Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

Structuralism Post-Structuralism Deconstruction


Structuralism is concerned not so much withwhat things mean, but how they mean; it is a science designedto show that all elements of human culture, including literature,are understandable as parts of a system of signs. This scienceof signs is called “semiotics” or “semiology.”The goal is to discover the codes, structures, and processes involvedin the production of meaning. “Structuralism claims thathuman culture itself is fundamentally a language, a complex systemof signifieds (concepts) and signifiers. These signifiers canbe verbal (like language itself or literature) or nonverbal (likeface painting, advertising, or fashion)” (Biddle 80). Thus,linguistics is to language as structuralism is to literature.

Structuralists often would break myths intotheir smallest units, and realign corresponding ones. Oppositeterms modulate until resolved or reconciled by an intermediary thirdterm.

Structuralism was a reaction to modern alienationand despair; it sought to recover literature from the isolationin which it had been studied, since laws governing it govern allsign systems — clothing, food, body ‘language,’ etc.

What quickly became apparent, though, was thatsigns and words don’t have meaning in and of themselves, onlyin relations to other signs and entire systems. Hence, post-structuralism.


Post-structuralism contests and subverts structuralismand formalism. Structuralists are convinced that systematic knowledgeis possible; post-structuralists claim to know only the impossibilityof this knowledge. They counter the possibility of knowing systematicallya text by revealing the “grammar” behind its form andmeaning. Texts contradict not only the structuralist accountsof them, but also themselves. All signifieds are also signifiers(a car symbolizes achievement).


Deconstructive criticism posits an undecidabilityof meaning for all texts. The text has intertwined and contradictorydiscourses, gaps, and incoherencies, since language itself isunstable and arbitrary. The critic doesn’t undermine the text;the text already dismantles itself. Its rhetoric subverts or underminesits ostensible meaning.

Jacques Derrida opposed the “metaphysicsof presence, . . . the claim in literature or philosophy thatwe can find some full, rich meaning outside of or prior to languageitself.” The hierarchy of binaries on which this assertionrests is untenable. Privileging speech over writing = logocentrism;spoken or written words have meaning only by “differance”from other words. Deconstructive critics focus on the text likethe formalists, but direct attention to the opposite of the NewCritical “unities.” Instead, they view the “decentering”of texts and point out incompatabilities, rhetorical grain-against-graincontradictions, undecidability within texts. There is often aplayfulness to deconstruction, but it can be daunting to readtoo.

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature