The Forgotten History of the Chapter

November 27, 2023 | 8 min read

coverIt is hard to see chapters, such is their banal inevitability. The chapter possesses the trick of vanishing while in the act of serving its various purposes. In 1919, writing in the Nouvelle revue française, Marcel Proust famously insisted that the most beautiful moment in Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education was not a phrase but a blanc, or white space: a terrific, yawning fermata, one “sans l’ombre de transition,” without, so to speak, the hint of a transition. It is the hiatus, Proust explains, that directly ensues from a scene set during Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup, in which the protagonist Frédéric Moreau watches the killing of his radical friend Dussardier by Sénécal, a former militant republican turned policeman for the new regime. After this sudden and virtuosic blanc, Frédéric is in 1867; sixteen aimless years elapse in the intervening silence. It is, Proust argues, a masterful change of tempo, one that liberates the regularity of novelistic time by treating it in the spirit of music. And yet this blanc is not entirely blank. What Proust neglects to mention, whether out of forgetfulness or disdain for such editorial and typesetting detail, is that the hiatus he is praising here is a chapter break. However masterful and unprecedented its handling of time, it is also to some extent procedurally typical—a blanc like countless others in the history of the novel, dully routine in visual terms, simply the transition between the fifth and sixth chapters of the novel’s third part, marked in the early editions published by Michel Lévy Frères not just by the Roman numeral that prefaces the new chapter but by a change of page between the two units, an arrangement most subsequent editions followed. It was an arrangement already present in the novel’s manuscript, where across six different rewritings Flaubert indicated this transition with a horizontal line and a carefully, even dramatically, indited “VI.” The blanc has more than a shadow to indicate it; it has conventional marks. Flaubert was writing a chapter break. It is easy to see, but also, apparently, easy to forget, or too common to be worth mentioning.

This is the chapter’s usual fate, to be considered dully expedient but embarrassingly common, the musty old furniture of the book. We cannot entirely forget chapters because we do not ever really have to learn about them. The conventionality of the chapter places it in the middle of a spectrum of form: too ordinary to be easily apparent as a particular aesthetic method or choice, too necessary to eliminate in the name of an antiformal freedom that claims to speak on behalf of pure “life.” That intermediate position is a place, we might say, where form’s deliberate artifice and life’s unruly vibrancy mix most intimately. The chapter has one foot in both restriction and freedom, diluting the force of both: a not very severe restriction, a somewhat circumscribed freedom.

Put another way, the chapter, like any pervasive conventionality, feels natural. It is old-fashioned, but that old-fashioned aura nonetheless does not need to rise to the level of a conscious reference to its history. To write a chapter is to be aware of working within the preferences or norms of a genre, to think of its vaguely usual length, to be conscious of the reader’s need to pause. In fact, that weak but persistent inevitability, that which we often mean when we speak of the conventional, is one of its determining characteristics, and something that any account of the chapter will have to bear in mind. Recovering what chapters do, and a history of their changing shapes and uses, should not tip into a psychoanalytic account that imagines readers as excessively, even if unconsciously, aware of their presence. An essential element in how chapters have developed is toward a functional innocuousness, an insistence, in fact, on their own vagueness, flexibility, and resistance to rising to any flagrant notice. As a result chapters escape the structure/ornament distinction; in their long, slow history, they become ever more tacit and recessive, ever farther from their initial structural purpose as an indexical device, and as a result ever more indispensable, something that cannot be removed without damage to the whole.

Put in a more dismissive vein, we might say that a chapter is usually, in fact possibly always, “just” a chapter. Its claims on our attention are marginal. This is not the whole story, but neither is it something to be ignored.


A thought experiment: Is it possible to imagine an anthology of famous novelistic chapters? It would be a peculiar exercise, and no more or less compelling than an anthology of paragraphs; the chapter not only tends to be too embedded in the context of a plot to be excerptible but is not often shaped with enough attention to internal coherence to be memorable on its own. Harry Levin, in 1958, on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” chapter 42 of Moby-Dick: “one of the farthest-ranging chapters in our literature.” Who else speaks of chapters in this way? A chapter is an articulation of a text, in the sense of the links in a chain, the bones of one’s hand, or the interwoven steps of an escalator. Alone, it is shorn of its function and therefore much of its effect.

cover Chaptercover Chaptercovercover Chaptercover Chaptercover Chaptercovercover ChapterThose metaphors—chain, skeleton, escalator—are also, however, slightly misleading. The chapter does always exhibit some minimal difference, despite its place within a larger working scheme, and is never quite identical to others, either in length or procedure. It has an uneasy relationship to isometry or any nested, hierarchical, regular structure. It has rhythm rather than architecture. One way to understand this resistance to higher-order formalization is by a second thought experiment, along the lines of a quiz: How many chapters are in Gulliver’s Travels, I promessi sposi, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Invisible Man? Any correct answer would be definitionally trivial. Chapters imply numeration but not usually numerology; there is no widely acknowledged numerological tradition proper to the chapter or the chaptered book, unlike the twelve or twenty-four “books” of epic, the three or five acts of drama, or Dante’s hundred cantos divided into three canticles. Those texts that adopt a chaptered numerology are deliberately eccentric, such as the unlucky thirteen chapters of Horace McCoy’s 1935 noir allegory They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; the twelve chapters of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 Under the Volcano, with that number’s Kabbalistic, mythological, and calendrical significances; or the thirteen books of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999–2006), each with thirteen chapters. Where it is not eccentric, such numerology is deliberately countercultural: there is the example of the early sixteenth-century Book of a Hundred Chapters, authored by the anonymous Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine during the Peasant’s Revolt, although, as if to illustrate the oddity of such totalizing numerical schemes, the book in fact includes only eighty-nine chapters.


The chapter’s history operates at a scale broader than literary history tends to adopt. It cannot be situated in any one recognizable “period,” and moves through such periods often without any long-term or consequential alterations. Like any story told at a broader scale, it will have long silences, dips into routine and sudden rises of some new development; it will fall into abeyance somewhere and then erupt somewhere else; the chains of causality are not always evident. It will involve recurrence and persistence as much as progression. It will look strikingly stable at the broadest scale, while seeming unpredictable, and amenable to human creativity, at the smaller scale. It isn’t located in any one period, while being a model, demotic and widespread, for time’s periodization. In fact, the chapter is a practice of segmentation already far more self-conscious than the segments into which the historical gaze habitually falls.

It is therefore a history marked by amnesiac recurrence, as a cento of citations might suggest. The earliest is from the De re rustica of Columella, a first-century compendium of agricultural lore, in regard to the list of chapter headings that prefaces the text:

Since it generally happens that the recollection of the things which we have learned fails us and must be renewed rather often from written notes, I have added below a list [argumenta] of the contents of all my books in order that, whenever necessity arises, it may be easily possible to discover what is to be found in each of them.

A century later, Aulus Gellius prefaces his Noctes Atticae with a similar disclaimer:

Summaries of the material [capita rerum] to be found in each book of my Commentaries I have here placed together, in order that it may at once be clear what is to be sought and found in each book.

Discontinuous, consultative reading is the rationale here, identified with the summary work of the heading rather than the divisions of the units themselves, although the latter is implied by the former. This is still the stated rationale in the sixth century, when the Ostrogothic textual scholar Cassiodorus clarifies, in his Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum, why the Bibles produced by his scriptorium include chapter headings at the start of each individual book:

To make the text of the Octateuch available to us in a summarized version, I thought that the chapter-headings [titulos] should be set down at the beginning of each book, chapter-headings that had been written by our ancestors in the course of the text. The reader might thus be usefully guided and made profitably attentive, for he will easily find everything he is looking for, seeing it briefly marked out for him.

Similarly, on the Solomonic, or wisdom, books, Cassiodorus remarks:

With the Lord’s aid I have taken care to mark the chapter-headings [capitula] on these books so that in such indispensable reading, as I have often said, the inexperienced beginner may not be left in confusion.

Jump ahead again, this time five hundred years, to the middle of the twelfth century, and one can find this, from the prologue to Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, one of the first medieval compilations of patristic wisdom:

Again, so that what is sought might appear more easily, we have begun by providing the titles [titulos] by which the chapters [capitula] of the individual books are distinguished.

cover ChapterSomething has changed here—the terminology of heading versus unit has been settled, “title” and “chapter” differentiated; but the rationale is recognizably the same. Yet another four hundred years elapse, and the 1560 preface to the Geneva Bible will argue that its elaborately subdivided presentation, including chapter headings and prose summaries or “arguments”—along, now, with verse numeration—are necessary “that by all meanes the reader might be holpen.” This recurrent historical amnesia, which discovers in the chapter a potentially needless encrustation that must be described in terms of a consultative reader’s convenience, then migrates into the novel, where the argument is recognizably the same despite a tonal difference. There is, famously, Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews:

Secondly, What are the Contents prefixed to every Chapter but so many Inscriptions over the Gates of Inns (to continue the same Metaphor), informing the Reader what Entertainment he is to expect, which if he likes not, he may travel on to the next: for, in Biography, as we are not tied down to an exact Concatenation equally with other Historians, so a Chapter or two (for Instance, this I am now writing) may be often pass’d over without any Injury to the Whole.

Less famously, and now delivered into the voices of characters, from The History of Charlotte Summers (1750), often attributed to Sarah Fielding, in which a Miss Arabella Dimple, lying half naked in bed, calls to her maid to fetch “the first Volume of the Parish Girl I was reading in the Afternoon”:

—Pray, Ma’am, where shall I begin, did your Ladyship fold down where you left off?—No, Fool, I did not; the Book is divided into Chapters on Purpose to prevent that ugly Custom of thumbing and spoiling the Leaves; and, now I think on’t, the Author bid me remember, that I left off at the End of—I think it was the 6th Chapter. Turn now to the 7th Chapter, and let me hear how it begins—

Discontinuous reading has gradually been redefined as the interruption of a sequence rather than nonlinear access, but the essentials are recognizable, despite local differences of tone or terminology, across 1,700 years: the chapter is a solicitation of the reader’s convenience. Each instance here treats the chapter as an innovation, then proceeds to rationalize it along similar lines, with little consciousness of the long rhetorical tradition of that rationalizing. Only Fielding notes, unusually, that chapters “have the Sanction of great Antiquity.”

We can then speak of a continual rediscovery of a fact that never disappears long enough to seem to need rediscovering. The tendency extends to scholars as well, who have sometimes insisted, with pardonable pride, that it is in their own chosen period in which chapters arise. The feeling of novelty associated with its continually recurrent defenses has perhaps misled them. It is as if the memory of the chapter’s justifications resides somehow in the form itself, which bears its marks despite, or without, the intentions of its users. As a result amnesia is accompanied by a tenacious implicit memory: no resource, technique, or rationale associated with the chapter is ever wholly forgotten, and each is always available for reuse.

Excerpted from The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century © 2023 by Nicholas Dames. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

is the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and an editor in chief of Public Books. He is the author of The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction and Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810–1870.