Read it, don’t weep

Felicity James toasts an ideal introduction to critical analysis and a subtle reader’s skills

July 25, 2013

This book provides a valuable primer to an enduring question in modern criticism: how to read Eagleton. “I am, I suppose, best known as a literary theorist and political critic,” Terry Eagleton acknowledges in the preface to How to Read Literature. Yet the theory he practises has always been difficult to categorise, and this book, a paean to close reading, might seem to complicate matters further. Indeed, the preface admits “some readers might wonder” what has become of those theoretical – and political – credentials. Might this book be a step towards the “dispiriting stereotype” described in his 2002 memoir The Gatekeeper, “the militant young leftist who has matured with age into a sceptical liberal or stout conservative”?

Admittedly, a certain nostalgia is evident. “Like clog-dancing,” we learn, literary analysis is “almost dead on its feet”, as if English departments were filled with hapless artisans whittling away at a neglected craft. But if the tone is nostalgic, the prose is energetic and the values consistent: this is, in some ways, a reaffirmation of some key critical ideas, a swift tour of long-beloved books and themes. Heathcliff, for instance, pops up on page one and lurks throughout. Irish and Anglo-Irish writing is analysed with especial relish, from Swift to Beckett by way of Maria Edgeworth. The narrative of St John’s Gospel is taken apart – not, this time, to discuss Christ as revolutionary, as in Jesus Christ: The Gospels (2007), but to show the power of surprise. These retrospective encounters can also be reappraisals. Jude the Obscure’s Sue Bridehead, for instance, is gallantly defended against a “sternly judgemental critic” who sees her as a “perverse hussy”. That critic, of course, is Eagleton’s younger self, whom he, in turn, judges as “woefully off the mark”.

But if he wryly calls some earlier judgements into question, he keeps faith with one central tenet: the importance of exploring the slippery nature of words as deeply and carefully as possible, and explaining this to a wide audience. The book is dedicated to “what Nietzsche called ‘slow reading’” and begins with a bravura show of slowness: a seven-page analysis of the opening sentences of A Passage to India. The lines are gradually unpacked, from their rhythm and metrical balance to the difficulty of pinning down the narrative tone, “disenchanted, slightly supercilious, a touch overbred”. Forster’s opening acts as a “little model of the book as a whole” and, similarly, the techniques on show here demonstrate the aims of How to Read Literature. Whether contemplating Charles Bovary’s hat or advancing a slyly wrong-headed interpretation of Baa Baa Black Sheep, Eagleton shows students how critical judgement requires sustained attention to the details of language.

His own style, too, is carefully gauged – lively, witty, verging on the blokeish. With its puns and talk of pub crawls, it’s the opposite of Forster’s “slightly supercilious” tone (Viola and Becky Sharp, incidentally, make the grade as suitable drinking companions; Clarissa does not). There are occasional oddities. For Austen, we’re told, “propriety means not just eating your banana with a knife and fork”: General Tilney’s pineapples excepted, she seems rarely to have expressed opinions on tropical fruit. There’s a slightly offbeat feel, too, to the section on value, which rather unfairly sets a ponderous bit of Updike against Nabokov at full throttle. But part of the fun of the book is the way in which Eagleton prompts, provokes and at times infuriates. How to read How to Read Literature? Not as a landmark in literary theory, but as an ideal introductory guide to critical analysis, and a thoroughly enjoyable reminder of Eagleton’s own skill and subtlety as a reader.

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