Stylistic Analysis Essay

Option 2: Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Stylistics is “a method of textual interpretation in which primacy of place is assigned to language” (Simpson 2004:3) and is a core component for literary analysis. This essay will stylistically analyse the opening scene of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalised biography Wolf Hall, a depiction of the life of Thomas Cromwell; through the different stylistic concepts of lexical semantics, speech and thought presentation and modality and shading.
The extract highlights the intensity of an abusive relationship between the protagonist and his father, Walter; through the narration of a violent encounter, establishing a power hierarchy between the two characters. By exploring the key themes of violence, fear and power hierarchy, the language used creates an intense tone which is carried throughout the text, particularly when the Mantel narrates the encounter between the protagonist and Walter.

Lexical semantics “refers to the study of content words” based upon their “descriptive content” in categorising the types of “entities and events they denote” (Kearns 2006). The use of lexical semantics enables a stylistic analysis of the key themes of power hierarchy, violence, religion and death explored within the extract and how they are intertwined within each other.
Power hierarchy is presented through the abusive relationship between the protagonist and Walter, evident through the connotations of the verbs used to describe Walter’s vocalisation and the protagonist’s physicality, in relation to their position of power. Mantel uses the verbs ‘roaring’, ‘yells’ and ‘bellows’ when describing Walter’s vocalisation to suggest the character as being more dominant in the encounter due to the verbs connotating traits of strength, power and control. Mantel further highlights Walter’s dominance by silencing the protagonist and limiting the character’s physical description to ‘shivering’, ‘head down’ and ‘without exposing his hands’. Mantel’s choice of descriptions has connotations of vulnerability and passiveness signifying the protagonist as being weaker than Walter. Similarly, the theme of violence is intertwined within the context of power hierarchy as Walter physically abuses the protagonist by ‘kick[ing]’ and ‘stamping’ on him as a way to obtain and maintain power. Mantel’s choice of descriptive verbs indicates Walter’s dominance as a male during the 16th century as well as his ability to maintain power and control over the protagonist.

Religion and the conflicting attitudes surrounding it, is a core theme explored throughout the extract. The concept of religion being used as a tool to maintain control is stemmed from the use of negative lexical connotation. For the extract’s antagonist, Walter, the concept of religion is used in vain through his commentary of ‘creeping Christ’, the adjective ‘creeping’ being used to present the religious figure in disdain. The narrator also describes Walter’s deliberate ignorance of his better judgement with the suggestive phrase ‘God closes them for him’, alluding to an interpretation of Walter defying God and the overall absence of an omnipotent being, in the protagonist’s time of need. ‘Wolf Hall’ is set in the early 16th century during which, Henry VIII became King of England (1509) and eventually created a Reformation Parliament’ in 1529, thus evolving the implementation of the ‘Act of Supremacy’, allowing Henry VIII to convert the Church of England from Catholicism to Protestantism. Henry VIII’s decision to follow Protestantism was catalysed by the selfish desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon (The History of Parliament Online 2019) highlighting, regardless of an individual’s political position, religion was used as a tool of control within a 16th century society.
Conflictingly, the significance of religious devotion is symbolised by Kat, a character who turns to the reference of God in her time of need. The use of the lexical phrases ‘violent prayer’ and ‘body of God’ indicates Kat’s fear for her brother and how in a moment of uncertainty and fear, she attempts to communicate to God, a reflection of the intense religious belief system within individuals during the early 16th century society.

The theme of death enforces the interpretation of Walter and the protagonist having an abusive father-son relationship. Although there are no deaths in the extract, the finalising concept of death is a foreseen possibility that both the narrator and the protagonist are aware of. The protagonist’s awareness of death being a possible outcome, is depicted through the phrases ‘I’ll miss my dog, he thinks’ and ‘he thinks it may be his last’, with the use of the words ‘miss’ and ‘last’ having connotation of finalisations and endings, Mantel is able to allude to the protagonist’s thoughts of death. Mantel also explores death through the narrator’s recital of the phrase ‘it knocks the last breath out of him’, with the choice of the phrase ‘last breath’ being a connotation of death.
Lexical semantics is an integral stylistic concept used to analyse the extract, particularly when deconstructing the different themes focuses around the text and how they intertwine within each other.

Speech and Thought presentation focuses on the “distinction between what a writer has to say, and how it is presented to the reader” (Leech and Short 2007) and is imperative when analysing narrative texts as it enables a closer interpretation of what characters think and say.
Leech and Short developed ‘The Speech and Thought Model’, designed to explore the concept’s different narrative techniques by splitting the categories of speech and thought presentation. In speech presentation, the model considers “direct speech (DS)” as the “baseline form” (Kvantaliani 2014) for which other forms are often measured against; contrastingly, in thought presentation, “indirect thought (IT)” is considered to be the “baseline” form. Direct speech “represents speech in the way it was communicated to the listener” whereas indirect speech (IS), “the narrator maintains the general idea of the utterance without copying the exact words uttered” (Kvantaliani 2014). The model also studies free variants of speech and thought as “flexible alternatives” to the previously discussed techniques (Latré 2018). Free direct discourse is similar to direct discourse as the character is able to “interrupt the narrator” except there are “neither quotation marks or reporting verbs” (Latré 2018). However, free indirect discourse allows a subtle interruption of the narrator from the character, with characteristics of the discourse usually being “third person singular rather than first person singular” whereas indirect discourse “gives the most control to the ‘quoter’ and less to the ‘quotee’” (Latré 2018).

In the extract, Mantel adapts the model’s techniques and uses a variation of direct discourse, free direct discourse and indirect discourse. Mantel has a limited use of indirect speech as the protagonist filters the narration as being the centre of consciousness and is therefore given more control than the narrator. Indirect thought is exemplary in the line ‘he thinks it may be his last’, despite the reporting verb being in the present tense rather than the past tense, the line still reports to the reader what the protagonist is thinking (Latré 2018). This is effective as it provides the reader with an insight into the protagonist’s thoughts without it overpowering the narration and ultimately highlighting the protagonist’s vulnerability through a lack of speech. 
Free direct thought is evident when the protagonist’s thoughts interrupt the narrator in the line ‘inch by inch. Inch by inch forward. Never mind if he calls you an eel or a worm or a snake. Head down, don’t provoke him’. The words are reported exactly as they would be thought by the protagonist but there are no quotation marks or reporting verbs and therefore this interruption of the narration is characteristic of free direct thought (Latré 2018). Mantel’s lack of quotation marks and reporting verbs prevents an interruption to the flow of narration and maintaining the reader’s engagement to the action between Walter and the protagonist.
Mantel explores direct speech through both the use, separation and absence of reporting verbs throughout the extract. Direct speech is “characterised by quotations and reporting verbs in the past or present tense” (Latré 2018), and is shown through the line ‘“look now, look now,” Walter bellows’ with the reporting verb ‘bellows’ being in the third person present tense. Mantel also explores direct thought by “separating the reported sentence and the reporting verb with a comma” (Latré 2018), exemplary through the line ‘I’ll miss my dog, he thinks’. The use of the comma indicates a division between the sentence and verb distinguishing the thought from the reporting verb. Finally, Mantel adopts direct speech through the absence of a reporting verb, indicated with the line ‘“Come on, boy, get up. […] By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet”’. Despite the absence of a reporting verb, there is a clear indication of the addresser and addressee based on the previous turn of ‘“spew everywhere”’. Mantel’s varied use of the different forms of speech and thought, by the different characters, enables an inexplicit expression of the character’s relationship dynamic without using overly descriptive language. The author’s uneven ratio of speech : thought from Walter : the protagonist, symbolises Walter’s ability to dominate the conversation whilst highlighting the protagonist’s vulnerability. By using Leech and Short’s model, linguists are able to understand the different categories divided by speech and thought presentation and how they are used to analyse discourse in narrative texts.

Point of view explores the “relationship between mode of narration and a character’s or narrator’s ‘point of view’”; it is used to stipulate whether the events of the story are viewed from the perspective of a particular character or type of narrator, sometimes a mixture of the two (Simpson 2004:21). There are various approaches to the study of point of view categorised in the Fowler-Upensky model 4-way model. One of the key approaches of this model is the ‘psychological plane’, classified as “the authorial point of view” relying upon “an individual consciousness” (Upenksy 1973). Modality is regarded as the “grammar of explicit content” (Simpson 2004:131) as it enables “readers to identify the speaker’s opinions or attitudes” towards a “particular situation described and expressed in a sentence” (Parina and Leon 2014).
The stylistic concept of modality is used to discuss the psychological plane of point of view for an enhanced understanding of literary prose texts and is usually categorised into three basic modal shading patterns. Positive shading is categorised as a “narrative modality” focusing on the “narrator’s desires, duties, obligations and opinions” of events that are foregrounded and is most commonly found in first and third person works, exemplary through The Great Gatsby. Negative shading is where an “often ‘bewildered’ narrator (or character) relies upon external signs and appearances to sustain a description”, and its lexical structure of uncertainty is often found in most ‘existential’ or ‘Gothic’ styles of text. Neutral shading is characterised by a “complete absence of narrational modality” resulting in the narrators “withholding subjective interpretation”, creating a “sparse feel” throughout the text. The extract from Wolf Hall, is narrated in the third person present tense, with a complete absence of narrational modality, the use of the third person highlights a withdrawal of subjective evaluation of Walter’s actions and the protagonist’s reactions, evident through the lack of adjectives and a minimal use of descriptive verbs like ‘roars’, ‘yells’ and ‘bellows’. The novel’s biographic narrative form enables the narration to conform to the overall features of a neutral shading pattern and urges the reader to conclude individual interpretations, exempt from narrational influence.
Another key approach is the ‘temporal plane’, in terms of the Fowler-Upensky 4-way model, it explores “the way relationships of time are signalled in narrative”. It envelops a variety of stylistic techniques, including “repetition, analepsis and prolepsis” (Simpson 2004:81). The extract explores duration, a temporal technique that relates to the “temporal span of a story” whilst accounting for the reader’s impressions of the “way certain events may be accelerated or decelerated” (Simpson 2004:81). The extract begins with Walter abusing the protagonist but a temporal change is evident in the line “the next thing he knows, it is almost noon…”, the sentence indicates that the protagonist experienced a blackout due to the severity of Walter’s physical actions; enabling the author to create a shift in the duration of the novel as a way to direct a change in events.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Wolf Hall conforms to various stylistic analysis concepts, allowing an enhanced understanding and analysis of the text. The use of lexical semantics supported my initial impressions of the themes of violence and power hierarchy being expressed through the relationship between Walter and the protagonist. The application of speech and thought presentation, provided new linguistic insights of discourse and supported interpretations of the character’s hierarchal relationship. An exploration of neutral shading revealed new perspectives surrounding the text allowing the reader to conclude their own character interpretations without narrational influence. By stylistically analysing Wolf Hall, I have gained a deeper insight and understanding of the narrative and Mantel’ intentions.


G, Leech and M, Short. (2007) Style in Fiction [online] 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited. available from <> [27 March 2020]

J, Parina and K, Leon. (2014) ‘A Stylistic Analysis of the Use of Modality To Identify the Point of View in a Short Story’ The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies [online] 20 (2), 92-92. available from <> [31 March 2020]

Kearns, K. (2006) ‘Lexical Semantics’. in The Handbook of English Linguistics. ed. by Artes, B. and McMahon, A. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing (557-581)

Latré, G. (2018) Inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell: The Fashioning of the Self and of Tudor Politics in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. [online] PhD thesis. Université Catholique de Louvain. available from <> [22 March 2020]

N, Kvantaliani. (2014) ‘Variations and effects of Speech and Thought Presentation Categories on the basis of Short Stories by Contemporary Women Writers in English’ International Journal of Humanities and Social Science [online] 4 (8), 31. available from <> [27 March 2020]

Simpson, P. (2014) Stylistics. Milton: Routledge

The History of Parliament Online (2019) The Reformation: Short Overview [online] available from <> [26 March 2020]

Upsenky, B. (1973) A Poetics of Composition (trans. V, Zavarin and S, Wittig). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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