Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Life After Life can help.

Life After Life: A Long Hard War, May 1941 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The war goes on and on. The winter is freezing; there is a terrible raid on London at the end of 1940; Ralph helps save St. Paul’s from a fire. The rest of the time, Ursula and Ralph continue with their lives; going to the movies, dancing, concerts, eating, drinking, making love.
Perhaps what is most striking about the war is, due to its length and prolonged hardship, it starts not to feel like a disruption at all, but rather a new social norm that people are shaping their lives around.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula meets up with Crighton and returns his cigarette case. When Ursula tells him where she found it, he says Renee’s name means nothing to him. He is incredibly appreciative, and Ursula asks to “go somewhere.” They resume their affair—Crighton is so different from Ralph that it doesn’t seem like cheating to Ursula. Besides, Ursula thinks, she hardly sees Ralph and it seems to be a mutual separation.
Ursula’s transformation from her innocence as a girl to her experience as a woman represents an escape from traditional gender expectations. Whereas, in her first foray into adolescence, Ursula had become an ideal wife, in subsequent lives Ursula finds that she is happier and freer avoiding that stereotype.
Themes
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
Teddy returns from training, and he and Ursula visit a World War I war memorial together. Teddy thinks that he will probably die for England, and so will Ursula. Ursula thinks that she would rather die for Fox Corner than for England. In a week Teddy  would join a unit to start his first tour of duty.
Ursula’s assertion that she would rather die for Fox Corner over England is emblematic of the love that she bears for her family, and for Teddy specifically.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
Teddy gazes at the monument, looking at all of the names (and all of the lives lost). He wonders what’s wrong with the human race. Ursula says that there’s no use thinking about it; people can only “get on with life.” After all, she says, people only have one life and they “should try and do [their] best.” “We can never get it right, but we must try,” she says.
Ursula’s statement represents one of Atkinson’s overarching arguments: while Ursula is afforded the opportunity to “get it right,” ultimately she finds that there is no “right” answer. There are better and worse versions of her life, certainly, but ultimately the “correct” version remains very opaque.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Get the entire Life After Life LitChart as a printable PDF.
Life After Life PDF
Teddy takes Ursula for a drink. He doesn’t want to talk about flying, about the war, or even about Nancy (who is apparently doing some job in the government that she can’t talk about). They instead talk about Hugh, and Ursula feels like they finally give their father the wake he deserved.
Because Ursula relies so heavily on the love of her family and tries to return that love (particularly to Teddy and Hugh), it makes sense that she would want to give him the honor that she feels he deserves.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
Teddy is going up to Fox Corner the next morning, and Ursula insists that he take Lucky with him. Even though the raids are more sporadic, London is still no place for a dog. Teddy agrees, and when he leaves on the train, he gives her a salute.
While Ursula doesn’t know the consequences of giving Lucky to Teddy, perhaps she hopes that the dog will afford him some luck, just as the dog led her to a better fate.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Family and Love Theme Icon
In May, there is a terrible raid, and Ursula and Millie’s apartment is hit (though neither of them are in it at the time). Ursula simply moves back in and camps there for a while, despite the fact that there is no roof. When Millie returns from a show tour, she insists they find somewhere else to live, so they move to a shabby place in Lexham Gardens.
Ursula’s willingness to camp out in her apartment without a roof proves both the war’s capacity for destruction and its ability to disrupt what people deem as acceptable living conditions. This also harkens back to Ursula’s life in Germany, where she was living in a home without a fourth wall.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
In the same raid, Herr Zimmerman and Mr. Simms are killed. At the funeral, Ursula finds Fred Smith and they rent a room at a nearby hotel and have sex. When they wake in the morning, he apologizes for being an “arse” the last time they were together. They smoke and drink tea together, and Ursula wonders what would happen if the hotel were hit and no one knew who they were or what they were doing there.
It is worth noting that Ursula’s more adventurous behavior comes out of events in which she is almost killed, and some of her friends have been killed, reinforcing the link between the destruction of war and the need to take advantage of any opportunity she might have for pleasure.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula realizes that she has become very morbid since Argyll Road; it has affected her in a different way than other incidents. Then the siren goes off, and Fred hastily flies out of the room, as he is supposed to be on duty. A few days later, Ursula discovers that Fred died attending a fire.
Just as the war infiltrates all aspects of life in Britain, it also starts to infiltrate Ursula’s mental health, as over the war she becomes more and more depressed by the death that she encounters.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon