Terry Eagleton: Literature is Undefined

Terry Eagleton, in the Introduction to his book Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) titled “What is Literature?”, endeavours to offer the reader various perspectives on what the term literature envelops and how each, while being acceptable to a degree, miss the mark concerning an immaculate clarification. Through a wide array of examples, Eagleton attempts to illustrate his claim of literature being based upon social constructs, ideologies and value judgments:  “We can drop once and for all the illusion that the category ‘literature’ is ‘objective’, in the sense of being eternally given and immutable. Anything can be literature and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestionably literature – Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature”.

The first definition Eagleton offers asserts literature to be “imaginative writing in the sense of fiction” or “writing which is not literally true” – clearly a false claim since texts like the essays of Francis Bacon, the sermons of John Donne, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) and Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1702-04) have formed an integral part of the literary canon. A number of historical texts like Gibbon’s The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), philosophical texts such as Plato’s Symposium(385-370 BC) , and even instruction manuals like Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) along with a number of speeches, letters, treatises and maxims – texts which aren’t necessarily fictive or imaginative – are read and studied today as literature. A distinction between fact and fiction therefore may not be an ideal form of assessment. This can be exemplified through the case of science-fiction writing. In his 1865 sci-fi novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne described a “projectile”, a capsule shot out of a canon which could be used for space exploration and to land on the Moon. The invention of such technology may have appeared to be a distant or even impossible dream back in the nineteenth-century. However, mankind being able to access distant realms in outer space became a reality in the late 1960s, with Neil Armstrong creating mankind’s first imprint on the Moon. In other words, fiction gave way to fact. One could then argue that what we consider science ‘fiction’ now could possibly become a reality in future. For instance, using the impact of industrialization and assembly line techniques on society as a reference point, Karel Čapek wrote a sci-fi narrative in 1921 titled Rossum’s Universal Robots where he described a factory making  “artificial people” (or “robots” as he called them) to ease human labour, just as Aldous Huxley would imagine mass production of flesh-and-blood people a decade later in Brave New World (1932). Interestingly enough, the most common use of robots today in the twenty-first century is in replacing human labour in assembly lines.   The vision for robots in science fiction, which looked forward to robotic servants, robotic teachers, robotic secretaries, even robotic companions for the lonely is now a reality. Thus, what was earlier considered as science ‘fiction’ could now be read as fact, almost as a blueprint for the near future written by manufacturers of artificial intelligence. Another failure to distinguish between fact and fiction could arise in the case of religious texts. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution and “survival of the fittest” in his Origin of the Species (1859) has come to be scientifically verified and accepted worldwide, a number of communities continue to have faith in religious texts which describe the creation of human beings through supernatural forces. The Holy Bible and the Mahabharata, along with several other religious and spiritual texts, are read in the modern age as both fact as well as fiction. What one may read as factual, another may read as fictional, and it is thus that Eagleton rejects this criterion for evaluating literature. Moreover, Eagleton rightly argues that if literature includes much factual writing, it also excludes quite a lot of fiction, for instance Batman and Superman comics and graphic novels which were excluded from academia for a long time until “paraliterature” began to be taken up seriously in the late twentieth-century.

Space travel and the creation of robots, treated as fiction in the past, are a reality in the modern age, proving that “imaginary writing” falls short of being a qualifier of literature.

Religious texts – fact for some, fiction for others.

Moving on from the definition of literature as fiction after exposing the holes in this type of assessment, Eagleton moves to his second definition – literature as defined by Russian Formalism according to which a discourse was taken to be ‘literary’ only if it gave way to estrangement of language. In other words, literature is writing which “transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech” and which is constituted by devices including sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques, et cetera.  These devices were meant to defamiliarise readers with the language they used in everyday conversations or, in the words of Russian critic Roman Jakobson, perpetrated an “organised violence committed on ordinary speech”. A text qualified as literature only if it managed to do so. As Eagleton notes, “Literary work was neither a vehicle for ideas, a reflection of social reality nor the incarnation of some transcendental truth. It was a material fact, whose functioning could be analysed rather as one could examine a machine. It was made of words, not of objects or feelings, and it was a mistake to see it as the expression of an author’s mind.” According to the Formalist definition then, texts like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) would be termed as literature simply because they were replete with redundancy and semantic-syntactic deviancy, especially in the form of “nonsense verse” or limericks. As critic Diane Ponterotto points out in her essay on nonsense poetry, playing with language structure is our way of learning how language works. Ponterotto further explains that readers of nonsensical verse are drawn into a world where the natural order has been distorted, and that they begin to “question the meaning of known words while looking for meaning in words they do not recognize.” For example, in his poem The Jabberwocky (1871) from Through the Looking Glass, Carroll uses phrases like “vorpal sword”, “manxome foe”, and “uffish thought” which in the sense of the poem, fit perfectly. The combination of sounds may be unfamiliar, but the reader is able to make sense out of them within both a poetic framework and a phonological one by creating for himself a cognitive horizon where he simultaneously associates and dissociates with the language of the text. For the Formalists, the content and context of Carroll’s texts – the dark recesses of the human mind, the grim reality of growing old, the chessboard as a metaphor for life and fate – held no significance. To exemplify the Formalist definition further, one could say that Jonathan Swift’s Voyage to Lilliput from his collection Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is not a political allegory satirising eighteenth-century England. Rather, the political milieu characterised by the self-aggrandisement of the British, the poverty of the working class, the corruption perpetrated by the Whigs and Tories, and favouritism and nepotism in the English parliament provided a useful opportunity for the construction of an allegory which is celebrated as a renowned work of literature. Eagleton critically argues that the Formalist definition is dependent upon a universal norm from which literary language deviates. However, there is no way of defining “normal” everyday language. Language which some might consider ‘ordinary’, others may find complex, which challenges the claim that literature is defined through estrangement. Moreover, all deviations from everyday language may not necessarily be poetic or literary, for instance in the case of street slang. The African American community living in the ghettoised areas of New York such as Queens, Harlem and Bronx speak a modified, personalised form of English which is clearly a deviation from the ‘proper’ English language, but this deviation isn’t always appreciated as literary. Eagleton also argues that the Formalist definition would exclude from literature all the realist and naturalist writing which is not linguistically self-conscious and which does not deviate from the norm in any striking way. It is therefore a completely unreliable method of qualifying and categorising literature.

d3346bb98d2aca0cfc48d97ca26c3995Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’ – considered literary not for its content, but for its syntax, unusual vocabulary, and estranging, defamiliarising quality.

Eagleton suggests further that Literature could be defined as non-pragmatic discourse: “Unlike biology textbooks and notes to the milkman it serves no immediate practical purpose, but is to be taken as referring to a general state of affairs”.  He states the way a text is written holds more priority than what the text actually says. He calls this type of literature “self-referential language,” which in his words is language that makes reference to itself. However, in this definition of literature, readers are deprived of the topics that are written about since the focus is on the ‘way’ the text is written, and not what the essence of the text is. This definition specifies the style of the writer rather than what the writer is attempting to express through his or her writing. For example, the fact that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda chooses to write his poetry in a complex, fragmented style in order to shock the reader out of complacence is more important than the issues relating to post-colonial identity, war and violence in Latin America that he discusses in his poems. His famous poem Ode to the Tomato (1954) would be considered a literary achievement for its disjoint, fragmented style instead of its allusions to the mixing of cultures and races as a result of Chile’s colonial past. Critic Roland Bleiker has argued that Neruda’s poetic ambition was to “distort visions in order to challenge the entrenched forms of representations that have come to circumscribe our understanding of socio-political reality”. Going by the definition of literature as non-pragmatic discourse, however, the distorted visions presented in Neruda’s poetry are more important in themselves than the socio-political reality of Latin America. In Ode to the Tomato, Neruda uses the image of the tomato (an important agricultural produce of Latin America and of Spain, often a symbol of revelry and carnivalesque owing to the ‘Tomatina’) to comment on complex political themes and reaches out to his readers to create a picture of cohesiveness and unity in the face of divisiveness and the variety of races in Chile. But this socio-political context is less important than the symbol itself which presents a unique, off-beat style of writing. Eagleton claims this definition is weak because every piece of literature then becomes too subjective and leaves immense room for interpretation. According to him, “It leaves the definition of literature up to how somebody decides to read, not to the nature of what is written,” and this is why literature cannot be ‘objectively’ defined.

According to the definition of literature as non-pragmatic discourse, Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Tomato’ would be considered a literary achievement for its fragmented style instead of its allusions to the mixing of cultures and races as a result of Chile’s colonial past.

Eagleton’s next definition calls literature as any text which holds value, as “any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly”. Not only is literature linked to one’s perception of value, but these value-judgements also vary over time and across different communities, being embedded in the prevailing ideology. Eagleton defines ideology as “the modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving, and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power” and claims that one’s ideology is constantly influencing how one reads and interprets a text. This definition therefore becomes highly subjective since different people would choose to value different aspects of a text. This subjectivity with regard to the value one pins to a text can be analysed through the example of paraliterature or popular fiction. The term paraliterature was introduced in the late twentieth-century to refer to the literature which runs “parallelly”, as a significant other, to the dominant elitist literature. Literary critic Christopher Pawling, in his essay Introduction: Popular Fiction: Ideology or Utopia (1984), insists that for a long time, value judgements passed by the elite scholars dismissed paraliterature – the popular literature of the masses, more specifically the bourgeois or the educated middle class – as unfit to be studied in the academic domain. It wasn’t until scholars and critics like Pierre Macherey, John Cawelti, Umberto Eco and Darko Suvin began promoting the importance of bringing paraliterature into the academic domain that it was taken seriously. This is a prime example of how value-judgements operate. For the middle classes, paraliterature used to hold value as a form of amusement and escape from reality while for the elite scholars, it was worthless. This dichotomy between canonical literature and paraliterature has also been examined by literary scholar Raymond Williams who, in his book Marxism and Literature (1977), discusses how at any given point in time there exist three cultural groups – dominant, residual, and emergent. As the name suggests, the dominant group is the most powerful shaping force of culture while the residual group contains the influence of old cultural practices on modern societies, consciously or unconsciously, and the emergent group promotes the new cultural ideas and practices that are being created constantly in a society by groups and individuals. All three groups pronounce different value-judgments and choose to value certain forms of art and literature over others based on the different social ideologies they belong to. Another example of the subjectivity in defining literature as a text which holds value would be the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to American musician and lyricist, Bob Dylan in 2016. Certain sections of society contested the notion of a songwriter as a poet, claiming that when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honour a writer, and condemned the Nobel committee for diluting the institution of literature. Others, however, celebrated the event as a revolution which brought music and literature together and gave lyricists the same credibility as poets and authors, closing a major gap between high art and low-brow commercial art in one great leap. This illustrates how the definition of literature is never the same for two people because of its subjectivity. In the current post-modern age, popular fiction such as the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, mystery and detective novels of Agatha Christie and sci-fi works of Isaac Asimov have been absorbed into the literary canon due to newly pronounced value-judgments.

Pulp-Fiction-630x315.jpgPopular fiction or para-literature is often excluded from the literary canon.

Eagleton’s essay thus makes several true statements through strong argumentation and counter-questioning, revealing that literature cannot be studied objectively. Since, essentially, literature is ultimately based upon social constructs, ideologies and value-judgments, it is too vast and subjective to be defined in concrete terms.



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  • Verne, J. 1865. From the Earth to the Moon.
  • Williams, R. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Online.


Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

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