How to Analyze Literature Using the Post-structuralism School of Criticism

Updated on June 9, 2011

A Brief Background on Post-structuralism:

Post-structuralism as a school of literary criticism made its debut in the early Nineteenth Century, however, it reached its apex in the 1960’s in a politically unstable France. A reaction to the formulaic system of Structuralism, post-structuralism sees the collective works of literature as an interconnected network of derived meanings.

Some key players in the development of post-structuralism:

Jacques Derrida:Derrida, author of the paper “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” spearheaded the concept of words deriving meaning from one another in an endless and futile cycle. He sought to challenge the logocentrist structure and patterns of western thinking, claiming that there could be no universal source of logic and meaning.

Roland Barthes: Barthes was originally a structuralist before he wrote “Death of the Author,” a piece encouraging critics to forgo the analysis of the author’s intention. His valid argument was that most of the time, even authors didn’t quite understand what they were trying to say, and the only true human/literature relationship that mattered was the relationship between the novel and the reader. Thus, post-structuralism was hailed by some as the “Birth of the Reader.”


Post-structuralism operates on a few basic tenets which revolve around the concept that literature and art can never reach full closure.

Works are inspired and based upon each other. They share techniques and subject matter. It is impossible for a poem or novel to be self-sufficient. Perhaps in an effort to avoid this inevitability somewhat, post-structuralists tend to focus on seemingly meaningless and small details in a piece of literature. Consequently, critics find deeper themes such as class conflict and social structure in pieces that on the surface deal with wholly different issues. Indeed, post-structuralists find pride in the ability to create totally unexpected outcomes from an analysis, but there is never one definitive outcome.



Traces

According to post-structuralist theory, literature can have no singular meaning for a number of reasons:

The first reason is that no two readers will be alike. Each person flipping through the pages will bring his or her own life experiences to the work, and with that, his or her own interpretation of the meaning of words and themes.

Another reason for this stance against singular meaning goes along with the word “différance,” which refers to the process of words deriving meaning from other words. Because words are essentially meaningless symbols that can never fully represent the ideas they are meant to convey, they are always at a distance to what they signify and are open to a multitude of interpretations through sheer lack of specificity.

Through a process called erasure, Derrida proved the theory of différance, taking words and notions out of context and revealing their “traces.”Traces are basically indicators of what a word or concept is not.

Color, for example, only exists as a concept because humans differentiate it from size and shape, and is therefore defined as being a property other than shape or size. This concept of traces can be applied to more complicated subjects for analysis.


Applying What You Know:

So, now that you understand the basic tenants of the Post-structuralism school of literary criticism, how do you apply it to the novel you’re trying to analyze? The answer is simple enough.

After careful consideration, pick out the main themes of the novel, and find places in the text where these themes are playing out. There should be certain keywords within these excerpts that you can apply erasure to.

Let’s use Oscar Wilde’s novel,The Picture of Dorian Grayas an example. A major theme in this novel is the effect of time. The novel’s title character has found a way to escape death, so his friends age while his body remains perfectly untouched. “Time” is one of these key words to which we can apply erasure. Time is a theoretical concept that no longer applies to Dorian Gray, for his portrait has made him ageless. For other characters “time” derives meaning from “age,” but to Dorain, the word seems to lack a trace. To him, seconds, hours and minutes are inconsequential. Years are but a daydream. A decade is only a word to Dorian Gray…a word without an opposite and therefore a word without meaning.

General Remarks:

Many critics of Post-structuralism have said that it boils down to sense of negativism, since everything is essentially meaningless and therefore lacking any reason to exist. Still others preach against the theory for its lack of structure and “anything goes” attitude, but half of the fun of analyzing literature with Post-structuralist methods is the high likelihood of unexpected results. If you continue to apply traces to works of literature, you are sure to find interesting correlations, and make your report/essay/whatever that much more engaging. And believe me, when you’re dealing with literary criticism, engaging is a plus.

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      Khaled Sirwah 6 months ago

      It is a very beneficial article, but why its author's name is not mentioned? I need it for documentation.

    • profile image

      Peter Esson 15 months ago

      It is really helpful to me 'cos I'm writing my assignment now using Post-structuralist theory. Really, the truth is not fixed as the then western critics made us believe.

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      Zinc 5 years ago

      "engaging" may sell articles, but to suggest that is what makes literary criticism makes it mere navel gazing. To suggest meaning is impossible is to ignore the communication that does transpire, which by the way, is by no means solely textual. Wittgenstein opened the door wide to charlatanism in apparently legitimizing a solipsism of language and meaning, and a parade of post-structuralists marched on through. But if everything is relative, so is relativism.

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      nazmul 5 years ago

      not good.

    • Jos van Leeuwen profile image

      Jos van Leeuwen 5 years ago

      @ajwrites57 The ''no meaning'' part is indeed comparable to existentialism, but while existentialism is focused upon individual experience, the whole point of structuralism is that there are external (symbolic and social) structures that determine the way humans experience reality and live their lifes, and the point of poststructuralism that these structures are relative and essentially meaningless.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I think that using it , say, as an intellectual exercise, to find "unexpected results" is fine. To use it to "tease" new meaning out of a work can be "fun". But, as a serious for mode of criticism, I think it lack merit. It sounds to me, based on your article, that it is influenced by existential thought wherein there is no meaning. I haven't studied it, just read your essay, but this is what it sounds like to me. Thanks for writing , found it interesting!

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