The word “chapter” is derived from the Latin capitulum, which is also the source of the word “capital.” An enlarged capital letter was used to signal a division of thought in early manuscripts. When paper began to replace parchment as the principal writing material, it became economically feasible to start each new chapter on a separate page. Some ancient manuscripts, such as the Bible, were divided into chapters by printers for the convenience of the reader. By the 18th century most long prose works were created with chapter divisions, and the conventions were well enough established by 1760 to enable Laurence Sterne’s infamous experiments with chapters (blank chapters, chapters out of order) in Tristram Shandy. In the 19th century, chapter divisions were an important feature of serial publication, and both novels and essays were frequently published by installment.
Cornhill Magazine, for instance, published serialized novels by authors such as George Eliot, Hardy, and Thackeray in this manner, along with essays by Arnold, Ruskin, and others.
Chapter divisions are usually indicated by numbers, but practice is quite varied. In Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (wr. 1405; The Book of the City of Ladies), the chapters are marked off with numbers and with running heads that describe the contents and orient the reader to the text. For instance, the opening chapter is headed:
“HERE BEGINS THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES, WHOSE FIRST CHAPTER TELLS WHY AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE THE BOOK WAS WRITTEN.” Such practice was also followed by Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605–15); however, Cervantes’ chapter headings also contribute to the mockery of his hero. When he titles I: 20, “Of the
unparalleled Adventure achieved by the valorous Don Quixote de la Mancha with less peril than any ever achieved by any famous knight in the whole world,” the hyperbole and ironic stance are unmistakable. Although the practice of numbering the text suggests narrative progression, it may also be used to show the logical progression of an argument from premise to deduction, as it does in Bacon’s Novum organum (1620). In contrast to Bacon’s plain style, novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries revived the tradition of elaborate and self-conscious titles, such as Henry Fielding’s Chapter 1 of Book 8 of Tom Jones: “A wonderful long chapter concerning the marvellous; being much the longest of all our introductory chapters.” Victorian essayists tended both to number and to title the chapters of long works—a practice followed by Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Arnold, and others. Modern writers have tended to minimize editorial apparatus, omitting titles and using white space to indicate textual divisions. Contemporary essayists are much less likely to follow the practice of numbering the chapters of book-length works.
Traditional definitions of the essay have emphasized that the individual essay is a complete and self-contained unit. The chapter, on the other hand, is generally considered to be part of a larger work, one division within a sequence. In reality, the concepts of chapter and essay are much more fluid than these definitions suggest. When Montaigne applied the title Essais to his writing, he was referring not to the structural divisions of his work, but to the general enterprise he had undertaken. In his books, he was “essaying,” that is, attempting to come to some understanding on a matter of personal
concern. The individual units of each book were identified as chapitres and numbered consecutively. Although the chapters do not represent a linear progression of thought, the individual chapters cannot be completely understood without reference to the entire work that Montaigne undertook.
Since the rise of popular journalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of the essay has also been linked to its means of publication. Essays are generally associated with periodical publication, while chapters are divisions of books. However, many essays appear first in book form, and some chapters of books are published first as essays in periodicals. The distinction, then, between a collection of essays and a nonfiction book may be more slippery than is generally imagined. Thoreau’s Walden (1854), for instance, appears to be a collection of essays loosely related to a general theme. A closer inspection, however, reveals a conscious ordering of the essays as part of a larger design.
The distinction between essay and chapter is probably best understood as a tendency rather than as a clear demarcation. The term “essay” stresses the author’s approach to the subject—tentative, reflective, individual. A chapter, conversely, emphasizes a convenient division for purposes of publication. Indeed, long essays may be subdivided into chapters. Although the chapter may signify a continuation of the narrative in fictional works, there may be little distinction at all between an essay and a chapter in a work of nonfiction.
Avrin, Leila, Scribes, Script and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Chicago: American Library Association, and London: British Library, 1991
Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin, Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800, edited by Geoffrey Nowell Smith and David Wootton, London: NLB, 1976; New York: Verso, 1990 (original French edition, 1958)
Marr, George S., The Periodical Essayists of the Eighteenth Century, London: Clarke, 1923; New York: Appleton, 1924
Stevick, Philip, The Chapter in Fiction: Theories of Narrative Division, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1970
Sultana, Niloufar, “The Principle of Chapter and Volume Division in Tristram Shandy,” Language and Style 20 (1981):185–202
Walker, Hugh, The English Essay and Essayist, London: Dent, and New York: Dutton, 1915
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