Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who is usually considered the founder of “deconstruction,” was not primarily interested in literature and was not really a literary critic. Nevertheless, deconstruction can easily be used in dealing with literary texts and has often been applied to literature by deconstructive critics. Indeed, in the 1980s and early 1990s, deconstructive literary criticism was quite common, although today its popularity has greatly lessened.
Among many other arguments he made, Derrida contended that stable, coherent meanings are impossible, not only in literary texts but in all uses of language. This is especially true of written texts. As soon as I write (for example) a poem, it becomes open to the interpretation of others. There is nothing inside the text that can control the ways people interpret it. It can be interpreted in numerous, often highly conflicting ways, and there is no objective way of saying which interpretation is “correct” and which is “incorrect.” Indeed, to seek a “correct” interpretation is a pointless goal, since no such interpretation can ever be said to exist.
To make matters even more complicated, any interpretation of a work is itself subject to interpretation, and that interpretation is itself subject to interpretation, and that interpretation is itself subject to interpretation, and so on and on and on. There is nothing but text, endlessly subject to endless interpretation. However, rather than finding this fact frustrating, we should acknowledge it and not pretend that meaning is more stable, coherent, or certain than it is. In the words of Derrida (cited in one of the links below), deconstructive reading becomes
a Nietzschean affirmation, the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without error [faute], without truth, without origin, which is offered to an active interpretation. … And it plays without security.
Derrida’s theory often frustrates some people who dislike the idea of endless interpretation, but anyone who has ever visited the Shakespeare section of a decent university library will realize that his arguments cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet Derrida’s views have also been subject to extremely effective criticism from a host of other thinkers, including (M. H. Abrams [see below]), John Searle, Reed Way Dasenbrock, Raymond Tallis, Brian Vickers, Richard Levin, and many of the contributors to the huge volume titled Theory’s Empire. Abrams memorably called Derrida “an absolutist without absolutes.”
Perhaps the criticism of Derrida that is easiest to understand is that his approach to language is self-contradictory: he claims that language can have no certain meanings, yet he produced book after book in which he offered certain meanings. When this contradiction was pointed out to him (as it often was), he often became quite frustrated and claimed that his ideas had been misinterpreted – an odd claim coming from someone who believed that there were no correct interpretations.