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What Is Literature?

Terry Eagleton

One of the things we mean by calling a piece of writing ‘literary’ is that it is not tied to a specific context. It is true that all literary works arise from particular conditions. Jane Austen’s novels spring from the world of the English landed gentry of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, while Paradise Lost has as its backdrop the English Civil War and its aftermath. Yet though these works emerge from such contexts, their meaning is not confined to them. Consider the difference between a poem and a manual for assembling a table lamp. The manual makes sense only in a specific, practical situation. Unless we are really starved for inspiration, we do not generally turn to it in order to reflect on the mystery of birth or the frailty of humankind. A poem, by contrast, can still be meaningful outside its original context, and may alter its meaning as it moves from one place or time to another. Like a baby, it is detached from its author as soon as it enters the world. All literary works are orphaned at birth. Rather as our parents do not continue to govern our lives as we grow up, so the poet cannot determine the situations in which his or her work will be read, or what sense we are likely to make of it.

What we call works of literature differ in this way from roadsigns and bus tickets. They are peculiarly ‘portable’, able to be carried from one location to another, which is true of bus tickets only for those intent on defrauding the bus company. They are less dependent for their meaning on the circumstances from which they arose. Rather, they are inherently open ended, which is one reason why they can be subject to a whole range of interpretations. It is also one reason why we tend to pay closer attention to their language than we do with bus tickets. We do not take their language primarily as practical. Instead, we assume that it is intended to have some value in itself.

This is not so true of everyday language. A panic-stricken shout of ‘Man overboard!’ is rarely ambiguous. We do not normally treat it as a delectable piece of wordplay. If we hear this cry while on board ship, we are unlikely to linger over the way the vowel-sound of ‘board’ rings a subtle change on the vowel-sound of ‘Over’, or note the fact that the stresses of the shout fall on the first and last syllables. Nor would we pause to read some symbolic meaning into it. We do not take the word ‘Man’ to signify humanity as such, or the whole phrase as suggestive of our calamitous fall from grace. We might well do all this if the man overboard in question is our mortal enemy, aware that by the time we were through with our analysis he would be food for the fishes. Otherwise, however, we are unlikely to scratch our heads over what on earth these words could mean. Their meaning is made apparent by their environment. This would still be the case even if the cry was a hoax. If we were not at sea the cry might make no sense, but hearing the chugging of the ship’s engines settles the matter definitively.

In most practical settings, we do not have much of a choice over meaning. It tends to be determined by the setting itself. Or at least, the situation narrows down the range of possible meanings to a manageable few. When I see an exit sign over the door of a department store, I know from the context that it means ‘This is the way out when you want to leave’, not ‘Leave now!’ Otherwise such stores would be permanently empty. The word is descriptive rather than imperative. I take the instruction ‘One tablet to be taken three times daily’ on my bottle of aspirin to be addressed to me, not to all two hundred people in my apartment block. A driver who flashes his lights may mean either ‘Watch it!’ or ‘Come on!’, but this potentially fatal ambiguity results in fewer road accidents than one might expect, since the meaning is usually clear from the situation.

The problem with a poem or story, however, is that it does not arrive as part of a practical context. It is true that we know from words such as ‘poem’, ‘novel’, ‘epic’, ‘comedy’ and so on what sort of thing to expect, just as the way a literary work is packaged, advertised, marketed and reviewed plays an important part in determining our response to it. Beyond these vital signals, however, the work does not come to us with much of a setting at all. Instead, it creates its own setting as it goes along. We have to figure out from what it says a background against which what it says will make some sense. In fact, we are continually constructing such interpretative frames as we read, for the most part unconsciously. When we read Shakespeare’s line ‘Farewell! Thou art too dear for my possessing’, we think to ourselves, ‘Ah, he’s probably talking to his lover, and it looks as though they’re breaking up. Too dear for his possessing, eh? Maybe she’s been a bit too free with his money’. But there is nothing beyond the words themselves to inform us of this, as there is something beyond a cry of ‘Fire!’ to tell us how to make sense of it. (The smouldering hair of the person doing the shouting, for example.) And this makes the business of determining a literary work’s meaning rather more arduous.

From How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.


Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion.


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