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Literary Theory: An Introduction

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  4,521 ratings  ·  224 reviews
Written in 1982, this work appeared, as Professor Eagleton explains, at the watershed of two very different decades. It could not anticipate what was to come after, neither could it grasp what had happened in literary theory in the light of where it was to lead.
Paperback, 2nd Edition, 248 pages
Published 1996 by Blackwell (first published 1983)
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MJ Nicholls
Mar 23, 2013 rated it liked it
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 19, 2013 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 ...more
Jul 30, 2013 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 ...more
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
Apr 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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,
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Typically opinionated, acerbic and entertaining, Terry Eagleton has produced an unlikely airport read. This 200 page introduction to literary theory is now studied at Harvard Business School as an example of how an academic textbook can become a best-seller. An outcome at which the grumpy Marxist does not know whether to be "delighted or outraged".

The book sweeps briskly through a history of literary theories: phenomenology, hermeneutics, reception theory, structuralism, semiotics,
Billie Pritchett
Jun 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Charles Finch
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I love this book as a history of literary theory from the Romantic period onward (new criticism, reception theory, structuralism, post-structuralism). It has a VERY clear Marxist bent, but it works perfectly as a plain history if you're conscious of that and can make your own judgments. Particularly good on the Leavises and the dawn of "English" as a subject. Pretty academic, to give fair warning!
Feb 06, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
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
Wendy Liu
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wish I'd read this earlier in life
Justin Evans
Aug 23, 2010 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 06, 2013 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
Jun 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
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...

itself now an historical document (1983), and generally does place in era and history the schools of thought. i may believe
Prithvi Shams
Nov 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jun 10, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: literary-theory
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.
Jul 07, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm sure it's my fault that I didn't like this book.
Dana Mccloskey
Aug 02, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Don't every read this unless you enjoy suffering.
Lily Patchett
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
this was a really incredible introduction which i will likely return to again & again. as someone coming to the subject w only a very superficial understanding i didn't feel like i was being talked down to, but it was also v clear and easy to follow. eagleton goes about the theories in a very human way, but is also critical and funny w certain lines making me literally lol. and the last chapter on political criticism/the illusion of literary theory was amazing... gives some wider ...more
Tam Sothonprapakonn
I'm sure that, years and years from now, I will look back on this unsashamedly polemical, Marxist "introduction" to literary theory as one of the books which have steered my life in a good direction.

I needed this book.
John Pistelli
Strange the books one fails to read. I've written about this before (in connection with The Handmaid's Tale ): how the very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can't remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he's never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact— ...more
Feb 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'm going to try out some of the skills Terry Eagleton taught me in a minute. If someone takes that I'm somehow ridiculing the critics, well, the short answer is "you got me wrong"; the long answer would be "you got me wrong and I strongly recommend the first chapter of this book, it's very fun".

So here's the practice text that I will try to analyze in 4 ways as Terry Eagleton taught me (my advisor might want to close the browser tab now if he's been peeping, because the practice text is
May 17, 2007 rated it liked it
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 ...more
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 ...more
Mar 15, 2012 rated it did not like it
This author is incredibly pretentious. I think he assumes anyone reading his book is a literary scholar. Again, I only read it because I had to for class. I think I have a fairly extensive vocabulary, but I had to read this book with a dictionary open because there were so many obscure words in it. He did not do a good job of stating things so they were understandable. And since this is supposed to be "An Introduction" you'd think he'd try to be a little more reader friendly.
Mar 13, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: literary-theory
Eagleton’s book is a very good introduction commenting in commonsense language on the major critical theories of the twentieth century (structuralism, formalism, phenomenology, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism and Marxism). Although Eagleton himself is a Marxist critic, his commentary is impartial whether he is discussing a theory with which he agrees, or one with which he disagrees.
Apr 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: teaching
This book does certain things extremely well. I appreciate it that it does more than giving a basic explanation of different modes of critique. Thus, it is better as a teaching text than either the recent Parker, or the Culler Very Short Introduction. In addition to explaining phenomenology, structuralism, and post-structuralism in ways that don't completely simplify them, Eagleton discusses the politics of literature and theory more generally, both in the opening and in the closing. He makes a ...more
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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 ...more
“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.” 9 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.” 8 likes
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