Study Guide

Life After Life Themes

  • Mortality

    REM whined that everybody hurts, and on our morbid days (or when we're finding Michael Stipe extra whiny), we like to replace that with "everybody dies." After all, there's no avoiding it, no matter how hard you try, right? In Life After Life, Ursula deals with death frequently, from the deaths of her friends and family members to the deaths of strangers during the war to her own, multiple times. For a book called Life After Life there's a lot of Death After Death

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do Ursula's frequent deaths diminish the impact of death? Why or why not?
    2. Do you wish you could see the grieving process after her deaths? How do you think her family would grieve at different times?
    3. Which of Ursula's deaths were the hardest to read? Does she ever have a "good" death? Explain your reasoning using the text.
    4. Other people die in this book, too. Which deaths does Ursula try to prevent, and why are they different from the deaths Ursula doesn't try to change?

    Chew on This

    Death is inevitable. Despite Ursula's best efforts, she and everyone she knows will always die at some point, whether it be from an accident, war, or old age.

    Ursula seems to live her "best" lives when she is unconcerned about avoiding death, and instead she focuses on life.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Video games aren't the only place where you can get infinite lives. Ursula's life can seem like a video game in Life After Life, one with endless continues. And just like when you're trying to perfect that Ocarina of Time speedrun, Ursula uses each subsequent trip through her life to tweak and alter things in order to make it perfect. Living so many lives gives her plenty of time to ponder the nature of life itself, and whether it even is possible to have a perfect run at it.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. How do the characters find meaning in life during the atrocities of war? Use examples from the text, please.
    2. How does Ursula's attitude toward life in general change during each of her lives? In which lives does she value life? In which lives does she throw it away? How can you tell?
    3. Does Ursula ever understand that she's being reincarnated? Use the text to support your claim.
    4. Dr. Kellet tells Ursula that "Nirvana is the goal. Non-being, as it were." Will Ursula ever achieve Nirvana? Does she want to?

    Chew on This

    Despite being reincarnated time and again, and having infinite lives, Ursula eventually develops an appreciation for her life and lives it to the fullest.

    Because the novel doesn't show us the grief process after Ursula's deaths, it becomes a novel about life, not a novel about death.

  • Family

    You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family or your grandma's nose… or something like that. We don't have the saying exactly right, but the core truth is correct: You can't pick your family. Your mother and father will always be your mother and father, your bratty older brother will always be your bratty older brother, your wise sister always your wise sister, and your sweet baby brother always your sweet baby brother. Ursula's family is like this in Life After Life. No matter how much her life changes, her family almost always seems to stay the same.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Ursula's family change during each of her lives? How do they stay consistent? Be specific, please.
    2. Ursula rarely forms a family of her own. Why? What inspires her to form a family of her own the one time she does so?
    3. How does having—and losing—a daughter change the way Ursula lives subsequent lives? Does the abortion affect her, too?

    Chew on This

    Ursula forms motherly bonds with other members of her family—like her younger brother, Teddy—because she cannot bear to bring a child of her own into the world.

    Sylvie believes that being a mother is the most important thing for a woman, and her daughters each take this in a different way: Pamela has tons of kids, while Ursula cares for her younger brothers.

  • War

    There are few books that span not just one but two wars. Life After Life shows quite a contrast between World War I and World War II, both of which Ursula Todd lives through. (Well, to varying results.) Just like reading about a war isn't the same as living through a time period where bombs are exploding down the street, living during times of war is different depending on how close to home war is. World War I seems to pass Fox Corner by, but World War II takes over the entire world, and there's no avoiding the devastation.

    Questions About War

    1. How do World War I and World War II affect the Todd family differently? How do they impact the family similarly?
    2. What would life have been like for Ursula if she had been in her twenties and thirties during World War I instead of World War II? Why?
    3. How is life different for Ursula when she lives in London during WWII versus living in Germany? Be specific, please.

    Chew on This

    The characters in this book don't really care about the war until it affects them personally.

    It's ironic how the Armistice—the end of World War I—ends up being a day of death for the Todd family.

  • Women and Femininity

    Women's suffrage is in full swing by the time Ursula is born in Life After Life, and she finds herself caught between two schools of thought: one that eschews the whole concept of school and thought, believing instead that a woman's place is as a wife and mother, and another that believes women should be educated, intellectual, and hold the same positions as men. It's quite a spectrum, and Ursula finds herself living different lives from one extreme to the other, and everything in between.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How do Sylvie's and Izzie's attitudes toward feminism differ? Are there ways in which they overlap? Why do you think this is?
    2. How do Sylvie's traditional attitudes toward female gender roles affect her daughters, especially Ursula during her different lives?
    3. Is Ursula a feminist? Is Pamela? Is Izzie? Why or why not?
    4. How do women's roles change during the course of the novel, mainly as a result of war?

    Chew on This

    Sylvie and Izzie despise each other not because of their vastly different ideas on the roles of women, but because they seem to want to be each other—Sylvie wants to be free-loving like Izzie, and Izzie wants a family.

    Despite being well-educated, Pamela ends up living a "traditional" lifestyle of being a wife and mother, perhaps because these were the values instilled in her by her mother.

  • Sexuality

    People were often so prude about sex in the early 1900s that it's surprising the human race didn't just die out. But even though people didn't talk about it, they still did it. Often. In Life After Life, Sylvie has five kids, for Shmoop's sake, but from the way she acts, you'd think she still thought babies were delivered via the stork. Just as women's rights are evolving at this time, so are attitudes toward sex, and once again, Ursula finds herself navigating this tricky landscape during her many lives.

    Questions About Sexuality

    1. If Ursula weren't so ignorant about sex (because of the times, as well as her mother's own ignorance), how would things have been different for her? Why do you think this? Use the text for support.
    2. Why does Ursula feel personally responsible for her rape? How does this affect the rest of her life? How about her future lives?
    3. How do Ursula's sexual attitudes vary during her different lives? In what lives is she more experimental with sex? In what lives is she more traditional?
    4. How does the world's view of sex change over the time presented in the book? Who goes with the flow, and who resists the changing attitudes?

    Chew on This

    Sylvie's traditional views on sexuality—like women should remain "pure" until marriage—are extremely damaging when she blames Ursula for her rape.

    As the world becomes a more dangerous place (we're looking at you, World War II), people loosen their attitudes toward sex because every day might be their last (whether they're reincarnated or not).

  • Marriage

    If love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, then during the course of Life After Life, the horse has Equine Encephalomyelitis and the carriage has a broken axle. Love hardly ever factors into marriage at this time, and instead, it's about money, loneliness, or gratitude. Ursula is the only person in history to be married twice without getting a divorce, becoming a widow, or participating in polygamy. She experiences different types of marriages in her different lives.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Compare and contrast Ursula's husbands, Derek and Jurgen. How do they meet? Does Ursula love them? Go to town on these two, and turn to the text often.
    2. Do you think Sylvie is having affairs? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Izzie decide to get married? What is her marriage like?
    4. Why doesn't Ursula want to marry Crighton, even in the life where they live together?

    Chew on This

    None of the women seem to really know their husbands when they get married—and sometimes, like with Ursula and Derek, that leads to disastrous results.

    It really seems that Ursula must choose marriage or a career. She never has both, in any of her lives.

  • Memories and the Past

    There are plenty of times when we can't remember what we had for breakfast the other day. (And this will keep happening until we turn to Soylent and give up food forever.) So needless to say, we can't imagine what it would be like to remember past lives. In Life After Life, Ursula doesn't really know what that's like either, though. She has strange echoes of the past, but she's never quite sure if she's remembering past lives or not, even though we know she is. But just like regular memories, these echoes of the past shape Ursula's present and future.

    Questions About Memories and the Past

    1. How does Ursula cope with her déjà vu in different lives? Does it ever get to be too much for her? Does she ever ignore it? What affects how she navigates it?
    2. If a doctor, like Dr. Kellet, shared his views with you on reincarnation, would you believe him? Why or why not?
    3. How would Life After Life be different if Ursula could clearly remember past lives? To go one step further, reimagine a specific scene, this time with Ursula consciously carrying her past lives forward.

    Chew on This

    Ursula never knows for sure that she's being reincarnated, she can only assume she is and act on her strange memories accordingly.

    Sometimes Ursula's memories get crossed—for instance, she remembers meeting Hitler in a life where she hasn't—but this only seems to happen when she is near death and everything bleeds together.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Some things are inevitable, like death, taxes, and kitten memes, but does that mean that they're fate? Are we all just fated to die? Or can we change that? And how self-centered must you be if you think it's your responsibility to change the world? All of these questions are at play in Life After Life, and they're complicated by the fact that Ursula is being reborn over and over again, she does have past lives that influence her decisions, and sometimes she's capable of changing the future. But how much of it all is really under her control?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Does Ursula have a predetermined fate? How can you tell? Use specific examples.
    2. Or does Ursula's fate change from life to life? What affects it?
    3. Whether Ursula has a predetermined fate, does she ever believe she does? How does this affect her behavior? If she does, why does believe it, and if she doesn't, then why not?
    4. Does Ursula have free will to act on her memories of past lives or not?

    Chew on This

    Ursula has free will to stop whatever she wants. By killing Hitler, she probably even stops World War II.

    There are some things that Ursula cannot stop. Even after killing Hitler, she is reborn into a world where WWII will happen over and over again.

  • Prejudice

    If people didn't harbor prejudice against others, the world would be lacking a lot of things: slavery, World War II, Pride and Prejudice. To be clear, we think it would be more than a fair trade-off to miss out on a few books at the expense of millions of lives—and we love books.

    But it seems people will always have an irrational hatred for one another, even as they look back at how damaging these attitudes are. Perhaps Ursula is a little more open-minded in Life After Life due to her experiences with past lives, but not everyone has that luxury. Sometimes we have to learn to see beneath someone's skin color or religion in this life. There may not be another one to get things right.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Why are the Todds and others prejudiced against Jews, Germans, African-Americans, and more, even though they often don't know any of these people personally?
    2. Can you draw a line between the prejudice the Todd family holds against Jewish people and Hitler's anti-Semitism? Why or why not?
    3. Is Ursula prejudiced against any particular group?

    Chew on This

    Sylvie's irrational dislike of Jewish people seems harmless, but it's this kind of widespread attitude that enabled Hitler to rise to power.

    Prejudice doesn't necessarily breed prejudice. Pamela tends to fight against prejudice, although she's mainly doing it simply to go against her mother.