Literary Theory: An Introduction
3 April 2021
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) offers a comprehensive introduction to a broad range of 20th century literary theories from Romanticism to Post-Structuralism. It covers a wide range of thinkers in five chapters, such as Derrida, Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, and Kristeva among others, in terms which largely demystifies difficult conceptual frameworks with Eagleton’s characteristic acerbic wit.
In his “Introduction”, Eagleton poses the pertinent question “What is Literature?”, which prepares the reader for the sceptical, questioning tone of the rest of the book. Eagleton argues that the term “Literature” is fraught with social cultural assumptions and demonstrates how what is deemed literatures is always informed by the dominant social and political forces at the time. For Eagleton, the study of literature cannot uncover ‘the fixed being of things’ (p.8), and instead compares the term “Literature” to the term “weed”: both terms tell us only ‘about the role of a text or thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its surroundings, the way it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the human practices clustered around it’ (p.8). In the same way, he offers persuasive outlines of different literary theories only to later expose the flaws and assumptions on which they are founded. Eagleton asserts that the dominant literary theory of a historical moment is inextricably bound up with contemporary social and political circumstances.
Eagleton’s book was on the reading list for the first year of my course and is an invaluable, concise, and enjoyable guide to otherwise difficult concepts. The sceptical tone which Eagleton applies to each literary theory is a useful model for the kind of interrogative reading encouraged at university. By highlighting the potential weaknesses and prejudicial assumptions underlying different literary theories, Eagleton gestures at ways in which the student of literature should be equally questioning about the social and political motivations behind the texts they read. Whilst Eagleton is cynical about the academic understanding of literature as a closed term, delineating an elite group of texts or what Roland Barthes pithily described as “what gets taught” (p.194), he offers a more positive argument for the emancipating nature of literary theory: “One important reason for the growth of literary theory since the 1960s was the impact of new kinds of students entering higher education from supposedly “uncultivated” backgrounds. Theory was a way of emancipating literary works from the stranglehold of a “civilised sensibility”’(VIII).
Eagleton’s book is a great resource for a Sixth-Form student interested in exploring literary theory without being overwhelmed by the complex jargon which literary theorists use. Whilst the book largely lends itself to a chronological reading through which patterns and cross-links between literary thought can be traced, Eagleton, as a Marxist critique himself, would probably object to the notion of literary theory evolving in a linear progress. Thus, reading specific chapters which interest you is also a good way of approaching Eagleton’s text and finding ways of linking the things you are currently reading with wider patterns of thought and of questioning what you read.
I personally found Eagleton’s summary of post-structuralism particularly incisive and enjoyable to read as a way of making my way through the challenging language and ideas of Derrida. Eagleton’s conclusion is also an interesting introduction to his own perspectives on Marxist and Feminist literary readings.