Deconstruction: A Literary Theory

Well, look, it’s Christmas Eve, and I haven’t got a lot for you today. So how about a short recap of deconstruction? Pour yourself a mug of eggnog, drop in an ounce of Maker’s Mark, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Bartender recommended from yours truly (it was another life). If you like mind games (the good kind), here’s another peek at what I learned last semester.


Developed by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction asserts that meaning can never be final or absolute. Although ideas require an organizing structure, such structures are imposed externally, centering certain ideas or truths while marginalizing others. This supports existing hegemonies, reinforcing existing systems of power. And while a freeplay of ideas is possible within the structure, it is nonetheless limited by it.

Even language itself is problematic because the surface appearances of words often contradict their deeper meanings and origins. For example, the signifier (word) “t-r-e-e” and the signified meaning of what a tree actually is are two separate things that are arbitrarily associated. Right? Derrida says wrong.

Dichotomizing a signifier and signified creates an illusion of difference when in fact they influence each other and co-exist. Binaries themselves are interdependent, unable to exist one without the other. As Judith Butler points out, what can “straight” possibly mean if there is no “gay” to contrast it with? Deconstruction advocates that we interrogate what we think we know, not so we may replace it with more accurate knowledge, but so that we can become aware of the gaps in what we have mistaken for certainty.

I dig this. I don’t believe in certainty, and I distrust those who peddle it.

The uncertainty inherent to all knowledge is best exemplified in language because it unfolds through time. Texts, sentences, and even speech are signifying chains where each subsequent meaning bleeds into the previous as well as the next. This destabilizes meaning and language, rendering a definite truth to be unknowable.

The deconstructionists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest that writers should create books that can be read in any order, each section with its own “intrinsic value” so that it echoes nature where multiplicity, not unity, is the primary value (pp. 1379, 1376). Ultimately, deconstruction proposes that meanings are necessarily multiple, interconnected, and decentralized, “coming and going rather than finishing” (Deleuze & Guattari, p. 1382).


So what can we take from all this?

No one should be too sure what’s going on. There’s so much we can’t ever know. There will always be gaps. The simplest example is another human being. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known them. You can never, ever know what their experience actually is. If you think you know all there is to know, you’re not paying attention.

And what lesson can we take away as writers?

Well, this is why so many novels have multiple narrators, multiple plotlines, multiple voices. We live in an age where we understand that knowledge is never complete, understanding is never finished. To pretend we can represent a life or a person as they are in their entirety, even a fictional one, is to cheat. It is to misrepresent. It is the worst sin of all for an artist: it is to be false.

Human beings, and most compelling characters, are so much richer and more complicated than that.

Photo by Cristian Jako from Pexels

If you enjoyed that little peek at literary theory, check out the Accessible MFA where you can access the literary theory syllabus for free. It’s otherwise known as that MFA class nobody likes. And don’t forget to get a free account at JSTOR where you can read more of this stuff for fun (just leave the “university” blank)!


Featured photo by Valeria Boltneva from Pexels

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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