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by Terry Eagleton

Pub Date: May 21st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-300-19096-0
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A genial guide to exactly what the title promises, for readers who aren’t particularly experienced or critical.

Though he enjoys renown in Britain as a literature professor, Eagleton (Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America, 2013, etc.) maintains from the outset that this is “a guide for beginners.” As such, it might confuse those beginners who are new to Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure or much of Dickens, since at least a cursory knowledge of the novels he is using to make his points would seem helpful in understanding those points. Yet this short book benefits from a conversational, even humorous tone and rarely requires much in the way of literary or critical theory as a prerequisite for its discussion of issues that most readers will recognize: Characters are not real people, and they have no existence outside the novel. Literature can generate multiple meanings, without agreement on the “right” one. A consideration of the language employed is crucial, for literature is nothing more (and nothing less) than its words. Initial chapters on “Openings” and “Characters” seem to hopscotch all over the place, since literature here encompasses poems, plays and novels (with a span of centuries and continents), in whatever order the author chooses to juxtapose. Chapters on “Narrative” and “Interpretation” are meatier and more focused. In the former, Eagleton reminds readers that “there is rarely any simple relation between authors and their works,” while illuminating a range of strategies that include the omniscient and unreliable narrators. The latter includes a very funny exegesis of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and an interpretive linkage of Dickens and Harry Potter. As for the concluding “Value,” it is the most provocative and least convincing of the lot, dismissing Updike as “artful but lifeless” while praising the “superlative literary art” of Carol Shields.

Perfect for an intro course that features some of the literature the book discusses.