Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.


In Terry Eagleton’s contentious and often idiomatic text, Literary Theory: An Introduction, Eagleton explores the formation of the University, specifically that of Literary Studies, which was at times a tool to inculcate an ideology in the masses, and at other times, to resist that ideology by putting forth an alternative ideology. In order to understand the formation of Literary study as an instrumental function, one must first accept Literature as an entirely social construct, one that is to be taken in “functional rather than ontological terms” (8). The literary canon and methods of literary study are continually revised as a response to social conditions that place the viewing subjects within an ideology, enabling unitary value-judgments to be made upon a text. These value-judgments are in a sense moral, and therefore expand the notion of an ideal state of being. It is through the spread of literature as a primarily moralizing project that leads Eagleton to see literature as the successor to the religious institutions, but unlike religion, rather than inculcating a belief system into the masses to obtain obedience to the state, English Literature inculcates national culture into the masses in order to obtain obedience to the nation-state—as a way to form national pride, while at the same time, satisfying the “impoverished experiences of the people” with the alternative mantra, Let them eat Austen: “Instead of working to change such conditions [of impoverishment] you can vicariously fulfill someone’s desire for a fuller life by handing them Pride and Prejudice” (23). Literature, as read by Eagleton, is the moralizing tactic of the modern age, in service to the Nation-State.

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