Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Unique Point of View: WOLF HALL

By Bonnie Stanard

Currently I’m on page 425 of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a 532-page book that has been critically acclaimed and won the Man Booker Prize. This is my second attempt to read Wolf Hall, and it remains to be seen if I’ll finish it.

It’s the 16th Century and Henry VIII is king. The plot revolves around his efforts to banish one wife and marry another at a time when England is in the clutches of the Roman Catholic Church.

The protagonist, however, is not Henry VIII, but ambitious, brilliant, and politically astute Thomas Cromwell. The reason I put the book aside originally is because, on the first page, I became confused about the point of view (POV). However, even after I resolved that issue, Mantel doesn’t make this an easy read and here’s why:

I. First things first, POV:

After about 25 pages I figured out that Cromwell alone is telling the story in third person limited POV. Sounds simple, but here’s an example of what will have you scratching your head:

She imagines everything is about her, every glance or secret conversation. She is afraid the other women pity her, and she hates to be pitied.
This passage shows you how tricky the POV. Because you’re told what “she” (Jane Rochford) imagines, fears, and hates, you think you’re in Jane’s POV. But no, you’re in Cromwell’s. He knows what Jane imagines, he knows what she fears and hates, and he’s telling this to the reader. He speaks for her, as if he can read her mind. In fact, Cromwell transmits the views of many of the characters, and it’s up to us to realize that these are Cromwell’s thoughts, even though the context makes it appear to be the inner machinations of other characters.

On first blush, the passage below seems to belie third person limited POV. The descriptions of Cromwell appear to be views other than Cromwell’s. This is another example of Mantel’s complexity. Cromwell is telling us what other people think of him:

“Thomas Cromwell?” people say. “That is an ingenious man…” He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out; he is the very man for telling your tenants twelve good reasons why their rents are fair.

II. The quotation marks challenge. Take a look at this excerpt:
He asks the doctor where he comes from, and when he says, nowhere you know, he says, try me, I’ve been to most places.
It’s not as if Mantel eschews quotation marks. There must be a reason why some dialogue is in quotes and some aren’t. Again, dialogue with no quotation marks:
So, Thomas, he says, if you know the king’s had Anne, get a letter to me the very day. I’ll only trust it if I hear it from you.
Without quotation marks, the pronouns “I” and “me” play havoc with POV. First person pronouns shouldn’t appear in the narrative of third person limited POV books. It is left to us to figure out that “I” and “me” refer to another character (the cardinal), not the narrator Cromwell.

Even when Mantel uses quotation marks, she often omits identity tags. As a consequence characters drop in and out of scenes without identification. And Wolf Hall has about a hundred characters. You’ll spend a good deal of time referring to the list of characters in the foreword.

III. The pronoun challenge:
His glance follows the duke as he bobs and froths; but to his surprise, when the duke turns, he smites his own metaled thigh, and a tear…bubbles into his eye.
The book is abounding with flighty pronouns lacking obvious antecedents. The above passage is not as confusing as some scenes involving three or four men. While you’re trying to figure out who is saying what, Cromwell is explaining the inner thoughts of some “he.” The third person singular pronoun will drive you crazy.

I recommend Wolf Hall for its innovative POV. Hilary Mantel has a style unlike any other writer. Critics, with good reason, compliment her erudition and craft. However, this doesn’t make reading Wolf Hall easier.


Ginny said...

I read WOLF HALL, Bonnie, and agree it is one of the most difficult books I've ever read. I think you -- and the critics -- have been very generous to Ms Mantel. I don't feel that writing that is purposefully difficult is innovative or worthy of praise. Once again, I suppose my low-brow tendecies are showing. Good post!

Kim said...

You are both braver than I am; I won't attempt this one. Although when a book wins the Man Booker Prize, I understand the desire to read it. This one is puzzling and you have to wonder how the judges overcame such wanton grammar and confusing POV. I feel like there is some hidden key in some off-hand comment or single sentence-- as if the protagonist has multiple personalities or…something! I’m also curious if, before starting the book, did either of you read any reviews by “regular” readers, and if so, were they troubled by the POV/grammar, as well?

Ginny said...

Kim, I hadn't seen any reviews prior to reading the book; it was recommended by a friend.

bonnie said...

Kim, I didn't read reviews.
Ginny, for all Mantel's abstruse writing, her POV is consistent. Only an accomplished professional could manage this. Given this book's complexity, I wouldn't have read as far as I have, had it not been for the beauty of her language. Her prose sometimes rises to the level of poetry:

…wearing their fallen-fruit silks of mulberry
...irritate it [skin] into weeping sores.
…his chest furred with wiry hairs
…black-winged lawyers are gathering
…the horizon deceptively clear


Ginny said...

I'll give her that. Her poetic turns of phrase were like jewels mined during excavating. :-)

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

I won't read it.

Blue said...

I realise this post is nearly a year old, but I am overjoyed to find not only an explanation of Mantel's pointlessly complicated POV, but also of normal everyday readers who are wondering how she won such a prestigious prize. I have tried reading Wolf Hall. I have tried listening to an audiobook version, thinking that perhaps I'd enjoy it better having someone read it to me. Both times I didn't get beyond the first few pages. Why do writers like Mantel feel the need to make things so complicated? I guess she is good enough to not care about the frustrations of a few insignificant people.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased to read a blog that deals with this issue of point of view in Wolf Hall. I too have struggled with this novel and am astonished at its popular success. I'm currently on my second attempt - determined to finish this time - but I would have to call it a difficult read. I am well-versed on the Tudors (the first film my parents took me to see was 'Anne of a Thousand Days'). I am well read, a published writer myself and currently completing my MA in creative writing at a respected Australian university. So if I find the POV confusing, why doesn't anyone else? It poses really big problems for me, even while I celebrate the calibre of the writing and the highly original and vivid take on the history. I'm sure that without this claustrophobic and inconsistent POV, I would adore this book but as it is, I'm finding it very hard work. Will keep following your blog. Thanks. Alison Gibbs