Terry Eagleton. The English Novel: An Introduction

Sabah A. Salih
Terry Eagleton. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. 365. $24.95

1 In 1983, Terry Eagleton gave us Literary Theory: An Introduction. The book quickly became the standard guide to the subject and helped bring about fundamental changes in the way English is taught and organized as a field of study. With some twenty other equally profound books behind him since that book, today Eagleton is recognized the world over as postmodernism's greatest living theorist and one of the keenest public intellectuals of our time.

2 Eagleton's study shows again his enormous powers of analysis, rigorous style, sharp wit, and deep learning. The book is as intellectually challenging as it is rewarding. Refusing to take anything for granted, Eagleton begins with devoting a substantial chapter to the seemingly mundane question "What is a novel?" Eagleton's point is that the novel is "an anarchic genre" (2); it not only "eludes definitions" but also "actively undermines them" (1). What is more, because "the novel's authority is ungrounded in anything outside itself" (7), readers need to always be aware of its fictionality and not to confuse it with reality. Being something like "a mighty melting pot" (1), the novel is also a site in which "values are at their most diverse and conflicting" (5)

3 Nowhere is this more evident than in the style commonly known as realism. Eagleton defines realism as "a matter of representation" (10) or an effort to model novels on life, and refuses, rightly, to accept any absolute distinctions between the classical and the non-classical. Yet, he does place modernism in a special category, arguing, by way of Joyce and Woolf and drawing on Brecht and Marx, that only in modernism does language become acutely aware of itself. That is why modernism emerges as "a challenge to Enlightenment rationality" but not as "a version of it" (314). For Eagleton, there is also something tragic about modernism. Unlike postmodernism, which gleefully contends itself with the fragmentary and the local, modernism cannot stop looking for the absolute even though it knows it to be unobtainable. As for the term that postmodernism dreads the most, objectivity, Eagleton argues that it ought not to be confused with hearing "the sausages sizzling in Fagin's den," but rather should be seen as a way of "bestowing form and value" upon the world (10).

4 This intellectual framework within which Eagleton discusses Defoe, Swift, Stern, Austen, and James, Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf, as well as several others, gives the book the kind of depth and rigor that makes rereading it a must. But the effort is worth it; mental exhilaration and textual pleasure make up for that.