Henry Fielding,…in “Joseph Andrews” (1742), explained “those little Spaces between our Chapters” as “an Inn or Resting-Place, where he may stop and take a Glass, or any other Refreshment, as it pleases him.” Chapter titles, Fielding proceeded to explain, were like the inscriptions over the doors of those inns, advertising the accommodations within.This article reminded me that chapters predated serialization in magazines, meaning that the breakup of novels wasn’t driven by the format and technology in which they first appeared. Rather, the established use of chapters made it easier to create divisions for each magazine issue.
Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion.
Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read. . . .
Thus the novelistic chapter: that modest, provisional kind of closure, a pause that promises more of the same later, like the fall of night. As the modern novel developed, explanations like those of the Fieldings became less necessary. Chapter titles themselves lost their overt connection to the “in which” or “concerning” syntax, virtually a plot summary, which derived from Biblical capitula.
Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” could still pull off the old sort, as in “Chapter 38: Mr. Samuel Weller, Being Entrusted With a Mission of Love, Proceeds to Execute it; With What Success Will Hereinafter Appear”; by the eighteen-seventies, Anthony Trollope could title a chapter simply “Vulgarity.” As the chapter ceased seeming peculiar, it also grew in length; the average Victorian chapter was around thirty-five hundred words, roughly twice the eighteenth-century norm.
06 November 2014
history of the chapter, starting with ancient naturalists and early Christian theologians and moving to the development of the novel: