An erudite scholar and influential cultural theorist, Terry Eagleton is widely regarded as the one of the foremost Marxist literary critics on the contemporary academic scene. With the publication of Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) and Literary Theory (1983), a popular college text, Eagleton won recognition for producing highly informed though accessible works of literary criticism that explore the relationship between literature, history, and society.
While Eagleton’s Marxist perspective is clearly apparent in his writings, his work also demonstrates a regard for other theoretical approaches such as feminism and psychoanalysis. English by education as well as birth, Eagleton displays a notable concern for the history, politics, and culture of Ireland. By urging critics to move out of the isolation that academia tends to foster, he manifests a desire that criticism be used to promote a more equitable society.
Eagleton was born in Salford, England, where his father worked as an engineer. He attended local schools before studying at Cambridge University, where he received his B.A. in 1964. He earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge in 1968. While at Cambridge, he worked with the critic Raymond Williams, under whose influence he rejected the orthodoxies of New Criticism, a critical approach that treats the literary text as autonomous and unconnected to moral, historical, or political realities. Eagleton served as a fellow in English at Cambridge from 1964 to 1969 until moving to Oxford University. He was married from 1966 to 1976. At Oxford, he became a fellow and tutor in Poetry, a position that he held until 1989, when he became a lecturer in Critical Theory. Eagleton continues to work at Oxford, holding the post of Thomas Warton professor of English and Literature, which he received in 1992.
Eagleton’s writings reflect his interest in examining ideologies as they are expressed in literature. The tool with which he prefers to explore ideologies is Marxist literary theory, which takes into account—unlike New Criticism—the relationships that historical, political, and social conditions have to works of literature. Eagleton’s theoretical stance, while it has not remained static during his career, is apparent in his first book, The New Left Church (1966). In this work he combines literary criticism, Marxist political analysis, and Catholic theology in an attempt to reconcile Roman Catholicism with socialist humanism. With Shakespeare and Society (1967), he released his first book of criticism on a traditional literary topic. Demonstrating his rejection of New Criticism, Eagleton refuses to regard Shakespeare’s work as an autonomous entity; instead, he treats his writings as inseparable from Elizabethan social issues. Investigating the conflict between individualism and social responsibility in Shakespeare’s later plays, Eagleton argues that while Shakespeare was actually a political conservative who had an interest in maintaining the contemporary social order, his presentation of individualism and sexual desire undermines the conventional structures of law and marriage. Eagleton revisited this subject in William Shakespeare (1986).
In The Body as Language (1970), Eagleton confronts the human alienation that capitalism creates by advocating cooperation between Christianity and revolutionary socialism. Following this book, the author was not to return to Christian doctrine as a major topic in his writings. Instead, for his next two books Eagleton trained his Marxist theory on specific literary figures. Exiles and Emigrés (1970) examines why so much important twentieth-century English literature has been written by non-English authors such as Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Henry James, and James Joyce. Myths of Power (1975) looks at the work of the Brontë sisters in light of the emerging industrial class of their time. Eagleton’s next work, Marxism and Literary Criticism, exerted a significant impact on the practice of literary criticism. Here Eagleton argues that the artist does not “create” something from nothing, but instead “produces” a work that is determined by historical and ideological conditions. In addition to presenting the concept of the author as producer, Eagleton also considers the relationships between form and content and that of the writer and social commitment. Asserting in Criticism and Ideology (1976) that Marxism is the only methodology free of the ideological bias that other analytical approaches entail, Eagleton maintains that the goal of criticism is to reveal the ideological forces that make up a text. In Walter Benjamin (1981), Eagleton argues that Benjamin’s revolutionary criticism has not been given proper attention. He also displays in this work an interest in feminism. In The Rape of Clarissa (1982) Eagleton applied a feminist approach, in addition to Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, to his interpretation of the eighteenth-century novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.
Eagleton is perhaps best known for Literary Theory, which has become a popular instructional text among academics. In this work, Eagleton not only surveys such major literary theories as structuralism, semiotics, and phenomenology, but also discusses the historical and ideological conditions behind each theory to demonstrate its limitations as well as its significance. Eagleton also contends that students would benefit from a study of rhetoric, as was practiced from antiquity to the eighteenth century. He also favors a cultural discourse that would eradicate the distinctions between literature and non-literature. In The Function of Criticism (1984), which offers a polemical history of the critical establishment from the eighteenth century to the present, Eagleton attempts to sway criticism away from its preoccupation with literary texts and estrangement from society in the interest of returning it to its traditional involvement in cultural politics. In Saints and Scholars (1987), his only novel to date, Eagleton satirically explores the beginnings of modern European thought. Set in Ireland in 1916, the novel involves Irish revolutionary James Connolly, who has escaped his real-life execution, and his encounters with philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell; Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses; and Mikhail Bakhtin’s brother, Marxist literary critic Nikolai. Besides showing how religious, economic, and political forces affected society in the early twentieth century, their conversations serve as a debate of the theoretical and practical limitations of thought and social action.
Eagleton returned to criticism with The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), in which he illustrates how social and political forces influence a society’s aesthetic conceptualizations. His analysis considers the work of Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, G. W. F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche to examine how these forces affect the formation of aesthetic thought. In Ideology (1991), Eagleton scrutinizes the concept of ideology itself and its various manifestations, again providing a survey of major theoretical positions and their proponents in the process. In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995), Eagleton proposes that Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was actually a refugee from the great Irish potato famine. In this series of essays, Eagleton confronts what he considers to be a revisionist view of Irish history, one that seeks to diminish the impact of the potato famine and nineteenth-century English politics on the period’s writers. Eagleton also addressed issues concerning Irish culture in the essay collection Crazy John and the Bishop (1999). In The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), Eagleton defends the relevance of Marxist theory against the current preference among critics for postmodernism. He argues that postmodernism, with its view of the world as fragmented and truth as indeterminate, is an inadequate successor to Marxism, which in its critique of capitalism can offer a more concrete moral vision for society.
Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983, revised 1996), probably his best-known work, traces the history of the study of texts, from the Romantics of the nineteenth century to the postmodernists of the later twentieth century. Eagleton’s thought remains firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition; he has also produced critical work on such more recent modes of thought as structuralism, Lacanian analysis, and deconstruction.
As his memoir The Gatekeeper demonstrates, Eagleton’s Marxism is far from a merely theoretical pursuit. He was active in Marxist organisations (most notably the International Socialists, a forerunner to the British Socialist Workers Party), as well as Alan Thornett‘s Workers Socialist League, whilst in Oxford. He continues to provide political commentary for publications such as the New Statesman, Red Pepper and The Guardian.
After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: a careful indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. He does not, however, conclude that the interdisciplinary study of literature and culture that comprises Theory is without merit. In fact, Eagleton argues that such a merging is effective in opening cultural study to a wider range of significant topics. His indictment instead centers on “relativism”—theorists’ and postmodernity’s rejection of absolutes. He concludes that an absolute does exist: Every person lives in a body that cannot be owned because nothing was done to acquire it, and nothing (besides suicide) can be done to be rid of it. Our bodies and their subsequent deaths provide the absolute around which humankind can focus its actions.
Eagleton has also completed a trilogy of works on Irish culture.
In October of 2006, Eagleton produced an impassioned, widely-quoted critique of Richard Dawkins‘s The God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Eagleton begins by questioning Dawkins’ methodology and understanding: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” He concludes by suggesting Dawkins has not so much been attacking organised faith as a sort of rhetorical straw-man: “Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals.”
Although many of his texts include aspects of philosophical debate, Eagleton himself does not claim to be a philosopher, stating with his usual good-humour, “Perhaps I should add that I am not myself a philospher, a fact which I am sure some of my reviewers will point out in any case.”
Even those colleagues who disagree with Eagleton’s Marxist position and interpretation of ideology tend to commend his passionate writing. Eagleton has been praised for his humor and wit as well as for demonstrating a graceful style. In his first major work, Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton was hailed not only for his writing technique but for his concise explication of the obtuse theories of European Marxist critics and his provoking treatment of the author as “producer.” He was criticized, however, for a lack of textual examples and for being too self-referential. His second major work, Literary Theory, was similarly lauded by critics for serving as an accessible, comprehensible introduction to its subject. The book was also praised for its consideration of the relationship between literary theories and the ideological conditions in which they arise. On the other hand, many critics rejected his suggestion that literature and literary theory are illusions and that the study of literature be replaced with the study of rhetoric. The Ideology of the Aesthetic and Ideology also elicited considerable critical response, with many commending Eagleton’s impressive range and insight into their subjects, and others finding his arguments flawed and merely polemical. His critics notwithstanding, Eagleton remains a prominent literary theorist, one who, having reexamined the tradition of criticism and the role of the critic, has greatly influenced both students and professional academics.
In Autumn 2007, Eagleton’s critical observations about Martin Amis—included in the introduction to a 2007 edition his book Ideology—were widely reprinted in the British press.
Eagleton had been disturbed by Amis’ own widely quoted writings on “Islamism,” directing particular attention to this passage:
Eagleton rejected Amis’ prescription, while registering surprise at its source: “[these are] not the ramblings of a British National Party thug…but the reflections of Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world.” Eagleton drew a connection between Amis as writer and Amis as the son of the sometimes reactionary humourist Kingsley Amis. The younger writer, Eagleton wrote, had learnt more from his father—”a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”—than merely “how to turn a shapely phrase.”
The essay became a cause célèbre in British literary circles. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a commentator for The Independent, wrote an editorail about the affair; Amis responded via open letter, calling Eagleton “an ideological relict,” adding that he would be “unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx”. Amis’ major complaint was procedural: Eagleton had quoted him writing the above remarks, whereas they were actually “spoken”—excerpts from a newspaper interview about Amis’ upcoming book on Islamism, The Second Plane.
Eagleton’s attack on Kingsley Amis further prompted a response from Kingsley’s widow, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard wrote the Daily Telegraph, noting that for an “anti-semitic homophobe,” it was unusual that the only guests at the Howard-Amis nuptials should have been either Jewish or gay. As Howard explained, “Kingsley was never a racist, nor an anti-Semitic boor. Our four great friends who witnessed our wedding were three Jews and one homosexual.” Eagleton’s position is somewhat belied by a reading of Kingley Amis’ published novels—on the other hand, Martin Amis himself has characterized Kingsley’s political opinions, as occasionally reactionary. (Ironically, Kingsley Amis had like Eagleton become a Marxist while a student at Oxford, and remained one for some years afterward.)
Eagleton responded by article in The Guardian, noting that the main bone of contention—the substance of Amis’ remarks and views—had got lost amongst the media furore.
William Deresiewicz wrote of Eagleton’s book After Theory, as follows: “[I]s it that hard to explain what Eagleton’s up to? The prolificness, the self-plagiarism, the snappy, highly consumable prose and, of course, the sales figures: Eagleton wishes for capitalism’s demise, but as long as it’s here, he plans to do as well as he can out of it. Someone who owns three homes shouldn’t be preaching self-sacrifice, and someone whose careerism at Oxbridge was legendary shouldn’t be telling interviewers of his longstanding regret at having turned down a job at the Open University.”
The novelist and critic David Lodge, however, writing in the May, 2004 New York Review of Books, took a more nuanced position on both Theory and “After Theory.” He concludes,
Adam Kirsch has called Eagleton, “one of the more noxious presences on the academic literary scene.”