The Luminaries

Do the the parts of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries incrementally reduce by half? (TL;DR - no. There is a method, but it’s not that.)

David Friggens

Last year I read Eleanor Catton’s award-winning yarn The Luminaries. I started a little project around it, which is temporarily stalled (watch this space1), but recently a colleague remarked about the chapter lengths and I was reminded I had this data.

The novel has a number of structural constraints, one of which is that each of the 12 parts is half the length of the previous one.

Or are they?2

You can see easily at a glance that the pages decrease, but they don’t reliably halve. Notably, parts three and four are not too different. The tail doesn’t look to decrease like that, but in part that’s due to pages being a less reliable indicator for length when they’re that short.

First, why does the length decrease at all? Well each part has different divisions — Part n has 13–n chapters — so that’s one thing. The only comment I’ve seen is from a a reviewer who said it “mimic[s] the moon waning through its lunar cycle”, but I don’t know whether that’s just a guess.

From pages to words

I do have word counts though, so lets look at that instead.

Still you can see that it’s not halving each time. And those later parts are getting hard to see. So let’s look at the ratios.

First, I’ll point out that each chapter begins with a little summary text. At the very first chapter, this is a brief couple of lines:

In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.

Which does very briefly summarise the plot. In the very final chapter, the summary is longer than the actual text, and gives more plot. Should these count when we’re comparing them? Let’s have a look.

The next plot shows the ratio of each Part to the one before, looking at the summary, the main text, and both together.

Looking at this, you can see that only a few parts are actually half their predecessor, even if you’re being generous and allow a 10% margin on either side.

Including or excluding the summary text doesn’t seem to have a consistent effect.

Chapter by chapter

As mentioned, each part is split into 13–n chapters. Naturally, the next question is “what do the chapters look like?”

There’s no clear pattern I can see here. On the whole, the lengths are decreasing, but certainly not in a uniform way. Chapter 13 is very obvious at one end, and 35/37 at the other. The latter two offer an explanation for why Part 4 is about the same length as Part 3.


I think we can say that “each successive part halves in length” is not an accurate description of The Luminaries. The only constraint seems to be the number of chapters in each part, decreasing by one each time. This combines with the general trend for the chapters to get smaller to produce the descreasing trend that many people have mistaken for halving.


Manually collected counts of pages by part and words by chapter.

Code listing

The final graph is created with the following code. When I initially created this with Plotly 3 the colouring by part was achieved with the commented out color argument. This stopped working (along with many other things) with Plotly 4 and the ungainly marker list was my quick and dirty approach to getting it going again — there’s probably a better way I didn’t have time to figure out.

chapters %>% 
  group_by(Part) %>% 
    x = ~Number,
    y = ~Text,
    #color = ~Part,
    marker = list(color = c(rep("#1f77b4",12),rep("#ff7f0e",11),rep("#2ca02c",10),rep("#d62728",9),
    text = ~paste0("Part ", Part, "<br>",
                   "Chapter ", Number, ": ", Name, "<br>",
                   "Body text: ", prettyNum(Text, big.mark = ","), " words"),
    hoverinfo = "text",
    type = "bar"
  ) %>% 
    x = ~Number,
    y = ~Summary,
    #color = ~Part,
    marker = list(color = c(rep("#2ca02c",12),rep("#d62728",11),rep("#9467bd",10),rep("#8c564b",9),
    text = ~paste0("Part ", Part, "<br>",
                   "Chapter ", Number, ": ", Name, "<br>",
                   "Summary text: ", Summary, " words"),
    hoverinfo = "text",
    type = "bar"
  ) %>% 
    title = "Length of chapters in The Luminaries",
    xaxis = list(title = "Chapter"),
    yaxis = list(title = "Words"),
    showlegend = FALSE,
    barmode = "stack"

  1. Maybe - I have a number of stalled projects!

  2. Fair warning - this post may not seem super interesting if you haven’t read the book. But the drive to write this was as much to try out Plotly as anything else, so feel free to stay and marvel and the interactive graphs.


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