Ursula’s life begins prior to the start of World War I and in later chapters, she is in her thirties throughout World War II. War is thus a near-constant presence in Ursula’s life and, despite several attempts to escape its perils, becomes unavoidable. Atkinson never describes a battlefield scene, but she demonstrates how war disrupts the balance of life both in its widespread fatalities and in its disturbance of social norms on an international level.
The death and destruction that arise during World War II is set apart from any death that comes before it in the novel because of its visceral violence and because it affects the lives of all European citizens. The bombing of London forces Ursula to confront a variety of terrors. In one life in which Ursula is hiding in a bomb shelter that receives a direct hit, Ursula is knocked unconscious and sees the headless, legless body of her neighbor Lavinia Nesbit. She describes feeling something irreparably broken inside her as a result of this incident; even though she is not on the battlefield, she is certainly fighting for her life in the war. In another life, Ursula is part of a rescue team that tries to recover people from the wreckage of the bombing. In one incident she casually describes the injuries of two people she finds: “head injuries, broken femur, broken collarbone, broken ribs, what was probably a crushed pelvis.” When a friend of hers from the rescue team, Mr. Palmer, becomes a victim of the bombs, moving his body causes him to come apart like a “Christmas cracker.” She also shovels “unidentifiable lumps of flesh,” and in another incident finds herself kneeling on the body of a small child. These images are traumatizing, and again demonstrate how even though Ursula is far from the battlefield, the war’s horrors are brought right to her doorstep. Even outside of Britain, the war is inescapable. In another life, Ursula travels to Germany and ends up marrying a German man named Jürgen prior to the war. When the war begins and the country’s borders close, Ursula is still in Germany, making escape impossible. As the war goes on, Ursula thinks about how all she wants is a “swift, clean death,” with her daughter, Frieda, wrapped in her arms. Ursula acquires pills from a chemist and gives one to her daughter and takes one herself—committing suicide. Atkinson writes that Ursula “had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.” Thus, the war not only causes death and damage in its violence, but also in causing people to take the most desperate measures in order to avoid the pain and suffering it brings.
In addition to the mass deaths that Ursula is forced to confront during the war, it’s destruction also has widespread effects on life beyond the violence. During World War I, the Todd household becomes much more pragmatic. Sylvie, who had up to this point been relatively unconcerned about money or food, boils down slivers of soap to reuse, refurbishes hats, reuses sheets, and kills a beloved hen because of food shortages. This need to be spare is even more severe during World War II, as people are forced to wait hours in line for a loaf of bread, and Ursula must smuggle eggs back from their country home to the city because food is so scarce. The war also causes people to question some traditional values. Ursula starts affairs with several lovers in different versions of the war: a man named Crighton who is married, a man named Ralph who works for the government, and Fred Smith, a childhood neighbor of Ursula’s who reappears in the wreckage of London. As she makes love with Fred in one chapter, she describes the urgency of it: the kind of love that “survivors of disasters must practice—or people who are anticipating disaster—free of all restraint.” This freedom from restraint demonstrates the degree of abandonment that the war brings: because the future is so uncertain, fulfilling today’s desires becomes much more acceptable. Even small social norms are disrupted. When the power goes out in London and Ursula stumbles around in the dark, a man finds her and walks her part of the way home. She explains that before the war, she would never have linked arms with a complete stranger, especially a man, but the threat of bombs seems much greater than anything that could happen as a result of this action.
In a book that has so much death in it, Atkinson sets the traumas of the war distinctly apart from what comes before it in the novel. The difference between Ursula’s childhood deaths and the destruction created by the war is the fact that Ursula must deal with its ramifications: in the violent carnage that she must confront; in the inescapable repercussions that alter her social interactions; and the steps she must take in order to continue (or not continue) to live.
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War and Death Quotes in Life After Life
So much for progress. How quickly civilization could dissolve into its more ugly elements. Look at the Germans, the most cultured and well mannered of people, and yet... Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen.
“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.”
“Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.”
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought. Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” Klara said. “If we all had it there would be no history to write about.”
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.
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.
She held tightly on to Frieda and soon they were both wrapped in the velvet wings of the black bat and this life was already unreal and gone.
She had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.
Of course, even Miss Woolf had not imagined how distressing these sights would be when they involved civilians rather than battlefield soldiers, when they involved shoveling up unidentifiable lumps of flesh or picking out the heartbreakingly small limbs of a child from the rubble.
“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.
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.
“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.