What does Terry Eagleton want to explain to us in "Introduction: What Is Literature?" in Literary Theory: An Introduction?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Eagleton's "Introduction" addresses the question made necessary by the study of literary theory, which is a system or systems for critically understanding literature. Eagleton wants to explain the answer to the question "What is literature?" Let's look at how he answers this question and at what his conclusion is.

To answer "What is literature?" Eagleton examines several different ways of defining literature and points out the difficulties with each of them. He says that Russian formalists reduce everything in a work of literature to the formal, that is structural, parts of the text and equally disregard author and message. He mentions that Formalist Osip Brick once said, in defence of disregarding the author when analyzing literature, that if Pushkin had not lived, Eugene Onegin--which is the textual expression of a material reality--would have been written anyway because it was a textual expression of a present material reality.

Eagleton points out the difficulty with this definition of literature by explaining that a past author, such as Orwell, would be surprised that the subjects and themes they wrote about were not important, but rather the literary devices that upturn reality through "defamiliarization" and other devices, which give a work "literariness," are what is important. 

He also presents the definition that literature is that which is chosen as "fine writing" based on social value-judgements. He discusses how, according to Marxist theory, these value-judgements arise from the ideologies that form the superstructure that create and uphold the power structures in society. The difficulty he points out here is that society is not homogeneous, thus an expected social value-judgement may not be forthcoming when a work is presented as being representative of the social ideology thus leading the work (and author) to be rejected.

With these and many more discussions and examples of proffered answers to what literature is, Eagleton arrives at his definition and at what he wants to explain. In brief, Eagleton concludes that:

  • (1) literature is not objectively determined: that which is called literary may not remain immutably, unchangeably categorized as literature.
  • (2) literature is not a construct of "whimsical" choice on arbitrary principles of "taste."
  • (3) literature presents linguistic expressions of social and personal representations of beliefs within non-homogeneous social ideologies which holds "literary language as a set of deviations from a [conversational] norm."
  • (4) literature is derived from strong undercurrents of social ideologies representing strongly rooted (often invisible) belief systems.
  • (5) literature supports the "assumptions" of the social ideologies by which select groups "exercise and maintain power" over the social construct

Eagleton ends by suggesting that his assertions can be proven and chooses the history of English literature as a starting place for that proof (Chapter 1: "The Rise of English").

[S]ocial ideologies ... refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others. If this seems a far-fetched assertion, a matter of private prejudice, we may test it out by an account of the rise of 'literature' in England.