Reading Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory is not unlike attending a particularly good series of introductory lectures: a revelation of new and startlingly intelligible terrain if you know little about its subject; pleasurable and still illuminating if you are already familiar with it.footnote The book’s witty, lucid attack (especially valuable to those otherwise liable to be overawed by the occasionally impressive difficulty of its subject matter) suggests an origin in lecture material; so does the quotable exaggeration of its argumentative instances—(‘“Times change, values don’t” announces an advertisement for a daily newspaper, as though we still believed in killing off infirm infants or putting the mentally ill on public show.’) Less colourfully, the simplicity of Eagleton’s admirable summaries of influential complexities is plainly the result of considerable pedagogic experience. I am also reminded of the lecture-room because the book reads as if addressed to students. Eagleton describes it as ‘a comprehensive introduction to literary theory for those with little or no previous knowledge of the topic’ which suggests an undergraduate audience; and in the concluding chapter, in which, having demolished the credentials of his subject, Eagleton suggests possible directions for future study, he addresses the reader directly as a student of literary criticism (who should now be dis-affected if she/he wasn’t before), warning those still attracted by this mirage that ‘those employed to teach you this form of discourse will remember whether or not you were able to speak it proficiently long after they have forgotten what you said’.

Direction towards a student readership explains a point which might otherwise seem paradoxical: that a book which despises Eng.Lit. and all its works, particularly the accepted Chaucer-to-Larkin of established classics, should nevertheless draw all its illustrations from that canon, its longest analysis of any one text being a psychoanalytic reading of that hardy perennial of the syllabuses, Sons and Lovers. Obviously Eagleton uses this restriction to give himself a common ground of reference with a student readership, and to enable his argument to be intelligible to anyone who has done English for A-level.

These ‘introductory lectures’ are themselves critique as much as exposition. The typical method of Literary Theory consists of an argumentative summary of the tenets of key theoretical groupings: English literature as a humane study; phenomenological criticism and hermeneutics; structuralism and deconstruction. All of these are accused of having in their different ways devoted themselves to evading meaning as much as encountering or producing it. Counter to this exposition of ideology at work and, as Eagleton likes to say, imbricated with it, is an exposition of the processes of ideology and the way these affect not merely people’s capacity for perception but their experience of themselves; (this culminates in the chapter ‘Psychoanalysis’, which usefully summarizes Lacanian Freud). Eagleton’s survey of literary theories finds them finally to be forms of thought-censorship—at one point he defines literary criticism as a form of ‘secondary revision’ smoothing out the potentially subversive contradictions of the texts it pretends to analyse. It emerges from this Machereyan analogy that such criticism is primarily a practice that enables its adepts not to read, or at least not to read dangerously.

The forms which such censorship takes vary with the different genres of criticism. When discussing the rise of English as a humane study, Eagleton locates censorship in the literary critical idiom itself (of which more later) and partly in the establishment of a canon of accepted classics defined as Tradition, which is inevitably arbitrary and yet automatically self-justifying—once the canon is established, its status as construct can be forgotten: it can be (and is) used to invalidate any uppity textual newcomers. Eliot’s ideal Tradition, perhaps partly because it has received such reverential treatment, is the target for one of Eagleton’s funniest satiric passages: ‘The existing classics within the cramped space of the Tradition politely reshuffle their positions and look different in the light of the new masterpiece; but since the newcomer must somehow in principle have been included in the Tradition all along to have gained admission at all, its entry serves to confirm that Tradition’s central values. The Tradition, in other words, can never be caught napping.’

What follows from this comedy is a dismal restriction: if nothing counts as literature unless validated by Tradition as part of the canon, the critic may only give her/his concentrated attention and analytic skills to preselected texts. These restrictions work only obliquely through the publishing market (it’s a rare bookshop even on a campus that would restrict its shelf-space to ‘great Literature’), but very powerfully through educational institutions and the construction of syllabuses. Attempts to alter these are likely to meet objections like: ‘If Kate Chopin was any good she’d have been remembered, like Dickens.’

Once the authority of the canon is challenged, the claim of ‘English’ to be a true discipline is brought into question. Since it has no subject except an arbitrarily and therefore invalidly defined canon, and no unique methodology, it is revealed as not a discipline but a rhetoric, (not in the revised sense offered in the conclusion as the study of language as discursive practice, but simply as a kind of writing). One of Eagleton’s best passages is his account of the exclusions inherent in literary idiom, where he draws a sharp distinction between the experiences of being excluded and of excluding without ever knowing it: ‘Regional dialects of the discourse, so to speak, are acknowledged and sometimes tolerated, but you must not sound as though you are speaking another language altogether. To do so is to realize in the sharpest possible way that critical discourse is power. To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power, for what is more natural and non-dominative than to speak one’s own language?’

A more subtle means of evading textual challenges is offered by the theoretical approaches dealt with in the centre of the book. Hermeneutics and reader-response criticism divert attention from what texts say to how readers experience the consumption (reading) of that saying; while structuralism, though a potential intellectual advance in that its analytic tools can be used to show how meaning is produced in language, characteristically empties the texts it analyses of their content to concentrate on their internal oppositions, conventions and ways of constructing their reader-positions.