose devotion to the cause is less well- (or legally-) articulated, but no less fervid.  And there is Rivers, the army psychiatrist who must evaluate soldiers for mental stability, but who feels that clearing young men to go off to die is morally wrong.

Rivers’ attitude highlights a dominant motif, that of contradiction, or splitting.  Rivers has a dilemma; he wants to make his patients better, but making them better will mean making them fit to return to the fighting and dying.  Siegfried Sassoon is a committed pacifist who wants to return to the war out of sense of obligation to and love for his men.  Past and present merge for the traumatized soldiers, and fantasy and reality change places.  And the splitting is perhaps best exemplified by Prior.  His sexuality is doubled; he and other gay or bisexual men lead bifurcated lives.  He is professionally doubled, working for a domestic spy agency, and at the same time trying to help the people he is tasked with infiltrating and bringing to justice.  And he is socially doubled as well.  He is working class born and bred, but rose to become an officer in the army.  He is never completely accepted by the working class or the professional class, each of whom mistrusts the other; he has a foot in each world but is truly at home in neither, and he is painfully aware of this.  Barker paints a picture of a rigidly stratified society which only grudgingly yields to the pressure of the war, with the WC’s—the working classes, including his pacifist friends—distinguished not only by their living and working conditions but also by the idiomatic speech put into their mouths by the author.  

The theme of gender and its disruption is also prominent.  The author raises questions as to what it means to be a man or a woman in terms of societally-defined roles, many of which are altered under the strain of war.  To not be fighting in France is to somehow be less than a man; and for women to be working outside the home, in factories, and going to pubs at night unaccompanied by a man, is to be a new and different—and somewhat threatening—kind of woman.     

Most of all, though, there is the story, and Barker is an accomplished storyteller; the writing style is crisp and the narrative moves along nicely.  The author’s characterizations are on point, especially William Rivers and Billy Prior, but also the secondary characters; we really feel that we know these people.   Barker has a great feel for language, although some of the words and expressions several of the characters use are distinctly British and may be unfamiliar to American ears.  It is also worth noting that Barker’s style can range over to the gritty and the graphic, whether describing the events occurring on a battlefield in Picardy or in a bedroom (or back alley) in London; however, her descriptions of the British home front and of the French battlefields are wonderful.  She conveys an England tired of war, in some cases living hand to mouth in cold water flats with faded wallpaper, trying gamely to carry on despite being ground down.  And her France is pure hell.  

At its heart a psychologically-minded social commentary, The Eye in the Door is a well-researched, provocative, and highly readable account of the collateral damage of The War to End All Wars. 



Place Published

New York



Page Count