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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094

Article abstract: Barthes was one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century, and he made significant contributions to semiology.

Early Life

Roland Barthes was born into the heart of the French bourgeoisie of Cherbourg on November 12, 1915. His father died in a World War I battle...

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Article abstract: Barthes was one of the most important literary critics of the twentieth century, and he made significant contributions to semiology.

Early Life

Roland Barthes was born into the heart of the French bourgeoisie of Cherbourg on November 12, 1915. His father died in a World War I battle in 1916, leaving the family in reduced circumstances, although the mother learned the trade of bookbinding and kept the household together for the family. Roland’s early brilliance at the lycée pointed to a career in the high academic circles reserved for graduates of the École Normale Supérieure; however, he contracted tuberculosis in 1941 and was forced to attend a lesser institution, the Sorbonne. In 1937, he was declared unfit for military service because of his illness, and he taught from 1939 to 1941 in lycées in Biarritz and Paris. He was, however, forced to abandon teaching when the tuberculosis flared up again, and he spent the war years in a Swiss sanatorium. After the war, he taught in Romania and Egypt before returning to France. During this period, he became further acquainted with literary criticism and linguistics and produced his first important book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero, 1967).

Life’s Work

The distinguishing mark of Barthes’s career was his refusal to be confined to one field of study, one critical position, or one group. He continually sought new areas to investigate after having made significant contributions to areas such as linguistics or semiology. Some have accused him of not developing or testing insights or breakthroughs he made; he has left it to others to complete systems in which he made seminal contributions. This refusal to be restricted to one position in a period of ideological rigidity is very attractive. A new work from Roland Barthes was always a new starting point for fresh investigations and never a mere recovering of old ground.

Through the 1940’s and 1950’s, Barthes worked in a branch of the French cultural service dealing with teaching abroad, and he was given a scholarship to study lexicology in 1950; however, he used that time to write his first books in the field of literary criticism. Writing Degree Zero is a Marxist rewriting of French literary history that was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre and is, in part, an answer to Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949). Barthes was associated until the late 1970’s with the journal Tel Quel, which stood for a more formal approach to literary works. In his first book, Barthes identifies two distinct periods of French literature. The first (or classical) runs from 1650, when the writers of that time began to see the “literariness” of language, to 1848, the year of revolution in all of Europe. The second period (or modern) began in the revolution and continues to the present; it is marked not by the representational mode of the early period but by a questioning and experimental type of literature. Later, in S/Z (1970; English translation, 1974), Barthes defined two types of literary writing: the readerly (or the representational) and the writerly (the experimental). In this respect, he was the champion of the new, avant-garde literature. He was a supporter of the experiments of Alain Robbe-Grillet in the novel and defended him against received critical opinion. In S/Z, Barthes created a critical context in which these new writers could be discussed and understood.

Michelet par lui-meme (1954; Michelet, 1986) and Sur Racine (1963; On Racine, 1964) show Barthes moving away from the Marxism of Sartre to seeing a literary work as a system with codes or rules for functioning. In the book on Michelet, Barthes used many of the concepts of phenomenology in which the writer’s ideology is ignored, and instead Barthes discovered in Michelet the use of opposing substances, such as warm and dry. These substances show the “existential thematics” of Michelet; Michelet’s thought is dismissed as of no interest. On Racine is more consciously structuralist and psychoanalytic, as Barthes examines the conflict between authority and the “primal horde.” Barthes ignored the usual academic and historical view of the work in order to reveal its structure as composed of interior and exterior “spaces.” His irreverent treatment of the most sacred of French classics engendered a challenge from the academic world. Raymond Picard accused Barthes and his criticism of being a fraud, and Barthes replied with a defense of the new criticism that won the day. Barthes has consistently opposed a merely academic view of literature. Ironically, as a result of the notoriety of the Racine book and his innovative work, Barthes was appointed to teach at an academic institution, although it was not one of the first rank. He became a full-time teacher at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1962.

Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972) shows another side of Barthes; he is in this book a semiologist examining the signs and signifiers found in popular culture as well as in literature. For example, Barthes examines wrestling as a system in which spectacle outweighs sport. In a similar fashion, striptease is seen as a sport that is “nationalized” and expresses the essence of the French. The aim of the book is demystification, to show that assumptions about a practice or institution as being natural are false; they are instead strictly structured codes of culture. The book also tends to treat serious subjects in a playful way and trivial ones with great seriousness in an amusing and enlightening manner.

Mythologies was very popular, but once more Barthes refused to repeat or develop a successful mode. Next Barthes was to be a structuralist, and it is in this capacity that his greatest works were written. In Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays, 1972), he defined structuralism as an “activity,” not as a system. Its primary tools were the binary oppositions of Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics, especially the opposition of the diachronic and synchronic and of langue (the language as a whole) and parole (the individual utterance). Perhaps the most thoroughgoing structuralist work Barthes produced is S/Z, in which he analyzed a story by Honoré de Balzac, “Sarrasine,” in exhaustive detail. Barthes divides the analysis into codes: There is the proairetic code, which deals with plot; the hermeneutic code, which deals with suspense and enigmas; the semic code, which deals with character and other stereotypes; the symbolic code, which takes the reader from literal details to the level of symbolism; and the referential code, which deals with social and cultural aspects of the work. It is a monumental dissection of one short story, and the commentary tends to swamp the text. It does show how various types of critical apparatus can be applied to a specific literary work, but they remain fragments, as Barthes refused to combine the codes into a unified system. Some critics have seen in this refusal the seeds of poststructuralism or deconstruction. The book takes structuralism as far as it can go in revealing the “system” of a work, but it remains tantalizingly incomplete.

Barthes turned from structuralism to what is the key element of his later work, feeling. Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1975) is a discussion and description of the many ways in which the reader derives pleasure from a literary work. One of the most important ways that the reader gains pleasure is not, for Barthes, from aesthetic contemplation of the whole but by ignoring the “whole” and “drifting” to passages that catch the interest and attention of the reader. For Barthes, the pleasure of the text is equated with the body, and the pleasure derived from the text is compared to sexual bliss. It is a more personal way of looking at literature than the systems Barthes discovered earlier using linguistics as a tool.

Barthes had become an eminent figure in French intellectual life by this time, and he was appointed to a chair at the prestigious Collège de France in 1976. Barthes refused to be a traditional academic as he continued to emphasize pleasure and feeling in his critical work. In Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1978), he attempts to codify the language of love by using such texts as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Werther, 1779; better known as The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1902), and he traces the typical gestures and maneuvers of love. Each aspect of the language of love is illustrated and discussed. In “Making Scenes,” for example, Barthes traces the etymology of words used in such scenes and finds that they take the rhetorical form of stichomythia. Love may have had a very defined code for Barthes, but his analysis was not merely intellectual, and it did not become more important than the object it described. A Lover’s Discourse became Barthes’s most popular book, testifying to the accuracy of his analysis and observations.

One of the last works by Barthes was Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1977), an autobiography done in fragments and memories. There are lists of such things as “I Like” and “I Don’t Like.” There are a few revealing sections in the book; Barthes includes a fragment on the “Goddess H” that speaks of the pleasures of homosexuality and hashish. There are also photographs of the young Barthes and his bourgeois environment at the beginning, but the rest of the book is arranged in alphabetical order for each topic he discusses. There is no narrative in this “autobiography,” but a picture of the essential Barthes does emerge. One aspect of Barthes that is revealed in the book is his opposition to “doxa,” or received opinion. He was always opposed to the rigidity of received authority.

Barthes’s fertile mind continued to produce new and challenging works, such as his study of Japan, L’Empire des signes (1970; Empire of Signs, 1982), and a book on photography, La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie (1980; Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1981). His reputation as an intellectual was not limited to France but was international. In early 1980, Barthes was tragically killed after a laundry truck struck him as he attempted to cross a Paris street near the Collège de France.


Roland Barthes is one of those rare individuals who made significant contributions to many fields. He was one of the first to see the applicability of semiology to a wide range of topics. He was not the first to discover how the structures of linguistics could be applied to all of the human sciences, but he was one of its most elegant practitioners. S/Z is one of the finest and fullest structuralist analyses extant. Furthermore, Barthes pointed the way for post-structuralism and showed how literary criticism could reveal not unity but fragmentation. He also never lost sight of the importance of emotion in literature and life and of the dangers of completing and fixing any system of thought. He freed criticism from a narrow academic view and led it to the multiplicity of voices it currently enjoys.


Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. A meditation by Barthes on some of the significant events and influences on his life. It is not the usual autobiography, but it is an excellent introduction to the delights and style of Barthes.

Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. The best short study of Barthes’s works. Culler divides the protean Barthes into such areas as “Mythologist” and “Hedonist,” which enables the reader to see the range of Barthes’s mind. Contains clear, direct, and insightful discussions.

Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. The most detailed study of Barthes’s literary criticism. Lavers discusses not only Barthes’s thought but also critics who influenced and were influenced by him. Scholarly.

Sontag, Susan. “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes.” In A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982. Sontag provides a sympathetic and revealing introduction to Barthes’s thought and an excellent selection of Barthes’s writing. Students who wish to read Barthes might begin here.

Thody, Philip. Roland Barthes: A Conservative Estimate. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1977. A detailed analysis of the major works and positions of Barthes. It is not as scholarly or difficult as Lavers’ book, but it is a good overall discussion.

Wasserman, George. Roland Barthes. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Part of Twayne’s World Authors series. Begins with a brief biographical section followed by a critical overview of Barthes’s works. Includes a bibliography, a chronology, and an index.

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