Key Theories of Terry Eagleton

Writing about the impossibility of filming philosophy, Eagleton suggests a dialectical solution: find a scriptwriter interested in ideas (Eagleton) and a director with visual imagination (Derek Jarmen); the resulting unhappy consciousness soon resolves itself with an outstanding film about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Eagleton, the man known by students for writing one book, called Literary Theory (1983), is in reality a critic and reviewer of prodigious output, whose books occupy just about every call-number in the humanities library catalogue. Born in Salford, England, Eagleton studied at Cambridge University, where he studied with the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. Eagleton received his BA in 1964 and his Ph.D. in 1968.After working as a Fellow at Cambridge, Eagleton moved to Wadham College, Oxford in 1969, where he was a Fellow and poetry tutor, becoming Lecturer in Critical Theory in 1989, and Thomas Wharton Professor of English in 1992. Eagleton is now Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester.

Writing about the ‘contradictions’ of Eagleton, Roger Kimball traces the origins of his criticism, arguing that it is ‘a compound of [Raymond] Williams’s socialist organicism, F. R. Leavis’s meticulously autocratic practical criticism, and left-wing, liberationist Catholicism’. Eagleton’s first book, The New Left Church (1966) is a synthesis of Catholic theology and Marxist criticism, while Shakespeare and Society (1967) is in some senses a less radical text, given not just its canonical subject, but its contextualization of Shakespeare in historical and political terms. Eagleton returned to the subject of Catholicism in The Body as Language (1970), again attempting a Marxist and Christian synthesis, leaving this subject for good with another book published the same year, Exiles and Emigres: Studies in Modern Literature (1970). Exiles and Emigres ponders the question of the internationalization of ‘English’ modernist literature long before postcolonial critics got in on the act of defining British fiction through its Others. Arguing that the nineteenth-century realist novelists could grasp society as a totality (and draw creative energies and modes of expression from this act), Eagleton compares their fiction with that of the ‘foreigners’ such as Conrad, James, Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Joyce. This enables him to have the dialectical insight that the ‘controlled evaluations’ of the exiles and emigres was brought about by ‘an awareness that the declining culture they confronted was in no full sense their own’. Thus, the ‘felt presence of alternative traditions’ is the enabling factor in the production of literary expression. Eagleton utilizes this insight to produce readings of what he terms ‘upper’ and ‘lower middle-class’ novels, Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, and the works of Greene, Eliot, Auden and Lawrence.

The more familiar Eagleton emerges with his next three books: Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes (1975), Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (1976), and Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976). In his introduction to the second edition of Myths of Power, Eagleton notes how the book was published ‘on the very threshold of a major resurgence of Marxist criticism in Britain’. This is a key statement in situating the intellectual and political contexts of Eagleton’s work and his place in the institutional study of literature:

Since the radical political events of the late 1960s, Marxist criticism had been much in the air; but when Myths of Power first appeared, the chief theoretical formulations of this critical current were still to emerge. My own work of Marxist literary theory, Criticism and Ideology, appeared one year later in 1976; the following year witnessed the publication of Raymond Williams’ important Marxism and Literature, and 1978 saw the English translation of Pierre Macherey’s influential A Theory of Literary Production. From 1976 onwards, a series of annual conferences on Marxist literary and cultural theory were held at the University of Essex, bringing physically together for the first time a large number of young radical critics whose work and political allegiances had been shaped in the aftermath of Paris 1968.

Eagleton also sketches the failures and successes of Myths of Power, with the interesting observation that he did not feel that the book achieved the goals of its ‘relatively’ sophisticated Marxist theory compared with what he calls its ‘fairly conventional critical practice’ suggesting further that only the chapter on Wuthering Heights came near to achieving his aims. However, Eagleton does see Criticism and Ideology as a genuine shift from regarding the literary text as ‘“expressive” of an underlying ideology or historical situation’ to one whereby the text is a ‘“production” or transformation of these elements into a quite new configuration’. Following this Marxist trio, Eagleton’s more sophisticated Marxist approach was brought to bear on the subject of Walter Benjamin in Walter Benjamin, or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981) and Richardson in The Rape of Clarissa (1982).

Students the world over are often introduced to the subject of literary theory with a book that bears that title; published in 1983, Literary Theory: An Introduction has become Eagleton’s best-known text. Critic David Alderson notes that ‘its publication was nothing short of an event in the history of English studies’ yet this has also ‘served to obscure Eagleton’s achievements up to that point and has overshadowed subsequent work’.6 It is ironic that an introductory work on theory, written from a Marxist perspective, should have become so subject to capitalist market forces by becoming what can only be called a ‘best-seller’. Literary Theory remains popular with academics teaching the subject, however, because of its underlying commitment to social and political contexts. Read in conjunction with The Function of Criticism: From The Spectator to Poststructuralism (1984) and Against the Grain: Selected Essays (1986), Eagleton’s early 1980s trio provides some of the most insightful analyses of the development of literary theory. Eagleton returned to Shakespeare in 1986 with his William Shakespeare, and brought together some of his most compelling essays in his key text, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, in 1990, with analysis of Shaftesbury, Hume, Burke, German Romanticism and German Idealism, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Benjamin and Adorno, with a final essay on postmodernism. The accessibility of the essays therein must surely be one of the reasons for Eagleton’s popularity, and indeed in a later collection, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others (2003), Eagleton makes a point of mildly parodying theorists who produce overly dense and unreadable texts. With Gayatri Spivak, for example, Eagleton argues that she writes an ‘overstuffed, excessively elliptical prose’ where ‘the ellipses, the heavy-handed jargon, the cavalier assumption that you know what she means, or that if you don’t she doesn’t much care, are as much the overcodings of an academic coterie as a smack in the face for conventional scholarship’. Summarizing Zizek from a perspective that is slightly more in awe of his (no doubt repetitive) command of Hegelian and Lacanian discourse, Eagleton produces one of the most amusing parodies of his writing:

At first glance it would seem that the sausage in the hot dog wedges apart the two pieces of roll. But the roll itself is nothing but a ‘space’ which the sausage creates around it, the phantasmal ‘frame’ or support of the sausage without which it would vanish to nothing . . . This is my parody rather than Zizek’s own words, but much odder passages are to be found in his work.

Undoubtedly the recognition of the ‘much odder passages’ is what moves Eagleton’s own parody from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Eagleton continues to support the book industry with his prodigious output; focused accounts of theoretical and ideological concepts following The Ideology of the Aesthetic include The Significance of Theory (1990), Ideology: An Introduction (1991), The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) and The Idea of Culture (2000). In 2001 Eagleton published. The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, a critical reflection upon key figures and institutions in his life. In the concluding lines of a key essay on nationalism, irony and commitment, Eagleton summarizes in some ways his entire enterprise:

It is only ambiguously, precariously, that any of us can experience at once the necessary absolutism of a particular demand – to be freed, for example, from an immediate, intolerable oppression – and the more general truth that no one such demand, however just and urgent, can finally exhaust or preprogram a political future in which the content will have gone beyond the phrase. As Kierkegaard might have said, it is a matter of trying to live that dialectic passionately, ironically, in all of its elusive impossibility, rather than merely providing an elegant theoretical formulation of it.

Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.


Roger Kimball, ‘The Contradictions of Terry Eagleton’, The New Criterion, 9.1 (September 1990),

Terry Eagleton, Exiles and Emigres: Studies in Modern Literature, London:Chatto & Windus, 1970, p. 18.

Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1988, p. xi.

David Alderson, Terry Eagleton, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 1.

Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others, London and New York: Verso, 2003, p. 160.

Terry Eagleton, ‘Nationalism: Irony and Commitment’, in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature: Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Edward W. Said, introduced by Seamus Deane, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, pp. 23–39; p. 38.

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