A Feature Review of
How to Read Literature
Reviewed by Meghan Florian
Terry Eagleton’s newest book, How to Read Literature, succeeds at one of the more difficult goals a book about literary interpretation could set out for itself: it is accessible. In just five chapters the text manages to lay out the basics of literary analysis in a way that is both scholarly and understandable. While not a light read, How to Read Literature has no interest in the intentionally obtuse mode of discourse some academic prose employs. Perhaps this is because Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, and Excellence in English Distinguished Visitor at the University of Notre Dame, is simply not a scholar who needs to prove himself, but more likely it is because of the views on language he makes clear throughout the text. “Part of what we mean by a ‘literary’ work,” he writes, “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” (3). This is the backdrop for Eagleton’s explanations, summed up in chapters on Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value.
It should be said at the outset that the term “literature” is overly broad for Eagleton’s project. Though the content has applications across literary genre, and he provides some excellent commentary of poetry in chapters one and five in particular, by and large this is a book concerned with fiction. Granted that as a nonfiction writer myself I am particularly inclined to notice such a gap in the content, and granted also that much of what Eagleton has to say could be usefully applied to certain types of nonfiction (memoir, for example), the unacknowledged narrowness of scope here and the lack of even identifying that such a thing as literary nonfiction exists is a real flaw.
Be that as it may, for the serious reader or literature teacher this text is a delightful resource. Eagleton’s clear prose and dry wit bring his close readings to life, showing how analysis need not mean making a story boring by analyzing it to death. At times his humor can can feel as though it is trying too hard to avoid the stuffy academic stereotype, and risks becoming precious, but particularly as Eagleton makes his interpretive moves humor is a key tool in making his points.
The book’s first chapter makes it clear that Eagleton is a close reader himself, and this book teaches that skill by example. In a chapter devoted to openings, he walks the reader through some of the most famous first lines in literature, from Pride and Prejudice to Moby Dick. Why do these sentences work so well? What do they tell us about where we are in the story, where we’ll be going? What questions do they raise, what don’t they tell us? The power of a single finely crafted sentence is brought to the forefront. This chapter is concerned with language on a micro level, the basic sentences that are the building blocks of the rest of a story. Eagleton demonstrates a sensitivity to language and its subtleties. The chapters that follow delve into big picture questions of plot, narrative, character, meaning, context, interpretation, and the like, but all of this depends first upon this question of language, of not only what is said but how it is said.
Eagleton proceeds to discuss the nuanced relationship between characters on the page versus how we think of real life people, considering among other things the limitations imposed on the existence of a given character within a text. Additional questions that come from this are whether and how the reader identifies with characters, a question that leads well into the next section, which considers narrative in terms of both structure and voice. As he discusses realism and romanticism, Eagleton considers basic questions such as where the story ends up in terms of a resolution (or lack thereof), and whether the narrator’s voice is reliable — or, can they sometimes be unreliable “to the point of being outright cheats”? (86). Perhaps, Eagleton posits, even the narrator herself doesn’t always know. “Modernists and postmodernist literary works are generally less interested in solutions,” Eagleton goes on. “Their aim is rather to lay bear certain problems. They do not typically end with fast-living fraudsters being hung upside down from lamp posts, or a set of blissful marriages. And in this, one might suggest, they are more realistic than most realism” (105). As with much of the book, Eagleton’s approach to these questions opens up possibilities to discuss, different ways of looking at texts, rather than single interpretive stances.
This, then, brings us to interpretation. Eagleton discusses the way a piece of writing lives beyond its context, while at the same time emerging from a specific literary and historical context. Literature, for Eagleton, is “portable, able to be carried from one location to another” (118). A work of literature has meanings that are not solely dependent on the circumstances in which it was written. It is possible that Eagleton gives short shrift here to the ways in which context can bring a text to life — as, for example, one might argue that Jane Austen’s novels have greater depth and character when considered in light of the complex social hierarchies they subtly critique. Nonetheless, a good story is a good story, and Eagleton’s point stands: “If works of literature were simply historical reports, we might be able to decide what they mean by reconstructing the historical situations from which they arose. But they clearly are not” (120). Indeed, why read literature, if not for the reality that it can express meaning above and beyond what one finds in mere factual record? Literature gives such flat details flesh and bone, as characters on the page live and breathe in our imaginations. Literature is not limited by context, though one’s understanding and experience of it may also be enhanced by context at times.