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Reading the novels of Defoe alongside those of Austen or Brontë feels very different, even though they wrote less than a century apart. In Austen’s novels, the formal delineation of chapters increases distance in the reading experience that a novel like Moll Flanders discourages. The structures of Sense & Sensibility and Villette admit that a reader might have a life outside of the novel by providing logical places to take a break, leave, and return later while Defoe’s all-consuming biographies deny the reader any realistic, formal clues. Of course, the introduction of chapters to the structure of novels also raises questions about how novels should be read and perhaps even subtly reflects the hand of the author in trying to control the reading experience. In this paper, I explore how two elements of chapters—length and title—affect the reading experience of Sense & Sensibility and Villette by destabilizing the narrative, emphasizing certain textual and formal elements, and adding coherence to these long, detailed stories.
Although the formal qualities of chapter delineations get overlooked in favor of plot or imagery, chapter length could potentially affect the reading experience substantially on a subconscious level. Contrasting the statistics of chapter length in Sense & Sensibility and Villette usefully illustrates this change. For example, Sense & Sensibility begins with short, stable chapters. In the first volume, the mean chapter length is 4.18 pages, with a range of six pages (the longest being eight pages and the shortest being two). By Volume III, the mean chapter length increases by about two pages to 6.14, and the range increases accordingly to nine pages (between chapters of three and twelve pages). Of course, page length is partially a matter of publication standards, but standard deviation is not. In the case of Sense & Sensibility, standard deviation is minimal in the first volume; the average distance of chapter length from the mean of 4.18 pages is only 1.47 pages, meaning that the chapter lengths differ very little. By the third volume, this difference increases to an average chapter length of 2.35 pages away from the mean. This increase is minimal, but I would argue that in a novel that prioritizes subtlety and nuance, even a small change in page length could determine or reflect reading experience in some way and perhaps even destabilize the reader. Especially in such short chapters, the difference between a four-page and six-page average length is noticeable.
The world of Villette is quite different from Austen’s England, and the length of chapters reflects this change. First of all, Villette’s chapters are consistently longer than Austen’s, with mean lengths of 9.07 pages for Volume I, 13.08 for Volume II, and 11.50 for Volume III. More revealing are the respective standard deviations for the three volumes, calculated to be 3.01, 3.34, and 4.59. While Austen’s chapter lengths remain comparatively standard throughout Sense & Sensibility, Bronte alternates chapters of varying lengths throughout Villette. The slight destabilizing that occurs in Sense and Sensibility would be tripled for Bronte’s novel, an effect that certainly reflects the more troubled and precarious narrative of Lucy Snowe.
Also significant is the range of chapter lengths. The shortest and longest chapters of the novel fall very close together in the third volume—“Finis” concludes the novel in three pages, while “Sunshine” describes the happy finale to Dr. John and Paulina’s love story. The second-to-last chapter of Villette is five times as long as “Finis,” the final chapter, lending a (perhaps optimistic) sense of incompleteness to the unhappy ending. Additionally, although Villette prioritizes the imagery of storms over that of sunshine, it cannot be mere coincidence that “Sunshine” is the longest chapter in the entire novel, a full eight pages longer than the melancholy “Cloud” that follows.
In comparing “Sunshine” and “Cloud,” it becomes apparent that chapter titles can affect the reading experience textually as much as chapter length affects the novel formally. Lucy’s chapter titles can be divided into six categories, ranging in importance to the plot of the novel, some abstract and some concrete: people, places, events, objects, action, and ideas. As the novel develops, chapter titles indicate what is important to the novel at that time. For example, in Volume I, almost all of the chapter titles fall into the categories of people and places, clearly setting up the basic information necessary to follow the plot. The final volume includes more abstract chapter titles—most of them falling at least partially into the “idea” category—like “Fraternity,” “Cloud,” “Sunshine,” and “The Apple of Discord.” Only one of the “action” titles falls into this category—“M. Paul Keeps His Promise”—indicating that the novel is shifting away from climax into decompression through thoughts and contemplation.
The category of “people” comprises the most chapter titles, and Lucy emphasizes important characters by granting them multiple chapter titles. M. Paul only merits one chapter focusing on his identity as a character, but he does receive later mention in the chapters “M. Paul Keeps His Promise” and “Monsieur’s Fête.” Arguably, Monsieur Paul Emmanuel is the most important character in the novel except Lucy herself, but his individualized chapter does not occur until Chapter XXX in the third volume. “M. Paul” appears well after the other character’s chapters are finished, indicating that this chapter will not introduce M. Paul but merely shifts attention toward him. In fact, the story of his birthday part, “Monsieur’s Fête,” occurs before this chapter. Assuming Lucy wrote the chapter titles, her narratorial pacing and habit of withholding information spills over into these titles. If the “people” titles were consistent, Chapter XXX would be M. Paul’s first appearance or reappearance. Instead, Lucy grants M. Paul alone the privilege break the pattern in his chapter, indicating that M. Paul will also break the lonely pattern of the narrative.
Lucy contrasts the M. Paul-centric chapters with those detailing the story of Dr. John and Paulina. Little Polly Home gets two chapters spanning the narrative—“Paulina” in the beginning and “The Little Countess” when she reappears in the narrative. Only the first identifies her clearly, perhaps to avoid giving the plot away by mentioning her name again in the table of contents. Similarly, Dr. John gets two chapters: first, he is “Isidore,” Ginevra’s secret lover, and then clearly named as “Dr. John.” Neither of these chapters reveals his identity as Graham Bretton, but the multiplicity of names in the chapter titles reflects Lucy’s insistence on good storytelling; she refuses to disclose Graham’s reappearance just as she uses Polly’s title instead of her name. As a couple, the two also merit an additional chapter: “The Happy Pair.” As Villette’s action winds down, the chapter titles shift from a focus on individuals to a unified ending required by the novel form. Because Lucy cannot give the reader a happy ending for herself, she uses chapter titles as a proxy to tell a story that brings characters together and unifies the chaos of earlier, singular chapters.
Not all the chapters follow the logical idea that only crucial elements of the novel—such as major plot twists and central characters—deserve chapter titles. In my personal favorite, “A Sneeze Out of Season,” Lucy chooses to name the chapter after Madame Beck’s accidental interruption of Lucy’s conversation with Dr. John. By doing so, Lucy subverts Madame Beck’s interference in her life by focusing on the “occasion to smile—nay, to laugh, at madame” (116). At the level of form, this chapter is more important than the comic value Madame Beck’s “sternutation” provides: at more than one standard deviation away from the mean, the chapter is quite long (125). Additionally, the content of the chapter foreshadows and reflects the remainder of the story; John almost reveals his interest in Ginevra, but Madame’s sneeze prevents him from telling Lucy and the reader this information. In this instance, Lucy sets a pattern for her style as a narrator by ending the chapter in a cliffhanger and emphasizing Dr. John’s romantic interest as important.
After this discussion of how influential chapter titles can be, the next logical subject is the effect of nameless chapter titles like those in Sense and Sensibility. First of all, the lack of chapter titles reflects the straightforward, predictable nature of the plot. Rather than working to temporarily withhold information from or even mislead readers like some of Villette’s titles, Austen’s chapter delineations only serve a formal purpose—to break up the novel into manageable chunks. Although this functionality may seem considerate on Austen’s part, the lack of chapter titles also refuses the reader any opportunity to skip ahead or play detective about the final outcome. The text demands full, constant attention and never gives itself away formally.
It would seem that those writers, like Brontë, who take full advantage of the chapter by dividing and naming portions of their novels actually do themselves a disservice by constantly reminding readers that they are, in fact, in the middle of a novel. Without the convenient interruption that chapters provide, it might be easier to lose oneself in the action of the story, a reading experience that better reflects the protagonist’s life each novel strives to represent. In this case, however, life has come to reflect art. After all, people regularly refer to times in their own lives as “chapters,” a phenomenon that probably did not occur until individuals started to think of their lives as personal stories with narrative arcs. Although chapters rarely receive attention in discussions of literature, examining this small quality of books like Villette or Sense & Sensibility further emphasizes the tremendous effect of the novel form on real, human narrative.
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