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.

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

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