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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.