Ursula grows up in the country in early twentieth-century Britain, a time and place that proscribes relatively rigid gender roles to its citizens. Women are associated with domesticity, motherhood, and chastity, while men are associated with work, strength, and violence. Yet because the storylines in which Ursula and other characters strictly adhere to these gender roles lead to far more negative consequences than those in which they do not, the rigidity of these roles is proven to be more harmful than helpful.
Ursula’s and Sylvie’s adherence to women’s traditional roles leads to harmful experiences and, in some cases, Ursula’s death. Sylvie sets the example of a traditional women: she feels that a “woman’s highest calling is to be a mother and wife,” even though she also acknowledges that her life is extremely monotonous. She expects that her daughters follow her example in maintaining a good social standing, marrying a respectable man, and having children. In the first of Ursula’s coming-of-age chapters, however, this path is disrupted by a friend of Maurice’s named Howie. On Ursula’s sixteenth birthday, Howie kisses her aggressively. She relents to him, reframing the kiss as a means of passing through “the triumphal arch that led to womanhood.” But she describes how this arch doesn’t seem so triumphant later, when Howie rapes her on the stairs of her home and she is unable to fend him off. She becomes pregnant and her aunt Izzie later takes her to get an abortion. She then nearly dies after her operation, and Sylvie blames Ursula for the entire event—a particularly unjust ruling, given the fact that women in British society are often kept completely in the dark about sex and its consequences. This incident sends Ursula spiraling, and Atkinson demonstrates how it affects the way she interacts with men in the future. When she takes a typing class, the teacher, Mr. Carver, often touches the girls and makes them type blindfolded—she implies that he masturbates while doing so—all of which Ursula accepts because she feels unable to stand up to him. Later on in this timeline, Ursula marries a man named Derek Oliphant and becomes Sylvie’s ideal of a wife: taking care of the cleaning, cooking, and pleasing her husband. But despite Ursula’s efforts, she grows depressed and Derek abuses her to the point where he breaks her teeth, her nose, her jaw, and she is forced to wear her right arm in a sling. When she tries to hide out at Izzie’s house, he follows her and beats her again, this time killing her. This progression of events makes the argument that when harmful gender stereotypes and roles are imposed—when men are allowed to be violent and women are expected to accept this abuse for the sake of social norms—it can lead to disastrous consequences.
After this sequence, however, Ursula learns the necessity of breaking out of these social norms, leading her to have a much more empowered series of lives. Back at Ursula’s sixteenth birthday, this time she stands up to Howie, punching him on the cheek in “a very unladylike way” to prevent him from kissing her. Instead of shying away from this power, however, she calls it “a small triumph for her new womanhood,” in contrast with the previous version in which being kissed is a victory for womanhood. Thwarted by Ursula’s actions, Howie does not attempt to rape Ursula and she subsequently does not have an abortion, nor is she ostracized by Sylvie. Her empowerment is further underscored when she goes to the typing college and leads a “revolt” against Mr. Carver, this time refusing to accept his sexual misconduct. Instead of marrying Derek, then, Ursula lives alone in London and carries on an affair with a married man named Crighton (in other, future lives she takes up with another man named Ralph as well). Upon telling Pamela about her affair, her sister is hesitant that the man is cheating on his wife with Ursula but also says she admires Ursula for “being [her] own woman.” Ursula is not always as independent—there are other versions of her life in which she does become a wife and a mother, and another in which she invites a kiss from a different, less aggressive boy named Benjamin Cole. But in learning to stand up for herself, she transcends traditional gender expectations and find far more happiness in those subsequent lives.
Gender Roles and Expectations ThemeTracker
Gender Roles and Expectations Quotes in Life After Life
Motherhood was her responsibility, her destiny. It was, lacking anything else (and what else could there be?), her life.
Ursula had seen her brothers naked, knew what they had between their legs— wrinkled cockles, a little spout—and it seemed to have little to do with this painful piston-driven thing that was now ramming inside her like a weapon of war. Her own body breached. The arch that led to womanhood did not seem so triumphal anymore, merely brutal and completely uncaring.
“But he forced himself on you,” she fumed, “how can you think it was your fault?”
“But the consequences...” Ursula murmured.
Sylvie blamed her entirely, of course. “You’ve thrown away your virtue, your character, everyone’s good opinion of you.”
“Intact?” Ursula echoed, staring at Sylvie in the mirror. What did that mean, that she was flawed? Or broken?
“One’s maidenhood,” Sylvie said. “Deflowering,” she added impatiently when she saw Ursula’s blank expression. “For someone who is far from innocent you seem remarkably naive.”
Derek’s whole life was a fabrication. [...] What had he wanted from her? Someone weaker than himself? Or a wife, a mother of his children, someone running his house, all the trappings of the vie quotidienne but without any of its underlying chaos.
Powerful men needed their women to be unchallenging, the home should not be an arena for intellectual debate. “My own husband told me this so it must be true!” she wrote to Pamela.
Some hours later they had both woken up at the same time and made love. It was the kind of love (lust, to be honest about it) that survivors of disasters must practice—or people who are anticipating disaster—free of all restraint, savage at times and yet strangely tender and affectionate.