How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton: Not so much eagle-eyed as bird-brained

A book that purports “to provide readers and students with some of the basic tools of the critical trade” is chock-full of critical fallacies and flawed reasoning.

How to Read Literature
Terry Eagleton
Yale UniversityPress, 256pp, £18.99

“Like clog dancing, the art of analysing works of literature is almost dead on its feet,” announces the preface to How to Read Literature. “A whole tradition of what Nietzsche called ‘slow reading’ is in danger of sinking withouta trace.” Never fear: Terry’s here, with his “guide for beginners”.

In Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), Eagleton argued that literature as a category does not exist. His two most recent books mark a shift: The Event of Literature (2012) suggested that a common-sense definition of “literature” is possible. Now he aims “to provide readers and students with some of the basic tools of the critical trade”.

The question is, how well does Eagleton deploy those tools? You might expect the theory to inform the criticism. For instance, he has a repetitive formula: he takes a wellknown phrase and suggests a quirky alternative significance for it on another planet. “‘Smoking Kills’ means what it means only by force of social convention. There may be a language somewhere in the cosmos in which it means a song for several voices.”

So, meaning depends on context. Yet he does not internalise this insight: “We should not be afraid to impute failings to the Bard. His comedy . . . hardly leaves us rolling in the aisles,” he writes, without acknowledgement that the early-modern funny bone responded to different stimuli from ours.

The book begins with the cautionary tale of two students talking about fictional characters as if they were real. “It is important . . . not to confuse fiction with reality,” Eagleton warns, though no one is ever seriously in danger of doing so. Over and over, he insists on the fictiveness of fiction: “All that exists of Ishmael as a character is a set of black marks on a page.” However, like his students, he assesses characters in crudely “real-life” terms: “Jane is hardly the most agreeable heroine one could hope to share a taxi with”; Clarissa “is not the kind of woman one would gladly accompany on a pub crawl”; “If Sue were alive today, she could sue for defamation of character”. Sue, as Eagleton might note in another mood, was never alive at all.

In the chapter on narrative, he subscribes to every critical fallacy going. “Almost all Victorian novels end on an affirmative note. Even the work that sails nearest to outright tragedy, Wuthering Heights, manages to pull off a tentatively positive conclusion.” He makes this ridiculous claim after discussions of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Modernism is set in opposition to realism, though he never explains what he means by realism. He tells us that realist novels “generally try to pretend that they are not novels at all but true-life reports”, yet this is unworkable as a definition: the high priestess of 19th century realism, George Eliot, breaks out of the narrative of Adam Bede to discuss its relation to 17th-century Dutch painting.

“Realism” includes all mimetic writing, and therefore much of modernism. James Joyce claimed that if Dublin were destroyed it would be possible to rebuild it from Ulysses; his language might look fragmentary and experimental, but that fragmentation is frequently employed to imitate reality: “A cavalcade in easy trot along Pembroke quay passed, outriders leaping, leaping in their, in their saddles.” How does Eagleton deal with Joyce the modernist’s loudly realist project? By wilfully misunderstanding it. “It is true that [Bloom] is also a fully rounded, painstakingly detailed figure, but this is among other things a satirical send-up of the realist or naturalistic notion of character . . . Bloom is the creation of a dissident Irishman taking a smack at the stoutly realist British.”

I’ve saved the worst till last: Eagleton on the hidden significance of fictional names. In Great Expectations, “Abel Magwitch is an able magic witch who can transform a poor boy into a prince . . . As the name ‘Havisham’ suggests, to have is a sham.” This is thinking by numbers. Literally so – in Harry Potter, counting syllables provides a clue to social class. “Hermione Granger . . . is the most refined of the trio of protagonists, with no fewer than six syllables . . . Harry Potter, the conventionally middle-class hero, has four neatly balanced syllables . . . while the plebeian Ron Weasley has a niggardly three.” (“The plebeian” Ron – Ronald – Weasley has brothers called Percy and Charlie, and his father is the magical equivalent of a civil servant.)

Eagleton can be read as an ironic inversion of conventional heraldic symbolism: not so much eagle-eyed as bird-brained, thinking without a trace.

Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté

Eagleton's idea that all Victorian novels, including Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbevilles", end on an affirmative note is ridiculous. Photograph: Getty Images
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The most dangerous show on TV: is The Jump becoming a celebrity Hunger Games?

Will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?!

First they came for former EastEnders actor Louis Lytton. Then, they came for former EastEnders actor Sid Owen. Then, they came for former Holby City actor Tina Hobley. But now, the third season of Channel 4’s The Jump has moved on from retired soap stars to claim a new set of victims: Britain’s top athletes, including Rebecca Adlington, Beth Tweddle and Linford Christie.

The winter sports reality show The Jump takes your average collection of D-list celebrities, with a few sports personalities mixed in for good measure, and asks them to compete in a series of alpine challenges – skeleton, bobsleigh, snowboarding and, of course, ski jumping – while Davina McCall says things like, “Look at that jump. Just look at it. Are you nervous?”

It sounds fairly mild, but Sir Steve Redgrave, Ola Jordan, Sally Bercow and Melinda Messenger have all withdrawn from the programme after injuries in the past.

Riskier than I’m a Celebrity, Splash! and Dancing on Ice mixed together, the third season of The Jump is fast turning into a dystopian celebrity harm spectacle, a relentless conveyor belt of head injuries and fractured bones.

So far, seven out of the competition’s 12 contestants have sustained injuries. First, Lytton tore a ligament in her thumb, before being rushed to hospital after a training incident at the end of last month. Then, Owen fell on his leg during the first episode having previously complained of “a bad crash during training” for the skeleton.

Adlington (who openly wept with fear when she first gazed upon the titular ski jump, described as being the “height of three double decker buses”) was hospitalised and withdrew from the show after a televised fall left her with a dislocated shoulder: she said the pain was “worse than childbirth”. Hobley soon followed with a dislocated elbow.

Tweddle suffered a particularly bad accident during rehearsals, and now remains in hospital after having her spine fused together, which involved having a piece of bone taken from her hip. On Monday, Christie became the fourth contestant to be hospitalised in the space of two weeks, pulling his hamstring. As of today, Made in Chelsea cast member Mark Francis is the fourth contestant to withdraw, after fracturing his ankle.

In response to criticisms, Channel 4 reminded viewers that 46 of their celebrity participants have so far emerged unscathed across the three series, which seems like a remarkably low bar to set for a major reality TV series: “no one’s been seriously hurt so far” is not much of a safety procedure.

Judge Eddie the Eagle implied that contestents were injuring themselves through their own laziness and coffee obsessions. He wrote in the Daily Mail:

“Those competitors should be up and down the steps relentlessly – jump and go back, jump and go back. Instead too many will have a couple of goes before going off for a coffee and forgetting to return because they're feeling tired.”

But as the celebrity casualty list approaches double figures and more than 12 viewers have officially complained, the channel has begun an urgent safety review of the show, after one insider reportedly labelled it “the most dangerous show on television”.

It all seemed like fun and games when we were watching reality TV stars rolling around in the snow in embarrassing lurid lyrca suits. But will it take a life-threatening injury, or worse, before the madness ends?! Pray for Brian McFadden. Pray for Sarah Harding. Pray for Tamara Beckwith. Pray for the end of The Jump.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.