Study Guide

The Other Boleyn Girl Themes

By Philippa Gregory

  • Family

    Families are the ultimate sources of drama, whether it's your family, a Mafia family, or the Kardashians. In The Other Boleyn Girl, the Boleyns were basically the Mafia meets the Kardashians in 16th-century England: they gained popularity and fame through sex; their marriages were national sensations; and they may have killed people. And we're just talking about the Kardashians.

    The Boleyns were a family who manufactured drama and used it to make themselves rich and powerful. And this was five hundred years before Instagram, folks. Family drama didn't start in the reality-TV age. It started with families.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does the Boleyn family use its daughters to achieve its goals?
    2. Are there families today who behave the way the Boleyn family or the royal family behaved back then?
    3. How would you define a "traditional" family during this time period? In what ways does Mary create a family that defies tradition?

    Chew on This

    One thing hasn't changed since the 16th century: a royal family is just as dysfunctional, if not more dysfunctional, than any common family.

    The families in this book don't value love; they value power. They only love each other when they succeed in accomplishing something that brings the family more power, wealth, and prestige.

  • Love

    Before she was a witch on American Horror Story, Tina Turner sang "What's Love Got to Do with It?" That phrase should be on the Boleyn coat of arms—which, if we designed it, would feature a monogrammed "B," a rose, and a bottle of poison or two.

    In The Other Boleyn Girl, the Boleyns try to deny love, seeing it as a roadblock in their quest for their throne. They don't realize that denying love is like denying breathing, eating, or watching videos of Ariana Grande's musical impressions online. Anne seals away her heart to become the ruthless queen we all know and love (or love to hate), while Mary changes her life for love and lives happily ever after.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does Mary love Henry VIII? Does Anne love him? Does anyone love him? Or does he only love himself?
    2. On the other hand, does Henry VIII love any of his mistresses? Does he love his wife, Katherine?
    3. How does love interfere with the Boleyn family's plans for power?
    4. Why does Mary love her second husband, William Stafford? What is different about him?

    Chew on This

    Anne comes closest to love with Henry Percy. When that love is denied her, she becomes a fierce woman who will stop at nothing because she has nothing to lose.

    For her entire life, Mary is encouraged not to love. In the end, she gives up everything for love, and it ends up saving her life.

  • Women and Femininity

    They're raised, groomed, and collected to be used as bargaining chips in business and political transactions. They're not considered full citizens, and they barely have any rights or agency over their own actions. No, we're not talking about livestock or Hearthstone cards. We're talking about women in 16th-century England.

    We could also be talking about women in the 1950s. Progress is slow.

    But things change because not everyone conforms to the status quo. Over the course of The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary goes from not having a choice in anything, to making choices that change her life forever, and for the better. By making her narrator a young woman, Philippa Gregory gives the women of this era a voice.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What is the role of women in 16th-century English society?
    2. Would you characterize either Anne or Mary as a feminist?
    3. What can women do in the 16th century that men cannot? Do they have power, agency, or other resources that men do not?
    4. Does Anne change the impression the public has of women at that time?

    Chew on This

    As Mary grows as a character, we see her evolve from obedient daughter and wife to a woman who makes a life of her own.

    Women are expected to do men's bidding. Even the queen is no exception; she must bend to the will of the king.

  • Ambition

    If Anne Boleyn were alive today, her favorite perfume would be "Ambition." Some days, she might mix it up with Chanel's "Allure," or Lady Gaga's "Fame," or even Calvin Kline's "Eternity" for a spritz of irony. But Anne's overwhelming scent is ambition.

    Now that we think about it, she might not even need the perfume; you can smell ambition oozing from her pores.

    As depicted in The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn is single-minded and determined to get what she wants at any cost. It can be overwhelming, like someone who douses him- or herself in perfume or cologne. Whew. It stinks in here. Someone open a window…and jump out of it. Anything to get away.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Why is Anne so driven to get what she wants?
    2. Is Anne a product of her family's ambition? Or do her family members use her because they know how ambitious she is?
    3. What are the consequences of Anne's ambition?

    Chew on This

    Anne is sought after by her family and by the king for her ambition and drive, yet she ends up being punished for being ambitious and driven.

    Mary is just as ambitious as Anne, but she has different goals. Anne wants power, while Mary wants love and a family. Neither woman will stop until she gets what she wants.

  • Betrayal

    So you've read The Other Boleyn Girl, and you want to write a historical fiction novel about the life of Anne Boleyn, too? We suggest The Boleyn Betrayal as a title. Or maybe Too Many Boleyn Betrayals to Count would be more accurate, but that title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

    Whichever title you choose, there are plenty of Boleyn betrayals to talk about. These people double-cross and backstab others as naturally as they eat and breathe.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Why does Mary betray her queen? How does Mary feel afterward? Why does she continue to do it?
    2. In what ways does Henry betray his wife? His mistresses? The entire nation of England?
    3. How does Anne cope with the various betrayals in her own life?

    Chew on This

    The Boleyn family will stop at nothing to get what they want, including playing dirty and betraying anyone who gets in their way. But it comes back to get them in the end. When someone has no qualms about betraying others, people don't feel bad about betraying them, either.

    Anne feels no guilt about betraying her sister or her queen, but when she is betrayed herself, Anne is upset to be on the receiving end.

  • Jealousy

    Purple may be considered the royal color, but the most common color in the court of Henry VIII is green…because everyone is green with envy.

    Either that, or it's the British food that has been sitting out way too long.

    You'd think the queen would be the subject of envy, but Anne Boleyn wants more. In fact, there's no end to what Anne covets throughout The Other Boleyn Girl. Even as queen, there are things that others have which she wants—things like love, happiness, and a husband who isn't an overgrown manchild. Like Anne's ambition and determination, her jealousy knows no bounds.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. What aspect of Mary's life is Anne most jealous of? How does Anne handle her own jealousy?
    2. Is the level of jealousy between Mary and Anne typical of sisters? Or do they take it too far?
    3. Jealousy is sometimes thought of as a female emotion, but which male characters experience jealousy in this book? What are they jealous of?

    Chew on This

    Mary grows less jealous of Anne as Mary realizes she doesn't want the same things Anne does. She has been conditioned to think she wants power and fame, but Mary realizes she wants happiness, which Anne does not have.

    Anne is most jealous of Mary's ability to choose her own destiny. As a pawn of her family's desire for power, Anne lacks free will over her own decisions.

  • Sex and Sexuality

    Olde England has a reputation for sticking "e's" where they don't belong, and for being a bit uptight about sex. But that's Victorian England, where the collars were high and the skirts were long. In Henry's court—Henrian England, anyone?—people are pretty open about what goes on in the bedroom. Everyone knows who's doing whom…and what they're doing to each other.

    Being the queen's mistress is public knowledge, and it's a title that neither Anne nor Mary is ever embarrassed about at any point during The Other Boleyn Girl. Sex may happen behind closed doors—they're not that open about it—but it isn't something inherently shameful, either.

    Questions About Sex and Sexuality

    1. What is Mary's attitude toward sex with Henry? How does her opinion of sex change when she marries William Stafford?
    2. What does Mary teach Anne about sex?
    3. How is George's sexuality viewed by others?
    4. How are attitudes toward sex different today?

    Chew on This

    Like everything else in 16th-century England, sex is a tool used by men to control women. Sex is only about the man's pleasure, and men consider a woman's virginity a commodity worth bargaining for.

    Henry is attracted to Anne's command over her own sexuality, yet he later turns around and condemns her for it, sentencing her to death for adultery she never committed.

  • Competition

    Ever since cavemen wrangled with mammoths, trained them as mounts, and battled each other in a version of joust-meets-Pokémon, humans have competed in something. These competitions range from sports and video games to trying to get the most Instagram followers. (Give up now. You'll never beat Selena Gomez.)

    In 16th-century England, people didn't have tablets to play with and see who could stay on the leaderboard in agar.io the longest. So instead, they turned real life into a game. Who needs to make little dots eat each other and get bigger when you can devour your friends (metaphorically) and ruin their lives for your own personal gain? The only way to win is to not play.

    Throughout The Other Boleyn Girl, we see all kinds of competition: jousting, archery, bridge, and the most dangerous game of all—the game of love. Who dares wins, and whoever loses dies.

    Questions About Competition

    1. What drives Anne's desire to be the best?
    2. Are Anne and Mary more competitive than most sisters?
    3. Why does Mary decide to stop competing with Anne?
    4. Why is competition popular in Henry's court? How do people behave in games with Henry, such as tennis and jousting?

    Chew on This

    Anne and Henry are made for each other because they both resort to dirty tactics to win—and they throw fits when they don't get their way.

    When playing games with the King, everyone always lets him win…and everything is a game to the king. The whole world is his game board to play with.

  • Marriage

    We still hear about political battles over the sanctity of marriage. These politicians want to return marriage to how it was originally intended: between a man and a woman…a man who is only marrying the woman to sleep with her, get her family's money and power, and have kids who they'll hire someone else to raise.

    Yeah, marriage in 16th-century England isn't about love: it's about sex and power. And pretty often just power.

    Now, marriage at this time is still an unbreakable contract (to death—or decapitation—do us part)—at least until Henry VIII decides to assume ultimate power and pretty much invents divorce. In The Other Boleyn Girl, we see that moment when Henry redefines traditional marriage as a contract between a man and a woman until death—or until it's politically expedient to drop your hubby.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why is love never a factor in marriage at this time? Why do people get married?
    2. How is the institution of marriage different in 16th-century England than it is today?
    3. Why does Mary's first husband not mind that she is having an affair with the king? Why does no one mind that the king is having an affair? Is marriage not taken seriously in 16th-century England?

    Chew on This

    Mary was married at twelve years old, showing us what a vastly different world it was back then. She is still a young girl when she is married, and she is accustomed to being obedient to older men.

    It's a modern idea that Mary wants to marry for love. She is an exception to the rule, and her marriage can be considered non-traditional for the time as a result.

  • Religion

    In the Tudor court, there wasn't one ring to rule them all, but there was one religion to rule them all: Catholicism. If you lived in Western Europe during this time, you couldn't escape it. Now, while The Other Boleyn Girl isn't a book about the Protestant Reformation, aspects of that Reformation do occur in the background. Henry's decision to go his own way and establish the Church of England is a critical factor in Anne's ultimate fate. And faith, or lack of it, is a big factor in many of these characters' lives.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How does Mary view religion?
    2. How does Henry use religion to rationalize his own actions?
    3. What are the larger effects of Henry's schism with the pope?
    4. Does marriage really seem like a religious institution in this novel, or is it more of a political and social contract?

    Chew on This

    Katherine of Aragon relies on her faith to get herself through tough times. Henry does the worst thing possible to get to her: he renders her faith null and void in England.

    Henry is a man of many hypocrisies, but his faith is one of the larger ones. He wants to be seen as a devout man, but he constantly re-writes the rules of his religion to make himself always appear to be in the right.