Can Deconstruction Work on a Text We Suspect Might Be a Satire?

From: Peter Krause []
Sent: Thursday, March 31, 2011 11:01 PM
To: Sanders, Arnie
Subject: A Question About Deconstructive Criticism


Hi Arnie,

Quick though very important clarification regarding Deconstructive Criticism:

So, deconstruction assumes that the content of a poem (any work of lit) may not always mean what a poet meant it to mean right? I ask this because it seems that the act of placing (on the part of the writer) or identifying (on the part of the deconstructive critic) instances where the usual, unifying binaries of a story are entirely reversed implies satire, irony, parody, or any other very aware, agenda-driven act of purposefully reversing binaries.

 For example, when reading XVI for our New Critical approach I was very confident that it was a parody of those poems written by women praising domesticated wifedom.

Similarly, Wheatley's "On Being Brought From Africa to America" seems to be a very obvious work of satire.

Do satire, parody, irony or sarcasm have any role in Deconstruction?


Arnie replies:

                Peter asks an extremely important question.  Basically, how can we be sure Wheatley was not intending to write a satire upon the very opinions that the poem expresses.  He adduces the comparison to Dickinson’s “XVI,” which he believed to be a satire.  It’s an interesting call.  “XVI” may be a satire or parody if Dickinson can be shown think the statements by speaker of the poem she has created are immoral or unethical or foolish.  You could determine that by consulting her other poems, her letters, or a scholarly biography.  For the purposes of grading the NC reading of the poem, I allowed it as a possibility.  For 215’s purposes, it’s not yet necessary to go further to test a “warrant” of that sort.  But Deconstruction does have to concern itself with this as a basic issue of genre.  One cannot exactly go about showing that a satire “deconstructs” because it represents people behaving badly as if they represented social norms.

Think about some more obvious examples of literature all readers believe to be satire.  If you recall “A Modest Proposal” or Volpone’s soliloquy in praise of wealth as the new god of the modern era, you will remember how interestingly difficult it could be to tease out the places in which the text veered away from a rational analysis of the situation and into outrageous immoral or criminal propositions.  Satire is always a test of the writer’s and readers’ sense of that moral/ethical boundary.  Nevertheless, in both Swift’s and Jonson’s work, the speakers do cross the line for what we might call (dangerously?) “normal” readers when cannibalism and fraud are proposed as better alternatives to economic and social reforms, or ordinary constructive work to support one’s self. 

In the case of Wheatley’s poem, you might be at a disadvantage if you adopted a too-strict version of the “the text, itself” rule for a New Critical reading, whereas Structuralism’s search (in Levi-Strauss’s flavor of it) for a “myth system” would ordinarily lead you to read sideways in the author’s work to test the structuring binaries and the rules that seemed to create them, and their privileged/privative assignments.  That was why I added, to the bare text of the single poem, the links to the poet’s basic biography at the Library of Congress and to the whole text of the 1832 Boston reprint of the 1773 first edition of Poems:

You may not have enough time to read all the poems, but reading only a few should confirm your sense of whether Wheatley is capable of Swiftian satire or not.  To that, you can add the near-contemporary witness of the author of the memoir of Wheatley’s life that is included in the front matter.  Its author, Margaretta Matilda Odell, claims to be “a collateral descendant of Mrs. Wheatley” who “has been familiar with the name and fame of Phillis from her childhood” (29).  Her comments about the poem, itself, on pages 13-14, and other statements about Wheatley’s attitude toward her owners and her life, should help you establish a “horizon of meaning” for contemporary readers’ opinion of her statements’ truth values vs. their potential for radical satire. 

This is actually a nice introduction to Reader-Response criticism for next week.  Ms. Odell’s “response” to Wheatley’s poem helps establish a baseline for one way to read it, and other published C19 responses would help flesh that out.  Only in the last twenty years or so have we begun to do that in earnest for such canonical poets as Chaucer and Shakespeare, but contemporary reception is often a tool of young scholars arguing for inclusion of a neglected author as a worthy object of study (and eventual inclusion in the Norton Anthology).

                Thanks, Peter!