Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Crawl through Pubs and Prose: Books

Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Crawl through Pubs and Prose: Books

Article excerpt

Felicity James toasts an ideal introduction to critical analysis and a subtle reader's skills.

How to Read Literature

By Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press, 256pp, Pounds 18.99

ISBN 9780300190960

Published 25 May 2013

This book provides a valuable primer to an enduring question in modern criticism: how to read Eagleton. "I am, I suppose, best known as a literary theorist and political critic," Terry Eagleton acknowledges in the preface to How to Read Literature. Yet the theory he practises has always been difficult to categorise, and this book, a paean to close reading, might seem to complicate matters further. Indeed, the preface admits "some readers might wonder" what has become of those theoretical - and political - credentials. Might this book be a step towards the "dispiriting stereotype" described in his 2002 memoir The Gatekeeper, "the militant young leftist who has matured with age into a sceptical liberal or stout conservative"?

Admittedly, a certain nostalgia is evident. "Like clog-dancing," we learn, literary analysis is "almost dead on its feet", as if English departments were filled with hapless artisans whittling away at a neglected craft. But if the tone is nostalgic, the prose is energetic and the values consistent: this is, in some ways, a reaffirmation of some key critical ideas, a swift tour of long-beloved books and themes. Heathcliff, for instance, pops up on page one and lurks throughout. Irish and Anglo-Irish writing is analysed with especial relish, from Swift to Beckett by way of Maria Edgeworth. The narrative of St John's Gospel is taken apart - not, this time, to discuss Christ as revolutionary, as in Jesus Christ: The Gospels (2007), but to show the power of surprise. These retrospective encounters can also be reappraisals. Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead, for instance, is gallantly defended against a "sternly judgemental critic" who sees her as a "perverse hussy". That critic, of course, is Eagleton's younger self, whom he, in turn, judges as "woefully off the mark".

But if he wryly calls some earlier judgements into question, he keeps faith with one central tenet: the importance of exploring the slippery nature of words as deeply and carefully as possible, and explaining this to a wide audience. …

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