Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton holding one of his books after a talk in Manchester Mechanics' Institute in 2008

Terence Francis Eagleton FBA (born 22 February 1943, Salford) is a British literary theorist regarded as one of Britain's most influential living literary critics.[1][2] Eagleton currently serves as Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, and as a former Visiting Professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Formerly Eagleton was Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford (1992–2001) and John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester until 2008. In the Fall 2009 semester, Dr Eagleton returned to The University of Notre Dame as a Distinguished Visitor in the Department of English.[3]

He has written more than forty books, including Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983);[4] The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), and The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996).

Professor Eagleton delivered Yale University's 2008 Terry Lectures and gave a Gifford Lecture in March 2010, titled The God Debate.[5] He gave the 2010 Richard Price Memorial Lecture at the historically radical Newington Green Unitarian Church, speaking on "The New Atheism and the War on Terror".[6]


Early years

Eagleton grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Salford, England, with roots in County Galway. His mother's side of the family had strong republican sympathies. He served as an altar boy at a local Carmelite convent where he was responsible for escorting novice nuns taking their vows, a role referred to in the title of his memoir The Gatekeeper.[7]

Education and academia

He was educated at De La Salle College, a Roman Catholic grammar school in Salford. He later attended Trinity College, Cambridge,[8] where he earned both his M.A. and Ph.D..

He became a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. Having spent some years at Oxford at Wadham College, Linacre College and St. Catherine's College, he was John Edward Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester until he was forcibly retired in 2008.[9]


At Cambridge, Eagleton was a student of the left-wing literary critic Raymond Williams. He began his literary studies with the 19th and 20th centuries, then conformed to the stringent academic Marxism of the 1970s. He then published an attack on his mentor Williams's relation to the Marxist tradition in the pages of the New Left Review, in the mode of the French critic Louis Althusser. During the 1960s, he became involved with the left-wing Catholic group Slant, authoring a number of theological articles (including A Marxist Interpretation of Benediction), as well as a book Towards a New Left Theology. His most recent publications suggest a renewed interest in theological themes. Another significant theoretical influence on Eagleton is psychoanalysis. He has been an advocate of Slavoj Žižek's work.[citation needed]

Published thought


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 both the International Socialists and Workers Socialist League whilst in Oxford. He continues to provide political commentary for publications such as the New Statesman, Red Pepper and The Guardian.[citation needed]

After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: an 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.

Religion and Football

In October 2006, Eagleton produced a critique of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Eagleton begins by questioning Dawkins's 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."[10] He concludes by suggesting Dawkins has not been attacking organised faith so much 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."[10]

Although many of his texts include aspects of philosophical debate, Eagleton himself states, "Perhaps I should add that I am not myself a philosopher, a fact which I am sure some of my reviewers will point out in any case."[11]

During the 2010 Football World Cup, Eagleton described the mass following of football as an impediment to political change. He wrote in The Guardian, "for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine. Its icon is the impeccably Tory, slavishly conformist Beckham." Eagleton concluded: "Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished. And any political outfit that tried it on would have about as much chance of power as the chief executive of BP has in taking over from Oprah Winfrey."[12]

Terry Lectures

In April 2008 Eagleton delivered Yale University's Terry Lectures with the title of his subject being, Faith and Fundamentalism: Is belief in Richard Dawkins necessary for salvation? constituting a continuation of the critique he had begun in The London Review of Books. Introducing his first lecture with an admission of ignorance of both theology and science Eagleton goes on to affirm, "All I can claim in this respect, alas, is that I think I may know just about enough theology to be able to spot when someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens -- a couplet I shall henceforth reduce for convenience to the solitary signifier Ditchkins -- is talking out of the back of his neck."[13][14]

Eagleton's Terry lectures were published in 2009, in Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

Criticism of Martin and Kingsley Amis

In late 2007, a critique of Martin Amis included in the introduction to a 2007 edition of Eagleton's book Ideology was widely reprinted in the British press. In it, Eagleton took issue with Amis' widely-quoted writings on "Islamism", directing particular attention to one specific passage:

What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children...It’s a huge dereliction on their part

Eagleton criticised Amis for the passage, and expressed surprise as to its source, stating: "[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 and his father (the novelist Kingsley Amis). The younger writer, Eagleton went on to write, had learnt more from his father — whom Eagleton described as "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals" and "reactionary" — than merely "how to turn a shapely phrase". Eagleton went on to argue that "there is something rather stomach-churning at the sight of those such as Amis and his political allies, champions of a civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the world, shrieking for illegal measures when they find themselves for the first time on the sticky end of the same treatment".[15]

The essay became a cause célèbre in British literary circles. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a commentator for The Independent, wrote an editorial about the affair; Amis responded via open letter, calling Eagleton "an ideological relict" who would be "unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx".[16] Amis said that the view Eagleton attributed to him as his considered opinion was in fact his spoken description of a tempting urge, in relation to the need to "raise the price" of terrorist actions.

Eagleton's personal comments on Amis' father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, prompted a further response from Kingsley's widow, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard wrote to the Daily Telegraph, noting that for a supposed "anti-semitic homophobe", it was peculiar that the only guests at the Howard-Amis nuptials should have been either Jewish or gay.[17] 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." In a later interview, Howard added: 'I have never even heard of this man Eagleton. But he seems to be a rather lethal combination of a Roman Catholic and a Marxist ... He strikes me as like a spitting cobra: if you get within his range he'll unleash some poison.' [18]

Eagleton defended his comments about Martin and Kingsley Amis by article in The Guardian, claiming that the main bone of contention — the substance of Amis' remarks and views — had been lost amid the media furore.[15]

Critical reactions

William Deresiewicz wrote of After Theory, Eagleton's book, 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."[19]

Novelist and critic David Lodge, writing in the May 2004 New York Review of Books on Theory and After Theory, concluded:

Some of Theory's achievements are genuine and permanent additions to knowledge, or intellectual self-knowledge. Eagleton is quite right to assert that we can never go back to a state of pre-Theory innocence about the transparency of language or the ideological neutrality of interpretation ... But like all fashions it was bound to have a limited life of novelty and vitality, and we are now living through its decadence without any clear indication of what will supersede it. Theory has, in short, become boringly predictable to many people who were once enthusiastic about it, and that After Theory is most interesting when its focus is furthest from its nominal subject is perhaps evidence that Terry Eagleton is now bored by it too.[20]


  • The New Left Church [as Terence Eagleton] (1966)
  • Shakespeare and Society
  • Exiles And Émigrés: Studies in Modern Literature (1970)
  • The Body as Language : outline of a new left theology (1970)
  • Criticism & Ideology (1976)
  • Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)
  • Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981)
  • The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982
  • Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983
  • The Function of Criticism (1984)
  • Saint Oscar (a play about Oscar Wilde)
  • Saints and Scholars (a novel, 1987)
  • Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives (editor) Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.
  • The Significance of Theory (1989)
  • The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990)
  • Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990
  • Ideology: An Introduction (1991/2007)
  • Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton Script, The Derek Jarman Film (1993)
  • Literary Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996
  • The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996)
  • "Heathcliff and the Great Hunger" (1996)
  • Marx (1997)
  • "Crazy John and the Bishop and Other Essays on Irish Culture" (1998)
  • The Idea of Culture (2000)
  • The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001)
  • The Truth about the Irish (2001)
  • Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2002)
  • After Theory (2003)
  • Figures of dissent: Reviewing Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others (2003)
  • The English Novel: An Introduction (2004)
  • Holy Terror (2005)
  • The Meaning of Life (2007)
  • How to Read a Poem (2007)
  • Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (2008)
  • Literary Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
  • Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009)
  • On Evil (2010)
  • Why Marx Was Right (2011)


  • "Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions.", After Theory, T. Eagleton, 2003
  • "In some traditionalist universities not long ago, you could not research on authors who were still alive. This was a great incentive to slip a knife between their ribs one foggy evening, or a remarkable test of patience if your chosen novelist was in rude health and only 34", After Theory, T. Eagleton, 2003
  • "What perished in the Soviet Union was Marxist only in the sense that the Inquisition was Christian", Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition Marxism and Literary Theory, T. Eagleton, 2002
  • "Man eternally tries to get back to an organic past that has slipped just beyond his reach", T. Eagleton[when?]


  1. ^ Vallelly, Paul (13 Oct 2007). "Terry Eagleton: Class warrior". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/terry-eagleton-class-warrior-396770.html. "…the man who succeeded F R Leavis as Britain's most influential academic critic." 
  2. ^ Professor John Sitter, Chairman of the English Department at the University of Notre Dame and Editor of The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth Century Poetry, describes Eagleton as "someone widely regarded as the most influential contemporary literary critic and theorist in the English-speaking world" [1]
  3. ^ Blakey, Marie (11 May 2009). "Terry Eagleton Returns to ND as Distinguished Visitor in English Department". College of Arts and Letters. University of Notre Dame. http://al.nd.edu/about-arts-and-letters/news/terry-eagleton-returns-to-nd-as-distinguished-visitor-in-english-department/. 
  4. ^ Eagleton, Terry (1996). Literary Theory, an introduction (2 ed.). University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816612512. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/E/eagleton_literary2E.html. 
  5. ^ "Professor Terry Eagleton". College of Humanities & Social Science. University of Edinburgh. http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/giffordexemp/ProfessorTerryEagleton.htm. 
  6. ^ [2] 29 August 2010 Hackney Citizen
  7. ^ Andrews, Kernan (18 December 2008). "Terry Eagleton — taking on the capitalists and atheists in Galway". Galway Advertiser. http://www.advertiser.ie/galway/article/6353. 
  8. ^ Wroe, Nicholas (2 February 2002). "Guardian Profile: High priest of lit crit". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/feb/02/academicexperts.highereducation. 
  9. ^ "University of Manchester — Eagleton loses retirement appeal". Times Higher Education. 21 August 2008. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403217. 
  10. ^ a b Eagleton, Terry (2006-10-19). "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching". London Review of Books 28 (20). http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html. Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  11. ^ Eagleton, Terry (2007). The Meaning of Life. p. 1. 
  12. ^ Eagleton, Terry (2010-06-15). "Football: a dear friend to capitalism". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/15/football-socialism-crack-cocaine-people. 
  13. ^ Terry Eagleton (lecturer) (2008-04-01) (rm). Christianity Fair and Foul (Podcast). Yale University. Event occurs at 6:23. http://www.yale.edu/terrylecture/eagleton.html. Retrieved 2009-08-04. 
  14. ^ Eagleton, Terry (1-10 Apr 2008). "Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?". Dwight H. Terry Lectureship. Yale University. http://www.yale.edu/terrylecture/eagleton.html. 
  15. ^ a b Eagleton, Terry (10 October 2007). "Rebuking obnoxious views is not just a personality kink". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/oct/10/comment.religion. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  16. ^ Brown, Jonathan (12 October 2007). "Amis launches scathing response to accusations of Islamophobia". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/amis-launches-scathing-response-to-accusations-of-islamophobia-396670.html. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  17. ^ Cockcroft, Lucy (10 October 2007). "Family defends 'racist' Sir Kingsley Amis". The Daily Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1565696/Family-defends-racist-Sir-Kingsley-Amis.html. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  18. ^ Levy, Geoffrey (11 October 2007). "Spicier than a novel, the literary feud raging between the Amis dynasty and the Marxist critic". Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-486941/Spicier-novel-literary-feud-raging-Amis-dynasty-Marxist-critic.html. 
  19. ^ Deresiewicz, William (29 January 2004). "The Business of Theory". The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/doc/20040216/deresiewicz. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  20. ^ Lodge, David (27 May 2004). "Goodbye to All That" (fee required). New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=17132. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 

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