Deconstruction – meaning & theory in literature with examples
For the past few days (which formed many months), I have been constantly trying to write an article about Deconstruction (only within the ambit of literary theory) for many students who have requested me to do so. However, Deconstruction is not so easy to construct! To write something about this is a highly risky job and before doing it, I wanted to be completely sure of myself and my research and my offerings. Do you see? Derrida hasn’t left the playground of Deconstruction in any comfortable condition and the ‘free play,’ I must say, is highly restricted.
Well, let’s get to the business of words. I have studied and studied again and again and again many books on literary theory in order to understand Deconstruction. I did the best I could do with available resources. And you have to believe me when I say that most of the books will put you in a further fix with the topic – Deconstruction hasn’t been easy to understand and neither to make someone understand. Other than the perplexing “Structure, Sign and Play” and the scholarly commentary on the essay, students (and sometimes the teachers as well) need something which can simplify the concept of Deconstruction in the literary context to them. My attempt, I have tried my best, is an attempt in the very direction.
What is Deconstruction?
Though Patricia, in her book Literary Theory & Criticism, has refrained from defining the term “Deconstruction,” it can certainly be defined within the limits of being a literary theory. On the basis of whatever I have studied, Deconstruction (as a literary theory) can be defined in the following words:
Deconstruction is an apparent revolution against all the literary theories before itself which vouch for a unity in the literary texts. It seeks to find the differences, contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguity and disintegration (in short, loopholes) in the text. Deconstruction basically aims at proving that a literary text is not certainly unified and it has a multitude of meanings if we try to find the same. Therefore, sometimes, it is also called textual harassment.
After defining Deconstruction theory in literature in the simplest and a lucid manner, we need to understand what does a deconstructive reading mean. The questions like what really does a Deconstructionist do and how will you deconstruct a particular text also need to be addressed for a proper understanding of Deconstruction. So, we move ahead now.
What does a Deconstructionist do?
In general, we read literary texts in order to establish unity and bring out a meaning based on our entire reading. The Deconstructionist, however, reads the text just to find the fault-lines. Mostly read in fragments, a Deconstructionist’s reading of any literary text is aimed at the following:
To prove that the text does not have any singular meaning and it be read and understood in various ways
To find out the disassociation of ideas and discontinuity of style to prove that the text is not a single unit and is rather made of different units of different kinds
To look for various kinds of breaks in text to find out the possible repressed interpretations which could be brought out of the ‘textual silence’
Going a little deeper into Deconstruction Realm:
Peter Barry has hinted at the three levels which might be highlighted to further simplify the process of a Deconstructive reading. He identifies the three levels as:
The elementary level, Verbal, is purely elementary in nature. A reader with the Deconstructive view looks at the text leisurely to find out the obvious contradictions or paradoxes or confusions. A Deconstructive reader would take the poem’s basic idea and question it. For example, if you suppose the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton to be suggesting that God does everything right and that He is just and upholds truth and righteousness, why did he create Satan anyway? And the idea of the whole poem falls flat when we think of the poem this way.
On the Textual level, Barry suggests that a close reading of the text is carried with minute details to find the instances of shifts or breaks in the narrative or the continuity of the text. These shifts are of various kinds – time, point of view, idea, word choices, or even the technical shift such as grammatical choices – change from the third person to first person (speaker) or the change in tense.
For example, if you read the part-poem, Before the World Was Made (A Woman Young and Old, published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933), you will find a clear break in the poem. It begins with someone decorating herself and then, after a certain time, suddenly trying to look the face that was even before the world was made!
“I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.”
And then the speaker thinks of looking at some man in a cold manner which might make that man feel like betrayed… and then suddenly the speaker remembers to hunt for the face which was there before the world was made. So, a break is found and there is no singular idea which is being carried in the poem by Yeats. (I Know it’s an extradition of his poem. Believe me, I just don’t like the idea of Deconstruction!)
And the third one that Peter suggests is the Linguistic level. It concerns with finding the instances where the author or the poet is unsure about the powers of the medium he or she is using – that is language. For example, the instances when a poet says that no words can describe the beauty of his beloved but actually describes her beauty in the same poem.
Larger Perspective – the theory summed up:
Deconstruction, as a literary theory, purely aims at proving that the author or the poet of a particular text on which the theory is being applied is either mad or does not know how to craft a literary art perfectly (does even the best of the Deconstructionists know what is a perfect literary work?). Reading against the grain, finding the loopholes, looking for silly grammatical glitches and proving that there is something as unconscious meaning in the text are some of the major jobs of the theorists who have been at the Deconstruction school. The basic idea of Deconstruction is that nothing is stable. That there is no single meaning and meanings are changing constantly is the basic argument. Deconstruction aims at challenging the established notions and it believes that there is no centre (philosophically speaking). However, their philosophy is adamant at believing that they don’t believe in any established facts!
The concerned father figure and other literary figures associated with Deconstruction:
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is generally considered the man behind this theory. His essay entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences is the origin which started the debate which formed itself into a theory later known widely as Deconstruction. Derrida’s was a lecture that he delivered at the John Hopkins University in 1966 (21 October). Major works by Derrida in this direction are: Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena, Writing Difference.
Roland Barthes: Roland Barthes provided the wind with his essay in 1968, The Death of the Author. He had enjoyed his stays in both the schools – Structuralist as well as Post-Structuralist.
Paul de Man: He can surely be called the American heir to the Deconstructive wealth of Derrida! He went a few steps ahead of Derrida and told his readers that all other theorists in literature are blinded in search for an insight. His works Blindness and Insight, 1971 and The Allegories of Reading, 1979 are considered the valuable assets of the Deconstruction school of literary theory.
Barbara Johnson: Her book The Critical Difference was published in 1980 and it contains some of the deconstructive readings by her.
Though the academic need compels us to study these self-contradicting theories, believe me, there is no greater mess than this! Deconstruction, of all the theories, is the most difficult one to understand as well as bring into application. We are conditioned in a way that we naturally look for unity in texts and our mind automatically accepts what could be the best possible interpretation. Deconstruction teaches us entirely opposite of what we have been doing and that’s why it becomes a little difficult for us at the beginning. Unfortunately, the beginning becomes the end!
As a theory in the literary context, Deconstruction faded into oblivion rather sooner because of its ambiguity and perplexing beliefs. It had to be so because there is nothing like the subconscious interpretation of the text when a writer is conscious while writing his or her work. It is merely superficial to think of Oak as doubting Bathsheba and thinking ill of her all the while when he was not present in the text himself!
Dear readers, so, I am done! I have tried my best to make it simple for the students to understand the nature of Deconstruction as a literary theory. I will be more than happy to take suggestions or questions and take the discussion ahead. All the best!