Literary Theory

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This is an unusual book. It is the best introduction to date for college students to current critical theory. Without standing on the shoulders of earlier works of this kind by Robert Scholes, Jonathan Culler, and Edith Kurzweill—to name only a few—Terry Eagleton manages to do a better job than his predecessors in clarifyiing the theoretical distinctions between New Critical formalism and post-Structuralist ideas. The strength of his approach comes largely from the way he traces the historical movement from the rise of English studies at the beginning of the century to the current critical environment, where traditional academic and cultural values have been superseded by influences from extra literary fields such as linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and politics.

What makes this book truly unusual, however, is that its pedagogical clarity is in constant struggle with Eagleton’s own Marxist theory. At times the Marxism is strident and sounds more like a bias than an intellectual point of view. When Eagleton suggests that literary symbolism, with its aesthetic of organic unity, projected the literary work of art as “an absolute spiritual truth” used to bully the lower classes “to forget their grievances,” one becomes skeptical of his objectivity, and when he blames the success of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting in the 1950’s on the political inertia resulting from New Critical “disinterestedness,” it seems that Eagleton has descended to some witch-hunting of his own. When he attacks American ego-psychology for “underwriting middle-class society,” it becomes clear that he has descended to something worse. Nevertheless, despite such lapses into sneering humor and below-the-belt polemics, Eagleton’s analytical imagination, Marxist or otherwise, seems to thrive on the intellectual complexities he has contracted to elucidate. The linguistic determinism at the heart of so much current literary theory is congenial to the social determinism of his Marxism; a sympathetic dialectic seems to energize his thinking so that when he discusses literary theory he is also thinking social change. His own language reveals the critic. The quotation marks and italics in the following are Eagleton’s own: “The hallmark of the ’linguistic revolution’ of the twentieth century, from Saussure and Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that meaning is not simply something ’expressed’ or ’reflected’ in language: it is actually produced by it.” He can be even more explicit: “One of the themes of this book has been that there is no such thing as a purely ’literary’ response: all such responses, not least those to literary form, to the aspects of a work which are sometimes jealously reserved to the ’aesthetic,’ are deeply imbricated with the kind of social and historical individuals we are.”

What appeals most to Eagleton in current literary theory is its dethroning of the creative artist. He attacks E. D. Hirsch’s intentionalist theories as a step back to feudalism. Authorial intention, Eagleton argues, is no more reliable as validation of meaning than the landed titles of legal inheritance; in both cases, a privileged position is won by force. By discrediting the cult of creativity, the notion of authorial originality and genius, and other intentional theories of the expressive imagination, today’s literary theory is bringing down an elitist establishment: By shifting to “reception theory,” the most recent development of hermeneutics, criticism has given literature back to the “underprivileged” reader. Eagleton sees this shift from text to reader as a healthy rejection of New Critical text-worship, which, although it deflated intentionalism, elevated the literary work to iconicity, the opiate of the common reader. Hermeneutics liberates the reader to interpret the text on his own terms, but Eagleton is quick to remind one that dethroning the...

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creator does not permit the reader, in any naïve sense, to take his place. The reader, as one knows from Structuralism and semiotics (and Marxism), is a fated creature, as limited as is the artist by the language and society in which he lives.

Eagleton is at his best as a teacher when he explains the basic principles of Structuralist theory. He begins by suggesting that Northrop Frye’s “totalization” of all literary genres in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) prepared the Anglo-American mind for the shock of Continental Structuralism. Frye’s four narrative categories (comic, romantic, tragic, ironic), identified with the four mythoi or seasons, suggested an anthropological equivalence that anticipates the much leaner schema of relations characteristic of Structuralist analytics. Frye’s structures come from literature itself; Structuralism’s schema derive from the simplest grammatical paradigms or the binary relationships of signs. Eagleton coins a little story, an allegorical tale, and then he changes the characters to clarify the gist of Structuralist theory: “You could replace father and son, pit and sun, with entirely different elements—mother and daughter, bird and mole—and still have the same story. As long as the structure of relations between the units is preserved, it does not matter what items you select.”

Although Eagleton admires the scientific objectivity of Structuralism and its sister discipline semiotics, which he defines as literary criticism transfigured by structural linguistics, his fondness cools when he contemplates the indifference of the Structuralist approach to the human subject. While Structuralism makes the study of literature less subjective and impressionistic, its constant focus on the “literary system” at hand—a whole system of codes, conventions, and genres—tends to blur or oversimplify not only the individual text but also the use of language itself. One can never, insists Eagleton, understand the “intentions of a piece of language” without a grasp of its immediate purpose. No universal formula can be so inclusive as to account for the full thrust of a language act, and that thrust is impossible without a human subject. Eagleton’s Marxism pulls him both ways. He is attracted to the debunking of a “creator-capitalist” aesthetics in Structuralism, but at the same time he rebels at the notion that the revolutionary act is a linguistic and therefore, most probably, a metaphysical impossibility. When he distinguishes Structuralism from Deconstruction, it is clear that he is not only tracking the historical path from one to the other but also working out the difference between them as a possible solution to the tensions between determinism and revolution in his own Marxism:Structuralism was generally satisfied if it could carve up a text into binary oppositions (high/low, light/dark, Nature/Culture and so on) and expose the logic of their working. Deconstruction tries to show how such oppositions, in order to hold themselves in place, are sometimes betrayed into inverting or collapsing themselves, or need to banish to the text’s margins certain niggling details which can be made to return and plague them . . . to dismantle the oppositions which govern the text as a whole.

Transformation in language and/or art parallels radical politics for Eagleton, and so, finally, he praises feminist criticism as the most impressive achievement of current literary theory, because it brings together the liberating possibilities of Structuralism, Deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and various hermeneutical approaches for a revolutionary purpose. He also praises Harold Bloom, who braves Deconstructionist readings in the absolute faith that he can recover a Romantic humanism which will reinstate “author, intention, and the power of the imagination.” Eagleton does not really believe that Bloom’s enterprise can succeed. The archenemy of Romanticism, rationalism, has been discredited, but the “intolerable skepticism” of post-Structuralist thought renders Bloom’s humanism purely an assertion of his own will. The “practical” solution, Eagleton pounds home in his last chapter, lies in what he calls a political criticism. Humanism, despite Bloom’s sincere individualism, is only a disguise for a return to bourgeois tyranny. What is needed is a “strategy” of literary inquiry that insists on asking not what the object is or how one should approach it, but why one should want to engage it in the first place. The why must be asked by all men and women of all social classes. Only then will literature transform itself into an object that one can finally understand. Terry Eagleton’s closing tone is that of vates: teacher and preacher.


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Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1483.

Nation. CCXXXVIII, January 21, 1984, p. 59.

New Statesman. CV, June 3, 1983, p. 24.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, December 8, 1983, p. 43.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, September 4, 1983, p. 9.

Times Literary Supplement. June 10, 1983, p. 587.

Wilson Quarterly. VII, Winter, 1983, p. 151.