Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life: Like a Fox in a Hole, Sep 1923 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Thirteen-year-old Ursula has lunch with Izzie and catches her up on her life. Ursula tells her that she is no longer seeing Dr. Kellet, her therapist, as she is considered “cured.” Izzie, for her own part, has just begun writing a weekly column for a newspaper called Adventures of a Modern Spinster, in which she writes (under the name Delphie Fox) about how to be a modern, single woman, because there aren’t enough men left to marry.
Izzie continues to be the picture of an independent woman. Even though Sylvie and Hugh critique Izzie, Ursula finds herself drawn to her aunt, and eventually realizes that she wants to become a “modern” woman herself, moving past the idea of traditional gender roles and expectations.
Themes
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
When Izzie had told Hugh and Sylvie of her new job, Sylvie had called her a fool and critiqued her makeup. Hugh was more concerned about her bobbed hair, as he had forbidden the women in his family to cut their hair, and in response Pamela had gone immediately to shear it off. To Ursula, Izzie’s column seems to be nothing more than a diary of Izzie’s personal life with a little social commentary thrown in.
Hugh and especially Sylvie, by contrast, serve as the idea of a traditional marriage with traditional gender dynamics, and also try to instill in their daughters these same ideals. Yet Pamela (like Ursula) tries to rebel against these antiquated ways of thinking.
Themes
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Meanwhile, the family has a new addition: Jimmy. His arrival had made Ursula feel as though she was being pushed further and further away from the heart of the family—she had even heard Sylvie call her an “awkward cuckoo.” Ursula had told Dr. Kellet that she felt like the odd one out of the family.
As Ursula feels increasingly pushed to the edges of the family life, she begins to see who her major allies are. Sylvie’s comments here foreshadow how easily she turns on her daughter later in the chapter.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
The novel flashes backward three years. Ten-year-old Ursula had been introduced to Dr. Kellet after she pushed Bridget down the stairs. At their first meeting, Dr. Kellet asks Ursula if she’s heard about reincarnation; she has not, but she explains that certain events often feel like they happen in a world that feels simultaneously like this world, and like another world.
Atkinson structures this chapter in a new way: with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and scenes interspersed with each other, mimicking Ursula’s own experience of feeling like she is constantly experiencing time and her various lives as a jumble rather than as something linear.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
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The novel briefly returns to when Ursula is thirteen: at the restaurant, Izzie pays for lunch and takes Ursula on a tour of London in her new car, chatting somewhat thoughtlessly about Marie Antoinette as a maligned figure, reading Dante, and how she had taken a lover in Italy after the war.
Izzie treats Ursula like a peer in conversation, deepening their camaraderie, and also continues to be a figure of independence that Ursula aspires to.
Themes
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Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
Dr. Kellet explains to ten-year-old Ursula that reincarnation means beginning a new life—though he points out that Buddhists don’t believe that people come back as the same person in the same circumstance, like Ursula does. He explains that most religions have an idea of life being cyclical—a snake with its tail in its mouth, for example.
Dr. Kellet veers into a more philosophical assessment of Ursula’s reincarnation, while Ursula simply understands that she is experiencing a variety of lives, each of which tries to improve upon the last.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Dr. Kellet specializes in helping men when they have returned from the war. Dr. Kellet himself had had a son, Guy, who died in the war. One day Ursula saw a man in the waiting room sob on the shoulder of the receptionist. Ursula thought then that when Teddy cried when he was younger, she couldn’t bear it. All she wanted to do was make sure he never felt like crying again.
Ursula’s protectiveness over Teddy shows the deep love that they have for each other—a love that will motivate Ursula’s actions during the war in certain lifetimes, and will motivate her to try and avert World War II in its entirety in other lives.
Themes
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War and Death Theme Icon
Dr. Kellet theorizes that Ursula’s brain is perhaps a little stuck, leading her to think that she is repeating experiences. He tells her that he doesn’t want this problem to result in her killing servants, however. Ursula tells him she was saving Bridget—or at least sacrificing her. Dr. Kellet responds that fate isn’t in her hands; that that would be a heavy burden for a young girl. He acknowledges that “sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,” but sometimes “there are situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.”
The idea that bad things sometimes have to happen in order to avoid worse things becomes a central moral tenet of the book. This notion motivated Ursula’s decision to push Bridget, and it eventually will motivate her biggest decision: to seek out Hitler and kill him prior to the rise of the Nazi Party, in order to avert World War II.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ursula is thirteen again: in London, Izzie and Ursula arrive in Izzie’s apartment, where everything is new and shiny. Izzie puts on a jazz record of Ida Cox. Ursula thinks that her voice is extraordinary. Izzie gets a call, after which she tells Ursula that she has to leave. Ursula takes the Tube to the train.
Even though Ursula increasingly looks up to Izzie, the love between them is somewhat incomplete (shown when Izzie leaves Ursula to essentially find her own way home from London). Much of Ursula’s struggle in dealing with both Izzie and Sylvie throughout the novel is that each one is an imperfect mother figure in her own way.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
Dr. Kellet asks ten-year-old Ursula if she has heard of “amor fati,” which means acceptance of fate, not thinking of things as either bad or good. He goes on to ask her if she knows what “Werde, der du bist” means. Ursula has not (and wonders if Dr. Kellet knows many ten-year-old girls). Dr. Kellet explains that it means “become such as you are, having learned what that is.”
Ultimately Ursula proves herself to be incapable of “amor fati”; she does not accept that certain things have to happen (or that she has to live a certain kind of life), as she constantly tries to take action to change her circumstances.
Themes
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In bed that night, Pamela and Ursula discuss Ursula’s trip to London. Ursula does not mention, however, that she had witnessed a peculiar scene (unseen by Izzie) while she was there). She had seen Sylvie arm in arm with an elegantly dressed man, who guided her way up the Strand.
This revelation becomes a scathing critique of Sylvie (and traditional models). If she feels that her calling in life is to be an ideal wife and mother—and forces that vision upon her daughters—then lying about where she is and spending time with other men reveals a flaw in her system.
Themes
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
The novel flashes forward again. Izzie’s next column explains the freedom that a single woman could obtain from a car—particularly that she can avoid being followed down a dark street by a stranger. Ursula does not see Izzie again until Christmas, when she comes to the house “in a bit of a jam” having overspent her income. Hugh lends her money, but she is forced to sell her car and move to a less extravagant apartment.
Yet as soon as Atkinson critiques Sylvie’s hypocrisy, she also critiques Izzie’s, as she purports to be a modern and independent woman, and yet she still requires help from her brother to bail her out, and must also give up her car, a symbol of female independence. But perhaps in Izzie’s case Atkinson does not critique Izzie’s view of gender roles, but how she enacts the idea of what an independent woman means.
Themes
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon