How could I link the essay "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes to literature to show the presence of Barthes' literary theory pertaining to the death of the author, with an example from...

How could I link the essay "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes to literature to show the presence of Barthes' literary theory pertaining to the death of the author, with an example from literature as a novel, film, play or poem?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Barthes' concept of the death of the author embodies, briefly, five important concepts that help to make clear what precisely he means.

  1. Auteur: Barthes does not use the equivalent of the English "author" in his theory. He uses the French word auteur for which there is no equivalent in English. An auteur is a creative genius who adds the touch of brilliance to his creations and whose genius creates a specialized kind of unity between all parts of each creation. Barthes is proclaiming the death of the auteur, not the "author." Since there is no equivalent word in English, and since one of Barthes' points (and Foucault's) is that language, the significations of signs and signifiers, creates reality, "auteur" is more accurately descriptive of Barthes' theory.
  2. Author: In opposition to the traditional French school of literary criticism that tied literary meaning to the biography of the author, Barthes rejects the idea that the meaning of a literary work is tied to the background, experience, personality and psychology of the author. Barthes holds that the author produces emotional and psychological and meaningful effects about which they are unaware: effects that go above and beyond the thoughts of the author (some might have called it the power of the Muse and the concept might be represented by Keats' reaction to his works, asking himself in amazement if he had actually written those.) The author crafts narratives by employing a linguistic code or codes.
  3. Language: Text is language. Writing originates in language, not in genius. Text is semiotic codes and linguistic signification (Saussurean signs/signifiers). Codes comprise and are extracted from codes of previous cultures. Linguistic empowerment overpowers and nullifies author voice and point of view. The auteur leaves no hidden linguistic referent that determines final meaning. Narrative, or text, translates linguistic codes into structure and message in literature.
  4. Reader: The reader is the invisible point of reception within the text to whom the text speaks and for whom the text is focalized. The reader, like the writer, is a linguistic entity, not a psychological entity. The reader, like the writer, is defined by the code(s) used in text discourse.
  5. Results: The replacement of the genius auteur with linguistic empowerment results in the loss or absence of a final fixed meaning to the text. The text, the narrative, as text is open to multiple readings and multiple meanings. Text, or narrative, has multiple codes and multiple meanings. Reading encompasses systems of signifiers that comprise the structure of text and multiple contexts of meaning. Unity in text and narrative is no longer defined by the origin of central meaning but rather by the destination that being readers' open readings.

[All] writing is itself this special voice, ... literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin .... [Writing is] finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol .... [T]his disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. (Barthes, "The Death of the Author")

An example of a novel to which Barthes' theory of the death of the auteur might be linked is Hugh Walpole's Cathedral. In this novel, the Cathedral narrator parallel's Barthes' example relating to Balzac. The same questions that Barthes asks about Balzac's narrator apply to Walpole's narrator [questions below are adapted from the questions Barthes asks about Balzac's narrator in his opening paragraph in "The Death of the Author"].

  • Who is speaking in this way?
  • Is it the story’s narrator, concerned about the clergymen at the heart of the Cathedral?
  • Is it the man Walpole, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of spirituality?
  • Is it the author Walpole, professing certain “literary” ideas of religiosity?
  • Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology?