How to Read Literature

How to Read Literature

by Terry Eagleton


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A literary master’s entertaining guide to reading with deeper insight, better understanding, and greater pleasure​

What makes a work of literature good or bad? How freely can the reader interpret it? Could a nursery rhyme like Baa Baa Black Sheep be full of concealed loathing, resentment, and aggression? In this accessible, delightfully entertaining book, Terry Eagleton addresses these intriguing questions and a host of others. How to Read Literature is the book of choice for students new to the study of literature and for all other readers interested in deepening their understanding and enriching their reading experience.

In a series of brilliant analyses, Eagleton shows how to read with due attention to tone, rhythm, texture, syntax, allusion, ambiguity, and other formal aspects of literary works. He also examines broader questions of character, plot, narrative, the creative imagination, the meaning of fictionality, and the tension between what works of literature say and what they show. Unfailingly authoritative and cheerfully opinionated, the author provides useful commentaries on classicism, Romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism along with spellbinding insights into a huge range of authors, from Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling to Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300247640
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 500,459
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland.

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Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19535-4




Imagine that you are listening to a group of students around a seminar table discussing Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. The conversation might go something like this:

Student A: I can't see what's so great about Catherine's relationship with Heathcliff. They're just a couple of squabbling brats.

Student B: Well, it's not really a relationship at all, is it? It's more like a mystical unity of selves. You can't talk about it in everyday language.

Student C: Why not? Heathcliff's not a mystic, he's a brute. The guy's not some kind of Byronic hero; he's vicious.

Student B: OK, so who made him like that? The people at the Heights, of course. He was fine when he was a child. They think he's not good enough to marry Catherine so he turns into a monster. At least he's not a wimp like Edgar Linton.

Student A: Sure, Linton's a bit spineless, but he treats Catherine a lot better than Heathcliff does.

What is wrong with this discussion? Some of the points made are fairly perceptive. Everybody seems to have read their way beyond page 5. Nobody seems to think that Heathcliff is a small town in Kansas. The problem is that if someone who had never heard of Wuthering Heights were to listen in on this discussion, they would find nothing to suggest that it was about a novel. Perhaps a listener might assume that the students were gossiping about some rather peculiar friends of theirs. Maybe Catherine is a student in the School of Business Studies, Edgar Linton is Dean of Arts and Heathcliff is a psychopathic janitor. Nothing is said about the techniques by which the novel builds up its characters. Nobody raises the question of what attitudes the book itself takes up towards these figures. Are its judgements always consistent, or might they be ambiguous? What about the novel's imagery, symbolism and narrative structure? Do they reinforce what we feel about its characters, or do they undercut it?

Of course, as the debate continued, it might become clearer that the students were arguing about a novel. Some of the time, it is hard to distinguish what literary critics say about poems and novels from talk about real life. There is no great crime in that. These days, however, this can be true for rather too much of the time. The most common mistake students of literature make is to go straight for what the poem or novel says, setting aside the way that it says it. To read like this is to set aside the 'literariness' of the work – the fact that it is a poem or play or novel, rather than an account of the incidence of soil erosion in Nebraska. Literary works are pieces of rhetoric as well as reports. They demand a peculiarly vigilant kind of reading, one which is alert to tone, mood, pace, genre, syntax, grammar, texture, rhythm, narrative structure, punctuation, ambiguity – in fact to everything that comes under the heading of 'form'. It is true that one could always read a report on soil erosion in Nebraska in this 'literary' way. It would simply mean paying close attention to the workings of its language. For some literary theorists, this would be enough to turn it into a work of literature, though probably not one to rival King Lear.

Part of what we mean by a 'literary' work is one in which what is said is to be taken in terms of how it is said. It is the kind of writing in which the content is inseparable from the language in which it is presented. Language is constitutive of the reality or experience, rather than simply a vehicle for it. Take a road sign reading 'Roadworks: Expect Long Delays on the Ramsbottom Bypass for the Next Twenty-Three Years'. Here, the language is simply a vehicle for a thought that could be expressed in a whole variety of ways. An enterprising local authority might even put it in verse. If they were unsure of how long the bypass would be out of action, they might always rhyme 'Close' with 'God knows'. 'Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds,' by contrast, is a lot harder to paraphrase, at least without ruining the line altogether. And this is one of several things we mean by calling it poetry.

To say that we should look at what is done in a literary work in terms of how it is done is not to claim that the two always slot neatly together. You could, for example, recount the life-history of a field mouse in Miltonic blank verse. Or you could write about your yearning to be free in a strict, straitjacketing kind of metre. In cases like this, the form would be interestingly at odds with the content. In his novel Animal Farm, George Orwell casts the complex history of the Bolshevik Revolution into the form of an apparently simple fable about farmyard animals. In such cases, critics might want to talk of a tension between form and content. They might see this discrepancy as part of the meaning of the work.

The students we have just overheard wrangling have conflicting views about Wuthering Heights. This raises a whole series of questions, which strictly speaking belong more to literary theory than to literary criticism. What is involved in interpreting a text? Is there a right and a wrong way of doing so? Can we demonstrate that one interpretation is more valid than another? Could there be a true account of a novel that nobody has yet come up with, or that nobody ever will? Could Student A and Student B both be right about Heathcliff, even though their views of him are vigorously opposed?

Perhaps the people around the table have grappled with these questions, but a good many students these days have not. For them, the act of reading is a fairly innocent one. They are not aware of how fraught a matter it is just to say 'Heathcliff'. After all, there is a sense in which Heathcliff does not exist, so it seems strange to talk about him as though he does. It is true that there are theorists of literature who think that literary characters do exist. One of them believes that the starship Enterprise really does have a heat shield. Another considers that Sherlock Holmes is a creature of flesh and blood. Yet another argues that Dickens's Mr Pickwick is real, and that his servant Sam Weller can see him, even though we cannot. These people are not clinically insane, simply philosophers.

There is a connection, overlooked in the students' conversation, between their own disputes and the structure of the novel itself. Wuthering Heights tells its story in a way that involves a variety of viewpoints. There is no 'voice-over' or single trustworthy narrator to guide the reader's responses. Instead, we have a series of reports, some probably more reliable than others, each stacked inside each other like Chinese boxes. The book interweaves one mini-narrative with another, without telling us what to make of the characters and events it portrays. It is in no hurry to let us know whether Heathcliff is hero or demon, Nelly Dean shrewd or stupid, Catherine Earnshaw tragic heroine or spoilt brat. This makes it difficult for readers to pass definitive judgements on the story, and the difficulty is increased by its garbled chronology.

We may contrast this 'complex seeing', as it has been called, with the novels of Emily's sister Charlotte. Charlotte's Jane Eyre is narrated from one viewpoint only, that of the heroine herself, and the reader is meant to assume that what Jane says, goes. No character in the book is allowed to deliver an account of the proceedings that would seriously challenge her own. We, the readers, may suspect that what Jane has to report is not always without a touch of self-interest or the occasional hint of malice. But the novel itself does not seem to recognise this.

In Wuthering Heights, by contrast, the partial, biased nature of the characters' accounts is built into the structure of the book. We are alerted to it early on, as we come to realise that Lockwood, the novel's chief narrator, is hardly the brightest man in Europe. There are times when he has only a slender grasp of the Gothic events unfolding around him. Nelly Dean is a prejudiced storyteller who has her knife into Heathcliff, and whose narrative cannot wholly be trusted. How the story is seen from the world of Wuthering Heights is at odds with how it is viewed from the neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. Yet there is something to be said for both of these ways of looking, even when they are at loggerheads with each other. Heathcliff may be both a brutal sadist and an abused outcast. Catherine may be both a petulant child and a grown woman in search of her fulfilment. The novel itself does not invite us to choose. Instead, it allows us to hold these conflicting versions of reality in tension. Which is not to suggest that we are necessarily to tread some sensible middle path between them. Middle paths in tragedy are in notably short supply.

It is important, then, not to confuse fiction with reality, which the students around the table seem in danger of doing. Prospero, the hero of Shakespeare's The Tempest, comes forward at the end of the play to warn the audience against making this mistake; but he does so in a way that suggests that confusing art with the real world can diminish its effects on that world:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own, Which is most faint. Now, 'tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardoned the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell, But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands.

What Prospero is doing is asking the audience to applaud. This is one thing he means by 'With the help of your good hands.' By applauding, the spectators in the theatre will acknowledge that what they have been watching is a piece of fiction. If they fail to recognise this, it is as though they and the figures on stage will remain trapped for ever inside the dramatic illusion. The actors will be unable to leave the stage, and the audience will remain frozen in the auditorium. This is why Prospero speaks of the danger of being confined to his magic island 'by your spell', meaning by the audience's reluctance to let go of the fantasy they have been enjoying. Instead, they must use their hands to clap and so release him, as though he is bound fast in their imaginative fiction and unable to move. In doing so, the spectators confess that this is simply a piece of drama; but to make this confession is essential if the drama is to have real effects. Unless they applaud, abandon the theatre and return to the real world, they will be unable to put to use whatever the play has revealed to them. The spell must be broken if the magic is to work. In fact, there was a belief at the time that a magic spell could be broken by noise, which is yet another meaning of Prospero's appeal to the audience to clap.

* * *

Learning how to be a literary critic is, among other things, a matter of learning how to deploy certain techniques. Like a lot of techniques – scuba-diving, for example, or playing the trombone – these are more easily picked up in practice than in theory. All of them involve a closer attention to language than one would usually lavish on a recipe or a laundry list. In this chapter, then, I aim to provide some practical exercises in literary analysis, taking as my texts the first lines or sentences of various well-known literary works.

A word first of all about literary beginnings. Endings in art are absolute, in the sense that once a figure like Prospero vanishes he vanishes for ever. We cannot ask whether he ever really made it back to his dukedom, since he does not survive the play's final line. There is a sense in which literary openings are absolute too. This is clearly not true in every sense. Almost all literary works begin by using words that have been used countless times before, though not necessarily in this particular combination. We can grasp the meaning of these opening sentences only because we come to them with a frame of cultural reference which allows us to do so. We also approach them with some conception of what a literary work is, what is meant by a beginning, and so on. In this sense, no literary opening is ever really absolute. All reading involves a fair amount of stage setting. A lot of things must already be in place simply for a text to be intelligible. One of them is previous works of literature. Every literary work harks back, if only unconsciously, to other works. Yet the opening of a poem or novel also seems to spring out of a kind of silence, since it inaugurates a fictional world that did not exist before. Perhaps it is the closest thing we have to the act of divine Creation, as some Romantic artists believed. The difference is that we are stuck with the Creation, whereas we can always discard our copy of Catherine Cookson.

Let us begin with the opening sentences of one of the most celebrated of twentieth-century novels, E.M. Forster's A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest ...

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his or her best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader's eye, and occasionally intent on pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilised middle-class Englishman like E.M. Forster who values reticence and indirectness. Perhaps this is one reason why the passage opens with a throwaway qualification ('Except for the Marabar Caves') rather than with a blare of verbal trumpets. It sidles into its subject-matter sideways, rather than confronting it head-on. 'The city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary, except for the Marabar Caves, and they are twenty miles off' would be far too ungraceful. It would spoil the poise of the syntax, which is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one's face. There is no suggestion of 'fine writing', or of what is sometimes called 'purple' (excessively ornate) prose. The author's eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.

The first two clauses of the novel hold off the subject of the sentence ('the city of Chandrapore') twice over, so that the reader experiences a slight quickening of expectations before finally arriving at this phrase. One's expectations, however, are aroused only to be deflated, since we are told that the city contains nothing remarkable. More exactly, we are told rather oddly that there is nothing remarkable about the city except for the Caves, but that the Caves are not in the city. We are also informed that there are no bathing steps on the river front, but that there is no river front.

The four phrases of the first sentence are almost metrical in their rhythm and balance. In fact, it is possible to read them as trimeters, or lines of verse with three stresses each:

Except for the Marabar Caves And they are twenty miles off The city of Chandrapore Presents nothing extraordinary

The same delicate equipoise crops up in the phrase 'Edged rather than washed', which is perhaps a touch too fastidious. This is a writer with a keenly discriminating eye, but also a coolly distancing one. In traditional English style, he refuses to get excited or enthusiastic (the city 'presents nothing extraordinary'). The word 'presents' is significant. It makes Chandrapore sound like a show put on for the sake of a spectator, rather than a place to be lived in. 'Presents nothing extraordinary' to whom? The answer is surely to the tourist. The tone of the passage – disenchanted, slightly supercilious, a touch overbred – is that of a rather snooty guidebook. It sails as close as it dares to suggesting that the city is literally a heap of garbage.

The importance of tone as an indication of attitude is made clear in the novel itself. Mrs Moore, an Englishwoman who has just arrived in colonial India and is unaware of British cultural habits there, tells her imperial-minded son Ronny about her encounter with a young Indian doctor in a temple. Ronny does not initially realise that she is talking about a 'native', and when he does so becomes instantly irritable and suspicious. 'Why hadn't she indicated by the tone of her voice that she was talking about an Indian?' he thinks to himself.

As far as the tone of this passage goes, we may note among other things the triple alliteration of the phrase 'happens not to be holy here', which trots somewhat too glibly off the tongue. It represents a wry poke at Hindu beliefs on the part of a sceptical, sophisticated outsider. The alliteration suggests a 'cleverness', a discreet delight in verbal artifice, which puts a distance between the narrator and the poverty-stricken city. The same is true of the lines 'The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist ...' The syntax of this is a little too self-consciously contrived, too obviously intent on a 'literary' effect.

So far, the passage has managed to keep this shabby Indian city at arm's length without sounding too offensively superior, but the word 'ineffective' to describe the temples almost deliberately gives the game away. Though the syntax tucks it unobtrusively away in a sub-clause, it strikes the reader like a mild smack in the face. The term assumes that the temples are there not for the inhabitants to worship in, but for the observer to take pleasure in. They are ineffective in the sense that they do nothing for the artistically-minded tourist. The adjective makes them sound like flat tyres or broken radios. In fact, it does this so calculatedly that one wonders, perhaps a little too charitably, whether it is meant to be ironic. Is this narrator sending up his own high-handed manner?

Excerpted from HOW TO READ LITERATURE by TERRY EAGLETON. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Openings 1

2 Character 45

3 Narrative 80

4 Interpretation 117

5 Value 175

Index 207

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