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Literary Theory: An Introduction

3.92  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,493 Ratings  ·  163 Reviews

“This concise and lucid volume offers a satisfying survey of all the major theories, from structuralism in the 1960s to deconstruction today, that have made academic criticism both intriguing and off-putting to the outsider.” —New York Times Book Review

“Literary Theory has the kind of racy readability that one associates more often with English critics who have set their

Paperback, 252 pages
Published May 12th 1983 by Basil Blackwell (first published 1983)
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MJ Nicholls
From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory for Toddlers: An Introduction. Phenomenology: Tigger tells Pooh that he must distinguish between the phenomena and noumena of a pot of honey. That his intentionality towards the honey is narrowing his awareness of his surroundings, pushing him into a false structure of consciousness where the honey is both a perpetual fantasy and an instrument of real-life fixation. He tells Pooh he must separate his intentionalities to avoid becoming corrupted and driven by ...more
Jan 30, 2013 Szplug rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Eagleton deserves a lot of credit, because I can now say that I've put paid to a two hundred-plus page book on Literary Theory and never suffered a single dull moment. And while the author was fully engaged throughout—offering up energized summations and interpretations of the evolving schools of theory that developed out of the study of (English) literature and, subsequently and consequently, the structures of language itself, before launching polemical broadsides from the Marxist perch (with i ...more
Dec 19, 2013 Gregsamsa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you are one of those near-sighted, pedantic, theory-addicted lit-geeks (like myself, thank you) and you tire of trying to 'splain to folks the various -isms that spin out of the ivory tower and splat into the public square (who woulda thought that the word "deconstruct" would one day make regular appearances in Entertainment Weakly(sic)? "Not I" says this "I.") then this is THE book to pass out as a nice quick primer to strangers at the airport or, better yet, the one or two people who will s ...more
A very important work for me personally. What Eagleton accomplishes here is remarkable.

The body of the work is an introduction to literary criticism that goes, more or less, school-by-school according to when they came into being and grew to be popular. Eagleton is a master both at explaining the theories in terms of their formal structures and historicizing. This book contains some of the shortest yet most detailed introductions I know to the most difficult of thinkers: Derrida, Freud, Lacan,
An introduction to literary theory?

Perhaps. Or perhaps this is more of an essay on theory from a Marxist slant.

Terry Eagleton's prefatory statement: "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion of one's own" seems ironic in a book, though innocuously entitled Literary Theory: An Introduction, that works instead to decimate most literary theory in the 60 years prior to the book's publication. Eagleton does spare Marxism (his own ideology) and femini
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I wrote more smiley faces in the margins than I expected to.

It wasn’t until Ch. 2 that I finally realized exactly how Eagleton’s Marxism plays into his allergic reaction to literature as an objective category. He hates the idea of the academy telling the rest of the world what constitutes literature. It’s just another example of the powerful controlling the powerless, and he can’t stand it.

Poststructuralism (Ch. 4) is a historical term, because it’s describing a theory that came after structural
Feb 17, 2009 Josh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-theory
I picked up this book expecting to learn a little bit about each major school of literary theory, and I wasn't disappointed. The book is a much easier read than some of the authors it references, and (I hope) may be useful in understanding those authors.

Eagleton says he would prefer to call it the "Theory of Discourse" rather than "Literary Theory" -- it's really the theory of human speech, communication, discussion, and rhetoric, in all forms. As such, it includes thinkers who studied linguisti
Eagleton’s book is a discussion of literary styles of the twentieth century and covers a variety of literary theories. He explores the topic of literature and offers a determination of how to judge what literature is and what does not fall into this genre. His thorough discussion of the twentieth literary theory includes theorists, models of theory and his opinion on the positive and negative aspects of each.

Lauded as a classic on literary theory, this book leaves the novice reader perplexed an
Justin Evans
This book seems to serve three functions. First, it's a reasonable introduction to twentieth century literary theory, not including new historicism. Eagleton doesn't seem to have bothered to read much of the new criticism or the poetry associated with it (for instance, he says The Waste Land "intimates that fertility cults hold the clue to the salvation of the West"), and reads a bit too much English class structure into American life. But he's quite good on reception theory, structuralism and p ...more
Jun 25, 2013 Sara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Literary Theory is closely aligned with Political Theory. This is what I have taken away from this book and also understood from other theory books that I have read. The mindset of the day, the views on women, labor, ethnic groups, God, etc. all played a part in how literature was viewed and dissected and analysed throughout the years.

It was an entertaining ride, to say the least. I learned early on that Terry Eagleton is not a capitalist. He goes through the various theories from the 19th centu
Billie Pritchett
I cannot be too upset with Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction since the book accurately reflects literary theory's preoccupation with almost everything except literature. This hostility continues to today. Because of some of the confusion in this book, some parts are not even right and other parts are not even wrong. To take an example, Eagleton criticizes phenomenology for presenting an inadequate strategy to deal with literary works. This criticism, addressed especially at Edmun ...more
Prithvi Shams
Jan 06, 2013 Prithvi Shams rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Apart from learning about doctrines like structuralism and post-structuralism, I also learned to view the "text" like I've never viewed it before. A text is not just words put on paper, it's the world of signs and signifiers(to employ the structuralist terminology) that we all inhabit. I guess it won't be outlandish to say that the whole world's a text and we're all trying to make sense of it, regardless of whether we realize it or not. The next time I read, listen or watch something, I'll be su ...more
Feb 03, 2016 Stephen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
I can definitely see why people find Eagleton irritating. His "culture war" type envy toward those more successful than he is pretty transparent, especially toward those more naturally gifted like Christopher Hitchens, for the charm which unlike Eagleton's never fails.

For a while now I've been playing a fruitless game in head about who has been the more persuasive regarding the propaganda wars, Eagleton or Hitchens? For arguments about "religion", Eagleton wins easily. Hitchens deals only in op
I'm the wrong target audience here. After getting my English major and worming my way through the dense tangles of Deleuze, Heidegger, and Saussure, I'd like to think I emerged with some knowledge of theory, and the strengths and weaknesses of various theories. However, for the relative novice, this is an immensely valuable work. His surveys of each school of critical thought are by no means impartial, but they're always fair. And even though I have certain disagreements with Eagleton, I'm on hi ...more
Short and accessible enough that I didn't start humming 'suicide is painless' to myself.
David Harrison
Aug 08, 2015 David Harrison rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm still unsure as to whether literary theory is fascinating or infuriating, but I thoroughly enjoyed this nonetheless.

Terry Eagleton provides a good introduction to what seem to be the main aspects of literary theory as well as his own criticism of what literary theory should (and should not) be. His writing may at first appear to ramble in directions not directly related to 'literature' and some more concrete examples of the various theories in use might have been more illuminating.

The autho
John Nelson
From the 1970s through the 1990s, a series of literary theories going by exotic names such as deconstruction, hermaneutics, and semiotics gained ascendancy in American universities. These theories were characterized by dense jargon, an insistence that books did not actually mean what they said, and the extreme left-wing political positions espoused by their advocates.

Conservatives, moderates, classical liberals, libertarians, and pretty much everyone other than the leftists who dominated most un
Nishant Sharma
Feb 18, 2015 Nishant Sharma rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I am an undergraduate literature student and I read it as a part of my syllabus.
I found the book very detailed and at the same time easy to follow on the major criticism techniques which have followed Liberal Humanism in the 19th century.
The book dips in and out of the theories outlined with expertise and connects them to show how they are inter-related. The social conditions which fountained the need for more technocratic "theories" to evaluate literature are also touched upon. I read this bo
has this become the standard undergraduate introductory literary theory text yet? strident in its pro-marxist polemic, and very comical in the summation of opposing ideas (i.e., all of them herein), eagleton certainly makes for a lively presentation.
Matt Hlinak
This book does a reasonably good job of explaining a very challenging subject, but I question how well it functions as an introductory text. For a person who has never studied literary theory, this book would read like a long list of names interspersed with vague descriptions of theories making wild claims of either propping up or destroying broad social and political systems. The best part of the book occurs about three-quarters of the way in, when Eagleton includes a psychoanalytic reading of ...more
Mikael Lind
The real strength of Eagleton's thought-provoking and ambitious take on literature is how well it explains the difficult thoughts of phenomenologists, structuralists, post-structuralists, feminists, psycho-analysts and post-modernists. Not often do I find such good accounts on the views of Husserl, Saussure, Derrida, Kristeva, Freud, Foucault and what have we. In this regard, Eagleton's book is a must-have in any philosophically and politically inclined literary theorist's (or linguist's, for th ...more
Jun 11, 2009 Lisa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I especially enjoyed the back-third of this text, which contains Eagleton's exploration of psychoanalitic theory and his exposition of all lit crit as political in nature. There is something about Eagleton's outsider/insider identity--both psychologically and sociologically--that, for me, makes him 1) an utterly fascinating academic and historical person 2) the absolute ideal guide to the sometimes epiphanous, but often pompous, exclusivist, and alchemical universe of literary theory.

Below is on
Apr 17, 2008 Steven rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-theory
An influential book when if first appeared in 1983 because it mapped out how and why to attack the so called “Literary Canon.” His most basic argument is that as literature replaced religion as a bearer of values it began to be used as a form of social power. The canon was a means to keep one group in power while oppressing other groups. If you want to overthrow the group in power you must overthrow their literature. Eagleton’s approach to such an overthrow is first to argue that literature is a ...more
the gift
i know of more than know the various theories recounted here, much as a web of signifiers of any language. i have not necessarily read or have forgotten many of the core lit theory texts. i find this text very useful in summarizing all in one place, all from one voice, all with a skeptical but earnest attitude, these various schools. this book is a good review. it is itself now an historical document (1983), and generally does place in era and history, the schools of thought. i may believe mista ...more
May 17, 2007 Bill rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: critical theory dilletantes
If you only read one book about literary theory...well, who would blame you? Still, the educated layperson who wants to bump their understanding of contemporary literary criticism up to a respectable cocktail party level probably can't do much better than Eagleton's slim, thoroughly accessible introduction to the subject. Literary Theory traces the history of literature as an academic discipline from English Romanticism, through Saussure and semiotics, all the way to the fashionable heavy-hitter ...more
El Habib Louai
Nov 09, 2009 El Habib Louai rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I did in fact enjoy reading Literary Theory: An Introduction. I was in such great in need for a book which introduces me to the field of literary theory and it was this precise one written by Eagleton. The basic things I've enjoyed in this book and which basically drew my attention are the following: its precise treatment of every approach to literary text, its petinent illustration of each point that distinguishes one approach from another and its brief historical recount as a kind of contextua ...more
Dec 07, 2014 Gary rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory defines a critical moment (pun intended), circa early 1980s, when cultural theory was spreading like an effluvia, or pollen, throughout various departments across academia, in a general trend to become known as postmodernism (or “pomo,” for short). Other authors also had appeared at the right place at the right time, but none with such remarkable command – of Marxism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism, decons ...more
An interesting overview of some of the major literary theory movements of the 20th century. Eagleton manages to communicate the essence of the theories without making them seem too difficult for the average reader. For those who wish to dive deeper into these theories, there is an extensive bibliography included.

Eagleton is a devoted Marxist and he is not shy about peppering his discussion of these theories with liberal amounts of Marxist jargon. Personally, I found that to be charming...
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Widely regarded as Britain's most influential living literary critic & theorist, Dr Eagleton currently serves as Distinguished Prof. of English Literature at the Univ. of Lancaster & as Visiting Prof. at the Nat'l Univ. of Ireland, Galway. He was Thomas Warton Prof. of English Literature at the Univ. of Oxford ('92-01) & John Edward Taylor Prof. of English Literature at the Univ. of Ma ...more
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“If this constant sliding and hiding of meaning were true of conscious life, then we would of course never be able to speak coherently at all. If the whole of language were present to me when I spoke, then I would not be able to articulate anything at all. The ego, or consciousness, can therefore only work by repressing this turbulent activity, provisionally nailing down words on to meanings. Every now and then a word from the unconscious which I do not want insinuates itself into my discourse, and this is the famous Freudian slip of the tongue or parapraxis. But for Lacan all our discourse is in a sense a slip of the tongue: if the process of language is as slippery and ambiguous as he suggests, we can never mean precisely what we say and never say precisely what we mean. Meaning is always in some sense an approximation, a near-miss, a part-failure, mixing non-sense and non-communication into sense and dialogue.” 8 likes
“Language, the unconscious, the parents, the symbolic order: these terms in Lacan are not exactly synonymous, but they are intimately allied. They are sometimes spoken of by him as the ‘Other’ — as that which like language is always anterior to us and will always escape us, that which brought us into being as subjects in the first place but which always outruns our grasp. We have seen that for Lacan our unconscious desire is directed towards this Other, in the shape of some ultimately gratifying reality which we can never have; but it is also true for Lacan that our desire is in some way always received from the Other too. We desire what others — our parents, for instance — unconsciously desire for us; and desire can only happen because we are caught up in linguistic, sexual and social relations — the whole field of the ‘Other’ — which generate it.” 6 likes
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