Post-Structuralism and Literary Analysis: Some Guidelines

Notes by David Newton: visit his website at

What are the characteristics of post-structuralism as a critical method? The post-structuralist is engaged in the task of “deconstructing” the text or a particular/accepted reading of the text. This process is given the name deconstruction, which can be roughly defined as applied post-structuralism or post-structuralism as a method of reading and analysis. It is often referred to as “reading against the grain” or “reading the text against itself” (Eagleton). Another way of describing this would be to say that deconstructive reading uncovers the unconscious rather than the conscious dimensions of the text, all of the things that an ordinary reading of it glosses over or fails to recognize.  According to Jacques Derrida, a deconstructive reading:

“must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer [or readers], between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of language that he uses . . . [It] attempts to make the not-seen accessible to sight.” (Of Grammatology 158, 163)

So deconstruction practices what has been called oppositional reading, reading the text with the aim of unmasking internal contradictions or inconsistencies in the text, aiming to show the disunity which underlies its apparent unity. Notice that the aim of New Criticism by contrast had been precisely the opposite of this, to show the unity of the work beneath apparent disunity. Deconstruction aims to show the disunity of any text. This disunity is a product of language itself.

What Post-Structuralist Critics “Do”:

Another way to think about post-structuralist analysis is to focus on the following stages or processes. Please keep in mind that these are not necessarily separate but often can be interrelated:

The verbal stage is similar to that of more conventional forms of New Critical close reading that we studied earlier in the course. It involves looking in the text for paradoxes and contradictions at what might be called the purely verbal level. For example, the repressed unconsciousness within language is evident in a word like “guest” and it’s cognate (that is, it has the same original root as) the word “host.”  However, “host” comes from the original Latin word hostis, meaning an enemy. Think even further about the meaning of the word hos/tility or the relationship between a parasite and a host and you begin to see that even words where the meaning seems clear and “obvious” are filled with complications. This hints at the repressed double aspect of these words that a good critical reader can bring to our attention, complicating the meaning of the work.  In addition to looking at the etymology of specific words, you can look at the interrelationship between words, how they create contradictions or inconsistencies that cannot be resolved. To do this kind of analysis, all you really need to start is a copy of the work, a good dictionary, and the dedication to be a close, observant reader.

The textual stage focuses on the relationship between common binary oppositions in the work like male/female, day/night, light/dark, good/evil, nature/society, etc, in which one term seems to be "privileged" or more highly valued over the other. A post-structuralist reading might try to look closely at this hierarchy in order to show how it is not sustained throughout the work, or how the two terms are not oppositional at all but interrelated and interdependent.

The linguistic stage involves looking for moments when the adequacy of language itself as a medium of communication is called into question. Such moments occur when there is implicit or explicit reference to the unreliability or untrustworthiness of language, juxtapositions of speech and silence, or an awareness of the limitations of language. In other words, moments in the narrative where we are made consciously aware of the problems involved in using language to create meaning.