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Written in 1982, this work appeared, as Professor Eagleton explains, at the watershed of two very different decades. It could not anticipate what was to come after, neither could it grasp what had happened in literary theory in the light of where it was to lead.


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Written in 1982, this work appeared, as Professor Eagleton explains, at the watershed of two very different decades. It could not anticipate what was to come after, neither could it grasp what had happened in literary theory in the light of where it was to lead.

30 review for Literary Theory: An Introduction

  1. 4 out of 5

    MJ Nicholls

    From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory for Toddlers: An Introduction. Phenomenology: Tigger tells Pooh that he must distinguish between the phenomena and noumena of a pot of honey. That his intentionality towards the honey is narrowing his awareness of his surroundings, pushing him into a false structure of consciousness where the honey is both a perpetual fantasy and an instrument of real-life fixation. He tells Pooh he must separate his intentionalities to avoid becoming corrupted and driven by From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory for Toddlers: An Introduction. Phenomenology: Tigger tells Pooh that he must distinguish between the phenomena and noumena of a pot of honey. That his intentionality towards the honey is narrowing his awareness of his surroundings, pushing him into a false structure of consciousness where the honey is both a perpetual fantasy and an instrument of real-life fixation. He tells Pooh he must separate his intentionalities to avoid becoming corrupted and driven by his desire for honey. Hermeneutics: Tigger tells Winnie that he must forget about honey and concentrate on the Heideggerian being-with of bear relatedness. He must suppress the empirical evidence around the existence and necessity of honey as a thing-in-itself and take an antipositivist approach to his own need for honey in a godless and indifferent universe. Reception Theory: Tigger tells Winnie that the only reason he is so popular as a character is that readers can “relate” to his being orange and craving frequent honey. Their life experiences have shown them that things with orange bears and honey are an essential part of the human condition, and require enshrinement in the literary pantheon for almost entirely no other reason. Structuralism: Tigger tells Pooh that his preoccupation with honey is part of larger woodland structure dating back to the stone age, and that “honey” has always been a signifier triggering hunger and savagery in the heart of orange bears, long before Milne gave them the consciousness to understand the signified of “honey” as a delicious bee-made product popularly served in pots. Semiotics: Tigger tells Pooh that honey is merely a symbol for part of a larger racial and class struggle among woodland beings. Across the woodland culture, the word “honey” can symbolise the tyrannous oppression of the orange bears over beavers or squirrels, or the totalitarian confiscation of honey among the lower orders. To bees, “honey” is understood as a priceless trading commodity frequently being plundered by cuddly pirates, whose struggle remains unacknowledged among the wider woodland populace. Post-structuralism: Tigger tells Pooh that the destabilised meaning of his quest for honey is more significant for the reader, whose quest for honey will loom even larger once Pooh’s quest is complete. But more importantly, “honey” is a binary opposition which also means “Jacuzzi,” so Pooh’s system of language is under severe scrutiny. Psychoanalysis: Tigger tells Pooh that his craving for honey is merely a way of screwing his mother and killing his father and venerating his very curly and unseen penis. (From p12, p54, p87, p99, p123, and p149).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Szplug

    Eagleton deserves a lot of credit, because I can now say that I've put paid to a two hundred-plus page book on Literary Theory and never suffered a single dull moment. And while the author was fully engaged throughout—offering up energized summations and interpretations of the evolving schools of theory that developed out of the study of (English) literature and, subsequently and consequently, the structures of language itself, before launching polemical broadsides from the Marxist perch (with i Eagleton deserves a lot of credit, because I can now say that I've put paid to a two hundred-plus page book on Literary Theory and never suffered a single dull moment. And while the author was fully engaged throughout—offering up energized summations and interpretations of the evolving schools of theory that developed out of the study of (English) literature and, subsequently and consequently, the structures of language itself, before launching polemical broadsides from the Marxist perch (with its material metaphysics) whence he declaims with brio—a surprising proportion of this book's pleasurable qualities come from the very subject being brought under explicatory lenses. Who'da thunk that something sheltered beneath the dullest of rubrics would inveigle, inflame, and incite this general reader to the point that I've ordered After Theory, Eagleton's two decade on follow-up? What's more, while I'll probably never make use of the systems herein at any point during a future review, they've settled themselves comfortably and solidly within the mnemonic recesses of my brain, and have already begun to work their memes when I review how I've structured various fictional works collecting electronic and airborne dust across a smattering of hard-drive platters and yellow legal pads. It's a beguiling progression in a field once mocked by teachers of the classics and philology, mirroring the material world in its historical pathbreaking, which turns around a combination of explosive population and techno-industrial growth, broad cultural leveling, and spiritual-metaphysical implosion. From the Romantic attachment to an individual interpretation of the nebulously populated field of literature, wherein meaning was self-derived and -inhering, taken from a text fully in the possession of its author and timeless in its insistence upon deriving personally situated pleasures, things change drastically by the time we arrive in the seventies with post-structuralism in full operation, gleefully prying apart blocks of words in order to harvest the bounty of enchained potential meaning recrudescent between flickering signifier and untethered referent and scattering all claims of absolute knowledge to the four winds of metaphorical delusion. The elusive quality of truth, meaning, and other verities within the symbolically-riddled essence of human language is presented in all of its compelling modern journey; and the tendencies of the various critical epistemologies—Romanticism, Formalism, New Criticism, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, along with Psychoanalytical contributions—to ahistorical, ideological, and/or activist blinders is set against their driving forces at play within a world suffering waxing and waning degrees of optimism, pessimism, radicalism, and disillusionment. Eagleton's goal is to show how selective, and ultimately ineffectual, critical theory is: with what constitutes Literature proving itself historically tendentious, the field either wallows in subjective tastes that defy analysis or engages in a cycle of division, inspection, and assignation of signifiers at the expense of what is being signified. While the early schools of critical theory were blind to the ideological memes and structure immanent within literary works, both expressive of—and dedicated towards maintaining—the Western Enlightenment-cum-liberal capitalist system that birthed and cherished it, the modern outgrowths have shown scant more awareness. It is not that theory's practitioners explicitly support the western liberal political memes embedded within the text, but rather that their systemic noodling renders them oblivious to their existence at the various levels of what they are examining, including that the vast quantity of material omitted from the designation of literature harbors much that would prove most beneficial, to individual and, more importantly, society as a whole, to being dissected, discoursed about, and brought into the public exchange of ideas. Literary theory needs perforce to rid itself of this literary constraint, that its theory can come out of the academic cloisters and reveal more of the ways in which so-called democratic citizens are distracted, disaffected, disparaged, distraught and disposable. As Eagleton determines it, all writing is political at its core and in its message, however subtly and unconsciously emplaced: so rather than penning or escaping into the lulling comforts of an imagined world, where existing exploitations and inequities are strained via story, why not resist and redirect those energies towards the actual political, that real and enduring change might be effected for living beings? The author notes that a majority of readers do so for the pleasure the activity brings—while various defensive and escapist mechanisms may be an important part of the process, it is, in the end, the enjoyment sparked within by the magic of the word that has driven the consumption of books, especially in fiction. Keeping that in mind—and how the masses have thusly ever defied accommodation with the demands and expectations pressed upon them by Marxist intellectuals—I found Eagleton persuasive as regards his primary target, the academic environ where those well-placed to initiate and carry the debate have become isolated, drawn into often tedious and dry discussion between themselves about minutiae that serves of little import apart from its own exercise. His personal ideological ends aside, he has provided herein an erudite serving of food for thought. I was bemused throughout by how much I could both distance myself from each theoretical system, by means of disagreement, while yet returning over and again to analyzing how aptly they measured the contents of literature relative to the historical flux in operation across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, the minute drilling down of the Post-Structural world, wherein there are no certainties and everything becomes relevant to a complex series of linkages and interpretations appears to me both symptomatic and causative of the frenzied, matricial information overload which has been burgeoning across the globe at breakneck speed. We have been sundered from our communalized society and made to stand as lone individuals: and now we find that all of the meanings that are so central to our self-determination are but another ephemeral element of our constituted beings. The only certainty we possess is that of a constantly evaporating certainty. In this nucleated rationalism that pierces all veils of the irrational mind—mental constructs, spiritual salves, subjective meaning—seeking ever more devolution no matter the bailiwick, I'm reminded of Spengler's enunciation of dead cultures, where the intellect, no longer guided by the strong arm of meta-culture, runs amok amidst its environs.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Gregsamsa

    If you are one of those near-sighted, pedantic, theory-addicted lit-geeks (like myself, thank you) and you tire of trying to 'splain to folks the various -isms that spin out of the ivory tower and splat into the public square (who woulda thought that the word "deconstruct" would one day make regular appearances in Entertainment Weakly(sic)? "Not I" says this "I.") then this is THE book to pass out as a nice quick primer to strangers at the airport or, better yet, the one or two people who will s If you are one of those near-sighted, pedantic, theory-addicted lit-geeks (like myself, thank you) and you tire of trying to 'splain to folks the various -isms that spin out of the ivory tower and splat into the public square (who woulda thought that the word "deconstruct" would one day make regular appearances in Entertainment Weakly(sic)? "Not I" says this "I.") then this is THE book to pass out as a nice quick primer to strangers at the airport or, better yet, the one or two people who will still talk to you about books. The coolest thing about this survey/overview is that as Eagleton goes through each of the lit-crit "movements" or "schools" he also makes a persuasive case for them. This makes the book engaging almost like a novel can be in that there is some drama as he leads the reader into one school, makes the reader think "Hmm, I like these ideas and would like to subscribe to the newsletter" before he then pulls at a few threads and then demonstrates what critics of that approach actually did, showing up its flaws and questionable assumptions and stuff, before Eagleton goes on to show what was reassembled from that mess into a new trend of thought which he gives the whole pitch for, before doing that again. Yes, I know what you are thinking; your exact thoughts right now are "But wait, isn't he reifying the idea of intellectual 'evolution' by imposing a progress-narrative myth over disparate communities of cultural discourse as if they are elements within a linear strand of causally-connected events?" Well duh. And as one of the esteemed UK Gucci Marxists he should know better, right? But ya gotta start somewhere and for a book so brief he does an amazing job at pressing compact profiles onto the page with a minimum of distortion and enough impact to shut up people you know who say stupid shit like "Deconstruction is about how nothing means anything, right?" Now, I know some folx may balk at the idea of reading a "marxist," and that is a completely understandable and quite-to-be-expected reaction for capitalist bast people who daily struggle with seeing the world through a false consciousness (titter) but I don't think it colors his sketches in any meaningful way and certainly shouldn't impede understanding of his summaries of all these different critical approaches. Now what approaches/schools/movements/factions/discourse-communities are these? Well let's see what we got here... you gotcher basic history of "English" as a proper subject for study in the first damn place and how shockingly tardy was its acceptance as a serious thang, then ya gotcher pre-New Criticism unpleasantness, 'course then ya gotcher actual New Criticism unpleasantness, then ya gotcher phenomenology guys and that whole debate about the in-your-head "in here" vs that whole "out there" deal and where the hell you put "intent" with all that, then ya gotcher sciency formalists, what with their semiotix and structuralism which you're really gonna wanna take a look at if ya like your categories and diagrams. Then ya gotcher deal where the previous machine turned on itself and got all AI on its own ass with the post-structuralists, then you can take a break on the couch with your psychoanalytic session. When you wake up and you realize you're almost done and you wonder "what about rhetoric?" he goes all rhet alright by blending that through feminism(s) and other political criticism(z). And yes it's mostly a nice surface-scratching tour but if anyone wants to dig deeper his bibliography is phat.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Spoust1

    A very important work for me personally. What Eagleton accomplishes here is remarkable. The body of the work is an introduction to literary criticism that goes, more or less, school-by-school according to when they came into being and grew to be popular. Eagleton is a master both at explaining the theories in terms of their formal structures and historicizing. This book contains some of the shortest yet most detailed introductions I know to the most difficult of thinkers: Derrida, Freud, Lacan, A very important work for me personally. What Eagleton accomplishes here is remarkable. The body of the work is an introduction to literary criticism that goes, more or less, school-by-school according to when they came into being and grew to be popular. Eagleton is a master both at explaining the theories in terms of their formal structures and historicizing. This book contains some of the shortest yet most detailed introductions I know to the most difficult of thinkers: Derrida, Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, Heidegger, Husserl, Gadamer, and others. The ones on Freud, Derrida, and Lacan are particularly strong. And, as I said, Eagleton's engagement with these thinkers never loses sight of the historical and sociological: he sees the literary criticism, and the literature, of a historical moment as being bound in essential ways with contemporary social and political problems. But it is not the body of the work that I love most; I was influenced most profoundly by the "Introduction," subtitled "What Is Literature?," and the "Conclusion," subtitled "Political Criticism." These two chapters are nothing short of stunning. In the first, "Introduction: What Is Literature?," which sets a dynamic stage for everything else in the book, Eagleton argues that we must realize that, literally, what counts as literature at a given moment is determined by outside -- that is, social and political -- forces. In other words, he lays out the theory, explained above, according to which he interprets the history of literary criticism. And he takes things to their logical conclusions: there is no thing-in-itself, the essence of which we could know, he says, designated by the term "literature." When we study literature, we cannot hope to find anything about "the fixed being of things." Comparing "literature" to the word "weed" - what plants do we pick when we say we are "picking 'weeds'"? - he says that both terms can at most only "tell us about the role of a text or a thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its surroundings, the ways it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the human practices clustered around it." It's powerful stuff. "Conclusion: Political Criticism," is probably the text that convinced me of the truth of that old phrase -- or is it a speculative proposition? -- "everything is political." We might say that this is Eagleton's much longer version of Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. I will try to trace some of it. First, Eagleton situates contemporary literary criticism historically. He says: "As I write [the book was first published in 1983:], it is estimated that the world contains over 60,000 nuclear warheads.... The approximate cost of these weapons is 500 billion dollars a year, or 1.3 billion dollars per day. Five per cent of this sum - 25 billion dollars - could drastically, fundamentally alleviate the problems of the poverty-stricken Third World." Yet he does not leave it there. He returns to the topic of literary criticism, convicting it of a certain insignificance in the face of these affairs. He continues: "Anyone who believed that literary theory was more important than such matters would no doubt be considered somewhat eccentric, but perhaps only a little less eccentric than those who consider than the two topics might be somehow related." Eagleton then makes a compelling argument that literary theorists must debate politics if they are even to do literary theory properly today. His point is not that literary theory needs to become political, though -- not exactly. "There is, in fact, no need to drag politics into literary theory," he says; "as with South African sport, it has been there from the beginning." Rather, he says, concluding one of the book's major "subplots," the manner in which the tradition in literary theory has ignored politics politics, setting it in a separate domain with one meta-narrative or another, is in itself political. He then goes on to make that more concrete, insisting that what he calls the "liberal humanist" position -- a position, and a common one, characterized by tothe wishy washy belief that literature "teaches 'values'" or "makes you a 'better person'" in some abstract way -- is not enough. Literature and literary theory have futures only insomuch as they seek to engage with the political, carefully defined by Eagleton as "no more than the way we organize our social life together, and the power-relations which this involves." This piece effected a decisive change in my thought; I was forced to realize that I could not escape from politics to theory; if theory itself terminated in politics, then I had to turn to politics in my own way, too. Most highly recommended.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    An introduction to literary theory? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is more of an essay on theory from a Marxist slant. Terry Eagleton's prefatory statement: "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion of one's own" seems ironic in a book, though innocuously entitled Literary Theory: An Introduction, that works instead to decimate most literary theory in the 60 years prior to the book's publication. Eagleton does spare Marxism (his own ideology) and femini An introduction to literary theory? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is more of an essay on theory from a Marxist slant. Terry Eagleton's prefatory statement: "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion of one's own" seems ironic in a book, though innocuously entitled Literary Theory: An Introduction, that works instead to decimate most literary theory in the 60 years prior to the book's publication. Eagleton does spare Marxism (his own ideology) and feminism (not a politically tactful maneuver for a man). Eagleton's incisive wit in part accounts for what blinds a reader to his deceptive menace. It is very hard not to laugh, for instance, when he encapsulates a notion of T. S. Eliot's by stating that "Somewhere in the seventeenth century, though Eliot is unsure of the precise date, a 'dissociation of sensibility' set in: thinking was no longer like smelling." Eagleton's rhetoric is less funny when he loosely, without offering hard evidence, connects Heidegger's theories with the Third Reich, or - in a book where he himself is writing literary theory - moralistically denounces the theories of Roland Barthes by commenting, "There is something a little disturbing about this avant-garde hedonism in a world where others lack not only books but food." Whatever Eagleton's polemic is, it is not, to my mind, a neutral introduction to literary theory. While Eagleton does provide some excellent synopses of critical theory, knowing he has an agenda is essential.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Billie Pritchett

    I cannot be too upset with Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction since the book accurately reflects literary theory's preoccupation with almost everything except literature. This hostility continues to today. Because of some of the confusion in this book, some parts are not even right and other parts are not even wrong. To take an example, Eagleton criticizes phenomenology for presenting an inadequate strategy to deal with literary works. This criticism, addressed especially at Edmun I cannot be too upset with Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction since the book accurately reflects literary theory's preoccupation with almost everything except literature. This hostility continues to today. Because of some of the confusion in this book, some parts are not even right and other parts are not even wrong. To take an example, Eagleton criticizes phenomenology for presenting an inadequate strategy to deal with literary works. This criticism, addressed especially at Edmund Husserl, the founder and major proponent of phenomenology, would have come as a surprise to Husserl because Husserl never espoused a literary theory. Surely what he had to say about human beings would, if it is true, have some implications for literature, but in the remote and trivial sense that discoveries in psychology would help define the parameters by which a character might be judged plausible in a literary work. Eagleton meanders about so-called literary strategies throughout much of the book. For example, Eagleton writes on p. 154: "It is clear that the child in this state [i.e. its early infancy:] is not even prospectively a citizen who could be relied upon to do a hard day's work. It is anarchic, sadistic, aggressive, self-involved and remorselessly pleasure-seeking, under the sway of what Freud calls the pleasure principle; nor does it have any respect for differences of gender." Setting aside whether any of these empirical claims are true, a decent question to ask would be: What does this have to do with literature? Eagleton admits, in his final chapter, that he is openly hostile to literature and would prefer, rather, a view toward cultural studies. This position, however, is just a decision to abandon the study of literature. His concern, and some other people's concerns who work in literature departments, is that 'literature' is too parochial. But all 'literature' is is an evaluative term for a loose assemblage of works, both poetry and prose, that people have deemed influential, brilliant, or essential to understanding particular civilizations or human nature in general. If Eagleton et al. disagrees with the works in particular that have been classified as literature, then he and others should contest some of the works. For the other works with which these professors do find value, what would be reasonable is to study these works in the myriad ways one could study them: for example, a literary critic could come to understand the biography of the person who wrote the work; learn about the historical content in which the work was written; discover the work's reception over the years; study the form and/or content of the work; reveal the social or political implications of the work for its own time, for our time, or for any time; and relay this information to academic circles and concerned general audiences, all with an eye on how the collected data help us understand literature, a particular civilization, and human nature. Why this mighty task is not sufficient for Eagleton, I do not understand. To want to expand the study is to do analysis in some other field, and so my advice to Eagleton et al. who have qualms with how 'parochial' literature seems, these professors could, if they are more interested in social, political, or economic theory anyway, return to school to teach sociology, political science, or economics.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Udeni

    Typically opinionated, acerbic and entertaining, Terry Eagleton has produced an unlikely airport read. This 200 page introduction to literary theory is now studied at Harvard Business School as an example of how an academic textbook can become a best-seller. An outcome at which the grumpy Marxist does not know whether to be "delighted or outraged". The book sweeps briskly through a history of literary theories: phenomenology, hermeneutics, reception theory, structuralism, semiotics, poststructura Typically opinionated, acerbic and entertaining, Terry Eagleton has produced an unlikely airport read. This 200 page introduction to literary theory is now studied at Harvard Business School as an example of how an academic textbook can become a best-seller. An outcome at which the grumpy Marxist does not know whether to be "delighted or outraged". The book sweeps briskly through a history of literary theories: phenomenology, hermeneutics, reception theory, structuralism, semiotics, poststructuralism, feminism, psycholanalysis and, of course, Marxism. I studied English Literature in the 1990s. While Professor Eagleton was the exception, my other tutors were enthralled by poststructuralism, particularly deconstructionism. They taught me that meaning is non-existent and that truth, reality and certainty should be consigned to the dustbin. I didn't agree and was made to feel stupid and unfashionable. The nihilism of deconstruction cast me, as Eagleton says in this book, "dizzyingly into a bottomless linguistic abyss." Eagleton is scathing of this type of theory that "testifies to the impossibility of language ever doing more than talk about its own failure, like some bar-room bore." His thesis is that literature has meaning, and that meaning can be revealed through a variety of theoretical lenses. Each theory can help the reader to take a different view of the same book. Unfortunately, this book does not show us how to do so. You will have to go to Eagleton's other books ("How to Read Literature") for his brilliant Marxist and feminist analyses of literature. Eagleton argues for the liberating power of theory: "One important reasons 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"." Theory can be understood by anyone, not just the elite. This book is an entertaining and clear-sighted guide for readers of all backgrounds. Whether you are beleaguered undergraduate studying English Literature, or a book club reader wanting to spice up discussion of the latest best-seller, this book has something for everyone. If only Professor Eagleton had written it 30 years ago.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    I wrote more smiley faces in the margins than I expected to. It wasn’t until Ch. 2 that I finally realized exactly how Eagleton’s Marxism plays into his allergic reaction to literature as an objective category. He hates the idea of the academy telling the rest of the world what constitutes literature. It’s just another example of the powerful controlling the powerless, and he can’t stand it. Poststructuralism (Ch. 4) is a historical term, because it’s describing a theory that came after structural I wrote more smiley faces in the margins than I expected to. It wasn’t until Ch. 2 that I finally realized exactly how Eagleton’s Marxism plays into his allergic reaction to literature as an objective category. He hates the idea of the academy telling the rest of the world what constitutes literature. It’s just another example of the powerful controlling the powerless, and he can’t stand it. Poststructuralism (Ch. 4) is a historical term, because it’s describing a theory that came after structuralism. Poststructuralism could also be called A-structuralism, because it’s against the very idea of structure. I have a hard time taking poststructuralists seriously, because to me they seem like someone sitting on a tree limb, sawing away. In their disdain for the previous elite (WASPs, DWEMs, etc.), they have merely replaced the old elite with themselves. They see reality more clearly (although, reality doesn’t really exist). They claim not to value values (or say that the value is only relative), and yet they clearly value poststructuralism over structuralism. They claim that there is no meaning, and yet they travel the world giving lectures on what poststructuralism means. Lots of information in the Afterward about postmodernity/postmodernism and metanarrative.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Charles Finch

    I love this book as a history of literary theory from the Romantic period onward (new criticism, reception theory, structuralism, post-structuralism). It has a VERY clear Marxist bent, but it works perfectly as a plain history if you're conscious of that and can make your own judgments. Particularly good on the Leavises and the dawn of "English" as a subject. Pretty academic, to give fair warning! I love this book as a history of literary theory from the Romantic period onward (new criticism, reception theory, structuralism, post-structuralism). It has a VERY clear Marxist bent, but it works perfectly as a plain history if you're conscious of that and can make your own judgments. Particularly good on the Leavises and the dawn of "English" as a subject. Pretty academic, to give fair warning!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Crystal

    Eagleton’s book is a discussion of literary styles of the twentieth century and covers a variety of literary theories. He explores the topic of literature and offers a determination of how to judge what literature is and what does not fall into this genre. His thorough discussion of the twentieth literary theory includes theorists, models of theory and his opinion on the positive and negative aspects of each. Lauded as a classic on literary theory, this book leaves the novice reader perplexed an Eagleton’s book is a discussion of literary styles of the twentieth century and covers a variety of literary theories. He explores the topic of literature and offers a determination of how to judge what literature is and what does not fall into this genre. His thorough discussion of the twentieth literary theory includes theorists, models of theory and his opinion on the positive and negative aspects of each. Lauded as a classic on literary theory, this book leaves the novice reader perplexed and grasping to sort out the author’s point of view. Is there true value in literary criticism or does he think that most of it should be disregarded? A beneficial discussion in the book approaches the question of literature and its definition. Inquirers often ask the academic or avid reader to define what literature truly is and is not. Eagleton’s in-depth introduction discusses this question but does not arrive at a definitive answer articulated in one or two sentences. This discussion does allow the reader to form some type of response when questioned. As for the actual discussion of literary theory, Eagleton is thorough when setting the stage for a review of the different theories. He begins with a history that he entitles as the “the rise of English.” The subsequent chapters offer a baptism into the religion of literary theory administered by one not-entirely-convinced believer. There are moments in the text when the reader wonders if Eagleton believes in using literary theory or if should be abandoned. His writing style is dense and he assumes that his reader has foundational knowledge about literary theory. At times, it appears that Eagleton writes to “hear himself talk.” One review listed on the back cover says that both members of the academy and civilians will appreciate Eagleton’s treatment of the subject. Only those civilians who aspire to become members of the academy will be motivated to push through to the end of the book!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    This book seems to serve three functions. First, it's a reasonable introduction to twentieth century literary theory, not including new historicism. Eagleton doesn't seem to have bothered to read much of the new criticism or the poetry associated with it (for instance, he says The Waste Land "intimates that fertility cults hold the clue to the salvation of the West"), and reads a bit too much English class structure into American life. But he's quite good on reception theory, structuralism and p This book seems to serve three functions. First, it's a reasonable introduction to twentieth century literary theory, not including new historicism. Eagleton doesn't seem to have bothered to read much of the new criticism or the poetry associated with it (for instance, he says The Waste Land "intimates that fertility cults hold the clue to the salvation of the West"), and reads a bit too much English class structure into American life. But he's quite good on reception theory, structuralism and post-structuralism (although he's far too kind to Derrida, and far, far too kind to Kristeva). Second, it's an exercise in 'Marxism' of the most idiotic kind, which believes that anyone who holds an ideal (e.g., a harmonious society) and reads literature is just "submitting to the political status quo." For someone so keen on bringing politics into things, it's odd that Eagleton spends so little time thinking about the ways that reading literature as an image of harmony and so on might best be considered expressions of *yearning for* rather than *belief in* a harmonious society. Third, it's a shining example of what literary writing really should be like: polemical, cut and thrust, no nonsense attacks on one hand; rigid statements of faith and belief on the other. You'll know what Mr Eagleton stood for in the '80s once you've read about three pages of this. We're taught today not to say anything that anyone might disagree with- not only is that no fun, it's no way to advance any discussion. This book is seriously, seriously flawed, but I'd much rather re-read it than the essays collected in Cambridge's 'History of Literary Criticism' any day. Finally, I wonder how Terry feels about his constant attacks on religion in this book. Some might say he was just trying to fit into the radical, epater '80s, no?

  12. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    I picked up this book expecting to learn a little bit about each major school of literary theory, and I wasn't disappointed. The book is a much easier read than some of the authors it references, and (I hope) may be useful in understanding those authors. Eagleton says he would prefer to call it the "Theory of Discourse" rather than "Literary Theory" -- it's really the theory of human speech, communication, discussion, and rhetoric, in all forms. As such, it includes thinkers who studied linguisti I picked up this book expecting to learn a little bit about each major school of literary theory, and I wasn't disappointed. The book is a much easier read than some of the authors it references, and (I hope) may be useful in understanding those authors. Eagleton says he would prefer to call it the "Theory of Discourse" rather than "Literary Theory" -- it's really the theory of human speech, communication, discussion, and rhetoric, in all forms. As such, it includes thinkers who studied linguistics (Saussure), but also psychoanalysis as language (Lacan), discourse as a means of economic control (Marx), language as it pertains to sexual roles (Lacan, Kristeva), and so on. The selection still seems a bit arbitrary to me -- haven't there been interesting linguistic theories since Saussure? But I think this is a quirk of the field, not of the book. Eagleton seems to present most authors fairly, as if he wants you to seriously consider that author's position. Then, amusingly enough, he will attempt to tear the author to shreds so he can go on to the next author. I didn't find his rants to be particularly profound or convincing. Thankfully he spends far more time illustrating each author's points than he spends beating them up.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Literary Theory is closely aligned with Political Theory. This is what I have taken away from this book and also understood from other theory books that I have read. The mindset of the day, the views on women, labor, ethnic groups, God, etc. all played a part in how literature was viewed and dissected and analysed throughout the years. It was an entertaining ride, to say the least. I learned early on that Terry Eagleton is not a capitalist. He goes through the various theories from the 19th centu Literary Theory is closely aligned with Political Theory. This is what I have taken away from this book and also understood from other theory books that I have read. The mindset of the day, the views on women, labor, ethnic groups, God, etc. all played a part in how literature was viewed and dissected and analysed throughout the years. It was an entertaining ride, to say the least. I learned early on that Terry Eagleton is not a capitalist. He goes through the various theories from the 19th century on and critiques each of them harshly. He's not as harsh on deconstuctionism and Derrida as he is on some of the other theorists. For a non-fiction book, this was certainly fast paced and very interesting. I did not expect it to be as politically charged as it was. I enjoyed it immensely. I may have ended the book thinking "Is it all pointless or what?" but I still gave the book 4 stars because I had a hard time putting it down. I'm not well versed in literary theories myself to even begin to formulate a personal opinion on this subject, but I liked this book. I admit I agreed with a lot of what Eagleton had to say about our society.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    i 'know of' more than 'know' the various theories recounted here, much as a web of signifiers of any language. i have not necessarily read or have forgotten many of the core lit theory texts. i find this text very useful in summarizing all in one place, all from one voice, all with a skeptical but earnest attitude, these various schools. this book is a good review... itself now an historical document (1983), and generally does place in era and history the schools of thought. i may believe mistake i 'know of' more than 'know' the various theories recounted here, much as a web of signifiers of any language. i have not necessarily read or have forgotten many of the core lit theory texts. i find this text very useful in summarizing all in one place, all from one voice, all with a skeptical but earnest attitude, these various schools. this book is a good review... itself now an historical document (1983), and generally does place in era and history the schools of thought. i may believe mistaken or simplified, the characterization of certain approaches- particularly phenomenology- and pessimism in which he views in total critical project, in late period capitalism, in liberal humanism, but he is balanced, lucid, accessible. if you can read only one lit crit book this year read this one...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Prithvi Shams

    Apart from learning about doctrines like structuralism and post-structuralism, I also learned to view the "text" like I've never viewed it before. A text is not just words put on paper, it's the world of signs and signifiers(to employ the structuralist terminology) that we all inhabit. I guess it won't be outlandish to say that the whole world's a text and we're all trying to make sense of it, regardless of whether we realize it or not. The next time I read, listen or watch something, I'll be su Apart from learning about doctrines like structuralism and post-structuralism, I also learned to view the "text" like I've never viewed it before. A text is not just words put on paper, it's the world of signs and signifiers(to employ the structuralist terminology) that we all inhabit. I guess it won't be outlandish to say that the whole world's a text and we're all trying to make sense of it, regardless of whether we realize it or not. The next time I read, listen or watch something, I'll be sure to pay a little bit more attention than I've done so far. Always pays to read between the lines, and I'm not just talking about words printed on paper.

  16. 5 out of 5

    sologdin

    has this become the standard undergraduate introductory literary theory text yet? strident in its pro-marxist polemic, and very comical in the summation of opposing ideas (i.e., all of them herein), eagleton certainly makes for a lively presentation.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Cattanach

    ugh.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Liu

    Wish I'd read this earlier in life Wish I'd read this earlier in life

  19. 5 out of 5

    Andreea

    I'm sure it's my fault that I didn't like this book. I'm sure it's my fault that I didn't like this book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dana Torrente

    Don't every read this unless you enjoy suffering. Don't every read this unless you enjoy suffering.

  21. 4 out of 5

    8314

    I'm going to try out some of the skills Terry Eagleton taught me in a minute. If someone takes that I'm somehow ridiculing the critics, well, the short answer is "you got me wrong"; the long answer would be "you got me wrong and I strongly recommend the first chapter of this book, it's very fun". So here's the practice text that I will try to analyze in 4 ways as Terry Eagleton taught me (my advisor might want to close the browser tab now if he's been peeping, because the practice text is actual I'm going to try out some of the skills Terry Eagleton taught me in a minute. If someone takes that I'm somehow ridiculing the critics, well, the short answer is "you got me wrong"; the long answer would be "you got me wrong and I strongly recommend the first chapter of this book, it's very fun". So here's the practice text that I will try to analyze in 4 ways as Terry Eagleton taught me (my advisor might want to close the browser tab now if he's been peeping, because the practice text is actually an email from my advisor ... Although I wouldn't be happy if my advisor is somehow reading this, but don't feel that you are obliged to make your emails literature, I'm happy with simple English emails. I promise I won't do this again, well, at least not to your emails.): Dear Amanda, I have a brief call at 11AM tomorrow. I may have to take a short break from our meeting - sorry for the interruption. But this is better (for me) than rescheduling. Best, EDward 1) The New Criticism. Well the awkward start is that New Criticism doesn't quite care about this practice text, because it is not a poem. If I'm going to force a New Critic to perform criticism on this text, a starting point might be the absence of the other interlocutor in the text: although the text takes the form of a letter, its content is mainly written from a first person perspective. The word "I/me" occurred three times, "our" one time, "you" zero time. It would seem more of a notice sent from a superior than a letter exchanged between two people of equal positions. But the text itself has some extra structure. The clause apologizing for the interruption actually interrupted content of the text. Moreover, the author has come to realize that his valuation of "good" may not coincide with the intended reader's good — this realization interrupted the text yet again. This contradiction is a faint dilution of the intense contradictions that one might find in poems: the absence of the intended reader in the text was compensated by the structure of the text. Reader theory would argue that, although the intended reader (in this case, also the informed reader) was in the inferior position, the author did attempt to take the reader's reaction into account. 2) From a linguistic point of view, this text may be testifying two sets of parole unified in one person, one langue. "A call" consists mainly of an exchange of signs (words), and so is the "meeting". Apparently the signs and sentences spoken in the "call" would not be consistent with the signs spoken in the "meeting", hence the existence of a short break (the case when it's going to be consistent would be someone joining the meeting at 11 a.m. through a call). We may as well imagine that, inasmuch as languages consists of the pattern of juxtaposition of signs, the signs exchanged during the "call" with interlocutor B may be totally baffling to the one in the "meeting", interlocutor A. Does this imply that the "call" will be totally different from the "meeting"? If the languages used in both situation is unchanged, then the identity of the author in our case would guarantee that there's something underlying, unchanged. And that is the langue, the abstract principles and patterns of a given language. (However, if the languages changed ... does it imply that the identity of this author somehow splits, according to Ferdinand de Saussure's theory?) Another interesting thing to ponder about is the "break". Would the shift of scenario of conversing really introduce a "break" to the "meeting", if interlocutor A can somehow decipher the pattern of signs exchanged during the "call"? 3) A deconstructionist would argue that this text is haunted by the illusion of identity. The raison d'être of this text is, supposedly, a time conflict (how can the linguists and New Critics not see that?). Going deeper we realize that it's more about a sense of time and a sense of self: the author felt that he could only carry out one task at a given time: either hold the meeting or have the call. The possibility of doing them at the same time did not occur, but it is possible — Pierre Janet has a famous case of treating demon-possessed-hallucinated psychotic, where he talked to the conscious of the patient and wrote to the "demon possessed body" of the patient. However, the author failed to realize that identity itself is an illusion: the author pinning down the call is not the same author writing the email, nor would it be the same author who's going to hold the meeting. The author is not "being" but "becoming" (hence the saying "the author is dead", because he could not claim, once and for all, of what he wrote). The New Critic did score once when they realized that something came to the author's consciousness as he progressed: the intended reader's possible point of view surfaced in the author's mind. It is here that we once again question the dual of author-reader division. Just like what happened previously in gender role: men exploiting on women but cannot live without this "Other" called women, an author could not write in the absence of a reader, even though the "reader" is just some imagination of "Other" in the author's head. But the readers poses their shadows on the author as early as the process of creating (that is before the reader gets to be a reader and start reading the work) — so how much can the author claim that his work is his? Instead of an interaction, although for the most part imaginative, a collaboration between the author and the (intended/imagined) reader? The concept of "author" without "reader" may be false to begin with. The author is dead, claims Roland Barthes. Was he ever alive? Or was he always "they"? 4) Psychoanalytic point of view: lie down on that couch, Edward. What does the capital letter D remind you of? (Actually this is a mere caricature of psychoanalytic criticism, but without further evidences a prudent critic/psychoanalyst would refrain from hastily making judgements. Not sure how many people appreciate this kind of "pedantry" now.) I guess Terry Eagleton will be unhappy with these little critiques, because I never mentioned his favorite: ideologies and historical backgrounds. Now, this book is rated 4 stars due to a major disagreement of mine; namely, how literature and politics were placed. But it's a good book with great arrangements and worthy of reading! It's not quite a good book to be used as textbook, though, because it's swamped with ideology diagnosis and some of them are totally missing the point. Eagleton believes a critique comes naturally with an ideology and thus all literature carries politics. I believe it's the otherwise. Literature deals with something a precursor of politics: influences. Not only in Harold Bloom's sense, but influences in general. When one tries to impose influence in a conscious manner, one steps into the realm of political realism — where Machiavelli rules as the Deus Spiritus Sanctus (bite me, Leo Strauss). But literature is even before politics, just like dreams and unconsciousness is before consciousness. 唔,我的导师真可怜,摊上我这么个徒儿……

  22. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    I can definitely see why people find Eagleton irritating. His "culture war" type envy toward those more successful than he is pretty transparent, especially toward those more naturally gifted like Christopher Hitchens, for the charm which unlike Eagleton's never fails. For a while now I've been playing a fruitless game in head about who has been the more persuasive regarding the propaganda wars, Eagleton or Hitchens? For arguments about "religion", Eagleton wins easily. Hitchens deals only in op I can definitely see why people find Eagleton irritating. His "culture war" type envy toward those more successful than he is pretty transparent, especially toward those more naturally gifted like Christopher Hitchens, for the charm which unlike Eagleton's never fails. For a while now I've been playing a fruitless game in head about who has been the more persuasive regarding the propaganda wars, Eagleton or Hitchens? For arguments about "religion", Eagleton wins easily. Hitchens deals only in opinions about religion, not the substance of what makes it possible. That he's so intent on winning the debate you almost have to feel sorry for him that he was consistently incapable of making this distinction. To argue based on substance and not opinion you'd have to be a theologian; Hitchens was amusing but he wasn't that. Meanwhile Eagleton makes claims for religion, striking back hard against the bigotry held toward Muslims as a whole we see all around us. Yet he is so obviously missing out on that one important aspect that makes Christianity a world-class religion among believers: an ability to teach its adherents genuine forgiveness. Where is that in this Catholic? I don't see it. He is at it again, tearing Hitchens apart in the British press. There were about 500 comments in response to a review of posthumous essays recently, and curiously stupid I read through most of them. At least eighty percent were written in defense of the dead man who can no longer defend himself. Eagleton does come across as an ass. But thanks to this comment thread and much atrocious argumentation among readers the matter for me is settled: why not just have them both over the whims of the mob? In this book, which I've just read after some years, Eagleton has one of the best definitions I've come across of what makes Baudelaire and Mallarme so attractive as poets, as envisioned through Julia Kristeva's theories. The disruption of language, the setting up of play of unconscious drives is revolutionary for the sheer ecstasy it creates of a unified, sexual order. Within their poetry you can experience genuine solidarity between the sexes (it took feminist critics like Kristeva and Barbara Johnson to point this out). This could be seen as bi-sexual in a way that must have certainly thrilled Oscar Wilde while attending Mallarme's Tuesday night salons. It could also be seen as pan-sexual, the ecstasies this union inspired as played out in Euripides's Bacchae. The ecstasy can be liberating at first (politically or otherwise), but lacking order you soon realize you are lost in a world of illusion, sort of like what happens at a one-night stand. This high is both the promise and horror of literature. Now if all this were coming from a poet, well then there you go, there's the whole thing in a kick. It is the very reason some of us go to art and not the movies. But from someone like Eagleton, a critic with much unresolved anger (justified though it may be), you get the feeling you are being misled. His bad faith comes to the fore quickly. And then you are left with the awful feeling that all there is to literature is its illusion, from a man who can play it well like a game. That's what he wants you to see, it is a thing that's entirely man-made (no pun there on the "man"). So that through envisioning true freedom in a democratic socialist sense we have an ability to create the world for the first time. Sounds nice on paper, at least.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Avery

    I really wanted to like this book, and it gives a decent enough overview of various traditions of literary theory, but Eagleton's ideological predispositions got too much in the way for me. I'd consider myself a Marxist more or less, but Eagleton's unreconstructed Marxism here is a persistent and vulgar one in which every literary tradition's and theory's fatal flaw is that it's not Marxist. "Ah, if only xyz had instead worked to transform society." It would be much less frustrating if Eagleton I really wanted to like this book, and it gives a decent enough overview of various traditions of literary theory, but Eagleton's ideological predispositions got too much in the way for me. I'd consider myself a Marxist more or less, but Eagleton's unreconstructed Marxism here is a persistent and vulgar one in which every literary tradition's and theory's fatal flaw is that it's not Marxist. "Ah, if only xyz had instead worked to transform society." It would be much less frustrating if Eagleton subjected Marxism to the same scrutiny as the other theories. I also find Eagleton's writing style really grating.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Victor

    Spoilers: Literary theory dies at the end. Joking aside, Terry Eagleton's intro to Literary Theory is real good stuff. He takes some time going through various different phases of the history of literature, theory, and criticism. I don't have much familiarity with most of these topics so I learned quite a bit. We start off with an introduction to Literature. What is it? Why should anyone care about it? Eagleton offers various different answer, but leaves it as a kind of general expression. Anythin Spoilers: Literary theory dies at the end. Joking aside, Terry Eagleton's intro to Literary Theory is real good stuff. He takes some time going through various different phases of the history of literature, theory, and criticism. I don't have much familiarity with most of these topics so I learned quite a bit. We start off with an introduction to Literature. What is it? Why should anyone care about it? Eagleton offers various different answer, but leaves it as a kind of general expression. Anything can be literature. Roland Barthes said "Literature is what is taught." And I think that's about right. The term doesn't have much descriptive power. It's an evasive term. Then Eagleton leads us on a journey through several stages of literary theory. Some of these chapters are fairly dense. Any knowledge of semiotics, hermeneutics, structuralism, or psychoanalysis will help you out quite a bit. I only vaguely understood most of them but was able to soldier through without much trouble. Eagleton goes through pains to bring up many of the popular thinkers of the times to help show what their theories were, which helps. He then also shows why these theories fell out of favor, or highlights quirks that undermine them. All of this to say, none of these are incorrect, per se. None of them are "correct" either. They're fragments of an essentially infinite art form. Anyone can come up with a new way to analyze a text. Anyone can use old methods to analyze something as if it were a literary text. Literary theory, then, is as evasive as its subject. You may be able to pin down aspects of it, but there will always be more new and different things that will fall under its wings. Eagleton is often quite humorous. It was always fun to hit a little joke in the midst of heady theory lingo. And I have to say, this book saved me a good deal of time and money. I was toying with the idea of going back to school for English. Now I don't need to. Anything I read is Literature and anything I think about it is Literary Theory. Go me!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    If you only read one book about literary theory...well, who would blame you? Still, the educated layperson who wants to bump their understanding of contemporary literary criticism up to a respectable cocktail party level probably can't do much better than Eagleton's slim, thoroughly accessible introduction to the subject. Literary Theory traces the history of literature as an academic discipline from English Romanticism, through Saussure and semiotics, all the way to the fashionable heavy-hitter If you only read one book about literary theory...well, who would blame you? Still, the educated layperson who wants to bump their understanding of contemporary literary criticism up to a respectable cocktail party level probably can't do much better than Eagleton's slim, thoroughly accessible introduction to the subject. Literary Theory traces the history of literature as an academic discipline from English Romanticism, through Saussure and semiotics, all the way to the fashionable heavy-hitters of postmodernism. Neither an acolyte nor a debunker, Eagleton gives each theory a clear explanation and a fair shake in crisp, jargon-free prose. He is up front about his own ideological slants (feminist, Marxist), and although the last of these can at times make him sound quaintly Cold War, at no point does he drop into didacticism. This is a book that truly lives up to its subtitle.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I'm the wrong target audience here. After getting my English major and worming my way through the dense tangles of Deleuze, Heidegger, and Saussure, I'd like to think I emerged with some knowledge of theory, and the strengths and weaknesses of various theories. However, for the relative novice, this is an immensely valuable work. His surveys of each school of critical thought are by no means impartial, but they're always fair. And even though I have certain disagreements with Eagleton, I'm on hi I'm the wrong target audience here. After getting my English major and worming my way through the dense tangles of Deleuze, Heidegger, and Saussure, I'd like to think I emerged with some knowledge of theory, and the strengths and weaknesses of various theories. However, for the relative novice, this is an immensely valuable work. His surveys of each school of critical thought are by no means impartial, but they're always fair. And even though I have certain disagreements with Eagleton, I'm on his side against the potshots of positivists and laissez-faire enthusiasts and other such douche-tards.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lily Patchett

    this was a really incredible introduction which i will likely return to again & again. as someone coming to the subject w only a very superficial understanding i didn't feel like i was being talked down to, but it was also v clear and easy to follow. eagleton goes about the theories in a very human way, but is also critical and funny w certain lines making me literally lol. and the last chapter on political criticism/the illusion of literary theory was amazing... gives some wider scope/purpose t this was a really incredible introduction which i will likely return to again & again. as someone coming to the subject w only a very superficial understanding i didn't feel like i was being talked down to, but it was also v clear and easy to follow. eagleton goes about the theories in a very human way, but is also critical and funny w certain lines making me literally lol. and the last chapter on political criticism/the illusion of literary theory was amazing... gives some wider scope/purpose to the subject.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    This author is incredibly pretentious. I think he assumes anyone reading his book is a literary scholar. Again, I only read it because I had to for class. I think I have a fairly extensive vocabulary, but I had to read this book with a dictionary open because there were so many obscure words in it. He did not do a good job of stating things so they were understandable. And since this is supposed to be "An Introduction" you'd think he'd try to be a little more reader friendly. This author is incredibly pretentious. I think he assumes anyone reading his book is a literary scholar. Again, I only read it because I had to for class. I think I have a fairly extensive vocabulary, but I had to read this book with a dictionary open because there were so many obscure words in it. He did not do a good job of stating things so they were understandable. And since this is supposed to be "An Introduction" you'd think he'd try to be a little more reader friendly.

  29. 5 out of 5

    John Pistelli

    Strange the books one fails to read. I've written about this before (in connection with The Handmaid's Tale ): how the very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can't remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he's never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact Strange the books one fails to read. I've written about this before (in connection with The Handmaid's Tale ): how the very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can't remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he's never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact—but I somehow escaped all of graduate school in literature without ever reading from cover to cover the once-inescapable, then-outdated, and now-classic 1983 primer on literary theory by Britain's most renowned Marxist critic. No time like the present. So how is old Literary Theory? Like everything I've ever read or perused by Eagleton—save Criticism and Ideology, that execrable and impenetrable excursus into Althusserian pseudo-scientism—it is addictive, hilarious, and infuriating. The Catholic leftist Eagleton is the Chesterton of Marxism, and not only because their names scan similarly, but because he, like the author of Orthodoxy, disseminates his apologetics in a paradox-besotted style of wittily uncommon common sense. Some sample (non-consecutive) sentences: There is something a little disturbing about [Barthes's] self-indulgent avant-garde hedonism in a world where others lack not only books but food. [Structuralist criticism] is rather like killing a person in order to examine more conveniently the circulation of the blood. But [traditional socialists] had overlooked the possibility that the erotic frissons of reading, or even work confined to those labelled criminally insane, were an adequate solution, and so had the guerrilla fighters of Guatemala. Note the rhetorical tactics on display: the visual-verbal parallel of the posited antithesis books/food in the first quotation that is meant to puncture delectation in the former with guilty awareness of the necessity announced by the latter; the dry "rather like" that introduces the extreme simile reducing structuralism to absurdity; and the guttural alliteration of guerrilla/Guatemala that drives home such insurgents' moral and material superiority to mere sibilant perverts and aesthetes. Eagleton wields this rhetorical arsenal to blow holes in the facade of any Romanticism or aestheticism, to roll back the entire multifarious attempt, from Shelley to Leavis to Derrida, to render the imagination, literature, or language as self-sufficient realms apart from material real-world struggle. Eagleton allows that almost all these attempts were made in protest against a reductive or exploitative world of capitalist rationality, but because they do not seek to transform this world here and now, they can only be irrationalist evasions or technocratic travesties—flowers on the chain of oppression or opiates in the place of remedies, to borrow some Marxian tropes. The book should really be subtitled not An Introduction but An Attack. Like all polemics, Eagleton's gets a bit repetitive. He begins with an introduction that argues against the concept of "literature." This is a concept, he claims, with no intrinsic meaning; literature is just what a complex set of social practices designates as literature, usually because the texts so designated serve the ruling interests of society. With that demystification established, Eagleton begins his survey of literary theory. "Literature" as we know it began in the Romantic era, when writers set poetry and art apart: they became devoted not to entertainment or moral instruction, their prior tasks, but realms of imaginative plentitude unbesmirched by the dark satanic mills of the industrial age. This aestheticism was eventually institutionalized in England and America when English displaced classics in the university curriculum as the discipline meant to humanize the educated populace, where "humanization" implies quiescence before the status quo in the name of national or cultural unity. At best, literature is compensation for what capitalism robs from us; at worst, it is the alibi of the ruling classes. The chaos and destruction of the 20th century in Europe, meanwhile, led its thinkers on their own quest for certitude amid devastation. Hence the Cartesian need to prove that oneself and the world exist and are explicable to which phenomenology and structuralism testify. Unfortunately, these both lead in Eagleton's view to idealism, to a vision of the mind or the structures it apprehends rotating in some Platonic space above the heads of real people who exist in social conflict and comity. Poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, with their insistence on the fissures in both psyche and speech, are improvements on structuralism and phenomenology because of their ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of an ideology that bids us submit to our pre-established social roles; but they are finally too fixated on recondite textual matters to really shake the powers that be. Eagleton's strategy, then, is to explicate each theory more or less in its own terms before showing it to be a kind of belated Romantic pastoral, an imaginary solution to real problems, to use the Althusserean formulation he several times deploys. This is similar to the "immanent critique" championed by the Frankfurt School, wherein the critic shows a theory or philosophy to be unable to realize its own goals on its own terms, usually because it makes no provision for its universal and material realization. In other words, Marxism, the sole science of utopia's actualizing, is the one true theory because, if I may use Eagleton's own method of inversion, it is the one theory that can come true. Eagleton thus ends his book not with a chapter on Marxism, which would, he says, imply that Marxism is just one theory among others. Rather, he ends with a call to reform the teaching of literature so that it serves, pluralistically, the ends of an equal society: Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of 'better people' through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable. That settles that. "Better people" is in quotation marks, by the way, because Eagleton, after inveighing for 180 pages against an ill-defined or undefined straw-man he calls "liberal humanism" concedes that liberal humanism is in fact correct when its partisans say that we should read literature because it "makes us better people." The problem, though, is that we can only become better people in a better society, so the study of literature should be politically rather than morally improving, should improve the relations of production and not just the individual soul. How to reform literary study toward that progressive end? By replacing it with cultural studies: down with literature, except where it may prove tactically emancipatory (for instance, Eagleton says that cultural studies should be taught to underprivileged children but also concedes that "it may also be valuable to use literature to foster in them a sense of linguistic potential denied to them by their social conditions"); and up with the whole world of human discourse, from textbooks to TV, from Machiavelli to Madonna, from sati to Star Trek (I alliterate in appreciation of the master), evaluated according to its political designs on the reader/viewer. In another bout of Chestertonian inversion, Eagleton pronounces his theory not revolutionary but reactionary ("Like all the best radical positions, then, mine is a thoroughly traditionalist one") because it is only a return to the critical discipline that reigned in the western world from antiquity to the Augustan age and which was unjustly supplanted by Romantic aestheticism and its sequelae: the study of rhetoric. Eagleton has appended forewords and afterwords to subsequent editions of this book; largely they rue the collapse of the political task he prophesied for cultural studies even as cultural studies itself triumphed in academe. Feminism, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, he complains, became too liberal, too focused on identity politics and not enough on class struggle. He does not notably allow this development to convince him that his theory itself, his call to abandon the very idea of the aesthetic, was wrong, though. Yet it was and remains wrong, and the fact that at least one version of it triumphed while everything else in the English department and in society at large got worse and worse should make its wrongness obvious. The unequal distribution of the aesthetic should not be used as a warrant for its general abolition, as if to say that since the poor can't afford healthy food, no one else should be able to eat it. The left used to believe in lifting everyone up; since the failure of its '60s dreams, though, which Eagleton rightly identifies as the context for poststructuralist omni-skepticism, it has been so consumed with resentment and with apocalyptic visions that it has only wanted to drag everyone down to the same debased level and call that equality. Nowhere is this leveling-down left more evident than in the progressive intelligentsia's hatred of the very concept of art, sometimes expressed as a blasé shrug ("Who am I to judge?") and sometimes as a militant threat ("Down with bourgeois aesthetics!"). My complaint is not that elements of popular or fringe culture are being studied in place of the classics, because some of that work is excellent and because many of the classics were themselves originally popular and fringe culture; still less is my complaint about the demotion of dead white men. Regular readers will recall that I have myself championed both Grant Morrison and Toni Morrison at great length. But even if the most complex aesthetic objects, whatever their origins, will not make you more moral, their contemplation will make you more intelligent, your mind more subtle and multifarious. Therefore, the most complex objects are the appropriate objects of a liberal education, and not only for what they can tell us about ideology but for how they can teach us to hold any ideology in the utmost possible of humility and peace. Politics is no panacea: every modern ideology that has actually been implemented has slaughtered its way across the last two centuries, and Eagleton's bromides about "human emancipation" have served as an alibi for communist atrocities just as liberal humanist rhetoric was the fig leaf on imperialist oppression and certain high-theory concepts have fascist origins. I believe in separating art from politics because if there is nothing outside of politics there will be no place from which to launch a protest when politics grows murderous. The belief that politics supervenes upon aesthetics and ethics leads only to bad art and bad behavior, both beatified as somehow progressive. Eagleton can snidely smirk all he likes about "liberal humanism" and Matthew Arnold and all the rest of the ritually desecrated names of the theory era, but the fact is that the Romantics were right: in a brutal reductionist world, we need art to show us expansive thinking and beautiful living. It is the latter two values, not lessons in political activism or commercials for the pabulum of the corporate monopolies, that we should advocate in the schools. Ironically, a Marxism that denies the claims of the aesthetic serves no one's interests but those of the money-men.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andrew McWhinney

    An excellent, clear, witty, hilarious, and detailed overview of not just different literary theories and their particular mechanics, but also of the historical development of literary studies as an academic discipline and the ways that emergent literary theories have refused to meaningfully confront the harmful ideologies that govern our society. Eagleton's own argument about what kind of literary theory we should hold as literary critics is also I think is a helpful one as well (though I may be An excellent, clear, witty, hilarious, and detailed overview of not just different literary theories and their particular mechanics, but also of the historical development of literary studies as an academic discipline and the ways that emergent literary theories have refused to meaningfully confront the harmful ideologies that govern our society. Eagleton's own argument about what kind of literary theory we should hold as literary critics is also I think is a helpful one as well (though I may be biased in this assessment as it very much mirrors the kind of work that I do). Has a super great bibliography in the back for further reading for each school of thought discussed in the text, which I think will be extremely helpful for those looking to explore some primary texts for each theory. I can't recommend this text enough.

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