How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Terry Eagleton published How to Read Literature in 2013 in the United States and 2014 in Australia…and I missed it. It was only in recent weeks that I managed to lay hands on a copy. It was worth the wait. Eagleton examines literature with the mind-set of a lawyer. He pays scrupulous attention to the micro- and the macro-skills of reading a piece of literature and he considers the values we place on our reading. Heavy duty stuff? By no means. Eagleton’s not-so-secret weapon against pompous writing is his rapier-like wit, his sense of humour, and his joy in what he does.

The crux of everything Eagleton has to say is summed in these words: “Part of what we mean by a ‘literary’ work,” he writes, “is one in which what is said is to be taken in terms of how it is said. It is the kind of writing in which the content is inseparable from the language in which it is presented. Language is constitutive of the reality or experience, rather than simply a vehicle for it” (3). The man practises what he preaches, (to coin a perfectly original saying).

The author structures his book by identifying, and then elaborating on, his key focus areas- Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value. He handles all his chapters with confidence but is supreme in Chapters 1 and 5. However, each chapter contributes something of value. That language depends for its success on both what is said and how it is said, is emphasized over and over. Again, this sounds stuffy and conventional. It is not so, because of the saving grace of this author’s contagious humour.

Eagleton is a proponent of close reading. He turns theory into practice in Chapter One Openings, a chapter in which he takes as a teaching model, some of the most famous opening lines ever written. These are big opening lines that everyone, however scant their literature knowledge, will recognise.  One such example is the first line of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’, described by Eagleton as “a magnificently resonant opening to the most celebrated text in the world, simple and authoritative at the same time” (17). He draws attention to the parallelism between “in the beginning” and “once upon a time” – according to Eagleton, the former is how myths of origin begin, while the latter inaugurates many fairy tales. “Once upon a time” is a signal not to ask certain questions. In the same way “in the beginning” instructs us not to ask at what point in time this event took place. Eagleton doesn’t fudge answers to awkward questions nor refrain from posing questions that will provoke. “There are no events in eternity” (19) and “Time and the universe sprang into being simultaneously” (19). Some of the religious fraternity or, as likely, the sorority, will respond no doubt with derision at that viewpoint.

All of this discussion, which rambles here but not in the text being discussed, deals with the micro-lives of literature. Its fascination is infective and time-greedy. Chapter two begins the discussion at a macro-level, the wider issues such as plot, character, narrative, interpretation, and the exposure of values. As Meghan Florian explained so cogently:

Eagleton proceeds to discuss the nuanced relationship between characters on the page versus how we think of real life people, considering among other things the limitations imposed on the existence of a given character within a text. Additional questions that come from this are whether and how the reader identifies with characters, a question that leads well into the next section, which considers narrative in terms of both structure and voice. As he discusses realism and romanticism, Eagleton considers basic questions such as where the story ends up in terms of a resolution (or lack thereof), and whether the narrator’s voice is reliable — or, can they sometimes be unreliable “to the point of being outright cheats”? (86). 

Condemnation of stock responses is a powerful part of Eagleton’s weaponry. “Hence the postmodern obsession with vampires and Gothic horror, the perverse and peripheral, which has become as much an orthodoxy as thrift and chastity once were” (51). As one might expect, such an approach clears the way to different ways of looking at texts much more closely than before. Eagleton remarks, in pursuant of this more open conversation, that humour is no longer cloaked in the limpidity of Victorian prose. “Few readers of Paradise Lost prefer Milton’s God (both not Victorian, God be praised!), who speaks like a constipated civil servant, to his smouldering, defiant Satan” (51).

In the chapter loosely called Interpretation comes the provocative thought that literature has meanings that have a life, beyond the circumstances obtaining at the time of writing. Works of literature are not reports whose reconstruction of events is feasible. Literary works lift the human spirit beyond what a factual recount can deliver. Why would you want otherwise? It is with a great deal of amusement that the reader absorbs Eagleton’s versatile humour. His assertions relating to Baa Baa Black sheep have to be read to understand the nuances of the improbable versus the impossible. The author’s wry commentary pursues evermore the doctrine that words and ideas are bound together. He names the Scottish poet William McGonagall in a discussion about different resonances between one community and another, and asks, “If Samuel Johnson could complain about some of Shakespeare’s most inventive imagery, is it entirely out of the question that one day McGonagall might be hailed as a major poet?” The response to his own question is improbable, but not impossible.

The chapter on values has a seasoned approach entirely consistent with what we’ve read so far, and its seriousness is tempered, as expected, by dry humour that only Eagleton can discharge so well. His comment that American creative writing courses have an air of spontaneity which is almost entirely fabricated is outrageous (197) but a good safety valve in the stern-ness of serious discussion.

I will not go into Eagleton’s discussion of the opening lines to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I do not own a tin hat of the quality Eagleton must possess.

A fine book that will honour my shelves until infinity meets time, that’s a certainty.

Florian, Meghan. “Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature – a review” Englewood Review of Books, June 2013.

How to Read Literature

(2013)

By Terry Eagleton

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-24764-0

232pp; $29.99

To order a copy of How to Read Literature at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

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