As Ursula experiences a multitude of lives, each version of her life is slightly (or sometimes vastly) different. Arguments begin to emerge in the novel about fate and choice, as certain details or actions that Atkinson includes have large ramifications on Ursula’s life while some circumstances remain relatively unchanged. The book thus argues that even as minor choices have the ability to shape the direction of one’s life, it’s impossible to predict exactly how or even if one’s choices will affect the future.
In many of Ursula’s lives, small choices that characters make can lead to vastly different outcomes. This idea is underscored early on: in the first version of Ursula’s birth, she is suffocated by her own umbilical cord and Doctor Fellowes is unable to arrive at the house in time due to a snowstorm. In other versions, he leaves a different crisis slightly earlier and arrives in time to save her, or Sylvie chooses to keep a set of scissors in her bedroom and is able to cut the cord herself, allowing Ursula to have a life at all. These small choices have a massive effect on the family as well as the world at large, as Ursula’s absence would have drastically altered their dynamic and any interactions that she has in subsequent versions of her life. Ursula’s own choices alter her life as well. When Ursula is a teenager, her older brother Maurice’s friend Howie forcibly kisses her and later rapes her, causing her to become pregnant, have an abortion, become disgraced within her family, and later marry an abusive husband. But in another version, Ursula chooses to be preemptively aggressive with Howie and push off his advances, leading him to ignore her and preventing the rest of that timeline. In another iteration, Ursula chooses to take a tour of Europe after school and ends up marrying a German man named Jürgen, causing her to live in Germany during the war rather than in Britain, as she does in other timelines. Because of this decision, she becomes trapped in Germany with her young daughter, Frieda, and decides that the only way she can escape the Germans is by killing herself and her daughter. These examples prove that even seemingly minor choices that seem relatively harmless can have a butterfly effect on both hers and others’ lives.
However, there are still parts of Ursula’s life that prove more resistant to change, even when small details are altered—hindering Ursula’s abilities to predict the consequences of her actions. The family’s maid, Bridget, goes to London to celebrate the Armistice at the end of World War I with her boyfriend Clarence. She returns with the flu and causes her own death as well as the death of Ursula and her younger brother Teddy. In subsequent versions, Ursula tries to avert this disaster several times: first, she tries not to interact with Bridget when she returns but Teddy still becomes sick and gives the illness to Ursula. In another, Ursula tries to put a note on the door of their home to prevent Bridget from returning, but her cook Mrs. Glover catches her. In another, Ursula pushes Bridget in the garden and she trips, but Bridget still goes to London with a limp. It is only when Ursula pushes Bridget down the stairs, breaking her arm, that she finally prevents Bridget from going. Thus, Atkinson shows that it is difficult to change events when other characters have a strong desire to carry them out. In the timeline in which Ursula is raped, has an abortion, and is essentially ostracized by her mother, she attends a secretarial college because she wants to move away from home as quickly as possible, and she subsequently works for the Home Office (the security department of the British government). Yet even when she escapes this misfortune in another iteration, she still chooses to go to the secretarial college because she wants to be independent from her parents more quickly, demonstrating that people often have many motivations for their actions and small changes in their lives may not affect their biggest decisions.
Although Ursula’s life changes drastically throughout the novel, Atkinson casts further doubt on the idea that global events can be shifted. In one iteration, Ursula lives past the war and has a conversation with her nephew, Nigel, about what might have occurred if Hitler had died prior to World War II. Ursula argues that it is likely that World War II might not have happened, that the cultural face of Europe would be different, and that a lot more people would be alive—but she also wonders if Goering or Himmler might have stepped in to take his place, and things would have happened in essentially the same way. In another timeline, Ursula attempts to carry out this possibility and shoots Hitler in 1930, causing her own death when other Nazi leaders shoot her immediately afterward. But because Atkinson does not write past Ursula’s death, readers do not get to see whether her actions were in vain. Thus, the book does not argue that every choice can shape history and have massive effects on the world; instead it implies that some choices can be very affecting, while other fates are much more difficult to avoid. This implication asserts that life is extremely difficult to predict, and individual people therefore have very little power in shaping the world on a large scale.
Fate vs. Choice ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Choice Quotes in Life After Life
Ursula had been about to plunge out of the window in Queen Solange’s wake, intent on delivering her from the no man’s land of the roof, when something made her hesitate. A little doubt, a faltering foot and the thought that the roof was very high and the night very wide.
Bridget went flying, toppling down the stairs in a great flurry of arms and legs. Ursula only just managed to stop herself from following in her wake.
Practice makes perfect.
“There are some Buddhist philosophers (a branch referred to as Zen) who say that sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,” Dr. Kellet said. “But, of course, there are some situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.”
Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future.
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” Klara said. “If we all had it there would be no history to write about.”
What had the Fuhrer’s apprenticeship for greatness been? Eva shrugged, she didn’t know. “He’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.” No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.
“Yet we must hold fast to what is good and true. But it all seems so random. One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”
“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.
“An awful lot of people would still be alive.”
“Well, yes, obviously. And the whole cultural face of Europe would be different because of the Jews. […] But perhaps Goering or Himmler would have stepped in. And everything would have happened in just the same way.”
Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness.
She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing in the air like long-lost souls. This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes it perfect.