Form and Content
By 1970, when S/Z first appeared, Roland Barthes had already established his reputation in France as the most influential formulator and advocate of the philosophical approach to literature, film, myth, and other cultural artifacts known as structuralism. Yet, in spite of the publication of several theoretical pieces by Barthes, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and others, which explored the implications of structuralism and its usefulness for understanding myth and popular culture, the approach still lacked a full-scale practical application of its methods to a literary work. It is this deficiency that Barthes sought to remedy with S/Z, his tour de force study of a single fictional work.
Although structuralism seems to work best when used to approach either highly formalistic myths and folktales or twentieth century avant-garde works, Barthes chose for his exercise in practical structuralist criticism a little-known novella by the great nineteenth century French realist Honore de Balzac titled Sarrasine (1831). Whereas Balzac’s novella is only about twelve thousand words long, Barthes’s discussion of the work is approximately seven times that length. Although S/Z is an exercise in detailed close reading somewhat reminiscent of the poetry explications of the American formalist critics of the 1940’s and 1950’s, because of structuralism’s divergence from formalism’s focus on poetic unity and thematic integrity, it is quite distinct from that approach.
Instead of attempting to show the organic unity of the work, the...
(The entire section is 649 words.)