Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Literary Theory: an introduction by Terry Eagleton

Literature from [Matthew] Arnold onwards is the enemy of ‘ideological dogma’… Arnold himself had beliefs, of course, though like everybody else he regarded his own beliefs as reasoned positions rather than ideological dogmas.  Even so, it was not the business of literature to communicate such beliefs directly — to argue openly, for example, that private property is the bulwark of liberty.  Instead, literature should convey timeless truths, thus distracting the masses from their immediate commitments, nurturing them in a spirit of tolerance and generosity, and so ensuring the survival of private property.  — from Chapter One, “The Rise of English”

I have a confession.

I volunteered to write this post last week, when I was part way into the 2008 edition of Terry Eagleton’s classic Literary Theory: an introduction (first published in 1983 and extremely popular ever since).  I was certain that I would finish it well before the deadline.  Now here I am, a week on, and I’m only half way through.  Why is this short, elegant text so demanding to read — at least, for me?  (I anticipate plenty of comments from readers who breezed through Literary Theory in a matter of hours, maybe while sipping something brightly coloured with umbrellas in it.  They have my admiration.)

The fact of the matter is that this book is making me work.  It’s not that the material is unfamiliar.  I come from Russian studies rather than English, but Peter Barry’s (excellent, highly recommended) Beginning Theory — which covers the same material, and then some — was a considerably easier read.  Nor is the prose particularly difficult: in fact, Literary Theory is a joy to read, although Eagleton has his moments.*  As for the Marxist analysis which underpins the entire critical structure of this book, that poses no problem for me at all.  My ideological dogmas are quite in line with Eagleton’s, and it would be far too easy simply to accept his pronouncements on the likes of Matthew Arnold without a second thought.  (I try not to.)

What makes Literary Theory such a challenging read (again, for me) is its density.  While the text follows a roughly chronological narrative, this isn’t a straightforward introduction but rather an introductory critique of the various people, schools and tendencies which make up the history of literary criticism, all condensed into just over two hundred pages.  Eagleton introduces, dissects and dispatches his subjects with breathtaking concision.  Accordingly, every phrase is significant (well, almost every phrase).  I find myself reading certain paragraphs carefully several times in order to make sure that I have grasped what Eagleton is saying — and why he might be saying it in that particular way — before moving on to the next point.  To an extent this is choice rather than necessity: I could plough on regardless and still get the gist of the argument.  But, frankly, I am enjoying my travels with Eagleton so much that I am happy to linger on the same page for a while if it means getting the full value from the text.

If you’ve read Literary Theory and have something to say about it, please consider leaving a comment below: we’d love to hear from you.  As for me, I’ll carry on with the hard slog; I’m finding it supremely rewarding.

2008 edition published by University of Minnesota Press, 240 pp., ISBN: 978-0816654475

*  If you approached me at a bus stop and murmured “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”, I might be “aware that I am in the presence of the literary”, but it wouldn’t be my first thought. (p.2)

12 comments on “Literary Theory: an introduction by Terry Eagleton

  1. annebrooke
    May 27, 2011

    I would have two thoughts, the first being: ah how lovely to hear Keats once more, and the second being: run like hell!!



  2. kirstyjane
    May 27, 2011

    I have to say, Anne, I’d probably have those thoughts the other way round… ! 🙂

  3. david
    May 27, 2011

    Fascinating stuff, Kirsty !

    I’m afraid that ‘Beginning Theory’ depressed my personal boat well below Plimsoll Line, so will forthwith try this book.

    (not sure whether I’m averse to literary theorising per se and the (to me) overweening obsession with it that university English faculties seem to exhibit these days, or have just not (yet) found anything sufficiently bouyant in this regard.

    Fingers crossed !

  4. Harriet
    May 27, 2011

    I read this when it first came out and I was a student of Eng Lit. I read it with a combination of fascination (in a good way) and fury — several times I threw it across the room, not something I normally do with a book. I think what infuriated me was the way he’d suddenly put the Marxist boot in — I used to find literary theory very difficult and often annoying. No idea what I’d think of it now, but I used to quote that bit about Keats in many a lecture over the years. Interesting to have a contemporary take on it.

  5. kirstyjane
    May 27, 2011

    Thanks David and Harriet for the comments! Harriet, I can see where that fury would come from. Eagleton does drop in these devastating little lines which seem both startling and a bit unnecessary in the context of an otherwise firmly Marxist, but strictly to-the-point analysis. (I quietly wonder if he was writing under the influence of Trotsky.) I am greatly enjoying the whole as an example of really good Marxist criticism — it is so inspiring to see that — but those asides do threaten to unbalance it sometimes. Thank you for telling us your experience!

  6. david
    May 27, 2011

    Just to add that I’ve ordered this from abebooks UK for the immense sum of 61 PENCE !

    – bizarre that delivery costs several times the price of the book, but still overall cost only £2.90 delivered.

    – not bad, considering the ridiculous prices of most academic textbooks

    Looking forward to getting into it and just hope it does help float the boat.

  7. Jackie
    May 27, 2011

    Such extreme reactions to this book! Makes me curious to read it.
    Kirsty, I think taking your time is no doubt, the best way to getting the most out of this book(or any book, really). The paragraph you quoted is quite meaty. And as you say, the text packs quite a lot into less pages than one would expect on the topic.
    The cover artwork is interesting, too, reminds me of Vermeer.

  8. kirstyjane
    May 27, 2011

    Jackie — you hit the nail on the head there. The cover is indeed Vermeer: Mistress and Maid. I hope you do read it, as I think you might enjoy it!

  9. Cerena
    June 5, 2011

    Eagleton is dense, but he will haunt your bookshelf for years and years. Whenever I have a craving for some quality literary theory (and yes, I do get cravings), I go straight to him. This is a nice review of your reading experience, thank you for sharing. Also, this is great website. Keep it up!

  10. Ela
    June 6, 2011

    Eagleton was interviewed on Radio 3 last week on Night Waves – he’s just written a new book about Marxist theory. It was something of a tetchy interview, I thought, unnecessarily so: he sounded rather touchy. Not sure that it made me want to read his book (any of them)!

  11. david
    June 6, 2011

    The guy seems to have been the victim of cynically-ageist (but technically-lawful-at-that-time) HR practices at the University of Manchester, so perhaps has good cause to be a bit grumpy.


  12. Nayem
    June 17, 2011

    This article ‘The Rise of English’ includes my syllabus and i wonder that i cant realise anything of it. Thx

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