Study Guide

Ursula Todd in Life After Life

Ursula Todd

Can We Get a Witness

Our protagonist is sure to be the most famous Ursula since that tentacle-sporting witch from under the sea. Ursula Todd is born on February 11, 1910, and she's either blessed or cursed (depending on your perspective) to relive her life over and over again. It's not a Sisyphean punishment of pushing the same rock up the same hill over and over again, though—Ursula occasionally has vague memories of past lives and the ability to change her present and affect the future. Unlike Sisyphus's same old, same old, Ursula has different experiences.

As a result of her eternal birth and rebirth, Ursula develops somewhat of a savior complex. She feels like it is her fate to save her relatives and, sometimes, the world—like when she decides to assassinate Hitler before his rise to power, for example.

Sometimes this need of Ursula's to correct the future manifests itself in her tendency to correct people, like when they misquote a famous author. (One benefit to living a life that eternally recurs: lots and lots of reading time). But she often uses her wisdom for good. In the timeline where Ursula dies of old age, she ends up "pav[ing] the way for women in senior positions of the civil service" (25.598), for instance.

At her worst, Ursula ends up collapsing under the weight of her self-imposed responsibility. In the chapter "The End of the Beginning," Ursula becomes so obsessed with fixing her future—finding the perfect boyfriend, making the best lives for her family members—that she becomes narcissistic, as though the world revolves around her and her own fate, and feels the fates of everyone else are her responsibility: "She knew what she was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness" (26.229). Well then, fancy you.

She ends up resetting things by killing herself, and in future lives, she only remains sane by remembering that some things are simply out of her control. It boils down to what her doctor, Dr. Kellet, calls amor fati: accepting everything that happens in one's life as neither good nor bad, just things that happen.

The Goldilocks Principle

Ursula's name "means little she-bear" (4.50). Maybe you can think of more bear-like qualities than we can—all we've got is that she's a protective mother figure and perhaps has an insatiable craving for salmon she hasn't told us about—because she reminds us more of Goldilocks than a bear in her desire to always get things just right.

Being the third child born, Ursula is like baby bear. Her mother observes, "Ursula didn't think too much, the way Pamela sometimes did, nor did she think too little, as was Maurice's wont" (4.78). Ursula is the little baby bear here. Just like baby bear's porridge and bed were just right for Goldilocks, Ursula is just right for her mother… at least while she's a child.

The Days of Her Lives

Some of Ursula's lives are more eventful than others, turning into early-20th-century soap operas dripping in social commentary. In one of the most tragic of her lives (and considering she dies about four times in the London Blitz, this is saying a lot), Ursula is raped by one of her brother's friends.

Howard S. Landsdowne III, which is a name that just screams entitled, kisses Ursula forcefully in the woods, then later, he rapes her on the stairs. It's her first sexual encounter (in any of her lives, as far as we can tell) and it scars her greatly for the rest of this life. Whenever she feels attracted to a man, a post-traumatic fear bubbles to the surface. Plus, she has to carry around the shame she feels with her forever.

It doesn't help that her mother, the queen of victim-shaming, "blame[s] her entirely" (20.334). Ursula has to have an abortion, quit university, and go to secretarial college, where the teacher there touches the women while they're blindfolded, leading Ursula to wonder, "was it something in her that attracted this kind of attention?" (20.375). Thanks for the shame, Mom.

Ursula later becomes an alcoholic to cope with these feelings and marries Derek, a man who abuses and eventually murders her. She's as much a victim of the times, an era where a woman's virtue is everything, as she is a victim of these terrible men.

Das Mutter

The more Ursula starts experiencing déjà vu of her past lives, the more she starts trying to fix things, as though her life is an ever-evolving puzzle. She likes solving crosswords (totally up her alley) and studying foreign languages, like German. In one timeline, her interest in repairs leads to her creating a family for herself, the only time she has a child of her own.

In Germany, Ursula falls in love with a man named Jürgen Fuchs, and they have a daughter, Frieda. It feels like it's Ursula's fate to be a mother—while she always doted on Teddy, her younger brother, now she finally has her own flesh and blood to take care of. And, like the mama bear she is, she'll do anything to protect her: "Ursula would be willing to walk on knives for the rest of her life if it would protect Frieda. Burn in the flames of hell to save her" (24.96). True love.

However, as World War II goes into full swing, and Ursula's husband is killed, it becomes impossible for her to protect Frieda. She makes one of her most difficult decisions when she decides to give her sick daughter a pill to kill her, and then to kill herself.

This murder-suicide might be the most traumatic event of the whole book, and it changes Ursula forever: "She knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed" (34.241). With Ursula's need to protect her loved ones at all costs, it's just too much for her to have to do this to her own daughter, and she never has kids again.