Roland Barthes’s approach to Balzac’s novella is based on several important theoretical assumptions about the nature of literature derived from the study of linguistics. What the structuralist attempts to do, says Barthes, is decompose an object (a literary work, a film, or any other cultural creation) and then reconstruct the object in such a way as to make clear the rules by which the object functions— that is, the very means that make it possible for the object to be a cultural object and communicate itself as such. For Barthes, although an artwork may seem to copy something outside itself (for example, the novel Huckleberry Finn may seem to copy or “be about” the adventures of a young boy in mid-nineteenth century America); it is not the nature of the copied object that makes the work an artwork, although that is a prejudice of a realistic approach to literature. Instead, what makes Mark Twain’s novel a novel is the technique that differentiates it from the hypothetical “real world” that it seems to imitate.
What the structuralist activity succeeds in creating, says Barthes, regardless of whether it is engaged in by an artist or by a critic, is a simulacrum or similitude of an object or an experience which differs from the original object in that the simulacrum makes clear or lays bare the means by which the original object is perceived; that is, its functions or structure. The structuralist activity thus makes the object intelligible or meaningful.
This approach is based on the basic assumption of modern linguistics and semiotics (the study of signs and sign systems) that the meaning of anything which can be communicated is determined not by its essence but by differences within a patterned structure; what makes the object meaningful is its position within the pattern, that is, its difference from, or boundaries between, other objects. There is no essential connection between the sound a person makes when he says “zipper” in English (what structuralists call the “signifier”) and the mental concept he has when he utters or hears that sound (what structuralists call the “signified”); there is only an arbitrary connection which speakers of English have agreed upon. The sound “zipper” refers to a fastener, while the sound “sipper” refers to one who drinks slowly only because of the difference between the s and the z, that is, that the s is a voiceless dental sound and the z a voiced dental sound.
Moreover, structuralists such as Barthes argue that in trying to understand a story such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, one cannot understand the narrative as it exists as a similitude of actual events. Such events which take place in time, as they seem to do in everyday life, are, after all, merely “one damn thing after another”; in order to render these events intelligible, one must decompose them, break down their sequence into units, and then recompose them according to some principle other than simply that they take place in time. One must break up the temporal flow of the events which follow the principle of combination (what structuralists call the “syntagmatic”) into sets of events that follow the principle of similarity of function (what structuralists term the “paradigmatic”). This is what Barthes does in S/Z. By using the five codes, he decomposes the “one-damn-thing-after-another” temporal flow of the story into lexias (that is, separate bits of information) based on their derivation from the five paradigmatic codes; then he “reads” the story in terms of the relationship between the paradigmatic codes, not in terms of the syntagmatic narrative flow.
Finally, Barthes makes a distinction between two kinds of narrative works to make his purpose in S/Z clear. One is typified by the so-called realistic works of the nineteenth century, works such as Sarrasine, in which the primary emphasis is to direct attention to its so-called referent, that is, what it seems to be about. These works Barthes calls lisible, or “readerly.” The connection between the signifier and the signified in such works is so firmly grounded in the reader’s “realistic” notion of reality...
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Most critics and commentators agree that S/Z is Roland Barthes’s masterwork, a summa, or compendium of his views, a model of practical structuralist analysis. The work has even been called one of the most celebrated masterworks of contemporary criticism. Barthes’s method has been much imitated since the publication of S/Z, and the ideas which Barthes generated in the many “digressions” in the work have proved fruitful for subsequent critics. Much of what is now called “narratology,” that is, the theoretical study of narrative structure, derives from S/Z.
The book falls into a tradition of critical analyses which use individual works from which to derive theoretical knowledge about the nature of narrative. Although the tradition is as old as Aristotle’s study of tragedy in the Poetics, the most immediate predecessor within the twentieth century formalist tradition is Vladimir Propp’s Morfologiya skazki (1928; Morphology of the Folktale, 1958). Other, more recent, works within this tradition are Claude Levi-Strauss’ structural study of myth in 1955 and Tzvetan Todorov’s study of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron in 1969.
In terms of Roland Barthes’s own life’s work, many critics believe that S/Z not only constitutes a high-water mark in his career but also signals Barthes’s impending shift from structuralism to poststructuralism, for in the work he moves beyond structuralism’s concern with discovering “deep structures” of unity and totality toward the purposeful fragmentation and undermining of such an effort which is typical of modern “deconstruction.” Regardless of whether readers see S/Z as the high point of structuralism or the harbinger of deconstruction, no one interested in modern literary theory can afford to ignore it. When structuralism as a methodology and deconstruction as a point of view pass away from current literary criticism to be replaced by yet another critical perspective, S/Z will still remain for the valuable insights it provides readers into the nature of narrative.