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Literary Theory
Literary theory
• Remember – it is a “lens” through
which we look at literature
• Takes us away from the basic “high
school” ways of analyzing literature
–Theme, Setting, Symbolism
–Character motivation, Plot, etc.
• Invites us to “unravel” the constructs around us
and to re-examine appearance and reality
• Seeks to show that a literary work is selfcontradictory
• In high school we teach that meanings are
“fixed” there is an “answer” or meaning behind
works of art. So how does this explain that
people have different interpretations of what art
• Most high school teachers would never teach
this form of analysis
Deconstructionists are critics who probe beneath
the finished surface of a story.
Having been written by a human being with
unresolved conflicts and contradictory emotions,
a story may disguise rather than reveal the
underlying anxieties or perplexities of the author.
The story may have one meaning for the ordinary
unsophisticated reader and another for the
reader who responds to the subsurface ironies.
Everyday Deconstruction
• Your lives as teenagers are chaotic
• You naturally, every day, try to uncover
oppositions and meanings in things
• Your minds are not rigidly set upon fixed
• You accept ambiguity because you are not often
given the whole truth
• You are transitioning from childhood to
adulthood and are constructing your own identity
If you have ever listened to someone explain
a book, a movie or any work of art (poetry,
painting – even a magazine article) and
you wanted to interrupt and say, “But I saw
something that contradicts what you are
saying.” then you have practiced
• Focuses on contradictions in art
• Unravels binaries – shows they are
• Explores unintended meanings in
• Explores instabilities in language
Dismantling binaries
• In western culture, we think of things in
dualistic terms – oppositions
– Rich and poor
– Man and woman
– Sun and moon
– Day and night
– Masculine and feminine
– Life and Death
Dismantling binaries
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida is
the “father of deconstruction.” He came up
with the term “deconstruction”. He states
that because western culture understands
through binaries, that we also naturally
place one term over the other in a
hierarchy. Therefore one term is
“privileged” over the other. Let’s look at the
list again…
Dismantling Binaries
Rich and poor
Sun and moon
Day and night
Masculine and feminine
Reason and emotion
Life and death
– The positive or privileged term is usually, but not
always first – it is the standard that all else is
compared to – it is the positive concept, while all else
is negative. One word is always privileged over the
other. Remember the “To Be or Not to Be” speech?
Dismantling binaries
• In other cultures, philosophy is more
• Everything contains shades of masculine,
feminine, the sun and moon are
acknowledged to be in the sky together at
the same time, there is no set right and
wrong – it changes with the situation
Dismantling binaries
Deconstruction seeks to take apart this binary
thinking and prove it is false, that texts are more
like eastern philosophy – containing shades of
One of the first things you do when deconstructing
a text is look for the binaries that the author sets
up. Then look for ways that author turns these
binaries “upside down.” Prove that one binary is
not better than another or that both concepts are
necessary for the other’s existence.
You can’t just reverse the binaries because deconstruction is after
bigger game, it "deconstructs" the underlying hierarchy set up
in binaries. Deconstruction doesn't simply reverse the
opposition, nor does it destroy it. Instead it demonstrates its
inherent instability. It takes it apart from within, and without
putting some new, more stable opposition in its place.
The Pooh movies are better than
the books
(reverses the usual assumption
that the book is better & more
original than the movie).
Our sense of Pooh books is
derived from the movies,
The Joker is cooler than Batman
(reverses notion of the hero).
Batman is a special kind of villain
called a vigilante
Women are smarter than men
(reverses chauvinistic "common
Men's sense of their intelligence
is dependent on a belief that
women are bimbos
Native Americans are more heroic
than cowboys
(reverses the Western).
"Cowboy heroism" cannot exist
without "bad Indians."
Exploring Metaphors
• Another tool for deconstructing art is to
look at any metaphors and figures of
speech present.
• Identify their intended meaning
• Identify any unintended meanings
Practice with Metaphors
Love is a rose
Intended meaning is….
Unintended meaning is…
You are the sunshine of my life
Intended is…
Unintended is….
The Instability of Language
The meanings we receive through language
are not fixed. If you say to a group of
people, “I have a nice car.” The sentence
will conjure different things in each
person’s mind, due to each person’s
history, background and experiences. It is
also to understand the context in which the
statement is written and made.
Steps for Deconstruction
Write these steps down in your flip book
Upon first reading, write a brief summary of what
MOST people would say about the work.
Identify binaries in a chart
Identify metaphors (intended and unintended
Look for any words that might have two meanings
Look for contradictions (does something not make
Then write about how the work shakes these things
Let’s try it……
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die
John Donne – Renaissance poet
Level 2
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing
in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly
The waves beside them danced; but
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed---and gazed---but little
What wealth the show to me had
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure
And dances with the daffodils.
William Wordsworth- RomanticPoet
Level 1
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
My Papa's
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Level 2
Ode to My Socks
Pablo Neruda
(translated by Robert Bly)
Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.
Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.
The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.
Level 2
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Level 3
Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art
By John Keats
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art-Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors-No--yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.
Level 3
A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal
By William Wordsworth
A slumber did my spirit seal
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
SONNET 130 – William Shakespeare
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white
,But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Level 2
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Level 2
Steps for Deconstruction Group Activity
In groups of four, choose a role:
– Binary finder – creates a lists of oppositions (binaries) that exist in the poem
– Metaphor Magnet – Writes down at least one metaphor and its intended and unintended
– Word Doubler – find words that might have TWO meanings – write down the words and their
dual meanings
– Contradiction Catcher – Writes a sentence describing any contradictions in the poem. You
can use this sentence:
• I think the author is trying to say____________________________; but it doesn’t work
it falls apart because what the author seems to be really saying is
One person read the poem out loud to everyone – listen carefully to how it SOUNDS. Divide
your poster into four equal squares – like a BIG Tic Tac Toe grid. Each person puts their info
in one of the boxes. Then as a group, write a small paragraph which deconstructs the poem.
Cut it out and then staple the paragraph to the front of the poster.
Write a
and cut it out
– staple it to
the front
corner of the