How to Read Literature - Critical summary review - Terry Eagleton

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How to Read Literature - critical summary review

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History & Philosophy

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ISBN: 0300247648

Publisher: Yale University Press

Critical summary review

Is there a right and wrong way of interpreting a literary text? Can we analyze fictional characters as if they were real people? What makes a work of literature good, bad, or indifferent? In ‘’How To Read Literature,’’ Terry Eagleton helps literature students and anyone who reads books for pleasure discover answers to these and many other questions relevant to literary criticism. By shedding some light on the topics such as characters, narration, language, interpretation, and literary currents, he intends to provide readers with some of the fundamental tools of critical trade and show that critical analysis is not, contrary to what many believe, the enemy of enjoyment. So, get ready to discover how to read with a deeper understanding and greater pleasure!

Language is of the book’s reality

Imagine hearing a dialogue that goes something like this: 

Person A: I can’t see what’s so great about Catherine’s relationship with Heathcliff. They’re just a couple of squabbling brats.

Person B: Well, it’s not really a relationship at all, is it? It’s more like a mystical unity of selves.

Person A: Heathcliff ’s not a mystic, he’s a brute.

Person B: OK, so who made him like that? The people at the Heights, of course. He was fine when he was a child. They think he’s not good enough to marry Catherine so he turns into a monster. At least he’s not a wimp like Edgar Linton.

If you, by chance, have never read Emily Brontë’s novel ‘’Wuthering Heights’’ or watched a movie of the same name, you would probably never assume that the dialogue above is a discussion about a literary work. Perhaps you would conclude it is gossip about mutual friends or some people from the workplace of Person A and Person B. Why doesn’t this conversation have characteristics of literary discussion? Of course, it is not a crime to talk about the novel in the same way as we talk about real life - in fact, some of the points made about the characters of ‘’Wuthering Heights’’ are fairly perceptive. However, this dialogue doesn’t contain any information about the techniques of character building, the novel’s imagery, symbolism or narrative structure. In short, it fails to mention the things that make a piece of writing literary. One of them is language, which is, in literary work, a ‘’constitutive of the reality or experience, rather than simply a vehicle for it.’’ As Eagleton points out, ‘’part of what we mean by a ‘literary’ work 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.’’ Let’s see what this means by analyzing the language of one of the most famous literary works in the following section.

What does the beginning of the Bible say?

Whether you read literature or not, you probably know how the first line of the Bible goes: ‘’In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’’ As Eagleton writes, ‘’It is a magnificently resonant opening to the most celebrated text in the world, simple and authoritative at the same time.’’ The narrator of Genesis began the story with this phrase because, much like ‘’Once upon a time,’’ this one is ‘’a time-honored way of starting a story.’’ To be more precise, the latter phrase suggests what readers are about to read or listen to is a fairy tale, while the opening line of the Bible indicates the content following it will be mythical. 

Both formulaic phrases give the storytelling timelessness and universality and prevent the reader from asking questions, such as: Is this true? or: When or where did this happen? In the case of a Biblical sentence, the answer about the time is particularly redundant since it clearly indicates that the events happened at the beginning of time itself. If you think carefully about this opening line, you will realize it is a tautology. Naturally, God created the universe first - how could he not have done it? ‘’Perhaps,’’ Eagleton suggests, ‘’whoever wrote them imagined that time began at a certain point, and when it did so God created the universe. But we know today that there would be no time without the universe. Time and the universe sprang into being simultaneously.’’

According to the Book of Genesis, God’s creation of the world meant bringing order into chaos and light into darkness. In a sense, the sequence of Biblical narrative is opposite to the sequence of numerous famous narratives, which begin when order is somehow disrupted. For instance, in ‘’Pride and Prejudice’’ Elizabeth Benner might have stayed unmarried if Mr Darcy hadn’t come. If he hadn’t asked for more, Oliver Twist might never have encountered Fagin, and Hamlet might be alive had he stuck to his studies in Wittenberg.

So, as you can see, much can be said about the piece only by analyzing its opening line. A sentence, and even a word or an exclamation mark may be worthy of critical comment.

What is Hamlet like before the play begins?

As we have already seen, ‘’one of the most common ways of overlooking the ‘literariness’ of a play or novel is to treat its characters as though they were actual people.’’ Naturally, sometimes this is impossible to avoid since people often serve writers as models when they create characters. So, we can describe Heathcliff as brute and King Lear as bullying, irascible and self-deluded. The key difference between these characters and people of the same features is their existence - Heathcliff and King Lear live only as long as someone reads about them. They have no prehistory, and we cannot know what happens to them once we close the book. Think about it. Hamlet is not really a university student before the play opens, and Hedda Gabler does not exist a second before she steps on stage, right?

So, when analyzing book characters we should always be aware that they are the writer's creation. For this reason, a relevant question would be what kinds of modes of characterization a writer uses when manufacturing a character. Does he present a character from the inside or other characters’ standpoints? Is the character coherent or self-contradictory, static or evolving, firmly etched or fuzzy at the edges? How do their actions and relationships define them? 

Throughout literature history, writers had different ways of creating their characters. For instance, characters of the realist tradition are usually complex, credible, stable, and fully rounded individuals, like David Copperfield or Amy Dorrit. In modernist times, people abandoned the belief that they were agents of their desires, and consequently, characters of modernist tradition did not have much consistency and continuity. Take Joyce’s protagonists Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom as examples - the plot of Homer's Odyssey determines a good deal of what they do. In modernism, the traditional concept of identity disintegrated and is perceived as elusive and indeterminate. Virginia Woolf’s characters, for instance, often have a modernist mind of this kind, ‘’responsive to fragments of sensation but with little continuity.’’

Narration and its crisis

Apart from treating literary characters in the same way as real people, another mistake readers often make is assuming that the narrator's voice expresses the author's thoughts and sentiments. This usually happens in case narrators are omniscient, who appear to be ‘’the mind of the work itself’’ and to ‘’know everything about the story they tell.’’ This confusion does not happen when narrators are unreliable, that is, when they have limited power of interpretation. Some of Joseph Conrad’s narrators, for instance, have only a fitful, confused sense of what is going on in the stories they tell. Some narrators, like Jane Eyre, let the sentiments such as pride, anxiety, resentment, and envy color their narration. Sometimes, authors offer a restricted perspective because they choose children or animals to narrate the story. There are times when narrators want to trick readers - that happens in Agatha Christie’s detective thriller ‘’The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’’ where the narrator is the murderer who intends to throw readers off the scent.

We have already mentioned that many stories begin with a problem that characters seek to resolve until the story's end. Modernists, on the other hand, are skeptical of this worldview in which there are clear shapes and an orderly procession of causes and effects. Unlike realists, who saw reality as the logical development of events, modernist writers see it as a tangled web in which all components are interwoven. As Eagleton puts it, ‘’Event A may lead to event B, but it also leads to events C, D, E and countless others. It is the product of countless factors as well. Who is to decide which of these storylines should take priority?’’

According to modernists, narratives cannot reflect the weblike design of the world, but they simplify, that is, falsify it instead. They believe literary work should be conscious of this falsification and tell a story by being constantly aware of the limitations of storytelling and that there could be many versions of their subject-matter besides their own. Samuel Beckett, for instance, does this when he sets out on one tale, aborts it almost as soon as it is off the ground, then launches an equally pointless one in its place.

The value of literary work

What do you think - what makes a work of literature good or bad? This question puzzled people over centuries, and they offered various answers to it. Romantic poets and philosophers, for instance, thought that a piece of writing is valuable only if it is original. According to them, ‘’each work of art is a miraculous new creation. It is an echo or repetition of God’s act of creating the world,’’ Eagleton writes. The neoclassical view of this topic was the opposite - authors like Pope, Fielding, and Johnson regarded what people have found valuable over centuries more worthy of respect and attention than originality. Similarly to romantic poets, modernists aimed to make us abandon our routine perceptions, and see the world from a new perspective. In postmodernism, the hunger for novelty begins to fade, while recycled, translated, parodied, or derived versions of past works of art are highly rated.

According to some literary critics, all major works of art are timeless and universal. For this reason, we still admire works like Sophocles’ ‘’Antigone’’ and ‘’Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.’’ This claim raises several questions, though. Do we respond to ‘’Antigone’’ in the same way as Ancient Greeks did? Did, for instance, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans get the same things out of Shakespeare’s work as we do now? Perhaps it is better to say that a literary classic is not so much a work whose value doesn’t change but one that can generate new meanings over time. In the words of Eagleton, a literary classic is like an aging rock star who ‘’can adapt itself to new audiences.’’ Another question we can raise here is whether any piece of art can be timeless. ‘’To call some books timeless is just a way of saying that they tend to hang around a lot longer than ID cards or shopping lists. Even then, however, they may not hang around forever,’’ Eagleton says. To be precise, only on Judgement Day will we find out whether Virgil or Goethe made it through the end of time. If they do, will this guarantee they are major poets? Finally, since it produces so many questionable answers, is a nagging question of the value of literary work even relevant?

Final Notes

Although it is true that literature will live as long as there are readers, we can also say that it will live as long as there are readers who interpret it critically. So, thanks to Eagleton, not only those passionate about reading will benefit from this book, but the literature itself. 

12min Tip

Next time you read some fictional book, try to determine methods of character building. Does the physical description say anything about the characters? Does the author reveal their inner life? Perhaps they are characterized by how they talk or interact with other characters?

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Who wrote the book?

Terence Francis Eagleton (better known as Terry Eagleton) is an English literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently a distinguished Professor of English Literature within the Department of English and Creative Writing. As literary theorist, Eagleton is famous... (Read more)

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