Literary Theory: An Introduction
Like some other English Catholics, Terry Eagleton started writing in the ostensibly liberating days of the Second Vatican Council, when it was prematurely assumed that the Church was offering to transform itself. Eagleton, Brian Wicker, and a few Dominican priests rushed into print, mainly in the magazines Slant and New Blackfriars, with proposals for theological change. They were particularly drawn to the notion of making Catholicism not only Christian but Marxist. In this spirit, Eagleton wrote and edited such buoyant books as Directions: Pointers for the Post-Conciliar Church and The New Left Church, both published in 1968. This phase of his writing culminated in The Body as Language: Outline of a “New Left” Theology (1970). I deduce from his later books that he has resolved the tension between Marxism and the Church in favor of Marxism. There is no evidence in his current work that he has retained any interest in Catholic theology, old or new.
Eagleton’s main work for the past decade or more has been a Marxist analysis of literature. The theoretical part of it is contained in his Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976), Criticism and Ideology (1976), and Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981). The practical application of a Marxist terminology is contained in his books on Shakespeare (Shakespeare and Society, 1967), the Brontës (Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, 1975), Richardson (The Rape of Clarissa, 1983)* and some writers, notably Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Auden, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh (Exiles and Emigrés: Studies in Modern Literature, 1970).
“Any English Marxist who tries now to construct a materialist aesthetic,” Eagleton wrote in the preface to Criticism and Ideology, “must be painfully conscious of his inadequacies.” He meant that early English Marxist criticism is crude: you have to get rid of the rough work of Christopher Caudwell, for instance, before you can reap any advantage from Raymond Williams. In this book, Eagleton puts his trust in four rhetorical devices. The first is the standard Marxist vocabulary, drawn mainly from Marx, Lucien Goldmann, and Pierre Macherey, which speaks of ideology, productive forces, overdetermination, and so forth.
Criticism is a specific element of the theory of superstructures, which studies the particular laws of its proper object; its task is not to study the laws of ideological formations, but the laws of the production of ideological discourses as literature.
Much of this is transcribed from Marx’s The German Ideology in the first instance; later material is drawn mostly from Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production.
Eagleton’s second device is a strict ordinance by which only Marxist or neo-Marxist authorities are cited: the list comprises Marx, Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, Adorno, Goldmann, Althusser, Macherey, Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, and Perry Anderson. By this device, Eagleton implies that Marxism is the only serious activity taking place. Third, he relies on a further axiom, that modern society is understandable only as the field of class conflict. Eagleton does not entertain the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.