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Deconstructionism in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of…
  • 1:20 The Difference Between…
  • 1:58 Contrary to Popular or…
  • 3:34 Deconstruction in Literature
  • 5:49 Social Consequences
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Vigil
Deconstruction is a method of literary analysis that challenges our comfortable assumptions. This lesson will define deconstructionism, explain its background, and provide examples of deconstructionist readings.

Definition of Deconstructionism

Have you ever seen the scaffolding that goes up during the construction of a building? The frame shows what the building will look like, but that's not the only part. Shift your focus a little, and you'll see the spaces between the frame's 'bones.'

The whole and holes of scaffolding
building scaffolding

It's the 'whole' of the metal itself and the 'holes' in between that make up the future building's shape. Similarly, deconstruction looks at what makes a text whole and what holes are in between its pieces; in other words, what's said and what's left unsaid.

Think of a tree. We like to think a tree is an easily defined object. But think of defining the word 'tree' to aliens who had very little knowledge on objects on Earth. How would you describe it? The words 'leaves,' 'branches,' and 'roots' mean nothing to them.

It would be easier to point to other objects and describe the differences between them and a tree. In other words, it's much easier to describe something by saying what it's not.

We could point to mammals and use them to describe the differences between moving, living objects and the stationary nature of trees. We could also point to a non-living object such as a fence and use it to describe the differences between living and non-living objects.

Returning to our scaffolding and the concepts of 'wholes' vs. 'holes,' our non-definitions are like the holes on the scaffolding. We're using what the tree is not to explain what it actually is.

The Difference Between Difference and Differ'ance

The French Philosopher Jacques Derrida stressed the concept of definition by difference. If we follow that line of thought, then we can never truly know the definition of anything because we can never really say what something is.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida
portrait of Jacques Derrida

Yes, of course, we all know what a tree is, but if we talk to each other about trees, we're cheating because we're depending on each other's experiences and not really defining a tree. If we're actually going to define something, we can never really hit the true definition. So all meanings are eternally deferred. Derrida labeled this constant deferral of meaning differ'ance, which combines the words 'difference' and 'deferral.'

Contrary to Popular or Binary Opinion

If given the words 'light' and 'dark,' many of us associate 'light' with goodness and other positive qualities. The same with 'up' and 'down,' with 'up' having the more positive connotation. There's a reason why wealth and education are associated with 'upper class.' Or how about being in the 'center' vs. the 'margin?' Which word is generally considered more desirable?

You get the point.

Without even thinking about it, we tend to favor one term out of the pair. These unequal pairs, or binaries, are what deconstructionists would call violent hierarchies. In other words, they are forced situations in which one term, or person that term applies to, is automatically downgraded without any real reason.

These violent hierarchies can be dangerous in real life. Think about racial profiling. Someone may be more easily suspected of a crime simply because he or she falls under a specific category that's assumed to be inferior.

Deconstructionists don't want to just reverse hierarchies. They want to blow up binary thinking altogether. So instead of thinking in terms of black and white, we have to consider infinite shades of gray along with every other color in existence. This way of thinking makes literature and culture more inclusive. Suddenly, no color is superior to any other.

While the above example is a bit abstract, let's consider sexuality. According to deconstructionist thought, 'straight' and 'gay' are no longer the only terms in play. We'd have to now consider different degrees of sexuality. You can see how blowing up binaries creates whole new possibilities in any area of culture.

Deconstruction in Literature

Okay, so how does all this play out in literary analysis? Good question! Let's explore a well-known text.

Even if you haven't read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, because the book and the accompanying film are so popular, most of us know at least the gist of it. As a whole, the book is about the resistance centered around one brave young woman, Katniss Everdeen, against a domineering government.

Some of the book's secondary strands are:

  • The romance between Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark
  • Social commentary on the class system and distribution of wealth
  • Loyalty to family and friends

Now, remember the scaffolding? All these obvious elements are the physical bones of the whole building, the ones we can readily see. But what about the holes in between? Let's shift our focus just a tad. What's not being said in these books?

Deconstructionists may argue that by setting up a romance between a teen-aged boy and girl, Collins is reinforcing the straight or queer binary and supporting the old idea that the straight half of that binary is naturally preferred.

Also, Collins sets up a clear distinction between the rich citizens of the Capital and the much poorer tenants of the surrounding territories. In doing so, however, she's set up a rich or poor binary. What about the many classes in between? In Collins' fictional universe, they don't exist, which limits the options that the poor have to fight against the rich.

And while Katniss' loyalty to her loved ones is admirable, what is it really based on? There's no deep examination of her familial ties or her relationship with Gale Hawthorne, a romantic possibility for her.

Because these relationships remain unexamined and unchallenged, a reader might wonder where exactly is Katniss' decision-making in her relationships. Furthermore, she's 'in love' with Peeta for the cameras. So it seems all her relationships are chosen for her. As strong as she appears to be, she has little control over her life and the people she shares it with.

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