How To Read Literature

howtoreadHow To Read Literature
by Terry Eagleton
2013/ 232 pages
rating  9 /nonfict –  lit criticism

It’s been a long time since I read a book on literary criticism but it was fun when I did and I read quite a lot (but more theory than criticism, I think).    This book is really new on the market and I’ve never read anything by Eagleton,  although I’d heard and read his name often enough,  so,  with the recommendation of a couple friends,  I went ahead.


Terry Eagleton

The very prolific and often controversial Eagleton comes from a lower middle class Irish family but was educated at Oxford.  His professional career included teaching all over the world while he embraced  militant Marxist literary theory enhanced with some radical left Christian theology.   Interesting guy.  He must have mellowed a lot.

This is an entry-level book or a book for refreshing the old knowledge base. It was a little of both for me.   I don’t necessarily “agree” with everything,  but mostly it’s right on.   He skips the politics but mentions religion a few times.

Eagleton examines novels,  poetry and drama from Chaucer to contemporary times.  He looks at “Openings”  focusing on first lines and the meaning of the term “literary.”   Openings’ also deals with the way that authors either address the reader directly in some way or completely ignore the reader as if s/he doesn’t exist.

judeobsChapter 2 deals with characters and is called that, “Character.”   and clarifying the term “character” is interesting on its own.   I’m enjoying the historical aspect here – the changes which have come  since the dawn of literature.  He also deals with empathy/ sympathy and types/stereotypes as well as the great realists,  Tolstoy,  Balzac, Stendahl and Mann who deal with characters caught in the “web of complex mutual dependencies.”    “Modernism, by contrast, pitches the whole concept of identity into crisis.”  And then he takes a closer look at Sue from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  (p.66)

So far I’m familiar with almost all of this but it’s wonderful reading it and there are new tidbits or ways of saying a thing which is wonderfully illuminating or clarifying.

Chapter 3 deals with the narrative and narrators – nothing really new but interestingly stated.  Fiction is neither true nor false because “only assertions about reality can be true of false.”  (Agreed.)   And there is a little discussion about omniscient narrators,  unreliable narrators,  and the distance between an author and a narrator.  Also included are endings –   “The Victorians believed that one of the functions of art was to raise the reader’s spirits,” therefore happy endings.   (p. 103)  Modernist endings could be more “unsettling.”

Chapter 4 concerns interpretation and again,  nothing much new.  It’s a nice refresher though and nice to see some of my old ideas are still valid.   What is “realism,”  (tough question!)

“There is a difference between being true to the facts and being true to life.  (p. 121)

Eagleton uses Baa-baa Black Sheep as a sample for several things here  –great expectations quite well.  And a long section.  Also does a long interpretation of Dickens’ Great Expectations as an example.

Good quotes from the chapter:

It is as though reader and author become co-creators of the work, as the reader is drawn into the twists and turns of the syntax in a struggle to unpack the author’s meaning. James feels the need to spin his syntax into a spider’s web in order to catch every nuance of experience and every flicker of consciousness. This super-subtlety is one of several reasons why modernist works of art can be obscure,  and thus hard to interpret. (pp. 124-125)

Literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings.  (p. 144)

Chapter 5 on value was probably the most difficult chapter for me and it was also kind of boring.  How do we,  and how did others in history,  value literature?  According to absalomEagleton,   Romantics and Modernists valued originality very highly and they wanted the arts to transform life.  Those prior and post-modernists do not nearly as much – they really didn’t think there was much originality.

What makes for a literary classic?  Time and common truths? Coherency? Action and narrative?  Eagleton examines Updike and Faulkner and Nabokov and winds up with some poets.

A literary classic, some critics consider, is not so much a work whose value is changeless as one that is able to generate new meanings over time.” – but that’s not quite enough says Eagleton.  (p. 183-184)

And I love this:

“Knowing what counts as excellence in fiction is likely to decide the issue between Chekhov and Jackie Collins, but not between Chekhov and Turgenev.”   (p. 190)

2 Responses to How To Read Literature

  1. Gabriel Njonjo says:

    I just studied Literary Criticism and Literary Theories last August. Beautiful courses


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