Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde





Structuralism is concerned not so much with what things mean, but how they mean; it is a science designed to show that all elements of human culture, including literature, are understandable as parts of a system of signs. This science of signs is called "semiotics" or "semiology." The goal is to discover the codes, structures, and processes involved in the production of meaning. "Structuralism claims that human culture itself is fundamentally a language, a complex system of signifieds (concepts) and signifiers. These signifiers can be verbal (like language itself or literature) or nonverbal (like face painting, advertising, or fashion)" (Biddle 80). Thus, linguistics is to language as structuralism is to literature.

Structuralists often would break myths into their smallest units, and realign corresponding ones. Opposite terms modulate until resolved or reconciled by an intermediary third term.

Structuralism was a reaction to modern alienation and despair; it sought to recover literature from the isolation in which it had been studied, since laws governing it govern all sign systems -- clothing, food, body 'language,' etc.

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


Post-structuralism contests and subverts structuralism and formalism. Structuralists are convinced that systematic knowledge is possible; post-structuralists claim to know only the impossibility of this knowledge. They counter the possibility of knowing systematically a text by revealing the "grammar" behind its form and meaning. Texts contradict not only the structuralist accounts of them, but also themselves. All signifieds are also signifiers (a car symbolizes achievement).


Deconstructive criticism posits an undecidability of meaning for all texts. The text has intertwined and contradictory discourses, gaps, and incoherencies, since language itself is unstable and arbitrary. The critic doesn't undermine the text; the text already dismantles itself. Its rhetoric subverts or undermines its ostensible meaning.

Jacques Derrida opposed the "metaphysics of presence, . . . the claim in literature or philosophy that we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or prior to language itself." The hierarchy of binaries on which this assertion rests 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 like the formalists, but direct attention to the opposite of the New Critical "unities." Instead, they view the "decentering" of texts and point out incompatabilities, rhetorical grain-against-grain contradictions, undecidability within texts. There is often a playfulness to deconstruction, but it can be daunting to read too.

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: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman, 1998.

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

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature