Middlemarch Chapter 20 Analysis Essay

Chapter 12:


Fred and Rosamond travel to Stone Court, the house of their wealthy uncle, Mr. Featherstone. Mrs. Waule, Mr. Featherstone's sister, is there; and though she is also well off, she tries to get even more money from her brother. Mary Garth is Mr. Featherstone's servant, and Fred admires her very much. Mrs. Waule's visit is to lobby for more money in Mr. Featherstone's will, and she tries to discredit Fred, of whom Mr. Featherstone is very fond, by alluding to rumors about Fred's gambling debts. Mr. Featherstone bothers Fred on this subject, and Fred insists he has done nothing of the sort; Mr. Featherstone continues to shame and embarrass Fred, and finally insist that he get proof in writing from Bulstrode, who started this rumor, that it is indeed false.

Mary Garth is plain and amiable, and very honest and kind. Rosamond continues to be supremely interested in Lydgate, whom Mary has met and does not think terribly highly of. Lydgate and Rosamond finally meet, and it seems like their romance has already been destined to occur.


Despite Rosamond's snobbish disposition, she has no compunctions about socializing with Mary Garth, a servant; although Rosamond has certain ideas about social class, at least she does not hold these ideas of hers against long-standing friends. Rosamond is pleasant enough to her friends, and to her uncle, though she does show hostility to people who do not strike her fancy, like Mrs.Waule.

The weight of rumor is a theme that is very relevant to Middlemarch life; rumors are circulated like currency, and a person's reputation certainly depends on what people say or think about them. Rumors are also given a lot of credibility in this provincial life; it is a rumor that causes Featherstone to threaten to take away Fred's inheritance, and this rumor is given some credit because it originated with Bulstrode, one of the most well-known citizens of the town. Rumors are often vicious, and just as often untrue, and represent the more pernicious and flawed aspects of human nature; still, they are important in determining the reputation and caliber of the many people of Middlemarch, and rumors are also an integral part of social life there as well.

Rosamond and Lydgate's romance, though nonexistent at this point, seems to be foreshadowed by Rosamond's own stubborn conceptions about falling in love with a stranger, and him falling in love with her almost immediately. Rosamond decides to like Lydgate, since he is young, good looking, has good prospects, and is of good family; emotional connection doesn't seem to enter into the equation, and they are as shallow as a couple as they are about the opposite sex.

Chapter 13:


Mr. Vincy goes to see Mr. Bulstrode at the bank on his son Fred's behalf; Lydgate is already there with Bulstrode, talking about the construction of a new hospital in town. Bulstrode likes Lydgate, and expects that he will make reforms and improve medical care in the town, but both are aware of the professional jealousy that will arise from Lydgate's new position, if he is indeed elected as head of the hospital. Bulstrode, for some reason, wants a man named Mr. Tyke to be chaplain of the new hospital, in place of another man named Mr. Farebrother.

Mr. Vincy enters, and broaches the subject of Fred and his need for Bulstrode's reassurances; Mr. Bulstrode does not want to be involved. Bulstrode criticizes Fred's upbringing and personal qualities, making the matter more personal than it needs to be. This matter is complicated by the fact that Bulstrode and Vincy are brothers-in-law, and Vincy believes it is Bulstrode's family obligation to comply, though Bulstrode does not.


Lydgate's case in this chapter shows how small-mindedness, jealousy, and petty squabbles between people can impede progress completely; in Middlemarch, this is an important issue, and one that will thwart Lydgate, as an outsider. Middlemarch is exceedingly political, as becomes apparent in the scene with Mr. Bulstrode; friends will be made and lost through political alliances, and it seems that Lydgate's hopes depend on his siding with Bulstrode in a matter that does not concern him at all.

Bulstrode is an arrogant, self-important man who would use his power to tell people where they are right and wrong. Much like other characters, who are embodiments and representation of certain forces in society, Bulstrode is symbolic of Middlemarch politics and power, and how both of these can lead to pettiness and an inflated ego. That he and Mr. Vincy are married to sisters complicates things; family members have some kind of obligation to one another, but on the other hand, people must do what they feel compelled to do. Middlemarch is a place of tangled family alliances, old grudges, and strongheaded personalities; no decision is simply clear-cut, and many people are trying to fulfill their own interests, rather than trying to help other people.

The importance of family is a theme that reappears within the novel; what do people really owe to their family, and are there stronger ties between people than the blood ties of kinship? Friendship can certainly be a powerful bond; Sir James' friendships with Dorothea and Celia are strong enough not to be broken by Dorothea's marriage. However, there are many different views within the novel of how family ties obligate people to behave; the Vincys believe that Featherstone owes an inheritance to Fred, as his nephew, Mr. Vincy believes that Bulstrode, as a relative, should help Fred, and Casaubon believes that he is obligated to support his cousin Ladislaw for some time. But when personal interests, like greed, mingle with these ideas of family obligations, things become very tricky, and intentions are not always honorable.

Chapter 14:


Bulstrode writes out a letter to the effect that Fred has not borrowed money on his inheritance from Featherstone, because his wife Harriet, Fred's aunt, wishes him to do so. In fact, Fred is in debt, and is given some money by Featherstone on the spot, though it is not enough to unburden him. Fred is grateful, but not as grateful as he could be; Featherstone takes pleasure in the fact that the young man depends on him for funds, and uses this to threaten Fred as well. Fred tries to talk to Mary Garth, whom he has feelings for, about his living and his feelings for her as well. Mary is realistic about his prospects, and knows that he cannot marry until he finds a living and a stable income.


The importance of money is a theme that is intermingled with Fred Vincy's story; indeed, money is an important thing, and how a person uses money shows a great deal about his character. Featherstone is as much of a financial miser as he is an emotional one; his joys in the power to hold back money from people is perverse, and he is miserly in his friendliness as he is with his funds. Fred is full of hope that fate will get him out of any scrapes he gets into; he spends money with this belief in mind, his naïve optimism getting him into trouble, and into debt.

Socially, money also determines a person's place; Lydgate is socially disadvantaged because he is poor, and Sir James is highly regarded not only because he is friendly, but because he is wealthy too. Although family connections are important in determining a person's place and how much respect they receive, middle-class people who are able to make money for themselves, like the Vincys, are able to lift themselves into a higher class through their gains in wealth. That isn't to say that the British class system, which is determined by birth, is dead at the time of this novel; but the class system is becoming more solvent because of the money being made by ordinary people, and allows those people to climb up the social ladder.

There is great irony in the fact that the only young couple who are truly suited and know each other well, Fred and Mary Garth, cannot get married for financial reasons. Unlike Casaubon and Dorothea, and Lydgate and Rosamond, these two are close friends, and regard each other with the greatest love and respect. As a couple, they contrast greatly with all the other young couples in the book; they seem to be the most compatible emotionally and practically, yet it comes down to a decision of finances about whether they should be joined.

Mary Garth, for her plain and humble appearance, is a clever girl with a good deal of knowledge. That she is able to make allusions to Shakespeare and Victorian literature so easily demonstrates her good grasp of literature, and that she is fairly well read‹certainly more well-read than Fred, and he has even gone to college. Mary is not a flirt, but she is good at understatement; though she loves Fred, she avoids getting his hopes up by replying to his questions of whether she loves him by merely stating, playfully, "my experience is rather mixed" (138). Mary is a very realistic girl, however; she disregards Fred's romantic, hopeful, and somewhat unrealistic tone when speaking to her of marriage, and she maintains a considerate, even-tempered, but informed tone when replying to him. Where Fred is flighty, Mary is dependable; he is too idle to deserve her, but together, they could do well for each other.

Chapter 15:


Eliot begins the chapter with a bit of narration about the scope of the book, and then begins to delve into Lydgate's background. Lydgate was very intelligent as a young man, and fell in love with anatomy at a young age. He is a hard worker, driven to succeed in his field and make innovations, and to help people get better rather than make money, which seems to be the focus of many doctors of the time.


Here, Eliot takes a bit of a break from the novel, in order to insert some commentary, which is not an uncommon occurrence in the English novel. Previously, the novel had simply flowed over the events and characters involved; Eliot, as a narrator, becomes a kind of transparent presence, allowing the reader a direct window into the proceedings, without placing herself in the way. Eliot's purpose in suddenly interjecting in the proceedings is to convey the overall purpose of the novel; the purpose is to delve into the lives, motivations, personalities, and circumstances of people in a rural English community, and show the workings of human nature in the characters she chooses to create.

Middlemarch is not necessarily meant to provide a wide-ranging view of Victorian society, or to serve as a commentary on English society of the time; although the novel may have elements of social criticism included in it, this is meant as a focused study and not a sociological of epic proportions. This explains why Eliot chooses to have the narrator relate the events, with little commentary relating the people and happenings of Middlemarch to the outside world of the time.

Lydgate, as the sole outsider of Middlemarch, is an interesting case; the way that people regard him and treat him is not due to who he is, but what they believe him to be and how they feel about strangers. Lydgate stands in stark contrast with people like Fred Vincy, who feel no particular call or motivation; Lydgate, along with Dorothea, is one of few whose passion is improving the lives of the people of Middlemarch, with little concern for politics or anything that would hinder his greater purpose. Lydgate's intentions and his drive are honorable, like Dorothea's are; but it will not be so simple for him to fulfill his purposes in the tangled world of Middlemarch politics and connections.

A bit about Lydgate's personality is laid bare, and it indicates that Lydgate is susceptible to making mistakes in love. This major weakness in his nature foreshadows that he will not be able to choose wisely when it is time to marry; he can be rash when it is least convenient, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart. His overstated resolve, to "take a strictly scientific view of a woman," is certainly not supported by the way that he views Rosamond, nor by the criteria by which he judges her; Lydgate is weak when it comes to women, and his weakness is not expected by the people of Middlemarch.

The way in which Middlemarch society works concerning strangers is laid bare; if a person is considered worthy, people rush to accept him and make him one of the community. This theory of assimilation, however, is neither carefully considered nor does it take into account some people's resistance to change. It also leaves out a crucial examination of the person in consideration, which could mean the person that is accepted is not the same person who lives among them.

Chapter 16:


Mr. Bulstrode's power becomes plain; as a banker, he has some control over those he lends money to, and he defends people in return for certain expected favors. There is a debate going on whether Bulstrode's choice of Mr. Tyke for the chaplain's position at the hospital is indeed correct; Lydgate, Mr. Vincy, Mr. Chichely, and Dr. Sprague debate this question, with Mr. Vincy firmly supporting Farebrother. Lydgate is soon able to sneak away and talk with Rosamond, whom he finds very refined and beautiful. He meets Farebrother, whom he also finds agreeable. Lydgate is in no hurry to marry, since he has no money yet; but he will certainly keep Rosamond in mind in the meantime. Rosamond, however, is sure that Lydgate is in love with her; and, with little else to think about, she sets her mind on marrying Lydgate.


Mr. Bulstrode is a very shrewd politician; he makes sure he carries a great deal of influence not only through his financial role in the town, but through the favors he chooses to do for people and the obligations he chooses to create. Politics is a theme that has great importance in a Middlemarcher's life, and, if one is as politically adept as Mr. Bulstrode, a great deal of power and influence can result. Bulstrode insists that he is gaining power "for the glory of God"; but the truth is that he does it out of selfish ambition, and certainly is not as clean-living as he seems. Bulstrode's great ambition and his wily ways foreshadow a fall from grace, if he dares to do anything corrupt; just as people fear and are grateful to him, many people dislike the power that Bulstrode wields, and seek to bring him low.

Politics and people blend in an interesting way; and the regards in which politics influences people's decisions and behavior toward one another is an issue that Lydgate, at least, will have to deal with. Soon, Lydgate will find himself torn between deciding on Mr. Tyke, in order to curry more favor with Bulstrode, or Farebrother, in which case Mr. Vincy would be most pleased. Lydgate also finds that "it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office" in Middlemarch, as certain positions are usually held by people who are not quite suited to them; this is a great irony, and one that Lydgate does not want to face. Some Middlemarch traditions are impractical and nonsensical, but yet people still cling to them; this is another example of the theme of progress vs. tradition, and in this case, tradition seems to be the more stubborn.

Lydgate soon finds himself becoming fond of Rosamond, but it is her beauty and her good manners, rather than her personality, which attracts him. He rhapsodizes about her fair looks, which he describes as being "as if the petals of some gigantic flower had just opened and disclosed her"; he devotes this elaborate simile to her attractiveness, yet can say nothing of her personality except that she is "clever" (159). He attributes "ready, self-possessed grace" not to her, but to her hair; the personification may do honor to her beauty, but he is missing the essence of Rosamond's personality entirely. Lydgate certainly does not realize that she is nothing, as Eliot's simile declares, "like a kitten" that is innocent and sincere; she has been trained and taught, and these graces and looks with which he falls in love have little to do with her real self.

The differences between the worlds of men and women are made clear by the juxtaposition of Rosamond and Lydgate. Lydgate, like most men, has a profession, plenty to do outside the home, and many professional goals; he is a very busy man, which means that marrying and starting a household come second for him. However, Rosamond, as a proper young woman, has no other interests besides marrying and living in her own home; she has the temporary diversions of music, socializing, and other light tasks, but nothing to consume her time and thought other than dreams and thoughts about marriage. The worlds of Lydgate and Rosamond contrast greatly, and there will probably be a conflict between Rosamond's eagerness and Lydgate's wish to wait for marriage.

Chapter 17:


Lydgate goes to see Farebrother at home, and observes his domestic situation. Farebrother's mother engages Lydgate in a debate about changes in religion, which Farebrother and Lydgate seem to espouse. Farebrother is a man of science, like Lydgate; they get along well, which makes Lydgate question Bulstrode's championing of Mr. Tyke even more. However, Farebrother is knowledgeable about Middlemarch politics, and knows that Lydgate must vote with Bulstrode if he wants to get ahead; Lydgate listens to this advice, but wants to vote with his conscience instead.


There are quite a few parallels in the lives and personalities of Lydgate and Farebrother. Both are men of scientific minds, with a great amount of interest in natural things and natural processes. Neither is in a great financial situation, meaning that marriage is not in the cards; and both are somewhat worldly and progressive-minded, clinging to changes that are being made in their own professions. Farebrother and Lydgate are also of the same opinion of many of the people of Middlemarch; they know that they must humor many people and speak very carefully to all those people who they really regard as idiots.

Farebrother is also able to inform Lydgate about a great deal regarding Middlemarch politics, of which Lydgate still has much to learn. Lydgate alludes to Voltaire when explaining his reservations about Bulstrode; but it does not matter what Lydgate's feelings about the man are, it all comes down to whose support he wants. Farebrother describes Bulstrode and his set more correctly; he posits the metaphor that "mankind [is] a doomed carcase which is to nourish them for heaven," and knows that Bulstrode and his ilk can be as unpleasant as they are ignorant. Farebrother shows great generosity and honesty in advising Lydgate to vote with Bulstrode; Farebrother is a truly intelligent and perceptive man, with a good understanding of the way Middlemarch politics work, and of how to keep from getting burned by them.

Chapter 18:


Lydgate is compelled to vote for Farebrother, at the expense of any help from Bulstrode; he debates this with himself, and the outcomes of either decision. Lydgate wants to secure Farebrother the much needed money, but also wants to keep in Bulstrode's good graces, and knows that Tyke might be better suited to the position. The voting meeting begins, with Lydgate still waffling; people have their various reasons for voting for Farebrother or for Lydgate, and they all vary widely. Lydgate finally decides upon Mr. Tyke.


Lydgate finally realizes the importance of money, a theme within the book that touches on many characters, especially Fred Vincy and Farebrother. Lydgate does not feel that his lack of funds is all that important, especially since he is in no hurry to marry; but, he sees that with a man like Farebrother, who makes a very slender living and has relatives to support, money is a thing of great consequence. Money has determined how Farebrother has lived and his inability to marry; money has also dictated Fred's inability to marry, and has kept him from being truly respectable. Money can limit the way a person lives, and how much respect they are accorded; money can mean happiness or unhappiness, which Lydgate finally realizes.

The influence of one's conscience becomes an issue with which Lydgate, and many of the other men voting, are preoccupied with; when trying to make a decision, should you support the man whom you know to be a better human being, or should you support the man that will get you farther? It is a battle between conscience and self-interest, another important theme, and with Lydgate, self-interest wins; this is something that every person voting had to decide upon, with various results from each of them. Conscience does not necessarily outweigh self-interest; one must debate the merits of each choice, and go with the one that seems most important and beneficial.

In choosing Tyke, Lydgate contradicts the very essence of his nature. He must resign his pride, and vote according to the wishes of a man whom he does not like; he also must override his feelings, and rationalize himself out of making the more palatable choice. Lydgate is a man who is swayed by friendship, yet he cannot let that make his decision in this case; Lydgate, ironically, forswears the instincts that are most natural to him, and somewhat regrets the decision.

Chapter 19:


Dorothea is at last in Rome on her honeymoon, and Will Ladislaw is there too, spotting her but not daring to approach. Will's friend, Naumann, is there too, is taken with her beauty and wants to paint her picture; Will is still under the influence of his negative first impression of her, and does not want to see her at the risk of finding her as unpleasant as he suspects.


At the beginning of this chapter is one of the first indications of the time period in which this book is taking place. Although Eliot wrote this book in the 1870's, the setting is at the close of the reign of George IV, and the beginning of the era of Queen Victoria. The romantic movement had not yet hit its peak, and times were more innocent of the world at large, according to Eliot. Eliot's book reflects upon the past, and the stories contained within it may illuminate the progress and the changes in attitude that have happened since. Likely, Eliot chose this time period because of the many forces which were beginning to clash; industrialism vs. the bucolic, the class system vs. new money, tradition vs. progress, superstition vs. science, all of which are issues contained within the novel.

Wisdom says that appearances are usually deceiving, but in the case of Dorothea, the way she appears to others conveys exactly what she is. Will's friend Naumann pegs her as a "Christian Antigone," the interesting allusion conveying perfectly her "sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion" (190). Will is moved by her in spite of himself, actually admitting to admiring her voice; he seems to like her though his protestations would convey other feelings.

Chapter 20:


Dorothea is in shock by the combination of lately having become a wife, being in a place so foreign to her as Rome, and being completely alone, with the absence of her husband due to his study. Dorothea appeals to her husband to let her help, so that he may get his work finished and published; in her desperation for some emotional response, she sobs, which immediately makes Casaubon even more remote. Casaubon wants her support and affection, which she is giving him, but not in the way he wishes. They have a fundamental communication block, which upsets both of them, especially since it is their honeymoon. Casaubon continues his studies, and nothing is resolved.


Dorothea is just beginning to realize how her marriage cannot live up to her expectations. Casaubon is the same as he ever was, but pays little attention to her, and she cannot talk to him for fear of upsetting him. Dorothea already finds herself lacking emotional support and a like mind, and as she continues to grow out of her naivete and learn more about her marriage, these requirements will probably become more plain to her.

Casaubon's lack of emotion or passion finally dawns on Dorothea, though she has not yet realized that the deficiencies she feels in the marriage are due to her being unsuited to her husband, rather than from any deficiency on her part. As Eliot states, "Dorothea's ideas and resolves seemed like melting ice floating and lost in the warm flood"; Eliot's simile emphasizes how lost and hopeless Dorothea feels, and how her plans and aspirations are left unfulfilled by this union (198). To Casaubon, Dorothea becomes little more than "a personification of that shallow world which surrounds the ill-appreciated or desponding author"; this view is ironic and unfortunate in light of Dorothea's extensive efforts to support, encourage, and aid her husband.

On this honeymoon, Casaubon and Dorothea's completely contrasting natures first come into conflict. Every time Casaubon tries to express himself with his cold, academic tone, Dorothea is exacerbated to some display of affection or emotion, which Casaubon is desperate to avoid. Dorothea thinks of achieving, of Casaubon writing and publishing his great work, with her help; Casaubon is not so goal-oriented, and is threatened by her insistence that he do something that he is ill-qualified to finish. Casaubon and Dorothea could not contrast more than they already do; and their inability to communicate and understand each other means that there will be more conflicts to come.

Chapter 21:


Just as Dorothea is beginning to despair again, Will Ladislaw comes to visit her. Will is surprised to find that she is nice, friendly, and far better than his dried-up old cousin could ever deserve; Will's bad first impression is proven completely wrong. They discuss art, which Dorothea can't understand; Will admits that he has not found his calling in art, and Dorothea is bewildered by his ability to be at leisure all the time. Will also realizes that Dorothea holds Casaubon in unnaturally high regard; he resents this, and wants to get her to realize how she is mistaken. Casaubon returns home, and is not pleased by his cousin's presence. Nevertheless, he invites Will back, and Dorothea senses that she has found a valuable friend.


Will finally learns that Dorothea does not fake ignorance in order to insult; he mistook her remark as having a tone of sarcasm, when in fact she meant what she said with all sincerity. Will returns to his metaphor of the "Aeolian harp" to describe her, in her wonder and beauty; still, he cannot help but be bewildered about someone of such beauty and emotion marrying such a passionless man. Just as Dorothea and Casaubon are completely different kinds of beings, Casaubon and Will contrast in almost every possible way. Where Will is impulsive and emotional, Casaubon is ordered and reserved; Will lives life, and Casaubon seems content to learn about it.

Will and Dorothea actually seem very much alike in temperament, emotional disposition, and in their honesty. That Dorothea finds him the only person she has ever met who seems "likely to understand everything" is very significant; this impression upon such a brief meeting foreshadows that Dorothea and Will shall become close, and that she will take the chance to open her heart to him and express her feelings, which will deepen the relationship.

The brief conversation with Will also brings her to an important realization, that she cannot expect emotional fulfillment or understanding from Casaubon. She begins to know that he also has an emotional void and is not the pillar of strength she thought he was; she starts to realize her husband's humanity, but also that her marriage is fundamentally unsatisfying to her.

Chapter 22:


Will impresses Dorothea with the way he is able to listen to Casaubon and make him feel at ease; Will is also able to engage Dorothea in the conversation, and draw some statements out of her that make Casaubon proud of his well-spoken wife. Will gets Casaubon to agree to bring Dorothea to the studio; once there, Naumann gets Casaubon to sit as a model for Thomas Aquinas, which allows Naumann to also paint Dorothea without Casaubon feeling slighted. Will goes to visit Dorothea later, when Casaubon is not at home; they speak, and Will tells her plainly that she will not be happy with Casaubon, and that her piety is completely unnatural.


The relationship between Will and Dorothea begins to change at a rapid pace; within a space of days, Will has become a "worshipper" of Dorothea, his "soul's sovereign" (218). The metaphor relates how intensely Will loves Dorothea, and how highly he regards her; in turn, Dorothea begins to appreciate Will, and finally learns to understand a bit of art from his passionate mind and eager explanations. How ironic that she married her husband so that he could teach her, yet the only man she has learned from is the last one she expected to meet. Dorothea is beginning to find emotional fulfillment and intellectual stimulation in places other than her marriage; if this, and her attachment to Will, continues, her marriage to Casaubon will then be without purpose.

In Will's most impressive bit of conversation with Dorothea so far, he is able to diagnose the nature of her piety, and tell her exactly how she will be affected if she continues to follow her ideas so religiously. Dorothea counters with absolute frankness about her nature and habits, saying things aloud and before company that she has scarcely been able to admit to herself previously. Dorothea has started on her journey of self-discovery, and from this point on, self-discovery will continue to be one of the most vital themes in her story.

Will's passion becomes plain when he adopts a very passionate tone, and riddles his speech with hyperbole. He is saddened by Dorothea's apparent lack of youth, overstating this sentiment by saying that she acts as if she "had a vision of Hades in [her] childhood" (220). He also states, with passion-fueled hyperbole, that she has been unfairly haunted by "Minotaurs" in some of the things she has been led to believe. Will's hyperbole and overstatement reflect his great concern for Dorothea, and the thought which he has devoted to her person.

Dorothea responds to Will's emotion with equal zest; she is relieved and energized to find someone who understands her so well, and does take the opportunity to open her mind and her heart to him. This is the first time in the novel that Dorothea speaks with real frankness, and dredges up many of the emotions that have been haunting her during these first few days of her marriage. Will is able to bring her out of her shyness and her unnatural brooding, and makes a very big impression on her as well. Will's influence and his aid in helping her understand her situation and her plight has given Dorothea fuel for her attempts to find usefulness and happiness. She already has some idea that she will find neither of these with Casaubon, and if she takes Will's advice to heart, she can stop blaming herself and start to see the error she made in her marriage and become a less naïve person.

On a late May morning in 735 in the Northumbrian monastery known as Jarrow, England’s preëminent historian and scriptural scholar lay dying while still hard at work. As a famous letter written by his disciple Cuthbert tells it, the Venerable Bede lay surrounded by colleagues, who took their leave in order to attend the morning’s Ascension Day service. One, however, remained by his side, a young scribe known as Wilbert. Death was clearly drawing close; anxious that Bede’s work—an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel of John—be completed yet apologetic for his insistence, Wilbert reminded Bede that “one chapter still remained.” Cuthbert tells us that Bede proclaimed himself willing and dictated the remaining chapter to Wilbert; after the final sentence was written down, Bede breathed his last, saying, “It is finished.”

The Latin word Wilbert used to prod his master to completion—capitulum—would eventually feed into a series of European languages: the Spanish capítulo, the French chapitre, the Czech kapitola, the German Kapitel, the Romanian capitol, the Italian capitolo, and the English “chapter.” For readers, the word, and the thing it describes, is inescapable. And yet few people notice it. Books have been written or arranged in chapters for over two millennia now, although that fact has never received the attention it deserves from historians of the written word. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the concept has rendered it invisible. It would not have been invisible in eighth-century Jarrow, however; Bede worked in the most important scriptorium of his era, where no small amount of scholarly labor was devoted to producing capitula—essentially, divisions of scriptural texts with headings or summaries. Bede himself produced several such works. The chapter was a tool of analysis and memory for Bede and his colleagues. Perhaps it has never ceased being so; we simply expect chapters to be there, breaking up our reading, giving us the permission to pause or stop. Prose writers work in chapters with far less self-awareness than poets work in stanzas or composers in movements. In the great novel of writer’s block, “New Grub Street,” from 1891, George Gissing perfectly evokes the routine quality of the chapter with a description of his despairing protagonist sitting down to work: “At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III,’ but that was all.”

Inevitability does not, however, imply meaninglessness. The chapter is tied intimately to our notions of literacy, as signalled by the fact that we give the name “chapter books” to the texts that offer school-age children their first mature reading experiences. More than this, the chapter has become a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing time and, therefore, of dividing experience. Its origins date back to long before the printing press or even the bound codex, back to the emergence of prose in antiquity as both an expressive and an informational medium. Literary evolution rarely seems slower than it does in the case of the chapter. What does the chapter’s beginnings reveal about the way our books and stories are still put together?

* * *

The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge, either utilitarian or speculative, who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies. Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” (“On Farming”), from the second century B.C.E., was organized in numbered units with titles; Pliny the Elder’s great compilation of Roman science, “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), from the first century C.E., came with a summarium of topics similar to a modern table of contents; Aulus Gellius, a collector of legal and linguistic arcana in the second century C.E., divided his “Noctes Atticae” (“Attic Nights”) into “capita” with long descriptive titles.* These chapters, unlike the “books” of epic poetry, were what we would now call finding aids: devices for quickly locating specific material in long texts that were not meant to be read straight through.

The authors of such miscellanies were forward-thinking in their sense that some texts are consulted more than they are read; they envisioned a focussed, interested, but not immersed reader, dipping into their books by locating relevant passages. Organizing those passages often became the task of editors as much as of writers. Christian literary culture took strongly to this form of intellectual labor; at centers of book production like Caesarea, the chapter was both an intellectual tool and a style. Figures like Eusebius produced carefully segmented texts such as his “Ecclesiastical History,” and they often turned their attention to the segmenting and labelling of older texts. The chapter might have disappeared in favor of some other form had not the early Fathers of the Church made it their signature technique. Jerome, in fact, seems to have been the first to unambiguously use the term capitulum to refer to a numbered, titled segment of a text.

In their enthusiasm for chapters, however, early Christian editors and writers introduced a problem, one that cut to the heart of their own sacred texts and presaged the challenge that chapters present to writers even today. How do you segment continuous, narrative texts rather than informational ones? How, for instance, do you divide Scripture—like the Gospels—into bits, given that they were written as one continuous text, undivided and unlabelled? At first, the problem must have seemed merely technical. Eusebius solved it by devising an elaborate system of small sections cross-indexed among the different Gospels, one that remained popular well into the Middle Ages, but it was cumbersome: there were over three hundred such sections in Matthew and Luke each. The Bibles of late antiquity and early medieval culture contained a bewildering variety of chaptering systems to complement or replace Eusebius’s sections, and each system had its own sense of what counts as a significant unit of action or a significant moment deserving of its own heading. To divide, it turns out, is already to interpret.

This left Christian Europe without a standard system of reference for its central texts. It was not until the advent of the university that a solution was first found—or, at least, first promulgated—in the new university of Paris in the early decades of the thirteenth century. Here we enter the realm of scholarly legend. The story, which dates back to the fifteenth century, and which some consider apocryphal, goes as follows: A young English member of the theological faculty, Stephen Langton, was baffled in his lectures by the many different chapter systems in his students’ Bibles. (A contemporary teacher of literature, facing students who have multiple paperback and electronic editions of the assigned books, knows this difficulty well.) Langton set out to forge a simpler and more elegant chaptering of the Bible, one with fewer divisions of a more consistent size—but that might nonetheless be keyed to significant transitions in the text. By having the industrious Parisian university copyists produce his version, Langton could insure that its adoption would be as quick and as universal as possible. This approach worked—the biblical chapters devised in Paris in the first two decades of the thirteenth century are the ones we still use today.

The Langton chapters, if we can call them that, gave the Bible a particular narrative style. By trying to produce chapters of roughly equivalent lengths, Langton had to unmoor himself from a traditional understanding of scenic units. Events in texts like the Gospels do not come in equal lengths: some miracles take a sentence or two, while the Passion narrative unfolds at a much more expansive pace. Langton was flexible—he had to be, given his task—but he seems to have settled on a framework centered upon two basic ideas: time and place.

Where older chaptering systems thought about action—events with beginnings, middles, and ends—Langton thought about where or when events took place, and he clustered them into chapters accordingly. Take, for instance, the peculiar set of encounters that comprise what is now the fifth chapter of Mark. In this chapter, Jesus heals a man possessed by devils by casting them into swine, who run off a cliff, brings back from the brink of death the daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus, and inadvertently cures a woman of bleeding when she furtively touches the hem of his robe. These discrete acts are, in the systems that preëxisted Langton, also discrete chapters. The moment between Jesus and the bleeding woman sometimes even gets its own chapter, despite the fact that it occupies only a few sentences and comes as an interruption as Jesus walks to Jairus’s house. But for Langton these three incidents are all part of one chapter, for a simple reason: they happened in one place, “the country of the Gerasenes,” as the first verse of the Langton chapter tells us. When Jesus and his disciples move on to Nazareth, a new chapter begins.

From a modest but complicated task came a dramatic innovation. Langton’s chapters operate synthetically, at a curious remove from the action, as if from a consciousness hovering above those of the figures in the story, whose movements and feelings and thoughts are tethered to more local contexts, to the purposes and outcomes of actions. The chapter says something like: They may not have known it, but something had ended, and something else was about to begin.

* * *

Ancient encyclopedists, monks, theologians: the forgers of the chapter. What of novelists?

Hard as it may be to imagine now, the modern novel, as it emerged in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, often treated the chapter gingerly, as a strange oddity in need of explanation. The reason is not particularly mysterious. As a technique, designed for information-seeking or scholarly citation, the chapter is a peculiar fit with a narrative form that presumes a continuous, serial reading. When editors like William Caxton divided texts like Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” into chapters, as he did in his 1485 edition, it was largely to permit readers to choose which moments of the story could be applied to particular moral teachings. Later still, Renaissance prose romances had no need of chapters. Why should novels?

Explanations proliferated. Take “The History of Charlotte Summers” (1750), commonly attributed to Sarah Fielding, in which the languid Miss Arabella Dimple, lying half naked in bed, calls her maid Polly to fetch her “the first Volume of the Parish Girl I was reading in the Afternoon.” Polly returns, sits down with the book, and has this exchange with her mistress:

—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 to the 7th Chapter, and let me hear how it begins—

Fielding’s older brother, the novelist Henry Fielding, had already, 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.

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.

For philosophers and theologians of the time, chapters were an example of a wider cultural dilemma. Among others, John Locke made it a habit to lament the way Bibles came so elaborately subdivided, destroying the thread of argument or narrative and producing readers who remembered sentences rather than concepts. For novelists, however, this was a boon. Like our days, chapters are rarely coherently memorable (Can even the most dedicated readers recollect a particular chapter of “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace”?), but are fractured, interrupted installments. Even in the midst of great events we stop and rest, and not necessarily after significant conclusions or turning points.

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.

Of course, the chapter could also become a subject of play, well beyond the self-conscious mentions in eighteenth-century novels. Everyone will have different favorites; I am particularly fond of Ronald Firbank’s “Inclinations,” whose twentieth chapter reads, in its entirety:

Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!

Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!

Other writers toyed with order. A “table of instructions” prefaces Julio Cortázar’s 1966 “Hopscotch,” suggesting different sequences in which its chapters might be read; B. S. Johnson’s 1969 novel “The Unfortunates” came in a box, with twenty-seven separately bound chapters that could be read in any order (Johnson specified only a first and a last).

Like many such experiments, however, these ones tended to confirm the strength of the original protocol. The chapter is part of the musty old furniture of the novel: familiar, faintly embarrassing, so comfortable that one no longer examines it closely. Like old furniture, it shapes how we live in ways we no longer notice. This is in fact its secret power: while experimental play reminds us of the chapter’s conventionality, the conventional chapter has been marking time for us all along—you might even say that it has given us a kind of time.

* * *

A group of young people spends a night at a public garden; one of them gets a little too drunk, and in the process a possible marital engagement is spoiled. It is a brief episode, “so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all,” as W. M. Thackeray writes in “Vanity Fair.” And yet, Thackeray continues, “it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?” Already in the eighteen-forties, the metaphor was a common one. To “close that chapter of my life” with regret, to excitedly “start a new chapter”: these are at once experiences of reading and experiences of living. They are ways in which our lives, in fact, take on the shape of a novel.

The unassuming quality of the chapter, its way of not insisting on its importance but marking a transition nonetheless, turns out to be its most useful, if also its most vexing, quality. It is a vocabulary for noting the way we can organize our pasts into units. Some things stop; others begin. We note these shifts, in relationships or jobs or domiciles, reassured that the environing story itself—our lives—are still ongoing. But how do we know when we are starting a new chapter? How are we justified in picking a moment out of fluid passing time and declaring a pause?

This is the ambiguity that the novel learned to love. As Thomas Mann wrote in “The Magic Mountain,” “Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.” The strangeness of the Langton-era Bible chapters lingered and created an atmosphere that novelists found congenial. Those subsequently applied divisions, which seem so distant from the actions performed within the story, ironize the very act of dividing up time even while providing a model for doing so. How could anyone in those stories have known when a new chapter was beginning? How can we?

Like the momentary lifting of a pianist’s fingers while a chord still resonates, the classic novelistic chapter evokes time by dwelling in a pause rather than a strong ending. We feel time in the novel by marking it out into bits, but only bits that have no strong shape, that fade or blur into one another in the recollection. The greatest practitioners of the chapter have preferred to cast their divisions as fleeting caesuras with lingering aftereffects, scarcely memorable in their specifics but tenacious in the feeling they evoke. Situations yielding silently to new configurations, feelings fading imperceptibly or stealing upon us, shifts in the atmosphere around us: time in the novel is made up of these chromatic transitions, and the usual name for them in the history of the form is the chapter. This is the meaning the novel gave to the editorial device of antiquity, one of its more compelling reinventions.

Correction: A previous version of this post erroneously described Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius as living in the B.C.E.

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