I’ve been thinking recently about chapter titles. Some books have them, some don’t, some are descriptive, some are just general characterizations. My current favorite chapter titles, however, are those that are extraordinarily literal in their descriptive quality. I’m thinking primarily of the chapter titles in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
There’s something extremely theatrical about the way the chapter titles in these books set up the action. They’re occasionally full sentences, and are somehow incredibly melodramatic in their utter sincerity, or utterly sincere in their melodramatic form.
Forster eases in, beginning with descriptions of the chapter scenario. This is a fairly typical way to approach chapter titles – it doesn’t give away any plot, but it puts you in the frame of the scene. Chapter One is simply “The Bertolini”. He goes for a bit more detail with Chapter Two, “In Santa Croce with no Baedecker,” and then starts to add more detail in Chapter Three, “Music, Violets, and the Letter ‘S’.” Then suddenly puzzlingly non-committal “Fourth Chapter,” in which the most truly tragic and horrific event of the entire novel takes place. It’s the turning point of Part One, and from there the chapter titles change in character utterly, becoming theatrically descriptive. It’s as if once we see true drama, the shift to satire begins.
The same structure is present in Part Two, beginning with portraits that are slightly more guiding than the titles for Chapters 1-3: “Medieval” (Chapter Eight), “Lucy as a Work of Art” (Nine), “Cecil as a Humorist” (Ten), and “In Mrs. Vyse’s Well-Appointed Flat” (Eleven). Following the same structure as Part One, we then come to the plain “Twelfth Chapter”, arguably the most light-hearted, playful, and exciting event of the second half. From there we see the same shift to satirical theatricality, but this time also with a reflective tone.
It is in these latter halves of each part that we come to my favorite chapter titles. “How Lucy Faced the External Situation Bravely” (Chapter Thirteen) always fills me with a grandiose sense of melodrama. “Lying to George” (Chapter Sixteen), “Lying to Cecil” (Seventeen), and basically lying to everyone for about five chapters gets more amusing each time it is repeated, like an Edwardian meme, and it shapes how I read Lucy’s annoyance, Miss Bartlett’s anxiety, and Cecil’s arrogance. The severity with which the characters treat the situation feels sillier and sillier as it all goes on.
But my absolute favorite chapter title is for Chapter Six: “The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them.”
It’s the second most important chapter in the novel, but while the “Fourth Chapter” is utterly tragic and affecting, and gets the sparest chapter title treatment, “Italians Drive Them” is the most personally traumatic for Lucy, and yet gets the most irreverently over-descriptive treatment. The chapter title takes what would be, in any other novel, the most romantic scene and casts it more objectively. It makes it seem like you, as the reader, are not to be – or should not wish to be, at least – identified with the characters. With this separation, George seems more violently intrusive, Lucy more powerlessly dazzled, Charlotte more ludicrously focused on entirely the wrong thing, and the whole party more unjustly self-important.
I’m not sure I ever took much notice of chapter titles before reading A Room with a View, but they might be one of the most subversive devices in an author’s arsenal. Without these titles, Forster’s work would feel less like a satire and more like a very sincere attempt at a romance. And ironically, it is the most straightforward and literal chapter titles that seem to do the trick.
Published just a few years before A Room with a View, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables employs chapter titles in a similar way. While Montgomery’s titles don’t have a structural progression, they still have a descriptive quality that suggests, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, the comedic.
The meme-like repetition and the utterly literal description of each chapter similarly balances the melodramatic disposition of the main characters in Montgomery’s novel – in this case, Anne’s highly intellectualized propensity for imagination and romanticism – with clean and straightforward phrases that describe sincerely how Anne views the events. The contrast makes it feel both sensible and sarcastic (I feel Marilla had a hand in crafting some of these titles).
But the effect of Montgomery’s titles is almost the inverse of Forster’s. Instead of inviting us to separate ourselves from the characters in satirical objectivity, they invite us to merge ourselves into Anne’s magical world-view. Perhaps it’s a sort of reverse satire – a way to let us into the seriousness of Anne’s view of the world in a way that we might reject otherwise. The best moments are when the chapter titles and Anne’s views align. The most truly dangerous chapters, where something terrible could actually have happened, get the most sarcastic sounding titles; among these are Chapter 16, “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results”, where Diana could have suffered very serious and permanent damage from Anne’s (or, more truly, Marilla’s) error, and Chapter 23, “Anne Comes to Grief in an Affair of Honor”, wherein Anne could have incurred a truly serious or even fatal injury.
Instead of laughing at her stories “in all the wrong places”, giggling at the chapter titles helps us let down our guard and get over being sensible just long enough to step into Anne’s over-imaginative shoes, and take it all just as seriously as she does. Instead of unseating the sincerity of the characters as Forster’s chapter titles do, Montgomery’s titles tip us back into unabashed feeling. My favorite of these titles is the silly sounding “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” (Chapter 25), and result is almost unbearably sweet.
But both are effective and affecting, and I will be paying much close attention to chapter titles from here on out.