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Wolf Hall | Themes

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Identity

Identity is a prevalent theme in the novel. From its outset, as readers watch young Thomas Cromwell receive the abusive anger of his father, it is clear one of the questions propelling the narrative is "Who is Thomas Cromwell?" After all he is one of the most significant historical figures in British history and in the history of Christendom. By giving readers a look inside the mind of the man, Mantel tries to draw a more thorough and balanced picture of this historical figure. Cromwell himself seems to take a practical approach to his sense of personal identity. On his journey from rags to riches, a malleable public self serves him well. He becomes what is necessary in the moment to ensure the success of whomever he serves—Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII—which in turn serves his own interests. He is ambitious. The novel is, at once, an exploration of a historical figure who lived and had an actual identity and self and a present-tense narrative of the formation and evolution of that identity and self.

In broader terms the novel also explores events during the reign of Henry VIII that become central to the modern English identity. In addition to founding the Anglican Church—England's official state church—Henry VIII's reign brought the world the first English-language Bible. In addition, the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn gave England Elizabeth I, who reigned for over 40 years during which England enjoyed prosperity and great prestige worldwide.

Public versus Private

Closely tied to the theme of identity is the theme of public versus private. The novel, of course, must include the public actions of Thomas Cromwell and other important historical figures: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Katherine of Aragon, and others. Many of these actions are a matter of public record—a history that is quite well preserved and documented and has been the source of countless plays, novels, movies, television shows, and documentaries.

In contrast to all of these public moments, the novel provides a look at the private lives of these larger-than-life persons. Scenes in bedrooms, cells in the Tower of London, and intimate chambers complement the public scenes with a (well-researched) behind-the-scenes look. Whispered conversations and frank gossip flesh out the events with details of political manipulations and sexual shenanigans at court. Cromwell is shown as a man whose main avenue of acquiring useful knowledge (for example, who is pregnant, and with whose bastard, or who is indebted to whom and for how much) is a network of servants, clerks, women, ladies-in-waiting, and other overlooked persons. Often the private portrayal of characters is in contrast to their public image.

Most private of all are the inner thoughts of Cromwell, which hold the novel together and give it interest. Ultimately this is a novel about a man, not about England or the Church.

Power and Ambition

Ambition can bring great power, but it can also cause the great to fall. Nearly every major character in the novel is ambitious, and most are absolutely ruthless in their quest to get what they want. Henry VIII wants the authority of the Church, not just the state, as well as an heir that will secure his family's dynasty into the future. Thomas More wants to root out and quash all opposition to the Catholic Church. Anne Boleyn wants to be queen and to be mother of Henry's heir. Thomas Cromwell wants to change the world and profit from the enterprise. In many cases ambition does lead to great power. However, it often leads, later, to a spectacular downfall, such as that of Thomas More or Cardinal Wolsey.

Politics and the Church

The novel paints a picture of political players who move the levers of power and authority. Many of these are men of the Church—priests, bishops, cardinals, archbishops. In ambition and wealth it is difficult to distinguish them from nobles whose political aspirations have little to do with spiritual matters. The Church is presented as a nation within, or alongside, other nations—the pope at that time seems to have as much military power as the emperor. Perhaps it is only to be expected that, in these circumstances, a powerful king might feel threatened by the power wielded by the Church. He might, as Henry does, wish to exert his own influence on the Church and not have to bow to its authority. He might, as Henry does, have a crafty adviser who can figure out a way to become both king and religious leader. Cromwell sees one thing clearly and works for its implementation: When religious power and political power are interchangeable, one man may wield both, and rule with ultimate authority.

Questions for Themes

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