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Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry…

Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983)

by Terry Eagleton

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This book seems to serve three functions. First, it's a reasonable introduction to twentieth century literary theory, not including new historicism. Eagleton doesn't seem to have bothered to read much of the new criticism or the poetry associated with it (for instance, he says The Waste Land "intimates that fertility cults hold the clue to the salvation of the West"), and reads a bit too much English class structure into American life. But he's quite good on reception theory, structuralism and post-structuralism (although he's far too kind to Derrida, and far, far too kind to Kristeva).
Second, it's an exercise in 'Marxism' of the most idiotic kind, which believes that anyone who holds an ideal (e.g., a harmonious society) and reads literature is just "submitting to the political status quo." For someone so keen on bringing politics into things, it's odd that Eagleton spends so little time thinking about the ways that reading literature as an image of harmony and so on might best be considered expressions of *yearning for* rather than *belief in* a harmonious society.
Third, it's a shining example of what literary writing really should be like: polemical, cut and thrust, no nonsense attacks on one hand; rigid statements of faith and belief on the other. You'll know what Mr Eagleton stood for in the '80s once you've read about three pages of this. We're taught today not to say anything that anyone might disagree with- not only is that no fun, it's no way to advance any discussion. This book is seriously, seriously flawed, but I'd much rather re-read it than the essays collected in Cambridge's 'History of Literary Criticism' any day.
Finally, I wonder how Terry feels about his constant attacks on religion in this book. Some might say he was just trying to fit into the radical, epater '80s, no? ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
With great insight and a dynamic approach, Eagleton traces the progression of literary theory by grounding it firmly in the history of its intellectual development and the interplay and contrasts between different schools of thought. His ultimate conclusion that theory move beyond the literary to the cultural, though more commonplace today, is still shocking to some intellectuals and critics. Though this book is now a couple decades old, it provides a well-rounded understanding of the foundations and development of literary theory in the twentieth century. It does not address, for example, queer theory, but it gives the reader a basis from where they could read a piece of criticism that utilizes queer theory and easily understand its methods.

I read this book while a junior at University and wish I would have read it sooner. I now feel like I can approach works by thinkers such as Barthes, Bakhtin, or Lacan without hesitation. This should be read by all English majors, and sooner rather than later. Theory gives us the tools to talk about and analyze texts in order to fully investigate their cultural implications, and this book is a vital tool in beginning to understand what theory is. ( )
2 vote poetontheone | Sep 25, 2013 |
Just as you don't have to be a Marxist to appreciate how insightful Marxist economists can be... in the same way, Terry Eagleton manages to cut through centuries of assumptions in literary criticism to reveal some startling home truths about the role books play in society. Don't be a smarmy Martin Amis type and ignore what this guy has to say. ( )
  Philip_Lee | Apr 1, 2013 |
This book provides an excellent overview of 20th century literary theory. It's fairly short and quite readable. What I really liked about it was Eagleton's manner of properly acknowledging the importance of certain figures and theoretical movements for about five to seven pages, then devoting a somewhat lesser amount of time to pointing out their shortcomings. I'd get excited with each new chapter, because I'd see words--Structuralism, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory--that I was somewhat familiar with. I knew that I'd learn how they fit in to the history of literary criticism and how they reflected changing positions with respect to the text, the author, the reader, literature, genre, politics, passion, psychology and ideology. Just when I was convinced that they were pretty solid tools for reading books, I'd come to the part where Eagleton respectfully demonstrated their often serious flaws. In doing so he doesn't really strip of them of their importance, but rather help you understand why they're not "magic bullets" or "the one right way to read a book."

The book begins by asking what literature is. By the end of the first chapter, every definition proposed by Eagleton has been refuted. Defining what is and isn't literature is highly problematic. After that, there is a chapter devoted to the rise of English departments and the birth of modern criticism in the early part of the 20th century, a chapter devoted to the way that the author, the text, thought the reader and the world all relate to each other in phenomenological and hermeneutic schools of criticism that draw from the work of philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger. Then there's a chapter on structuralism, a chapter on post-structuralism, a chapter on psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan, et cetera) and a final chapter where Eagleton presents his conclusion. In a few words, he recognizes that a great majority of the literary theories discussed in his book are inextricably linked to the power structure of modern society, and that all criticism can be seen in this way to be political. He proposes a focus on discourse and a return to the study of rhetoric under the title of "discourse theory." I'm not sure if that does his position much justice, but I felt inclined to agree with him on the idea that students of literature should see their studies as a sort of apprenticeship whereby they gain entrance to a discourse that encompasses all of the movements this book presents and analyzed.

It's a start. I feel like I have a better idea of what literary theory is. I can (somewhat) understand what people are talking about when they talk about a structuralist reading of such-and-such a book, or about the "death of the author" and the "birth of the reader," or stuff like that. Now I would like to begin reading theoretical texts that particularly appeal to me. I'm going to start with Michel Foucault's The Order of Things and a book of Essaies critiques by Roland Barthes. I read both of their names a lot, and I'd like to begin working through some of their critical works so that I can see how they read books. I'd also appreciate any suggestions as to other good "Introduction to Literary Theory" type of books. ( )
2 vote msjohns615 | Jan 4, 2012 |
A quarter of a century on from its original publication, Literary Theory: An Introduction still conjures the subversion, excitement and exoticism that characterized theory through the 1960s and 70s, when it posed an unprecedented challenge to the literary establishment. Eagleton has added a new preface to this anniversary edition to address more recent developments in literary studies, including what he describes as “the growth of a kind of anti–theory”, and the idea that literary theory has been institutionalized. Insightful and enlightening, Literary Theory: An Introduction remains the essential guide to the field.
1 vote RKC-Drama | Mar 24, 2011 |
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Some argue that literary theory has paled considerably after the heady days of the structuralists, post-structuralists, post-modernists, post-colonialism, practitioners of New Historicism, eco-feminists, and queer theorists. However, as Eagleton (English literature, U. of Manchester) points out, the field is still dynamic, dense and deep. In elegant, rigorous and relatively kindly fashion he covers all the major movements, including the fascinating growth of anti-theory, describing how the study of literature grew and developed, the rise of phenomenology, hermeneutics and reception theory, the resulting growth of structuralism and the study of semiotics, the concepts and contributions of post-structuralism, and the long relationship between criticism and the concepts of psychoanalysis. He commentary on political criticism and the various movements it engendered is particularly helpful to those just starting to sort out literary critics of the present and recent past.… (more)

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