Tyson's Deconstruction of Frost's "Mending Wall"

Click here for the text of Frost's "Mending Wall." 

The basic "Decon" strategy vs. New Criticism (260): New Critics like poems that compress lots of meaning into few words by using figurative language (irony, ambiguity, paradox) but they insist that good poems are unified by the way those devices create themes that resolves the poem's aesthetic tensions into a single,  unified significance.  Deconstruction suspects NC of trying to limit language's meaning "dissemination" in order to generate a significance that proclaims the NC critic's own favored ideology, ignoring alternatives and especially significances that directly oppose those the NC favors.

Move 1 (data gathering)--establish the "normal" NC or Structuralist reading (usually discover one in previously published scholarship):

        NC tension--neighbor's conformity/tradition/conservatism vs. speaker's non-conformity/innovation/progressivism

        NC figurative language--metaphors presumed to demonstrate the assumed natural, rational superiority of non-conformist thinking (262): "the wall" (conformity's mindless rejection of reason in favor of adherence to "obsolete traditions" 262; "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines"; "the old-stone savage armed" who "moves in darkness" [ll. 25-26, 28-29]);

        vs. the speaker is like the supposed natural opponent of walls, "Something there is that does not like a wall"; "Spring is the mischief in me"; something like "Elves" and "hunters," takes walls apart (36, 5-10)

        NC paradoxical theme to resolve tensions: ironic repetition of the neighbor's aphorism, "Good fences make good neighbors," implies they do not (ll. 27, 45).  The tensions in the poem are resolved by that paradox in the concluding line, identified not as the neighbor's own words but "his father's saying," which the speaker urges us to "go behind" and reject (l. 43).

Move 2 (data manipulation)--look for ways to reverse the privileged/privative prejudice of the poem, or to show other possible meanings for words, especially "polysemous" words (metaphoric, ambiguous, ironic, paradoxical):

        Decon reverses privileged status--hunters are nature and tradition; magic "Elves" might be like the force that destroys walls but "spells" hold walls up; speaker's "ambivalence" about naming the force ("it's not elves exactly") reveals unconscious awareness that nature/magic may uphold tradition/conservatism.

        Decon looks at the historical/cultural situation for ideological issues to re-contextualize the poem's language--C19-20 America associates "the primitive" with "nature" and "tradition," not against them (264).

        Decon looks at the poem's action/setting/characters to see them differently--in this poem, "good fences make good neighbors" by bringing them together to mend them: "Even the poem's title suggests this idea if we read mending as an adjective rather than as a verb: "Mending Wall" then becomes a wall that mends" (264).  In fact, by realizing this, Tyson "goes behind" the normal meaning of "Good fences make good neighbors" in a way the speaker of the poem did not intend, but that the poem, itself, justifies.

Move 3 ("so what?")--

        Decon can demonstrate that the poem, in its year of publication (1914), reveals the poet's and language's deep ambivalence about tradition, nature, and primitiveness, on one hand, and about innovation, science, and novelty that are replacing them, on the other.  Nature becomes the subject, or even the victim of scientific experiment and transformation.  Traditions are lost to short-lived novelties and great primitive regions are threatened with destructive development.  Paradoxically, building walls around wilderness may be the best way to preserve it.  In 1916, Congress created the National Park Service to do just that.  Therefore, "Mending Wall" deconstructs itself because it contains the opposite of its speaker's most likely intended meaning in an equally well-supported poetic structure.

        Tyson, not having researched that particular angle of her evolving hypothesis, elects to retreat to Decon's "undecidability" strategy:  "deconstruction does not try to resolve the thematic tensions in literary texts into some stable, unified interpretation, but rather tries to sustain those tensions in order to learn from them.  That is a Deconstructionist paper's best chance to succeed with a skeptical or hostile reader.  If you can simply demonstrate that the text's meaning is undecideable, oscillating unstably between or among dissonant meanings, you also have demonstrated that the text deconstructs itself.