‘How to Read Literature’ by Terry Eagleton. Understanding Openings and ‘A Passage to India’

What makes a work of literature good or bad? How freely can the reader interpret it? Could a nursery rhyme like Baa Baa Black Sheep be full of concealed loathing, resentment, and aggression? In this accessible, delightfully entertaining book, Terry Eagleton addresses these intriguing questions and a host of others. How to Read Literature is the book of choice for students new to the study of literature and for all other readers interested in deepening their understanding and enriching their reading experience. 

In this extract from the first Chapter of How to Read Literature, author, critic and philosopher Terry Eagleton discusses the mechanics of openings and why the narrator of A Passage to India seems so bored.

Learning how to be a literary critic is, among other things, a matter of learning how to deploy certain techniques. Like a lot of techniques – scuba-diving, for example, or playing the trombone – these are more easily picked up in practice than in theory. All of them involve a closer attention to language than one would usually lavish ona recipe or a laundry list. In this chapter then, I aim to provide some practical exercises in literary analysis, taking as my texts the first lines or sentences of various well-known literary works.

A word first of all about literary beginnings. Endings in art are absolute, in the sense that once a figure like Prospero vanishes he vanishes forever. We cannot ask whether he ever really made it back to his dukedom, since he does not survive the play’s final line. There is a sense in which literary openings are absolute too. This is clearly not true in every sense. Almost all literary works begin by using words that have been used countless times before, though not necessarily in this particular combination. We can grasp the meaning of these opening sentences only because we come to them with a frame of cultural reference which allows us to do so. We also approach them with some conception of what a literary work is, what is meant by a beginning, and so on. In this sense, no literary opening is ever really absolute. All reading involves a fair amount of stage setting. A lot of things must already be in place simply for a text to be intelligible. One of them is previous works of literature. Every literary work harks back, if only unconsciously, to other works. Yet the opening of a poem or novel also seems to spring out of a kind of silence, since it inaugurates a fictional world that did not exist before.Perhaps it is the closest thing we have to the act of divine Creation, as some Romantic artists believed. The difference is that we are stuck with the Creation, whereas we can always discard our copy of Catherine Cookson.

Let us begin with the opening sentences of one of the most celebrated of twentieth-century novels, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off —the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest…

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his or her best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally intent on pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilised middle-class Englishman like E. M. Forster who values reticence and indirectness. Perhaps this is one reason why the passage opens with a throwaway qualification (‘Except for the Marabar Caves’) rather than with a blare of verbal trumpets. It sidles into its subject-matter sideways, rather than confronting it head on. ‘The  city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary, except for the Marabar Caves, and they are twenty miles off’ would be far to ungraceful. It would spoil the poise of the syntax, which is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence. The first two clauses of the novel hold off the subject of the sentence (‘the city of Chandrapore’) twice over, so that the reader experiences a slight quickening of expectations before finally arriving at this phrase. One’s expectations, however, are aroused only to be deflated, since we are told that the city contains nothing remarkable. More exactly, we are told rather oddly that there is nothing remarkable about the city except for the Caves, but that the Caves are not in the city. We are also informed that there are no bathing steps on the river front, but that there is no river front.

The four phrases of the first sentence are almost metrical in their rhythm and balance. In fact, it is possible to read them as trimeters, or lines of verse with three stresses each:

Except for the Marabar Caves

And they are twenty miles off

The city of Chandrapore

Presents nothing extraordinary 

The same delicate equipoise crops up in the phrase ‘Edged rather than washed’, which is perhaps a touch too fastidious. This is a writer with a keenly discriminating eye, but also a  coolly distancing one. In traditional English, style, he refuses to get excited or enthusiastic (the city ‘presents nothing extraordinary’). The word ‘presents’ is significant. It makes Chandrapore sound like a show put on for the sake of the spectator, rather than a place to be lived in. ‘Presents nothing extraordinary’ to whom? The answer is surely to the tourist. The tone of the passage – disenchanted, slightly supercilious, a touch overbred – is that of a rather snooty guidebook. It sails as close as it dares to suggesting that the city is literally a heap of garbage.

The importance of tone as an indication of attitude is made clear in the novel itself. Mrs Moore, an Englishwoman who has just arrived in colonial India and is unaware of British cultural habits there, tells her imperial-minded son Ronny about her encounter with a young Indian doctor in a temple. Ronny does not initially realise that she is talking about a ‘native’, and when he does so becomes instantly irritable and suspicious. ‘Why hadn’t she indicated by the tone of her voice that she was talking about an Indian?’ he thinks to himself.

As far as the tone of this passage goes, we may note among other things the triple alliteration of the phrase ‘happens not to be holy here’, which trots somewhat too glibly off the tongue. It represents a wry poke at Hindu beliefs on the part of a sceptical, sophisticated outsider. The alliteration suggest a ‘cleverness’, a discreet delight in verbal artifice, which puts a distance between the narrator and the poverty-stricken city. The same is true of the lines ‘The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist…’ The syntax of this is a little too self-consciously contrived, too obviously intent on a ‘literary’ effect.

So far, the passage has managed to keep this shabby Indian city at arm’s length without sounding too offensively superior, but the word ‘ineffective’ to describe the temples almost deliberately gives the game away. though the syntax tucks it unobtrusively away in a sub-clause, it strikes the reader like a mild smack in the face. The term assumes that the temples are there not for the inhabitants to worship in, but for the observer to take pleasure in. They are ineffective in the sense that they do nothing for the artistically-minded tourist. The adjective makes them sound like flat tyres or broken radios. In face, it does this so calculatedly that one wonders, perhaps a little too charitably, whether it is meant to be ironic. Is the narrator sending up his own high-handed manner?

From How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

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