Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life: Like a Fox in a Hole, Jun 1932 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Six years later, Pamela happily marries a man named Harold. Ursula lives on her own, though no one knows this. Her roommate, Hilda, has moved out and lives with a man whose wife will not grant him a divorce, so Hilda has to keep up appearances that she still lives with Ursula for the benefit of her family. Ursula doesn’t mind living alone, though Hugh and Sylvie would have been scandalized.
Pamela’s happy marriage is contrasted here with Ursula’s solitude, which is framed as both negative and scandalous. But in future timelines, when Ursula undergoes less hardship at the hands of men, she feels more empowered at the idea of living alone.
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Living alone, Ursula realizes how few friends she has—her friendship with Millie didn’t survive Nancy’s death. Ursula works for an importing company but isn’t friends with any of the girls in the office. They invite her out, but only out of “charity,” she thinks, and she never takes them up on their offers. Ursula life outside of the office consists mostly of drinking.
Ursula’s friendships, like her relationships with her family, are tested in moments of crisis, and neither she nor Millie have truly been able to support one another in their individual moments of crisis; thus, their relationship has become distant.
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The drinking started when Pamela came to stay for a weekend prior to her wedding. Ursula planned to make a boeuf bourguignon for her, which required burgundy. A wine merchant picked out a bottle for Ursula, and that evening she tried a glass. She had never drunk alcohol alone before, but her “despondency” had disappeared, and so she had another. The next day she finished the bottle. Soon, Ursula began going around to different restaurants and pubs, buying a variety of liquors and offering a different excuse to each one about it being a gift for a family member. She had become a secret drinker very quickly, and found herself drowning in alcohol in a matter of weeks.
Ursula’s spiral continues, particularly now that she is isolated from the people who love her (or the people who were supposed to love her most have turned on her). Instead of supporters, they become ways in which Ursula can acquire more alcohol. Alcohol becomes a poor substitute for the love of her family which has been so vital to her up to this point, and one that she eventually tries to remedy with the relationship she gains in this chapter.
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A few months after Pamela’s wedding, Ursula trips (sober) on her way home from work, slamming her nose into the pavement. The pain stuns her and she kneels on the ground, holding herself. A man stops, noticing the blood, and helps her to her feet, asking if she’s okay. He introduces himself as Derek Oliphant. Three months later, they are married.
Ursula’s haste in marrying Derek stems from her relief that someone cares about her, and also that he represents the traditional image of a strong man who wants to protect her and make her feel safe.
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Derek is a history teacher, and their courtship consists of long bike rides and visiting pleasant pubs—though Ursula stops drinking as suddenly as she started. Mostly, she is relieved that someone wants to look after her. She learns that Derek’s mother lives in Barnet but his father is dead, and his younger sister had died when she accidentally fell into a fire at four years old. Ursula tells Derek that she had almost drowned as a girl, and he says that he too nearly drowned when he was a boy.
Ursula’s thoughts reveal that her feelings for Derek stem primarily from the fact that he replaces the familial love that she had been cut off from following her abortion. He turns up at a crucial juncture in her life when she is facing years of depression as well as a new crisis—drinking—and his support during that time makes her extremely grateful and loyal to him.
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Ursula and Derek marry in a registrar’s office, witnessed only by Hugh, Sylvie, and Derek’s mother. Pamela and Teddy are both upset not to have been invited, but Ursula is just happy to belong to someone. Hugh is supportive of Ursula. Sylvie, in the powder room, asks whether Derek knows Ursula is not “intact.” Ursula doesn’t understand what she means; Sylvie comments that “for someone who is far from innocent,” Ursula is still “remarkably naïve.”
Sylvie’s hypocrisy concerning feminine purity again reveals itself here. She criticizes Ursula not only for being the victim of an assault, but also not knowing the assault changed her body. Yet this lack of knowledge is due to Sylvie’s (and society’s) belief that women should remain so pure that they should not even be informed about sex, despite the fact that knowledge of its consequences might have empowered Ursula to try to prevent it in the first place.
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Ursula and Derek move into a house close to his school, which Derek had bought and furnished without Ursula having seen it. Ursula is slightly disappointed, as it is a bit drab. Their honeymoon consists of a wet week in Worthing, and Ursula finds that Derek changes from “solicitous suitor to disenchanted spouse.” They spend days sheltering in cafés and museums, or playing cards poorly with other guests at their boardinghouse.
Derek and Ursula’s first week of marriage already sets the stage for it to turn sour very quickly, as their marriage proves how ideas of a traditionally picturesque marriage (a breadwinning husband taking care of the household, a wife responsible for the cooking and cleaning) becomes harmful to both spouses.
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On the first night of their honeymoon, Derek seems not to notice that Ursula is not “intact.” He brags rather pompously that he is “not inexperienced” when it comes to sex, arguing that it is the duty of a husband to know something of the world so that he can protect the purity of his wife. When they make love, Ursula finds, he is rather indifferent to her. She wonders about other couples, like Pamela and Harold, noting the affection between them. Ursula senses that she and Derek may not share the same affection.
Atkinson again highlights the double standards of the society when it comes to sex and gender. While women are expected to be pure and sexually inexperienced, men have very little consequences for having sex before marriage. Derek even implies here that men should have sex before marriage. The discrepancy between these gender expectations, however, set the parameters for assaults like the one Ursula experienced.
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Ursula’s job becomes one of keeping house, making sure everything is washed, scrubbed, dusted, folded, ironed, swept. Derek is very particular, and banishes Ursula from his company most evenings so that he can work on a textbook he is writing—the income of which he says that they very much need. He tells Ursula that they are barely able to pay their bills because of her “lack of domestic economy.”
Ursula is put in a very rigid position in the household. Her tasks seems to stem more from Derek’s expectations of what a wife should be, than what he actually seems to want from her—expectations that stem from a society that traditionally sees men in the workplace, and women keeping house.
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Ursula is expected to have breakfast on the table at exactly the right time, in exactly the right way. Tea is a different kind of nightmare because Ursula is forced to think of new things to cook all the time, and yet she is always chastised for overspending her housekeeping allowance. Before, if she was really in need of extra money she could always ask Izzie or Hugh, but Derek would be mortified if she did this while they were married because it would be a “slur on his manhood.”
Ursula’s explanation expands to include yet another traditionally female role: that of cook. The harm of traditional gender roles is emphasized when Ursula is not allowed to ask for help because doing so would be an insult to Derek’s masculinity, even though equating masculinity with not asking for help, or with needing money, is an arbitrary construct that society has instilled in him.
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After several months, Ursula feels as though she might go mad if she doesn’t get a pastime, and so she takes up tennis. When she tells Derek over breakfast, he is angry that she didn’t ask for permission before doing so, and throws his plate across the room before walking out of the house. He returns as Ursula is getting ready for bed and chokes out a brief “goodnight,” but in the middle of the night he climbs on top of her and thrusts himself inside her.
It is in this episode in which Derek’s ideas of masculinity cross over into truly toxic, abusive actions. He views his role as husband to be completely controlling over Ursula’s every action, and any attempts on Ursula’s part to defy this control and retain a shred of power lead him to unleash vicious and sexually aggressive behavior.
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One afternoon, Ursula and Derek go to his mother’s house. Derek is dispatched on several jobs around the house, and so Ursula and Mrs. Oliphant are left to chat. Ursula asks if she has any photographs of Derek when he was young—or any of his late sister. Mrs. Oliphant is confused, concluding that she only had Derek. Soon Ursula discovers that Derek had also lied about his father’s death, and about having nearly drowned as a child.
Derek’s desire for control also leads him to be mentally manipulative as well. It is unclear why he had lied about his past, but a possible explanation is to make Ursula feel connected to him or close to him, so that she might marry him before she realizes how dangerous he is.
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Another afternoon, Pamela visits Ursula at home. She is the first in Ursula’s family to visit, as Ursula has been trying to keep everyone away from the house. But she is relieved to see Pamela. Pamela asks if anything is the matter, but Ursula lies and says that it’s only her time of the month. Pamela then announces that she’s going to have a baby.
Not only is Pamela’s marital bliss in complete contrast with Ursula’s misery, but Pamela’s visit also reminds her of the love and support she once received from her family, and which she no longer receives (and perhaps never truly did) from Derek.
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The next day, Derek scolds Ursula for the breakfast she makes, saying sarcastically that she does nothing all day (except play tennis) and can’t manage to cook him an egg. He slaps her, sending her reeling into the oven and onto the floor. He then slides the egg onto her head and stalks out of the house. After this incident, everything Ursula does seems to make Derek angry, sending him into enormous rants. She gives up tennis to appease him, but violence seems always to simmer beneath his surface.
Derek’s actions escalate from aggression and manipulation to outright physical and emotional abuse. Atkinson demonstrates the danger in Derek’s belief that the only way to keep control of his house and retain his manhood is by asserting physical dominance over his wife.
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Derek gives Ursula money to buy a hat for “sports day”—an event at his school. When she goes to buy one, she hardly recognizes herself, and wails in horror. The owner of the shop tries to calm her down, asking if it’s her time of the month. Ursula goes to sports day and overhears two teachers talking about how Derek is in trouble for hitting students, how he is an awful teacher, how he is in massive debt, how his book is a joke, and how they hear his wife is very unstable.
The other teachers confirm Derek’s need to assert dominance not only over his wife but over other potentially weaker targets, like his students. Their revelation of Derek’s financial troubles and his ineffectuality as a teacher likely fuels this insecurity, pushing him to be more and more assertive towards others.
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Derek walks up to Ursula, saying “hello, dear,” and kissing her on the cheek. Ursula can’t help but burst out laughing—it is the nicest thing he has said to her in weeks. He smiles at her, but she can tell he is seething underneath. She thinks that perhaps she is, in fact, unstable.
Even when Derek acts with some degree of kindness toward Ursula, it is not out of love but rather out of a desire to fulfill societal expectations of traditional marital relationships. His words and actions are clearly for the benefit of the people around them, to make them look like a happy couple, and like he is providing her with a happy life.
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That evening, Derek stays at school for dinner. Ursula goes into his “study” (what had once been the dining room) to see his work, but she only finds scraps of disconnected sentences, thoughts, and paragraphs written over and over. She realizes that “Derek’s whole life [is] a fabrication,” and wonders if he only wanted her to be a part of it so that he could have “someone weaker than himself,” or someone who represented an idea of what normal, married life meant.
Derek’s vision of what normal married life looks like, and his expectations of the roles a husband and wife should play, become extremely harmful not only to Ursula (who is subjected to his rigid and sexist standards), but also to Derek himself as he tries to achieve a societal ideal rather than something truly attainable.
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At that moment, Derek returns home, asking Ursula what she’s doing. She calls him a liar, and asks him why he married her. He punches her in the face. She wakes up the next morning, trying to make as little sound as possible. She steals a ten-shilling note from Derek’s wallet and walks to the train, her heart pounding, worrying that he will follow her. As she waits for the train, she washes some of the dried blood from her face in the bathroom.
Ursula’s theory that Derek only wanted her in order to have someone weaker than himself is proven correct, as any attempt on her part to make herself seem stronger is met with violence, as Derek continues to try to prove his dominance over her. Yet Ursula is not so subjugated or proud that she does not try to escape this abuse.
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Ursula arrives at Izzie’s apartment. Izzie is horrified to see Ursula’s beaten face and invites her in. Izzie’s dentist fixes Ursula’s teeth, and Ursula wears her right arm in a sling for a while. Her nose has been broken and her cheekbones and jaw cracked, but she feels “scourged clean.” Izzie tells her to stay as long as she would like.
Even though Ursula had a horrendous experience the last time she went to Izzie for help, she understands that Izzie is still the only person who can give her refuge, who will understand her situation but will not blame her for it, and will give her the love she desperately lacks.
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Ursula tells her family that she’d gone away for the summer, but Teddy is able to find her at Izzie’s. His presence cheers Ursula up immediately. He asks what happened to her face, and then if she’s left Derek. He’s happy to hear that she has. Teddy had recently announced that he wants to be a farmer, and has been working on the land and writing poetry. He had been heartbroken by Nancy’s death, and describes his pain like walking into a room and feeling his life has ended, but he keeps on living. Ursula says she understands.
Even more than the support from Izzie, the bond between Ursula and her younger brother proves to be the strongest. Not only does he bring her emotional relief, he provides her with unconditional love that gives her a new sense of life. Additionally, his pain over Nancy gives them a further sense of communion, as he understands to a degree Ursula’s pain in having been essentially disowned by her mother, depressed, and drawn into an abusive marriage—but still, they both keep on living.
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Ursula dozes off with her head on Teddy’s shoulder, still tremendously tired, until the doorbell rings. She answers it, presuming that it is Izzie—but it is Derek. She is so shocked she can’t speak. He twists her arm back and marches her into the living room. When he sees Teddy, he asks if he’s the man Ursula has been “whoring around London with” and smashes her head into the coffee table.
Derek reveals his insecurities, his sexism, and his desire for power again when he arrives at Ursula’s door. He thinks that the only reason she could have for leaving him is because she is cheating on him—because she is a “whore”—and again tries to dominate her through violence.
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Ursula cannot see because of the blood in her eyes, but she can hear Teddy and Derek fighting. She thinks that she doesn’t mind dying, as long as Teddy is safe. She is cold and tired, and she remembers feeling this way in the hospital after Belgravia, when Hugh’s hand in hers had been the only thing to keep her in this life. The black bat comes for Ursula. She holds out her hand for Teddy but nothing can stop the darkness this time.
Ursula’s willingness to die for her brother recurs in later timelines, when she sacrifices herself to ensure that Teddy will not die in World War II,. She draws a connection between the support Teddy bears for her and the love her father had provided when she had ended up in the hospital, holding out a hand to each one of them in her time of need.
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