Understanding Disunity in Text through Deconstruction

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Today’s children live in a world that is rapidly changing. For this reason, researchers believe that children’s literature is a goal-oriented genre which is essentially didactic in nature (Chamburidze, 2012). It educates children towards what is right and develops children’s personalities through fiction. The Book Thief (2016) by Markus Zusak is no different. Setting the story in troubled Germany of the Nazi era and having the central character as a child (Liesel), who struggles and matures through the events into a brave woman, Zusak told the story of survival, bravery and perseverance. 

This essay attempts to read a specific chapter of this book to deconstruct it against its own constructed structure. It will identify the binaries created in the chapter, recognize the centre around which these binaries function and observe how the structure collapses when the text is closely read. Thereby, this essay also points towards the multiplicities of meaning embedded in the text to show how it is disjoined and disunited without its centre. The observations and arguments will solely be based on this particular chapter from the book: 'The Woman with the Iron Fist' (pp. 37-46).

Dissecting the Structure

The Binaries

Binaries, or opposites, are systems of thought that co-exist in pairs within any mega-system, be it philosophy or literature. It has its roots in Saussure’s theories of structuralism, where the theorist maintained that binary oppositions reciprocate each other and help keep the structure steady (Putri and Sarwoto, 2016). In the book, The Book Thief, not only are binary oppositions the author’s own way of presenting his work, but they are also one of the literary strategies commonly used in texts to help readers grasp the intended meaning of the work or to allow them their own interpretations. According to Saussure, binary oppositions are indeed concepts that govern the human mind and its way of thinking. Another structuralist anthropologist, Lévi-Strauss (1969), also highlighted how the units within a structure combine themselves in relative pairs (as binaries). Strauss even discussed the importance of binary oppositions in shaping human institutions and knowledge.

The chapter from the book that has been chosen for discussion in this essay, ‘The Woman with the Iron Fist’, is full of such binary oppositions. The binaries identified in this chapter are:

  • Death, Hopelessness / Life, Hope
  • Harshness / Kindness
  • Music / Noise
  • Safety / Insecurity or Day / Evening
  • Illiteracy / Knowledge
  • Mundane / Spiritual or Imaginative

Death and hopelessness is captured in Liesel’s nightmares of her brother’s death, the daily visions she has during sleep and the agony she experiences – “She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming and drowning in the flood of sheets”. In contrast, Hans Hubermann, her foster father represents hope and a sign of life for Liesel. Every night, he came to Liesel “to soother her, to love her” and “to kill the aloneness”. 

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