Literary Theory: it is a cold, confusing place to be. Even more so once you learn that the term “literary theory” is, in fact, somewhat of a non-sequitor. Meaning, ‘theory’ about ‘literature’ is, in fact, theory in general. There is no literary theory proper insofar as there is generalized theory acclimated to what is loosely called literature. Confused? Well, it gets far, far worse (or better, depending on your point of view). This, along with the concept of ideology, is exactly what Marxist critic Terry Eagleton attempts to “de-mystify” in his seminal work “Literary Theory: An Introduction.”
Over the course of this short book (around two-hundred and twenty pages), Eagleton explains and offers a commentary on the major schools of literary theory: Formalism, Structuralism and post-structuralism, Psychoanalysis, and others. Each chapter is lengthy, a little dense, and packed with a flowing argument. Though coming into the book with a working knowledge of these disciplines prior to reading will help internalize the content and evaluate his argumentation, Eagleton does make strides to explain, from the beginning, in albeit somewhat condensed bites, a working theory of each critical lens. This isn’t to say one needs a great reservoir of knowledge, after all, it is an introduction, but that if some basics are brought in then the explanation, specifically regarding how his theories interact with some of the other chapters, will be smoothed over.
Eagleton’s thesis is straightforward, however. It is that ideology, literature, and literary criticism are all part of the same superstructure. That to write a book is an act of ideology. Likewise, to critique a book is another act of ideology. The specificity of the critique is, again, a product of ideology regarding how the author’s historical epoch effected their viewpoint. Eagleton’s theory draws in purely materialist stances as his own which enable the text to be read with a delightfully different aura as from what is normally seen from most other such introductions.
Though the text can be difficult to master, it is easy to read. And at the end of the day you could do worse regarding introductions to literary theories. Provided, Eagleton’s book is an argument as opposed to an “objective” course simply sketching out the strengths of each approach. Yet, as I say above, it does have a style all its own. Though the concept may not be to everyone’s liking, for those of us who do not mind grappling with an argumentative intro, this book is a must read.