Terry Eagleton: Literary Theory – Introduction

By September 2, 2013 October 2nd, 2018 No Comments

photo (23)I’m not a very good reader; and I’m not very good with literary theory. So, god knows why but I spend a bit of time trying to further acquaint myself with – in the very least – some of the basics of criticism.  In order to help keep myself from ‘losing the plot’ of the work, I am writing notes – crib sheets – as I read Terry Eagleton’s famous Literary Theory: An Introduction.  So, then, here we go, as I post them for my own edification and access, if no one else’s – though if, hapless stranger, you have stumbled upon this, feel free to add your corrections, thoughts, and suggestions in the comments.

(N.B. I try to use quotation marks where appropriate, but – this being wholly informal, and about trying to process the ideas more than pay tribute to the text per se – I may quote without signification; no page numbers are cited.)

What is Literature?

Literary theory is the theory of literature. So, then, what is literature?


• Not necessarily; much that is considered literature is not typically imaginative – certain (but by no means all) essays, orations, treatises, and so on are literature without the extensive invention of other literary genres.

• Fact and fiction is a fairly recent binary: ancient sagas blended the two; early ‘novels’ could be journalistic (i.e. ‘fact’-based); earlier (vis-à-vis the present) news reports were not always (often?) considered purely factual.

SOME HISTORY IS LITERATURE: The standards by which we divide and differentiate history from literature are modern: the Bible’s authors, and Gibbon, e.g., likely thought they were writing the truth; we don’t think they wrote the truth.

SOME FICTION IS NOT LITERATURE: comic books and some genre novels – whether inherently (i.e. generically) trashy or simply poorly executed – are not considered literature.

• Any genre can admit creativity and imagination, without it becoming literature per se; in other words, creativity and imagination aren’t the property of literature alone.


• Literature ‘transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech’; it is ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech’ (Roman Jakobson).

• This is the position of Russian Formalists.  They distanced themselves from mystical symbolist approaches; they wished to look, quasi-scientifically, at how texts worked, in technical terms.  Literature has ‘its own … laws, structures and devices’; Literature can be analysed, like a machine made of words.  They were not interested in content; content was the fodder, the excuse for literature – literary studies should be divorced from psychology and sociology, which means it should not bother with content.

• Formalists studied Literature as a collection of devices – sound, imagery, syntax, etc. – and no more than that.  These devices estranged and defamiliarized the material to which they were applied.  Our real world conversations are ‘automatized’; literature makes language more noticeable, makes the objects recorded more ‘perceptible.’

*A PROBLEM: To the Formalists, Literature is language that deviates from the norm – but what is the norm? The ordinary language of the ivory tower is generally unlike the ordinary language of labourers; the ordinary language of courtship is generally unlike the ordinary language of religious discourse.  There is no one, single normal language; only a collection of discourses.

*ANOTHER PROBLEM: Not all ‘deviatory’ language is Literature: slang, for example is ‘abnormal’, but not Literature.

• Formalists recognized that literature’s capacity to estrange only worked ‘against a certain normative linguistic background’ – if language became more poetic, old poetry would seem quotidian, for instance; therefore, “‘literariness’ was a function of the differential relations between one sort of discourse and another’.  So, they were finally interested in ‘literariness’ above literature – n.b. literariness could be found in literary texts, but also outside of them, in slang and other artful non-literary (in the conventional sense) discourses.

*A PROBLEM: Much of literature is not obviously estranging, does not draw particular attention to itself – realistic dialogue is not obviously literary; but we know it’s literature because we study it as literature – its context tells us that it is literary, even if the language does not distinguish itself.

• This Formalism was really designed for poetry; when the Formalists dealt with prose, they applied the same techniques; but there are many other critical approaches merited by prose – realistic, naturalistic writing is not so very self-conscious or self-exhibiting; how should we study it?

*ANOTHER PROBLEM: Nearly any kind of writing can be read as estranging – e.g., different words with shared spelling can cause confusion/ambiguity, if context and common sense are not employed; nearly any kind of writing can be read as poetic and device-rich – which suggests, perhaps, literature is whatever is created by or analysed with these literary critical processes.

• However, this remains poetic analysis; but literature is (considered) more than only poetry.


• Literature ‘serves no immediate practical purpose’ and ‘[refers] to a general state of affairs.’

• Because it generalized (or is available to be generalized), Literature may ’employ peculiar language’, may be a ‘way of talking’, a ‘self-referential language.’

*A PROBLEM: Much literature – essays, e.g. – mustn’t be divorced from their content; their ‘point’ is not simply the effects, devices, or non-pragmatic notions collected therein; much literature was written with pragmatic motives (political essays, e.g.).

*ANOTHER PROBLEM: ‘non-pragmatic’ reading privileges interpretation, privileges the reader’s search for significance. Which means, if true: Literature cannot be ‘objectively’ defined; rather, definition comes from one’s choices as a reader, one’s method of reading – not from the nature of what is written.

• Also: obviously ‘non-pragmatic’ writing can be read pragmatically – a poem encodes the vocabulary of the poet’s time and place, his points of reference, aspects of social organization and relationships, e.g.

• Moreover: are we only reading, for example, essays with a ‘literary’ appreciation if we generalize them, looking for what they say about the human condition?  Is our appreciation not ‘literary’ if we cannot find general, ‘cosmic’ truths in a work?

• There are not, on this account, inherent qualities of literature; literature is made by the ‘number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing’; literature is ‘any kind of writing which … somebody values highly.’ This is a functional, not an ontological definition.

*A PROBLEM with the ‘practical’-‘non-practical’ binary: this is a historically specific binary; other societies derive much that is practical from their literature.

Is Literature FINE WRITING?

*A problem: This would mean that ‘bad literature’ is impossible.

• Perhaps the writing itself doesn’t have to be ‘fine’, but it has to belong to a kind that is considered ‘fine’ – it can be a better or worse example of ‘fine writing’/belles lettres: it is a genre, with good and bad examples.

*A PROBLEM: there is NO objectivity in this definition.  People’s opinions about literature may change – and this changes what ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ literature. A canon is completely a construct. No work is valuable in and of itself; value is a transitive term.

• Subjectivity in defining literature may not be incompatible with an enduring canon:

  • We may still share many of the same preoccupations with the work and its milieu
  • The work may be – what’s the word? – imprecise enough that we can remake it every generation; in other words, it ‘leaves room’ for the imposition of changing values and critical approaches; there are opportunities for engagement with such works across time and place.

• A subjective definition of literature is unstable: not unstable because values are unstable per se, with facts as their stable counterpart; unstable because the decision to acknowledge one fact over another itself encodes a value system and is variable – e.g., it’s easy to picture another society in which intelligence is privileged above beauty, in which the ‘facts’ given about a smart, overweight person would be coloured entirely differently than in a society wherein the valuation is reversed.  Statements presume ‘that those statements are worth making, perhaps more worth making than certain others’.

• Factual statements may often be ‘phatic’, or concerned with the art of communication itself – they may establish rapport, build trust, establish authority through the exchange of information (or through a giving-taking of information, as they case may be).  All knowledge, all thoughts are the results of value-judgements – even the suggestion that knowledge should be ‘value-free’!

• A note on individual values: subjectivity is only permitted within parameters that reflect a society’s values, i.e. the limits imposed by a culture upon the values of an individual – cultural values demarcate the extremes of its citizens’ values.

• These social values – the ‘largely concealed structure of values which informs and underlies our factual statements’ – is an aspect of ideology.  N.b. Ideology does not refer to every instance of every deeply held belief of members within a certain society, but only those ‘which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.’  An example is given: in one experiment (of IA Richards, for what it’s worth), students failed to positively differentiate canonical authors from obscure ones – however, what they looked for, the criteria by which they measured these works, was repetitive and predictable.  Their subjectivity was exercised within an ideological framework; they picked the ‘wrong’ authors, though they used the ‘right’ criteria; their picks could be called ‘their own’, but their values were ideological – and the ownership of their choices is, ipso facto, complicated to say the least.

• Literature cannot be pinned down as ‘objective’ and descriptive; it cannot be pinned down as whimsically ‘subjective’ – for subjectivity exists within defined limits of permitted beliefs (which are, we might say, ‘factual’ or, at least, as ‘unshakeable as the Empire State Building’).



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