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: The Land of Begin Again, Aug 1939 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Six years later, Ursula is at the grand Berghof, and Eva Braun (Hitler’s mistress) is playing with Ursula’s five-year-old daughter, Frieda. Frieda has blond hair, blue eyes, and is very pale, and both Hitler and Eva love Frieda. Watching Eva play with her daughter, Ursula wonders what she is doing at their house, and when she might be able leave. They had arrived two weeks prior.
Only six years later, Ursula’s life has diverged wildly from her other timelines, proving how even a small change in desires (in Ursula’s case, to take a trip to Europe) can lead to large ramifications later on in one’s life.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Ursula describes Frieda as the center of her heart, and Ursula knows that she would be willing to “walk on knives” for the rest of her life to protect Frieda; that she would burn in flames or drown if it would save her daughter. She had had no idea that maternal love could be so physical.
For the first time, Ursula understands the depth of the love that a mother can bear for her daughter, knowing that she would always be there for her daughter in times of crisis, even if that wasn’t equally true of her own mother.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
“The Berg”—Hitler’s mansion—is bustling with other women, many of whom are senior party officials who hate Eva for managing to marry the leader of the Reich. Eva had been a shop girl when she had first met him, and the other people at the Berg constantly remind her of her “courtesan” status.
Even though Ursula is fraternizing with the enemy, the information she learns becomes vital to her in her future lives, when she uses the information she gains here to find a way to kill Hitler earlier in his life.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Eva takes lots of pictures of Ursula and Frieda, and Ursula imagines a future time in which someone leafs through Eva’s albums and wonders who Ursula might be, this day becoming history. She thinks about history more broadly—how most people only realize the significance of certain events in hindsight. But Hitler is “consciously making history for the future.”
Ursula’s thoughts become another argument against the idea that fate is set in stone because she attributes a lot of agency to Hitler. In her mind, history is borne of the choices that people make.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Get the entire Life After Life LitChart as a printable PDF.
Life After Life PDF
In private, Jürgen claims to find Hitler and his henchmen tremendously flawed, but in public he behaves like a good servant of the Reich. Jürgen is a lawyer, and in order to practice law he had to join the Party, even though he had really been a staunch Leftist. He had subsequently risen through the Party rather quickly—even getting tickets to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday parade.
In Germany, the war breaks social norms in different ways, causing people to behave as they never have before, as in Jürgen’s case, when he supports a party whose ideals wildly diverge from his own.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Related Quotes
At Hitler’s birthday parade, Ursula had been amazed by the theatrics, the precision, and the weaponry. Jürgen commented that the military had helped to rescue the German psyche—returning patriotism to the country. As if to prove his point, the crowd had gone wild at the parade’s finale. 
In some ways, it was Hitler’s ability to completely upend society’s way of thinking and throw their full support behind both the country and the military that allowed Hitler to take so much power and give him license to begin World War II.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Frieda had grown very ill several weeks prior, quickly become feverish and delirious, and Ursula and Jürgen had rushed her to the nearest hospital. Ursula stayed by her side for two days and nights, holding on to her hand. They willed Frieda to live, and she did. When Ursula returned home from the hospital, she had received a letter from Eva, inviting them to the Berg to help Frieda recover.
This scene can be compared to Hugh’s own vigil in the hospital following Ursula’s abortion. Ursula, like her father before her, provides the love and support that her daughter needs in order to live. In another parallel, Ursula holds her daughter’s hand in the hopes of tethering her to this world.
Themes
Family and Love Theme Icon
Ursula had never met Eva. Eva knew of her through Klara, as they used to work together and went to kindergarten together. Jürgen wondered if Eva knew that Klara is married to a Jew. Ursula was surprised to hear the disdain in Jürgen’s voice when he said this word, and also noted that their conversations had become more and more one-sided lately.
Jürgen serves as a kind of bellwether of the Nazi Party’s dissemination of ideology. As Jürgen rises through the party, and the country draws closer to war, he has more and more disdain for the Jewish people, and he also becomes more controlling over Ursula’s life.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
When Hitler is not at the Berg, Ursula notes that Eva doesn’t really know what to do with herself. Ursula sees Eva as amiable, chatting about inconsequential things and making no attempt to be brainy or astute. Jürgen had told her that “powerful men needed their women to be unchallenging,” and Ursula had wondered whether that was true of him, too.
In this chapter, men are not only associated with the violence of the war, but here Ursula also notes the sexism of not wanting to be challenged by a woman as she watches her own husband become increasingly domineering over her.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Expectations Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ursula asks Eva one day how Hitler became the great leader he is. Eva says that “he was born a politician,” but Ursula thinks that “he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” Ursula knows she could easily get ahold of a gun, but if she were to shoot him, she doesn’t know what might happen to her, or to Frieda.
Ursula in her multiple lives, understands the agency that people (and Hitler) have in choosing their own destinies—that no one is truly fated to do anything if they will themselves to change.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When Ursula and Frieda had arrived at the Berghof, Hitler himself had greeted them and invited them to stay until Frieda felt better. Pamela noted in a letter that he likes women, children, and dogs—he just has no respect for the law or common humanity. Ursula knows that Pamela would not be able to stay silent if she were in Ursula’s place, and Ursula feels guilty for being so passive.
Having just concluded that Hitler’s agency had led him to become this way, Ursula begins to understand the ways in which she is completely relinquishing her own agency in the situation—and how tempting it is to think of history as being fated, when in actuality the war might have been prevented if the Jürgens and the Ursulas of the world had not been so passive.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula thinks of Klara, whom she had not seen for many years. When Frieda was born five years prior, Klara’s Jewish husband had already been barred from teaching. He and Klara had wanted to leave in 1935 and 1936, but inertia had kept them in Germany until he had been part of a roundup and had been transported east.
Again, Atkinson critiques the idea of passivity and people’s tendency to wait out crises until it becomes too late—just as Ursula does in this chapter.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
At the Berg, Ursula is forced to listen to concerts and watch films of Hitler’s choosing, after which he would talk for hours. Ursula wishes in these moments she could escape to Fox Corner. Once, when Sylvie had visited to get to know Jürgen better, Ursula had taken Sylvie to a parade, to show her the adoration showered upon Hitler. Despite viewing the proceedings as “mass hysteria,” she had reluctantly raised her arm to give the Nazi salute as well.
It is notable that this chapter, despite the fact that it sees Ursula literally interacting with Hitler, focuses mostly on the past, as Ursula retraces the shifts in society that allowed Hitler to come to this seat of power, and all of the people and incidents that allowed him to wreak such havoc on the country and the continent.
Themes
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
Ursula tells Eva one day at lunch that she thinks Frieda is well enough to go home. Ursula wants desperately to return to England. She had planned to go in May—had even packed suitcases for herself and Frieda without Jürgen knowing—but the day before they were supposed to leave, she found their passports were missing. She searched the house, but could only find Jürgen’s.
Atkinson demonstrates how Ursula tries several times to determine her own fate and get out of Germany, but both in the present and during her attempt in May, she is too late. In some circumstances (like the timelines in which Bridget returns from London with the flu), fate is unavoidable after a certain point. And Ursula has no desire to repeat this timeline to find out if she can avert this fate somehow.
Themes
Life, Reincarnation, and Alternate Possibilities Theme Icon
Fate vs. Choice Theme Icon
War and Death Theme Icon
That night at supper, Ursula could barely swallow. Jürgen told her that he wanted to take a holiday to Sylt—where they won’t need a passport. Ursula had been terrified, thinking he must have figured out about her plan. But then Frieda had become ill, and the plan became irrelevant anyway. Ursula thinks of this episode as she leaves the Berg with Frieda, driven by the chauffeur who had brought them. The next day, Germany invades Poland.
In this episode, Jürgen becomes a direct parallel with the German government as a whole. He is controlling and actively malicious, preventing Ursula and Frieda from escaping imminent danger—just as Germany does once it invades Poland and the war is officially underway.
Themes
War and Death Theme Icon