The Power of a Pronoun

We are struck by the use of one word in Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall is Mantel’s take on Thomas Cromwell, counselor to Henry VIII and one of England’s historical villains. Mantel has said that she was interested in Cromwell because while the public part of his life is well documented, his first 30 years and private life are obscure. As she explains in the video below, she sets out to bring him to life in Wolf Hall.

One way Mantel animates Cromwell is with the use of a two-letter pronoun. She calls him by name only when she absolutely has to for the sake of the narrative. Instead, she almost always refers to him as he. This does a couple of interesting things.

For one, it places the reader firmly inside his head. By making him less of a discrete character, the reader can occupy the space behind his eyes. And since he – as Mantel pictures him – is the soul of a reasonable man, the reader reasons right along with him. This is a slippery path since as he becomes more powerful, he is increasingly responsible for the deaths of other people.

Often, the reader is often unsure whether he is he or refers to some other character. This confusion, we think, makes a point. That is because he utterly defines the man as someone who got to the height of power from nowhere by taking on the coloration of the tapestry. Thus, a two-letter word serves as a whole string of adjectives. He is self-effacing, discreet, pleasant, smart, ambitious, kindly, calculating, efficient, competent, shape-shifting, slippery, political, and more.

Ah-ooo for Wolf Hall.