It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thoroug and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…
– from The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by R.L. Stevenson –
The second novel in Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy – The Eye in the Door – is all about duality. Set in the spring of 1918 with Britain fearing defeat at the hands of Germany, the book centers around the British government’s effort to find scapegoats to blame in the guise of pacifists and homosexuals. Barker uses the historic trial of Maud Allan vs. Pemberton Billing as the central event around which the plot weaves. The trial was a sham of sorts – with the lead Justice losing control over the court and the star defense witness for Billing being Harold Spencer – a lunatic who was obsessed with ‘women who had hypertrophied and diseased clitorises, and therefore could be satisfied only by bull elephants.‘
Do you know we actually sat in dug-outs in France and talked about that trial? The papers were full of it, I think it was the one thing that could have made me glad I was out there, I mean, for God’s sake, the Germans on the Marne, five thousand prisoners taken and all you read in the papers is who’s going to bed with whom and are they being blackmailed? God. – from The Eye in the Door, page 221-
In this second novel, Barker brings back Billy Prior who is working for the Ministry of Munitions (having been unable to return to the fighting in France due to uncontrolled asthma). Billy’s role of government “spy” to uncover pacifists and homosexuals conflicts with his own confused identity – he has a girlfriend, but engages in homosexual relationships. In addition to Billy, Siegfried Sassoon (a poet and war hero) and Dr. Rivers (noted psychiatrist) also make a return to the pages of this sequel.
Thematically, Barker focuses on the paranoia rampant in British society during this time in history. The notion of duality is played out for each character – with Billy having unexplained blackouts where his alter ego carries on without his input; as well as the disassociation of Sassoon’s personality (pacifist vs. military officer).
Siegfried had always coped with the war by being two people: the anti-war poet and pacifist; the bloodthirsty, efficient company commander. – from The Eye in the Door, page 233 –
Even Dr. Rivers suffers from a conflict with the two sides of his personality and begins to question whether the integration of self is advisable.
Perhaps, contrary to what was usually supposed, duality was the stable state; the attempt at integration, dangerous. – from The Eye in the Door, page 235 –
The Eye in the Door is a complex, psychological novel about the impact of war on the minds of soldiers. But it also goes deeper to explore the idea of the dual nature of an individual. This is a dark novel which can be dry and difficult to read at times. Barker’s writing is good, her characters are complicated…and yet I felt myself drifting at times.
For those readers who enjoy historical fiction which is also deeply philosophical, this is a novel worth reading. I should also add a cautionary note that there is some graphic sex described in the novel which may be offensive to some readers.