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Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism


Literary Critical Theories 101 series intends to concentrate on how literary analysis represents itself through five different critical approaches by portraying the basic principles of the theory with both earlier and current versions of them as all define themselves against earlier versions of each. The approaches will be exemplified by different literary works for readers to comprehend how analysis from different lenses highlights the different aspects.

Literary Critical Theories 101 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Literary Critical Theories 101: Introduction to Literary Critical Theories

  2. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Psychoanalytic Criticism

  3. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Feminist Criticism

  4. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism

  5. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Post-Colonial Criticism

  6. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism

Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism

Jacques Derrida, one of the prominent French philosophers associated with post-structuralism and post-modern philosophy, established the deconstruction theory in the late 1960s and influenced literary studies in the late 1970s. Deconstruction has a lot to offer since it can enable the reader to think more critically and clearly see how ideologies shape experiences in ways people are unaware of because of the fact that they are built into the language itself. To understand how deconstruction reveals the work of ideology in the daily experiences of the world and its people, one must first acknowledge Derrida's view of language because language, according to Derrida, is not a reliable tool of communication, but rather a fluid, ambiguous resource of complex experiences in which ideologies program without awareness. Derrida's "reference is to a written text which consists of what we find when we look at it" (Abrams, 1977, p. 428-9).

Jacques Derrida, photograph by Denis Dailleux.

According to Derrida, language works the way people want it to. Language is assumed to be a stable and reliable means of communicating our thoughts, feelings, and desires. In contrast, deconstruction's theory of language is based on the belief that language is far more slippery and ambiguous than humans realize. Changes in emphasis and tone of voice can also reveal the slickness of language. Assuming a newscaster is given the line: "President Morgan says the military forces do not need to go to Libreville" to read, the meaning of the sentence changes dramatically depending on which word is emphasized. By making an emphasis on "says," one can imply that the president is lying; with an emphasis on "Libreville," one can imply that they need to go somewhere else; with an emphasis on "the military forces," one can imply that some other group needs to go. This is why language is quite ambiguous and uncertain, argues Derrida. Thus, deconstruction provides a radical vision on the activity of thinking. The concept of understanding, then, is made up of a fleeting, constantly changing play of signifiers rather than concepts or solid, stable meanings. These signifiers may appear to be stable concepts but they do not operate in minds in a stable manner.

Deconstructing Calligraphy by Sasan Nasernia.

Meaning is not a stable compound in the text that people can discover or consume. The reader produces the meaning through the act of reading. Or, more accurately, meaning is produced by the play of language through the vehicle of the reader. Deconstructing a literary text generally serves two purposes: the first one is to reveal the text's undecidability, and the second is to reveal the complex operations of the ideologies from which the text is constructed. To demonstrate a text's undecidability is to prove that the text's meaning is an indefinite and conflicting array of possible meanings which means the text has no meaning in the traditional sense of the language. In brief, the following steps can be used to deconstruct the text: First and foremost, all of the various interpretations of characters, events, and images that the text appears to offer must be noted. Then, how these interpretations conflict with one another, and how these conflicts produce even more interpretations, should be shown.

The other goal of deconstructing a literary text is to see what the text can reveal about the ideologies upon which it is built. This endeavor usually enlightens the ways that ideologies operate in people's world views. It is critical to remember that all writing constantly deconstructs and disseminates meanings. In other words, rather than deconstructing a text, deconstructive theory critics aim to demonstrate how the text deconstructs itself. The text is built with deconstruction seeds embedded within it. The text does not have a single meaning. In different readings, texts provide new meanings. This is the central issue of deconstruction, which distinguishes it as a post-modern critical discipline. Modern theories, such as structuralism, emphasize finding a unique meaning for the text based on a single structure. Deconstruction destroys all structural thinking and insists that there is no such thing as a structure; merely because structures always deconstruct themselves as the nature of reality (Castle, 2009, p. 79-86).

Robert Frost, American poet. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

"The Road Not Taken" is Robert Frost's famous poem that arouses numerous differences in meaning. The title itself intends to create ambiguity by suggesting two meanings: It could mean that the poem is about a road that the speaker did not take, or a road that the speaker took but others did not. By discussing one road, the poet leads the readers to speculate on the other, in order to determine which is better, or whether both are the same. Frost does not specify the path taken by the speaker. Two hints assist readers in reaching this conclusion. The speaker chose the new route because it was "grassy" and he "wanted to wear"; yet, the speaker soon hesitates again in the following stanzas. Though the title implies that the poem is about the road not taken, it is actually about both roads. At this point in the reading, the meaning of the text is hazy. The text clearly indicates that the speaker is embarking on a new path that he has never taken before. 

The road itself is a major indicator of symbolism. In life and culture, roads represent lifelines, conflicts, and decisions. The road in the text represents a change in the speaker's way of life and his decision to take a new path. The moral message in this sign is that man must continue to develop his way of thinking, and the truth must be discovered by oneself. Deconstructionists argue that such oppositions refer to constantly changing ideas that replace one another. This concept implies that realities change and are replaced over time. Frost uses every possible element of nature, an autumnal setting, to cover the overflow of changing ideas. The main idea in the last stanzas and throughout the text is the novelty of thought and experience. This is why Frost insisted on repeating the pronoun "I" to highlight the individual's search for reality, as well as the impact of nature.

From Frederic Donner's Blog

Consequently, the deconstruction theory established by Jacques Derrida questions the language itself to find different meanings in it. "Deconstructive discourse, in criticism, in philosophy, or in poetry itself, undermines the referential status of the language being deconstructed" (Miller, 1975, as cited in Ellis, 1988, p. 260). It puts forward that the language is slippery and ambiguous and so does the meaning of a literary text. Also, Derrida claims that deconstruction reveals the ideologies upon which the language is built. Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," in that sense, carries this ambiguity in meaning by puzzling the reader's mind with two diverged roads and symbolism of life itself; therefore, one can find different meanings in each reading of the poem, as Derrida suggests.

Bibliographical References

Abrams, M. H. (1977). The Deconstructive Angel. Critical Inquiry, 3(3), 425–438.

Castle, G. (2009). The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from

Greetham, D. C. (1991). [Textual] Criticism and Deconstruction. Studies in Bibliography, 44, 1–30.

Ellis, J. M. (1988). What Does Deconstruction Contribute to Theory of Criticism? New Literary History, 19(2), 259–279.

Frost, R., 1916. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. [online] Poetry Foundation.

Fuchs, S., & Ward, S. (1994). What is Deconstruction, and Where and When Does it Take Place? Making Facts in Science, Building Cases in Law. American Sociological Review, 59(4), 481–500.

Moosavinia, S. R., & Shahrakzadeh, M. (2018). Potential Ambiguity in Robert Frost's THE ROAD NOT TAKEN. The Explicator, 76(1), 33-35.

Nealon, J. T. (1992). The Discipline of Deconstruction. PMLA, 107(5), 1266–1279.

Zima, P. V. (2002). Deconstruction and Critical Theory. A&C Black. Retrieved from

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1 Comment

Minn Yap
Minn Yap
Jul 20, 2022

I've heard of deconstructive criticism before but never realised what it exactly was. Great work explaining it clearly. Wish I could have seen it being applied to a text!

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Melis Güven

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