‘The world corrupts me, I think. Or perhaps it's just the weather. It pulls me down and makes me think like you, that one should shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light, preserving one's solitary soul like a flame under a glass.

— Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

All I can reasonably visualize is something like the picture below. Am I right? If I am right, why use "under" when a flame is "in" a glass?

enter image description here

  • I originally agreed with Sander that it sounded as though the glass extinguished the flame. But after more research, I now agree with G. Ann that the glass is most likely referring to a chimney or dome of a lantern/lamp. In this scene, Thomas Cromwell is speaking to Thomas More. More is in jail for refusing to take the "oath of succession", and Cromwell is part of the prosecution. When asked repeatedly to take such oaths, More remains silent ("shrink inside, down and down to a little point of light") due to religious convictions ("preserving one's solitary soul").
    – John B
    Oct 6, 2015 at 22:22

3 Answers 3


The author speaks of "preserving" the soul, so I think your image is on the right track.

From what I can tell from a cursory glance at Amazon, the book is set in a time before electric lights, when candles or lanterns would have been common, and I think two elements are at play in this simile:

  • When you lower the glass chimney around the flame (from having it up to light the wick), the flame steadies and brightens
  • When you turn the nob to shorten the exposed wick, the size of the flame gets smaller and the lamp oil is preserved.

I'm not entirely sure they had this particular sort of lantern in the time of Cromwell, but I have seen plenty of references to "trimming the wick" of a candle to make it burn more slowly.


The writer is making the comparison with a flame that is put under an upside down drinking glass.

If you put a flame, for example a small candle, under a glass, it will slowly die out because of oxygen running out. The glass prevents new oxygen from reaching the flame and because oxygen is needed to make the flame burn, it will die out when the oxygen available under the glass has been used up.

  • 1
    Really want to downvote. Your idea will extinguish the flame, but the point of the writer's idea is specifically "preserving one's solitary soul". Not extinguishing it. Oct 3, 2015 at 18:15
  • 3
    @WhatRoughBeast It could be that the author is subverting expectations by using a simile with something that does not preserve a flame well, to illustrate that it is in fact not a good way to preserve one's soul (or flame). Given the context, this is what I would assume.
    – Crazy Eyes
    Oct 6, 2015 at 18:20

I think the point that is being made is that flame needs oxygen so when it is under glass the oxygen runs out and it goes away. (suffocates) I do think that picture is correct but not necessarily only like that just whenever you put glass or a lid on a candle or flame it gets suffocated. the author seems to using a figure of speech more then literally. she feels 'suffocated' by society.

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