Life After Life

Life After Life

by

Kate Atkinson

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Life After Life: The End of the Beginning Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“Welcome, little bear,” Hugh says. He had been pacing around the hall, waiting to be invited into the room where Sylvie was giving birth, having managed to get back to Fox Corner just before the snow closed the roads. He had literally dragged Izzie back to England from France, where she had spent a week with her lover.
This long chapter explores some of the final loose ends of the novel, as Atkinson also demonstrates a writer’s own process of thinking through the consequences of alternative possibilities in various characters’ lives.
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On the boat ride back, their fellow guests assumed Hugh and Izzie were married. He had sent a telegram to his mother, Adelaide, informing her of Izzie’s pregnancy, and Adelaide had responded that he should not bring Izzie to her house under any circumstances. And so, he had brought her back to Fox Corner.
Hugh’s mother holds traditional values to the point where those expectations on her daughter overruled her love for her daughter in times of crisis, in the same way that Ursula’s rape and ensuing pregnancy overrules Sylvie’s love for her.
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Sylvie wonders what to do with Izzie and her child; Hugh insists that they should keep the baby and say the child is adopted. The child is born at Fox Corner, and when Sylvie sees him she finds that she cannot give him away. Izzie, on the other hand, immediately hands him over and leaves Fox Corner. No one questions the sudden appearance of this child; Bridget and Mrs. Glover are sworn to secrecy. Sylvie and Hugh name him Roland.
Even the hint of a young unmarried woman getting pregnant makes Sylvie and Hugh nervous, demonstrating the social conservatism, particularly at this time in the early nineteenth century. Yet Sylvie’s mothering instinct overrules her desire to avert scandal—a courtesy that does not extend to Ursula later.
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Roland is a sweet child, and it takes some time for Sylvie to realize that Roland is “not all there.” He does not progress in the same way that the other children had. Hugh is fond of him, though: Roland is calm, not like Maurice and Pamela. Ursula is completely different, watching everything around her.
Hugh’s summaries of his children exhibit the intricate dynamics within any family, and the different gradations of love that parents can have for their children.
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Time jumps forward. Mr. Winton’s easel is set up to face the sea. He watches Pamela and Ursula making a sand castle on the beach. Roland is sent to scour the beach for decorative pebbles, and Sylvie and Bridget are further along the beach. As Ursula builds the castles, she feels a slight fear, and she returns to Sylvie to have them soothed. When Sylvie sees Ursula, she asks her where Roland is.
Mr. Winton’s failed rescue in this version events, in contrast to the earlier version in which his rescue is successful, counters the idea of a set “fate”; what had been a lucky circumstance (his watching the girls) is now an unlucky circumstance because he doesn’t watch Roland wade into the water.
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They later conclude that Roland must have spotted a piece of wood in the ocean and waded out to collect it. Mr. Winton had tried to swim out to pull Roland from the water, but his body was already limp. As a variety of strangers try to revive Roland, Pamela comes over and holds Ursula’s hand.
Pamela provides that familial gesture of comfort for Ursula, holding her hand, just as Hugh and other family members do over the course of the novel, emphasizing both their tight bonds and the heartbreak that they are facing together over Roland’s death.
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At the funeral, everyone seems to want to try to claim Roland. Sylvie and Izzie both call him “my boy,” and Hugh is also greatly affected by his loss. Adelaide, on the other hand, had declared his death a blessing.
Roland’s death once again investigates the idea of a “correct” version of events. Initially it seems like a better circumstance, because Roland is able to grow up with his biological family, but after his death it calls into question whether he may actually have had a better life in Germany.
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Time jumps forward again. Ursula addresses Bridget, chopping onions in the kitchen. She tells her that she was just in the sweet shop, and Clarence was kissing Molly Lester, who works in the shop. When Molly protested, knowing that Bridget was engaged to him, he had said that Bridget meant nothing to her. Bridget calls Clarence a “bugger” and breaks things off with him, despite his protestations of innocence. Clarence then goes to London alone and dies of the flu afterward. Ursula tells Sylvie that “at least no one was pushed down the stairs,” though she has no idea what she means by it.
Just as Atkinson questions a truly “correct” version of life, she shows how Ursula still continues to improve her decisions, even the ones she makes when she is a child. Instead of pushing Bridget down the stairs, Ursula tries to break up Clarence and Bridget in order to protect Bridget (and the rest of the family) from the flu.
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Ursula constantly gets premonitions of events. Once, years earlier, when she had heard Maurice approaching her bedroom, she had placed her doll beneath her pillow. Maurice had then taken Pamela’s figurine and thrown it out the window, smashing it to pieces. The next day, Sylvie had gotten a kitten for Pamela to try to appease her, but it had only lasted a week, as Maurice had then stepped on it by accident, killing it.
This incident serves as another (if slightly more innocent) example in which Ursula takes a step backwards, even though she is trying to prevent something bad from happening. Pamela’s figurine breaks, unlike Ursula’s, which ultimately leads to the death of a kitten. In other words, sometimes a bad thing must happen (Pamela’s figurine being thrown out the window and a kitten dying) in order to prevent something worse (Ursula falling out the window and dying).
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Sylvie takes Ursula to a psychiatrist, Dr. Kellet, on account of her constant headaches and sense of “déjà vu.” When Ursula walks into the room, she says that she’s been here before. When Dr. Kellet asks if Ursula’s heard of reincarnation, Sylvie is sure that she hasn’t, but Ursula enthusiastically says she has. Dr. Kellet asks her to draw something; she draws a snake with a tail in its mouth.
Dr. Kellet’s reappearance is another thread that argues that some fates are harder to escape than others. Despite the fact that Ursula does not push Bridget down the stairs (the circumstance that had led to her seeing Dr. Kellet in a previous life), she still ends up seeking his counsel.
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Dr. Kellet explains to Sylvie that the picture is a symbol representing the circularity of the universe, that time is a construct, and that there is only now, no past or present. Ursula then asks Dr. Kellet where the picture is of Guy (his son) but Dr. Kellet asks, “Who is Guy?”
Dr. Kellet’s philosophy emphasizes perhaps the ultimate message of the book: that there is no right or wrong way to live, because the only reality people will ever truly know is the one happening in front of them. The instability of alternate realities is proven by the fact that Dr. Kellet doesn’t have a son in this version, but virtually everything is about him is the same.
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At Ursula’s sixteenth birthday, she walks Millie back to her house. On the return home, Benjamin Cole cycles past, then stops and walks her back to her house. He tells her that he likes her, and then kisses her. Ursula thinks this is the most fulfilling moment of her life.
Ursula has a much better experience with Benjamin than she did with Howie. However, even though Ursula is happier in this moment, it does not necessarily mean that this timeline is better overall, as their relationship indirectly leads to Nancy’s death once again.
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Six months later, Ursula is reading under the apple tree again—this time English poetry. Sylvie tells her she doesn’t see the point in Ursula studying English literature. Ursula tells her that she may want to study Modern Languages. Ursula and Sylvie then fall silent; a fox has appeared next to them, which Maurice is always trying to shoot and which Sylvie has a great fondness for.
For all of the changes in Ursula’s life, there are two things that remain unchanged: Sylvie’s desire for her daughter to marry rather than to get a better education, and Maurice’s antagonistic relationship with pretty much all of his family members. This demonstrates how families settle into an almost inevitable dynamic with each other, simply based on their personalities and beliefs.
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Maurice appears, completely bored. Ursula asks him to teach her to shoot, to which he replies that girls can’t shoot. Ursula agrees, sarcastically, that girls are absolutely useless. Ursula and Maurice practice shooting for a bit, and he reluctantly admits that she’s a good shot. They continue to practice until Maurice turns and shoots the fox. Ursula tells her mother that Maurice shot the fox, and Sylvie starts to cry. She says that she will disinherit Maurice one day.
Perhaps the one thing that Maurice and Sylvie have in common, in addition to the fact that they both can be exceptionally cold to Ursula, is the fact that they both devalue women in general. Maurice believes that girls are inferior to boys in pretty much all ways, and while Sylvie does not explicitly think this, her adamancy that boys and girls should occupy different spheres essentially leads to their being devalued (as in Ursula’s timeline with Derek).
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Ursula then says she is going to meet Hugh at the train station, but really she is going to meet Benjamin Cole in secret. She knows Sylvie would not approve, as “things had started to get very ‘hot’ between them, [with] a lot of fumbling fingers.” Ursula and Benjamin make their way to a meadow and lay down in each other’s arms. Soon he is on top of her, but he quickly goes into a kind of spasm. He then apologizes, though Ursula doesn’t really know what for.
Ursula is no less naïve in this timeline than she had been in others, thanks to Sylvie, but her coming-of-age with Benjamin is a far cry from her coming-of-age with Howie because it is clear that, even though Benjamin is more aware of sex than Ursula is, he still respects her boundaries.
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Ursula tells Benjamin she should probably be getting back for dinner. On their return, they see a man hobbling as fast as he can across the field. When Ursula returns home, Major Shawcross arrives, wondering if anyone has seen Nancy. After they discover her body, Ursula and Benjamin realize that if they had crossed the field five minutes earlier they might have saved her. After this, they stop meeting in the meadow.
This timeline in particular questions the idea that a “happier” life is necessarily better overall. For while Ursula and Benjamin are clearly happier, Ursula is unable to walk Nancy home, leading to her tragic death. And so Atkinson forces Ursula (and the reader) to evaluate which events are actually for the better.
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In October on a break from university, Ursula stays with Izzie for a few days. She and Izzie are having tea in South Kensington when Ursula is struck by an enormous wave of anticipatory dread. She runs, not knowing where she is going, then trips on something, falling straight on her nose. A man comes over and tries to help her—he introduces himself as Derek Oliphant. Ursula knows him, but she also doesn’t know him. She gets to her feet and runs on and on. She is in Belgravia when she stops: she knows that she’s been here before, too. She sinks to her knees and blacks out.
Ursula’s alternate timelines start to congeal as she thinks that she both has and has not met Derek, or been to Belgravia (where she got her abortion). The fact that she still encounters these people and places adds to a sense of fate: even small changes in one’s life sometimes cannot prevent certain encounters; some events are harder to escape than others.
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When Ursula wakes, she’s in a white room with Dr. Kellet. He says that they thought she’d been attacked: a vicar found her and took her to St. Georges, and she’d been screaming the whole time. Dr. Kellet tells her that she’s in a private clinic now. Ursula tells him that time isn’t circular, it’s like a “palimpsest”—a manuscript where traces of earlier drafts remain.
Ursula’s palimpsest theory is particularly interesting when viewing the different versions of her life as the alternate fates an author could (and which Atkinson does) give to her, sometimes keeping entire storylines and changing a few small details; in others, rewriting entire sections of the manuscript to provide Ursula with a completely different story.
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Ursula enjoys her brief time at the sanitorium. A few days later, she and Dr. Kellet have a rather terse conversation in which he quotes Corinthians, saying even if one has the gift of prophecy, without charity or love, one is nothing. Ursula doesn’t fully understand what he means. When Ursula is ready to go, Hugh picks her up and says he’s glad she’s feeling better—the house isn’t the same without her.
Dr. Kellet and Ursula’s conversation eventually leads her to understand what the purpose of her life might be, and what kind of outcome would hold the most meaning. Dr. Kellet implies that love is what makes life meaningful, which Ursula translates as trying to save her family members from the disaster that war wreaks on them.
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Ursula lies awake in her bed and formulates a plan. She will study German, take a class in shorthand and typing, join a local shooting club, get an office job somewhere and save money. And then she would go to Germany, go to the photo shop in Munich, tell the girl working there that she’s having trouble with her camera, and then seventeen-year-old Eva Braun would offer to help her. She thinks that she is fulfilling her destiny: “Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” She thinks of Teddy and Miss Woolf and others who have died. “This is love,” she thinks. “And the practice of it makes it perfect.”
As a result of Ursula’s and Dr. Kellet’s conversation, she decides to take an entirely utilitarian view of her life. She uses the information that she amassed in previous lives in order to devise a way to get close to Hitler, kill him, and ultimately avert the seemingly fated World War II. But it is not the world that Ursula thinks of, but rather the love that she bears the family members who had died as a result of the conflict.
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