Literature Study GuidesWolf HallPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Wolf Hall | Study Guide

Hilary Mantel

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Wolf Hall | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Across the Narrow Sea, Putney 1500 | Summary

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Summary

Wolf Hall opens as 15-year-old Thomas Cromwell lies on a courtyard floor, bleeding profusely and vomiting from injuries inflicted by his abusive father, Walter. Walter roars, "So now get up" as Thomas waits for the next kick. The boy passes out and later manages to get to the Pegasus, the inn and home of his sister Kat. She nurses his wounds. Her husband, Morgan, appears and recites a litany of Walter Cromwell's crimes: he swindles innocents, beats Thomas, waters his ale, and is a public drunk.

As Walter rails outside Kat's house, Thomas mulls his next move. Morgan offers him some spending money and advises Thomas to become a soldier. Still unsure of his future, Thomas decides to get to the sea. By helping to load a cart, he hitches a ride in it and reaches the docks at Dover. Nobody will answer his question: "Where [is there] a war just now?" So he again helps strangers in order to achieve a goal. This time he helps three Lowlanders (from the southernmost counties of Scotland) to manage their bundles and bribes a clerk to overcome a difficulty about their papers. The Lowlanders in return say, "The boy is with us," as they board. They are cloth merchants; their destination is Calais, France, and they invite Thomas to stay with them if he is ever in their town. For luck as he reaches open water, Thomas kisses a holy medal and drops it into the sea.

Analysis

Hilary Mantel has said that her first sentence, "So now get up," came into her mind together with the image of the teenaged Thomas lying on the ground and fearing death at his father's hands. The words resonate as readers progress through the novel, for Thomas Cromwell will indeed "get up" and rise in the world. The later events of the chapter show his intelligence and his determination to find a place for himself.

The novel opens with a scene of violence so raw it is difficult to read. Readers stick with the narrator because the observations are so precise. As Thomas lies on the ground, he sees "the stitching of his father's boot is unraveling." The present-tense voice adds to the immediacy of the scene.

Yet not everything in Thomas Cromwell's world is violent and cruel. His sister and brother-in-law clearly care for him, and strangers return his act of kindness with equal generosity. His genius, as the chapter's events also show, is to read others—family members and strangers alike—and determine not only how they will behave but also how he should behave in relation to them.

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