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Literary Theory 101: An Introduction with Terry Eagleton


Literary Theory works as a social institution, a science that tries to study literature and every aspect that surrounds it. Due to its scientific intentions, it avoids working with beliefs and ideologies, although, sometimes, it is difficult to separate them. Literary Theory concentrates on possibilities and not on reality, since literature, like art, is not a fixed science. This series of articles will explain some of the different areas that academics study in this field of knowledge and how it has been used to explain the evolution of literature.

Literary Theory 101 is divided into six chapters including:

  1. An Introduction with Terry Eagleton

  2. Pragmatism and Literary Communication

  3. Institutionalization

  4. Roles and Practices

  5. Intertextuality

  6. Canon

Literary Theory 101: An Introduction with Terry Eagleton

The Oxford Dictionary (2022) defines literature as “pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays and poems (in contrast to technical books and newspapers, magazines)”. This definition is straightforward and falls into what anyone might have believed. Yet, it is not a complete definition; for instance, what is it that dictates that a novel is art, but not a magazine article? This is the key question literary theorists have been working to respond to.

In his work Literary Theory: An Introduction (1989), Terry Eagleton suggests that it might have to do with creativity and fiction (pp.1-2), but he quickly dismisses these ideas as it would exclude texts grounded in reality such as autobiographies or historical novels. This is the first issue with literature; it is a huge term that englobes pieces of art that may have nothing in common. This idea is more evident in the present day, when the barrier of what is literature is less fixed, as texts like The Canterbury Tales and a comic of Batman both enter in this category.

Terry Eagleton professor and literary theorist. Photograph by Steffan Hill. 2016.

Terry Eagleton is a British professor that specialized in 19th and 20th century literatures, before becoming one of the world’s most renowned literary theorists. His most important book Literary Theory: An Introduction will be the supporting text for this first article on literary theory as the professor explains every major literary theory of the 20th century. Eagleton starts by talking about phenomenology literary criticism which derives from the philosophical theories of Edmund Husserl (p. 54), and tries to explain literature as an act of awareness that appears in the consciousness (phenomenon). In reading a book or hearing a story, one experiences the unified "is-ness" of existence (Staton, 1987, p. 62). Eagleton talks about hermeneutics and reception theory.

Hermeneutics is the study of the natural evolution of literature in a country or region through its history (Eagleton, 1989, p. 73). An example would be the transition from romanticism to realism during the 19th century in the United Kingdom. Eagleton states that reception theory is a part of hermeneutics, it is not so much centered on works of the past, instead it studies the reader's role. Literary texts "are processes of signification materialized only in the practice of reading" (Eagleton, 1989, p.74).

Edmund Husserl was the main promoter of the theory of phenomenology. (German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Russian Academic Dictionary. 1900).

In the early 20th century, there was a group of young Russian critics who wished to separate literature and politics (Morson, 2012, p. IX) and tried to create a school of thought dedicated to the study of literature, to find a way of uniting its criticism. This group was called the Russian Formalists, and the first topic they studied was the term “literariness”. The great expert in Slavic literature, Victor Erlich, stated that the Formalists were deeply suspicious of psychology, and therefore believed that the answer to the question could not be found in the writer nor the reader; they believed it had everything to do with the text, but not with the theme and motif, but with the way it was presented (Erlich, 1973, p.628). Eagleton resumed it with the phrase “Formalism was essentially the application of linguistics to the study of literature” (Eagleton, 1989, p.3).

The Formalists believed that investigators and professors of literature should not concern themselves with meaning or reflection, but with facts and methods based on a series of rules, "Don Quixote is not 'about' the character of that name: the character is just a device for holding together different kind of narrative techniques" (Eagleton, 1989, p.3). This view of the study of literature can be considered limited. Literature is more than linguistics, just like painting is more than anatomy. One must take it into account, but it is not the soul of the piece. We are not talking about a machine. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is good not only because it was written in great form, but because in the 21st century we still discuss the psyche of the main character.

Viktor Shlovski was one of the Russian formalists, a prolific writer and critic. (Viktor Shlovski. The Daily Star. 2018).

In the introduction to his book, Eagleton (1989) specifies that literary theory cannot be studied as a science, it has too many variables and exceptions. Therefore, to do so is to miss key elements that make up literature. Literary theory is also undeniably interlinked to the ideology of those who study it (p. 13). What he truly wants is to kill literature, as he believes that the concept itself has become too corrupted and with so many definitions that the meaning of it has become blurry.

We know that the lion is stronger than the lion-tamer, and so does the lion-tamer. The problem is that the lion does not know it. It is not out of the question that the death of literature may help the lion to awaken. ( Eagleton, 1989, p. 217)

Eagleton may be right, but that does not mean that there is no merit to studying these “scientific theories” of literature. Literary theory works with possibilities, not reality (that is the job of interpretation). This means that each theory opens a world of possibilities for understanding literature, all of them equally valid. There are academics, like the Formalists, who study literature from the linguistic point of view. This view may be contradictory to those approached by other theorists such as Northrop Frye, writer of Anatomy of Criticism; he believed that the key to studying literature were the archetypes (Frye, 1951, p. 99). This does not mean that one is right, and the other is not. Since there is not a rule book to follow, each theory is correct from the point of view with which they, the critics and theorists, are studying literature. Each theory can be accepted and studied as a science, as long as one does it from the same framework and not as a definite theory of union.

By the end of the series, the reader will have had a clear idea of what literary theory is and what are the key ideas that conform it. The reader will also develop different perspectives for reading and understanding literature, greatly enriching their personal lectures. There are many theorists and theories that must be left behind, but the idea is that the reader will have won enough interest to do their own research and, maybe, start reading some texts through the lenses that these theories may hand them.

Bibliographical References:

Eagleton, T. (1989). Literary Theory: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press.

Erlich, V. (1973). Russian Formalism. Journal of the Histories of Ideas, 34(4), 627–638.

Frye, N. (1951). The Archetypes of Literature. The Kenyon Review, 13(1), 92–110.

Lemon, L. T., Reis, M. J., & Morson, G. S. (2012). Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Second Edition (Regents Critics) (Secondtion ed.). University of Nebraska Press.

Staton, S. F. (1987). Literary Theories in Praxis. Amsterdam University Press.

“Literature.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, Oxford,,newspapers%2C%20magazines%2C%20etc.. Accessed 13 May 2022.

Image References:

German philosopher Edmund Husserl. (1900). [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Hill, S. (2016, August 9). El escritor y profesor Terry Eagleton [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Reynolds, J. (1775). Portrait of Samuel Johnson (“Blinking Sam”) [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Viktor Shklovsky. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Further Reading:

Erlich, V. (1980). Russian Formalism (Slavistic Printings and Reprintings) (2nd Reprint 2012 ed.). De Gruyter Mouton.

Frye, N. (2020). Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press.

Author Photo

Alejandro Cabrera Martínez

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