Eagleton argues that literature as a field of study is itself a kind of ideology. He traces the rise of "literature" from its roots in eighteenth-century "belles lettres" through the Romantic distinction between "reason" and "imagination," the Victorian impulse to use English studies as a way to indoctrinate the middle and lower classes in British ruling class values, into the twentieth century. In particular, Eagleton locates the rise of what we now think of as "English" with academics like F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot, and I. A. Richards. Eagleton's main point is that English as an academic subject was invented to serve a specific, largely conservative, ideological purpose.
Eagleton is mainly concerned with three periods:
The Romantics: Influenced by the political revolutions in France and America, the Romantics privileged imagination over "hard fact." While the notions of "poetry" and "creative imagination" were ideologies deployed against the Utilitarianism of the rising middle classes, Eagleton argues that it also gave rise to a kind of artistic elitism that became (and remains) a hallmark of English studies.
The Victorians: Eagleton focuses on Matthew Arnold and the rise of English as a school subject during the nineteenth century. With the decline of organized religion and the rise of state power, Arnold saw the study of English literature in school as a way to indoctrinate the lower and middle classes in "English" values—that is, the "timeless truths" that happen to coincide with the values of the state.
F. R. Leavis and Cambridge: Eagleton traces the idea of the "work of literature" as a discrete aesthetic object worthy of study to Cambridge University in 1920s. Leavis in particular is credited with asserting English as the "arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence... were made the object of the most intensive scrutiny." The place where this "scrutiny" happens is the literary text; this gave rise to the notion of "close reading" and the idea that "meaning" in literature happens "inside" the text independent of any historical or biographical context, a move that is itself, Eagleton argues, its own ideology.