Literary Theory Analysis
by Terry Eagleton

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Literary Theory

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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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beginning of the century to the current critical environment, where traditional academic and cultural values have been superseded by influences from extra literary fields such as linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and politics.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 creator does...

(The entire section is 1,387 words.)