“Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could share a beer with Fagin.” – How To Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton
This is a hard book to write about. I’m not sure that anything I say about it will be sufficient to convey its virtuosity and the engaging style of its author. But the biggest, and pleasantest, surprise I got from reading it is that it was funny – I mean laugh out loud funny.
Terry Eagleton ranges far and wide across the classics of world literature. The scope of his knowledge is vast. He’s made me want to read, or reread, innumerable works of literature.
In the book’s preface, Eagleton offers the following rueful observation: “Like clog dancing, the art of analysing works of literature is almost dead on its feet.” However, nothing daunted, he plunges right in, beginning, appropriately enough, with a chapter entitled “Openings.” He then proceeds to examine the element of character in fiction. The overriding point that he strives to bring home in this section is addressed in the first sentence: “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.” He goes on to provide numerous examples. Here’s one of my favorites:
When Heathcliff disappears from Wuthering Heights for a mysterious stretch of time, the novel does not tell us where he runs off to. There is a theory that he returns to the Liverpool where he was first discovered as a child and grows rich in the slave trade there, but it is equally possible that he sets up a hairdressing salon in Reading.
In other words, it’s impossible to deduce anything definite about his whereabouts or activities during this period because Emily Bronte, the author, offers us no relevant information. That is her prerogative. Heathcliff is her creation; she will tell you what she believes you need to know of him and not a bit more.
Later in this chapter, Eagleton states: “Literary figures have no pre-history.” Neither is there any use in trying to figure out what happens to them after the play or novel has ended:
Emma does not survive the conclusion of Emma. She lives in a text, not a grand country mansion, and a text is a transaction between itself and a reader. A book is a material object which exists even if nobody picks it up, but this is not true of a text. A text is a pattern of meaning, and patterns of meaning do not lead lives of their own, likes snakes or sofas.
(I love that last bit. Such whimsical language serves to preserve the book from stuffiness.) Presumably you could also say that although your physical book and your Kindle are vastly different technologies, both deliver a text which is essentially the same in both media.
Those of us who came of age reading romantic and realistic works tend to give primacy to character in a play or novel. Eagleton points out that this view is of relatively recent vintage, bound up as it is with civilization’s increasing emphasis on individuality and corresponding de-emphasis on community. He cites Aristotle’s Poetics, a work that is largely about tragedy but is not preoccupied solely with characters in works of literature: “For Aristotle, character is one element in a complex artistic design. It is not to be ripped rudely out of context, as critics used to do when they wrote essays with titles like ‘The Girlhood of Ophelia’ or ‘Would Iago Make a Good Governor of Arizona?'”
Humans, of course, are unavoidably tied to a particular setting:
Human beings are never not in a situation. Not to be sure what situation one is in is to be in the situation known as doubt. To be outside any situation whatsoever is known as being dead.
This would certainly seem to be the last word where that concept is concerned!
Eagleton goes on to examine the question of just what makes a character distinctive and unique, both in fiction and in real life. He notes the propensity of his countrymen to make allowances for the eccentric:
The English tend to admire curmudgeonly, nonconformist types who make a point of not fitting in with their fellows. Such oddballs are agreeably incapable of being anything but themselves. People who carry a stoat on their shoulder or wear brown bags over their heads are said to be characters, which suggests that their aberrations are to be genially indulged. There is a spirit of tolerance about the word ‘character.’ It saves you from having to take certain people into protective custody.
(I want to stop here for a second to pay tribute to Terry Eagleton’s marvelous writing. Note the phraseology in “…their aberrations are to be genially indulged.” Every word is elegant and precise. I’m deeply grateful that there are still people among us who can write like this.)
I delighted especially in Eagleton’s commentary on the characters that populate the novels of Charles Dickens. What he calls the “quirkiness” of these characters “…can range from the lovable to the downright sinister.” Often that line is crossed in a subtle way, one that is initially almost invisible to the reader. By the time you realize what’s happening, you’ve been deeply drawn in to the narrative. “The problem is that if the normal characters have all the virtue, the freakish figures have all the life. Nobody would have an orange juice with Oliver Twist if they could share a beer with Fagin.”
In the chapter entitled “Interpretation,” Eagleton makes this observation:
Dickens can be funny even when he is painting some deeply unpalatable realities, which suggests that one of the alternatives he is proposing to such unpleasantness is comedy itself. Goodness is in notably short supply in his later fiction; but even if there is a dearth of it in the flint-hearted world the novels portray, a good deal of moral virtue is involved in the way they portray it. The loving sympathy, imaginative flair, benevolent humour and geniality of spirit which go into the making of these fictions mean that Dickens’s moral values are inseparable from the act of writing itself.
Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. A service was held in Westminster Abbey; it included a wreath laying (by Prince Charles and others, the author’s descendants I’m guessing) and a reading from Bleak House, performed by Ralph Fiennes:
In the chapter entitled “Value,” Eagleton addresses the thorny issue of how to evaluate a work of literature. He touches on such criteria as originality, realism, and universality, commenting along the way that “Shakespeare’s Cordelia, Milton’s Satan and Dickens’s Fagin are fascinating precisely because we are unlikely to encounter them in Walmart’s.”
I must stop now, or I’ll end by quoting the entire book, filled as it is with memorable gems. This is what my copy looks like right now: Only it’s not my copy, but the library’s, and so I must remove innumerable Post-it notes and Post-it flags, thus returning it to its pristine state, so that others may enjoy.
Of late, Terry Eagleton has been the Excellence in English Distinguished Visitor at Notre Dame University. Lucky Fighting Irish! I’d love to sit in one of his seminars.
How To Read Literature is a book for all those who cherish the reading life. Great for book clubs, great as the basis for a systematic study of literature, great for its sheer entertainment value – just plain great.
“Terry Eagleton: Literary and national critic” appeared in this past Wednesday’s edition of the Washington Post.