How to Read Literature


Terry Eagleton


Terry Eagleton is my favourite working-class lapsed Catholic Marxist literary theorist. It’s a shortish list, I admit, but he’s right there on the very top of the pole.

Despite the pleasure I’ve always gotten from Eagleton’s work — Why Marx Was Right, The Illusions of Postmodernism, The Gatekeeper  — I was more than a little put off by the beginning of How to Read Literature. Luckily, my discomfort dissipated long before the end of the book.

At the very start, Eagleton offers this book (HTRL, from now on) as a first book on literary criticism for “beginners,” for readers new to critical evaluation. He must have been kidding!

I taught English literature to high school seniors for a very long time, and I can tell you without any doubt that HTRL would have immediately and completely overwhelmed all but a very, very few of them. Maybe Eagleton’s idea of what constitutes a “beginner” is radically different from my own? Maybe, for him, a “beginner” is anyone without an Oxbridge Honours degree in English Literature?

I have no other explanation for why a book for “beginners” launches early in the first chapter into a long, complex, subtle, and potentially-daunting discursion on the opening lines of A Passage to India. And it doesn’t help that any deep appreciation of the rest of Eagleton’s book requires familiarity with dozens of works by virtually all of the canonical authors of the last four hundred years. Really, Terry — for “beginners”?!

Fortunately for us, Eagleton’s familiar flair, energy, and unique viewpoint soon take over, and one reads the rest of the book with an admiring smile. As much as anything else, Eagleton is a showman, often a show-off — but he’s so good at it that you just have to love him for it.

For sheer enthusiasm, you’d go a long way to beat Eagleton’s love of literature. Whether it’s imagery or characterization, deep meanings or deep language, Eagleton is all-in with the authors he assesses. His favourite books are favourites for very many and very specific reasons, and he devotes page after page after page to an admiring but always intelligent disentanglement of their parts and techniques.

And who but Eagleton would put into the same book close readings of Baa Baa Black Sheep and Jude the Obscure, J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens?

When Eagleton ponders the historical development of our notions of language, character, and literary worth, his opinionated stances combine with his considerable insights to generate informative and entertaining pronouncements.

On literary language, Eagleton writes that “Language in its everyday state is shop-soiled and inauthentic, and only by doing violence to it can it become supple enough to reflect our experience.” He cautions readers not to rush past the writing to get to the meaning:

The most common mistake students of literature make is to go straight for what the poem or novel says, setting aside the way that it says it. To read like this is to set aside the ‘literariness’ of the work – the fact that it is a poem or play or novel, rather than an account of the incidence of soil erosion in Nebraska. Literary works are pieces of rhetoric as well as reports. They demand a peculiarly vigilant kind of reading.

When it comes to characters, Eagleton explains that “the shift from character as the peculiar mark of an individual to character as the individual himself is bound up with a whole social history.”

It belongs, in a word, to the rise of modern individualism. Individuals are now defined by what is peculiar to them, such as their signature or inimitable personality. What distinguishes us from each other is more important than what we have in common.

While “a completely original literary figure would slip through the net of language, leaving us with nothing whatsoever to say,” Eagleton claims that “nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could share a beer with Fagin.”

Indeed, it’s in the chapter on character that Eagleton is most convincing. He argues that “what it feels like to be a person is not quite the same for Franz Kafka as it is for George Eliot, and certainly not for whoever wrote the Upanishads or the Book of Daniel.” He centres this difference on a changing society:

Thinkers like Aristotle are perfectly aware that human beings have an inner life. It is just that they do not typically start from there, as so much Romantic and modernist writing does. Instead, they tend to place this inner life in the context of action, kinship, history and the public world. We have inner lives only because we belong to a language and a culture.

He rightly claims that “once you start to see human consciousness as unfathomably intricate, it is hard to contain it within the well-defined limits of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jim Hawkins. Instead, it begins to spill out over the edges, seeping into its surroundings as well as into other selves.”

Eagleton observes that this new view of the individual generated characters that are as often tragic as they are liberated. He writes, “This indeterminacy is not always to be applauded, as postmodernists tend to assume. It can involve a traumatic sense of loss and anxiety. Having too little identity can be quite as disabling as having too much.”

Eagleton is at his most judgemental when he considers the criteria for evaluating the worth of a piece of literature. He notes that “enjoyment is more subjective than evaluation.”

Whether you prefer peaches to pears is a question of taste, which is not quite true of whether you think Dostoevsky a more accomplished novelist than John Grisham. Dostoevsky is better than Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga. Anyone who understands fiction or golf well enough would be almost bound to sign up to such judgements. There comes a point at which not recognising that, say, a certain brand of malt whisky is of world-class quality means not understanding malt whisky. A true knowledge of malts would include the ability to make such discriminations.

And to those who object to the book as a whole with the argument that times have changed, that serious literature is passé, Eagleton ends HTRL with this rejoinder:

Hamlet’s last words are ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story . . . the rest is silence.’ Steve Jobs’s last words were ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.’ Some might feel that there has been a certain falling-off here.

For beginners, no, not at all, despite the author’s claims. But for the rest of us, How to Read Literature is itself often a delightful read.


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