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Deconstruction is a technique of literary criticism which seeks to analyze a work as thoroughly as possible as it pertains to other works. It provides a way of playing with language and meaning that teases and delights (Dobie, 2002, p. 138). In other words, according to creator Jacques Derrida, “there is nothing outside the text” (Wikipedia) because every written source is in itself a linked text; Derrida believed that there was no objectivity possible. The main aim is to understand why the work was created, by examining the “context” of its creation: history, era, culture, society, and other similar works. In this philosophical poem by Robert Frost, there are symbols and images he used that call for various readings and interpretations making the text a good material for deconstruction.
In For Once, Then, Something, the persona had often been taunted and ridiculed by people for kneeling on the boundary of the village well on the wrong side, so that light was obstructed, and he could not see clearly into the well. The well was dark and he could see only up to the surface of water at the bottom of the well. He could only see there a mirror image of his own face, of his own ‘God-like image’; shining out of a wreath of ferns and cloud-puffs. As Brower and Lawrence Thompson both agree, the use of the word “God-like”, for his own image, indicates the persona’s self-centered nature or his Narcissism.
However, one day as he was looking into the well with his chin resting on the boundary of the wall, his vision could penetrate through the water-surface and his own image on it, and see underneath the surface, in the depths of the well, something white. He could see it only for an instant, and then it vanished. He could see it no more, for a ripple was caused in the water, in all probability by the falling of a drop of water from the ferns growing over-head. Since then he has always wondered what that whiteness was. Was it a vision of truth he had or was it simply a piece of stone? Who can answer this question? The persona could have this transitory vision of something at the bottom of the well only once, and has ever since tried to comprehend its meaning and significance, but to no avail.
Deconstruction recognizes that any human utterance has a multitude of possible meanings. In deconstructive terms, Saussure’s sign, the combination of a signifier and a signified that refers to a mental concept, is not a stable, unchanging entity (Dobie, 2002, p. 143). In the poem, the signifier ‘water,’ for instance, will bring to mind a host of mental associations. Life is a common signified for water, but destruction and being born-again or the Holy Spirit are also its other signifieds.
In the poem, we find the persona being jeered at by ‘others’ because he never sees ‘deeper down in the well’ as though referring to the persona as superficial and only on the surface meaning of things. The poem gives the impression that the narrator sees things only one way (surface), and because of that he cannot delve into the truths (depths) ‘others’ claim to know. ‘Surface’ and ‘depth’ are both signifiers and contrasting concepts (binary opposition) inherent in the text. We are familiar with the axiom that tells us not to judge a book by its cover, that we have to look deeper and further within ourselves or others to understand matters completely.
But that remains just an impression. The water’s surface is only what we see, but what’s beneath or deeper in it we cannot clearly perceive. It is a reflective surface especially when it is quiet and still. Finally, after putting in so much effort and receiving no support, he sees something. But he is not even sure what it is or whether it is even more important than a pebble, but he sees something. The surface of the water is what we perceived as reality. And when we try to look beyond it, one drop falls ‘from a fern,’ almost teasingly, blurring and blotting out any deeper truth. In here, Robert Frost perhaps reject the notion that there is a truth, the truth, that can be perceived beneath the surface. The persona might have thought that ‘beyond the picture’ is ‘something white’ (truth) but that this is ‘uncertain.’ For a while, he thought about the deeper meanings from hints of truth he perceived but ‘lost it.’ This possibly mean that however hard he tries looking deeper into whatever truths there are, he can never completely understand the greater scheme of things because truths cannot be known fully.
Another signifier is the color white. White, for instance, is posited by most of us as a symbol for purity, goodness, clarity, innocence or truth. But in the poem, ‘something white’ becomes ‘rebuked’ and undermined by a ripple from a single drop of water. It is as if Frost is telling us that although it is human nature to be satisfied and to trust a distorted and manipulated version of reality, we must attempt to see beyond appearances and illusions and see the truth. But then again truth is never absolute, it is relative. The persona muses over what he saw whether or not he had an encounter of the ‘Truth’ and reality, or simply the perceived reality, ‘A pebble of quartz.’
Moreover, the persona in the poem sees himself in the ‘summer heaven godlike’ and surrounded by ‘a wreath of fern’ and ‘cloud puffs.’ Perhaps, these images allude to Narcissus who is forever bound to seeing his own reflection in the water because of his excessive pride in or admiration of his own appearance. But the images have obvious implications also about the persona’s nature or character. He is probably such a person who thinks highly of himself and full of pride just like Narcissus. Or perhaps one who is not able to listen to or think of others around him because he only sees his own private beliefs and his haughty ambitions. Since he seems to only trust what he knows to be truth for himself, others taunt him for not looking into all perspectives which is needed in creating a subtle difference in or shade of meaning. This superficial way of seeing things may reflect one nuance of the human condition.
The poem recalls the saying of the Greek philosopher Democritus- “Of truth we know nothing for truth lies at the bottom of a well.” With Frost, as with Democritus, the immediate emphasis is noticeably on the definitive truth. But the symbolic overtones of the opening lines imply that the speaker has previously acknowledged to others his own limitations of insight with regard to the ultimate truth. Man’s observation of truth can only be unclear and comparative; he can never arrive at absolute truth. Still the pursuit must go on.
‘For Once, Then, Something’ is quite straightforward, but in reality it is a symbolic poem, symbolizing man’s never-ending pursuit of knowledge of truth and the ambiguity of life and death. It is only in uncommon moments that man can have a fleeting vision of truth, which he can see into the heart of things. It is like peering into a dark well, day after day and the vision of truth, even if at all, it is granted, would be momentary, and mysterious and vague. Finally, it remains only as ‘something,’ a truth that is not absolute but relative, without a name or distinction—but he knows it is there, only he could not completely understand it even if he tries.
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