This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, see our privacy statement

New Left Review I/90, March-April 1975

Terry Eagleton

Ideology and Literary Form

Bourgeois ideology in nineteenth-century England confronted a severe problem. [1] I am extremely grateful to the members of my Marxist criticism class at Oxford University for their active, patient collaboration in the production of this article. Its withered roots in the sparse soil of utilitarianism seriously limited its ability to produce a richly symbolic, potently affective set of mythologies capable of permeating the texture of lived experience and so of performing the functions of an ideology in the fullest sense. Permanently crippled in phenomenological capacity, it needed to have constant resort to the Romantic humanist heritage—to that nebulous, elusive amalgam of Burkean conservatism and German idealism, forged by the later Coleridge and transmitted to Carlyle, Disraeli, Arnold and Ruskin, which offered an idealist critique of bourgeois social relations coupled with a consecration of the rights of capital. Part of the specific complexity of English nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology, founded on a complex conjuncture of bourgeois and aristocratic classes within the hegemonic bloc, lies in this contradictory unity of ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ elements, whereby an impoverished empiricist liberalism exploits the symbolically fertile, metaphysically coercive resources of Romantic humanism, with its nostalgic, reactionary, quasi-feudal social models, to stabilize and ratify bourgeois property relations. The ‘Culture and Society’ tradition is the literary record of this ideological conjuncture; [2] See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950, London 1958. John Stuart Mill, mechanistically harnessing Coleridge to Bentham in the late eighteen thirties, provides one of its more palpable instances. [3] See F. R. Leavis (ed.), Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, London 1950. Eric Hobsbawm has noted the ideological limitations of ‘pure’ utilitarianism—how its de-mystification of ‘natural rights’ could seriously weaken the force of ‘metaphysical’ sanctions in the defence of property, substituting as an ideological control the considerably less powerful, politically more volatile category of ‘utility’ (The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, London 1964, p. 236).

Subscribe for just £45 and get free access to the archive
Please login on the left to read more or buy the article for £3


Terry Eagleton, ‘Ideology and Literary Form’, NLR I/90: £3

If you want to create a new NLR account please register here

’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’