Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

(Originally re-read February 7th 2008 for a graduate class. Posted originally written 2008.)

The book serves as an historical overview of all the major literary theories up until 1983 when the original edition was published. Eagleton opens with the question: What is literature? What counts? Who decides? What interests does it serve? Is the Homer we read today the same as the Homer they read during the Middle Ages? How do we account for subjective tastes? (i.e the literary professor who might recognize James Joyce is great literature publicly to keep his job and the respect of his colleagues, but secretly thinks he is horribly overrated). How do we count for the divide in tastes between the average person on the street and academic professors?

Early on, Eagleton clearly sides with the belief that the Western Canon is a construct, reflecting a society’s social interests rather than some immutable Tradition. He goes so far as to suggest there may be a time in the future where Shakespeare or Homer are no longer meaningful and of interest to readers, ceasing to be great literature. He further attacks this idea of deeper truths in literature by trying to show even true statements are a matter of value-judgements. He suggests that different societies will value different truths. What should be our focus when we analyze literature? Transcendental truths? The process of literary production? Women’s eternal oppression and the social conditions of the poor?

Eagleton goes on to document the rise of literature as an academic subject, placing its origins within the Romantic movement. For the Romantics, literature was meant to be a sublime creation of the soul, a thing of beauty, a spiritual celebration of nature that transcended all that emotionless utilitarianism that transformed men into capitalist machines without souls. Literature was seen as a kind of spiritual medicine where man could get back in touch with nature and the world.

Literary Theory as an academic subject really comes into its own with I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot. Richards tended to see literary works as a psychological reproduction of the author’s thought-processes. Leavis continued in the “spiritual tradition” of the Romantics, viewing literature as our pure connection to the ‘Organic Society’, the true spiritual domain of human beings that have become lost in a confusing Modern world. For him literature made you a better, more moral person. According to Eagleton, Leavis thought that literature offered you a way of withstanding the world rather than trying to change it. In other words, literature is a kind of escapism through the imagination, but a highbrow escapism. T.S. Eliot’s contributions were his emphasis on the emotional power of literature and the Tradition (this early idea of a Canon). For Eliot the meaning of literary works didn’t matter so much as their covert way of sneaking up on your emotions, and the gut-wrenching effects language could produce on a reader.

Next were the American New Critics who challenged the ideas of these early predecessors by maintaining the importance of treating literature as an independent object cut-off from its historical context and the author’s intentions. They maintained that treating a literary work as an isolated object would make literary criticism a more “scientific” endeavor. No longer could a reader appeal to an author’s letter as proof of what the author really meant or point to an event in the author’s life as evidence for a certain interpretation. The language and formal rhetorical strategies of the poem itself, in isolation from every other consideration, was the proper object of study. If a poem meant something it needed to be discernible from a close-reading of the actual poem itself and not from an author’s letter. It was the job of the literary critic to unify the contradictions and ambiguities of a text into a single meaning without making subjective “fluffy” statements about the beauty of language or being able to hear the thrusting of the rapier in a poem.

Phenomenology, the philosophy created by Edmund Husserl, is next on the literary theory tour. It was a philosophy which sought to study phenomena, believing it impossible to ever know if independent things exist outside of our subjective perceptions of them. Husserl believed that consciousness is not just a passive registration of the world (like a tape-recorder), but actively constitutes or ‘intends’ it. The philosophy sought to discover the ‘essence’ of things by looking at a particular phenomena and finding what was invariable about it from one person’s viewpoint to another. Phenomenological literary criticism isn’t interested in passing judgements on a Christian poem or a Feminist poem or whatever, but rather simply looks to describe what it felt for the author to ‘live’ it.

Eagleton moves onto hermeneutics, specifically discussing the writings of Gadamer. For Gadamer meaning in a literary work is never exhausted by its author’s intentions, but rather new meanings will be produced as a work shifts through culture and time. There is no way to know a literary text ‘as it is.’ Interpretations of past works are always a dialogue between past and present in which we listen to the unfamiliar voice from the past from the vantage-point of our present concerns. What the work says to us will in turn depend on the kind of questions that are centrally important to us now. The historical distance, however, does not hinder our interpretation, but aids it by stripping away all that was of merely passing significance about the work.

Critical of Gadamer is E.D. Hirsch Jr. Hirsch points out that there are multiple ways of interpreting a text, but that they are limited by a ‘system of typical expectations and probabilities’ which the author’s meaning permits. Hirsch goes on to say that a text may mean different things to different people at different times, but that it is more a matter of “significance” rather than a change in “meaning.” For example, I recently read a book on Beowulf that claimed in the introduction that what the work can teach us about heroism is more important than ever because of the events of 9/11. The meaning of Beowulf is about the nature of heroism, while the significance explains why I should care about heroism and what it means to me in my own historical context.

This leads us to Reader Reception theory, which comes in a wide variety of flavors. Basically it is the idea that there is no singular correct interpretation (i.e. many legitimate interpretations of a literary work are possible) and that the reader is the fulcrum of meaning. The reader is the one to fill in the holes, contradictions, spaces of a work based on their assumptions, background, skill, and past experiences. Literature is a transformative experience always forcing us to question our beliefs. We modify our interpretations of the text by our reading strategies, but similarly it modifies us as we encounter its ideas. Some Reader Reception theorists believe that our different interpretations will reflect our different interpretative communities (someone of black descent growing up in a system of racism will not interpret a book the same way as a white guy would; likewise, an atheist will interpret the Bible differently than a fundamentalist Christian because they each have their own reading communities that apply different interpretative norms and assumptions, and have other people who will reinforce those strategies within their communities). However, this idea of interpretative community doesn’t need to be large ideological groups, but might just be a matter of different classrooms; one college class might read differently from another college class in the same university because the class itself is a mini-community and the two different teacher’s expectations will shape that community. Not all Reader Reception theorists focus on this idea of interpretative communities; some understand it in a more individualist light.

Structuralism and Semiotics comes next, with its desire to bracket off the context of the story in order to concentrate entirely on the form. It is a clinical approach that debunks the mysteries of literature. For example, structuralist Northrop Frye noted that all narratives can be broken down into four narrative categories: comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic. As structuralism developed it broke down literary structures even further. Images no longer had meaning on their own. The sun isn’t a symbol for “life” in and of itself. The meaning of an image is wholly a matter of its relation to other images. A poem about the sun and moon only has meaning as the two images explain and define each other. Eagleton gives an example of how a structuralist would read a story about a boy who fights with his father, heads off to the woods, falls into a pit where the sun shines upon him, and is eventually rescued:

A structuralist critic would schematize a story in diagrammatic form. The first unit of signification, ‘boy quarrels with father’, might be rewritten as ‘low rebels against high.’ The boy’s walk through the forest is a movement along a horizontal axis, in contrast to the vertical axis ‘low/high’, and could be indexed as ‘middle’. The fall into the pit, a place below ground, signifies ‘low’ again, and the zenith of the sun ‘high’. By shining into the pit, the sun has in a sense stooped ‘low’, thus inverting the narrative’s fist signifying unit, where ‘low’ struck against ‘high’. The reconciliation between father and son restores equilibrium between ‘low’ and ‘high’, and the walk back home together, signifying ‘middle’, marks this achievement of a suitably intermediate state.

Literature only reshuffles its symbolic structures. All the elements are replaceable; father and son could just as easily be mother and daughter. This means all literary works are built off universal structures. Individual genius isn’t important to a structuralist because all literary works follow universal structures; all people think alike with the same narrative structures. This has implications for the Canon as well. Structuralism’s method can be applied to all works, lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow equally. Its method of analysis reveals that the structure of our Great Works are often no different than the structure of lowbrow pop fiction. For a structuralist all stories are basically the same.

Post-Structuralism takes these ideas even further. This school led by the likes of Derrida believed that since language is made up of an infinite series of differences—for example, the word, “cat” has its meaning precisely because it is not “hat” or “bat” or any other word in the English language — that the signifiers that makes up language will have no end-point of meaning. Literary works are an endless play of signifiers. What a word signifies will only lead you to other words (other signifiers), which will then lead you still to more words. Criticism is the process of structuring a text, of forcing language into distinct meanings or something like that. I blatantly admit this is the school of thought that I have the hardest time with, so my explanations might be inaccurate or overly simplistic.

Eagleton then goes on to Freudian Psychoanalysis, dividing Freudian criticism into four kinds: it can look at the author of the work, the work’s contents, its formal construction, or at the reader of the work. He discusses Lacan briefly, a thinker who brought together Freudian theory and Post-Structuralist theory (a human being is who he/she is precisely because they are not everyone else). I never could figure out what Lacan has to do with literature. He also discusses Kristeva who talks about the revolutionary powers of the “semiotic” to rebel against discourse/father’s law (or something like that).

Eagleton ends not by offering the latest trends in Feminism and Marxism literary theory, but hitting home the point that his entire book has really been one long polemic with the express goal of pointing out that all literary theory is political. He concludes with the provocative suggestion that Feminism and Marxism are the most productive methods of literary criticism since they can actually manage to accomplish real-world change as opposed to all these other “political” methods of literary theory that always seem to cut themselves short of being able to prepare the reader for activism. He finishes by telling us that literature should be seen as part of a larger material culture, and it therefore makes more sense to practice cultural studies rather than literary studies.

Some Thoughts on Terry Eagleton’s Arguments and Literary Theory In General

All this leads us into some of my own personal criticisms of Terry Eagleton’s so-called introduction to literary theory. When I first read the book as a way of preparing myself for grad school I was so captivated by all the new and strange theories that I hardly noticed Eagleton’s biases, but on a re-read for a class during grad school I noticed that the author’s Marxism appears on every page and that he criticizes other literary theories through the lens of his Marxism.

In the book, Theory’s Empire, an anthology of essays criticizing poststructural and politically-oriented literary theory, Mark Bauerlein accuses Eagleton of committing logical fallacies when he writes that the whole book “reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence.” Eagleton is content to dismiss the validity of theories for having the wrong political origins or if they fail to be explicitly political in their effect. Bauerlein also notes that this argument is ridiculous. There is nothing stopping someone who reads Othello in the New Critical method that Eagleton sees as “supporting the status quo” from protesting the unfair wages of the poor the next week or attending a woman’s rights rally or engaging in Civil disobedience. Just because a person prefers to read in a more “traditional” manner doesn’t mean they’re a closet political conservative.

Eagleton attacks the idea of reading literature in an “objective” neutral way. There is obviously practical reasons for him to make this argument; by claiming that all “methods” are political, imbricated in society, and really reflections of ideological interests (even the ones that claim to be neutral), it defends his own questionable undeniably bias political methods of literary criticism. He already has an effective shield up. No matter what objection I raise he can point out that it is my ideological world-view that makes me say it, hence further proving him right and me unable to ever prove him wrong. If I criticize his bias methods, he can just respond that my methods aren’t any more neutral than his. Who has the most to gain by convincing people that all literary interpretation is really ideological and political? The ones who practice an explicitly political interpretation of it of course! It seems to me there is a huge difference between reading a work and knowing what it will contain a priori (i.e. checklist criticism of many Feminist and Marxist critics: workers being exploited, not enough female characters, etc.) versus reading a work and being surprised by what you might find there, to the point where it has the ability to question and challenge your beliefs.

Often literary theory is dismissed as intellectual gibberish. This is mostly due to French Continental philosophers such as Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, Lacan, etc., associated with postmodernism, post-structuralism, and politically-oriented literary theories; this group in general tend to view all aspects of society and academic disciplines as socially-constructed narratives, including things like science. They tend to borrow from math, science, and other fields to make strange abstruse arguments, but use the ideas in ways that are blatantly inaccurate and show they don’t understand the math and science they are borrowing from.

While Post-structuralism and Continental Philosophy have given literary theory a bad name, I am of the opinion we shouldn’t dismiss the subject completely. As long as literature itself remains important to people, so does the broader questions of literary theory: what is great literature? Who decides? What does literature do for us? Is there a correct way to read? How do we account for different interpretations? etc. These are all legitimate philosophical questions applied to the practice of reading and literary analysis. Many of the other literary theory movements, such as New Criticism, hermeneutics, and reader reception theory make interesting and reasonable observations that do make good attempts at addressing some of these questions. In a sense, literary theory should just be seen as the philosophy of literature, asking important and necessary questions about literature and its relationship to society, truth, its inherent nature, and methods of reading literature.


One thought on “Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

  1. Pingback: The Poetics by Aristotle (trans. Ingram Bywater) | The Consolation of Reading

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