(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Roland Barthes 1915-1980

(Full name Roland Gerard Barthes) French critic, theorist, essayist, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Barthes's works from 1972 through 2001. See also Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 24) and Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 83).

Barthes is widely acknowledged as one of the most important figures of the French critical movement known as Structuralism. His works have been a major influence on the practice of literary and social criticism in Europe as well as in the Untied States and elsewhere. In his best known works he applied principles derived from semiology (the study of signs and how they produce meaning) as formulated by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, combined with elements of political activism adopted from the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, and aspects of Sigmund Freud's theory of psychoanalysis.

Biographical Information

Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France, on November 12, 1915, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was killed in a naval battle in World War I when Barthes was very young, and so he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. The family lived in Bayonne and then moved to Paris in 1924. In 1935 Barthes began his studies at the Sorbonne, concentrating on French, Latin, and Greek. A case of tuberculosis that Barthes suffered when he was nineteen left him ineligible to serve in World War II. He taught for a number of years in Bayonne, Paris, Biarritz, and Bucharest, Romania, but a relapse of his tuberculosis in 1941 confined him to a sanitarium for a good part of the next six years. Pronounced cured in 1947, Barthes began to publish the essays he had been writing and which would later be collected in his first book, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero). Between 1952 and 1959 Barthes taught at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, continuing to write and publishing his most famous book, Mythologies (Mythologies) in 1957. Barthes joined the faculty of the École Practique des Hautes Études, serving as its director from 1962 to 1977, when he was elected to the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France. His reputation as France's leading intellectual was confirmed by the subsequent publication of such works as Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), S/Z (1970; S/Z), Le plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text), and Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse). Barthes remained at the Collège de France until his death on March 25, 1980, from injuries sustained when he was hit by a van while crossing the street.

Major Works

Barthes's ideas and his approach to writing evolved over the course of his career, and critics often discuss his works in terms of four stages in his critical thinking. In the first stage of his career, which includes such works as Writing Degree Zero, Michelet (1954; Michelet), and Mythologies, Barthes, influenced by the ideas of Sartre and Karl Marx, demonstrates a strong interest in issues of language, its relationship to historical and social context, and its relationship to power. In these works he developed his notion of écriture, the aspect of discourse in which the author's social and historical context imbues his or her writings with unintended meanings that are revealed in structural analysis. In Mythologies Barthes analyzed aspects of contemporary French culture—for example, advertising, travel guides, and professional wrestling—to explore ways in which they support a bourgeois worldview. The next phase of Barthes's career, which also marked the high point of Structuralism in France, is a rigorously theoretical one and includes his famous 1964 essay “Eléments de sémiologie” (published in English as Elements of Semiology). Encompassing the ideas of Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and other noted linguists, Barthes theorized about the role of language versus that of speech. To Barthes, language is based on an abstract set of rules and conventions regulating verbal and written communication, whereas speech refers to individual instances of how that language is used. The third phase of Barthes's career, influenced by French theorists Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, marks a shift in his thinking from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism in the 1970s. In such works as S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes stresses the idea that literary texts contain multiple and shifting connotations, and are therefore open to a number of possible interpretations. He also distinguishes between “readerly” and “writerly” texts: the former refer to common areas of knowledge and accommodate traditional interpretation, while the latter are more open and invite the reader to fill in gaps and make intertextual connections in the process of reading. The final phase of Barthes's career, which includes his autobiography, Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes), as well as A Lover's Discourse, Le chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida), and Incidents (1987; Incidents), is a more personal one. In these works, Barthes writes about his diverse intellectual interests, from literature to travel, and photography, in a more meditative and introspective style. Having lived with his mother his whole life, Barthes describes his grief after her death in Camera Lucida. In his last writings he also openly reveals his homosexuality, including many details about his personal life in his journals and his essays.

Critical Reception

Barthes's works of the late 1950s and 1960s were frequently criticized by academics and critics for being, in their view, pseudoscientific and laden with jargon. Barthes and his supporters defended themselves on the grounds that their brand of criticism, unlike that practiced at French universities, was more attuned to ideological, social, historical, and psychological nuances. Outside of France, notably in the United States, Barthes's theories were accorded great acclaim and did much to establish Structuralism and Post-Structuralism as respected schools of criticism. As his later works increasingly focused on the pleasurable and the personal, Barthes was attacked by some critics for having abandoned his earlier Marxist and Structuralist principles. Since his death, there have been many reevaluations of his works, as well as scholarship about aspects of his work that were not much explored before 1980. Italo Calvino and Susan Sontag, among many others, have written eulogies for Barthes, praising his unique talent as both an original theorist and a brilliant interpreter of other people's theories. Critics Jane Gallop, Lawrence D. Kritzman, and Dennis Porter have written about the influence of psychological theory on Barthes's writings, with Gallop concentrating on their connection to feminist theory; Kritzman examining the connection between language and power in Barthes's thought; and Porter discussing the psychological ramifications of Barthes's travel writing. Barthes's style has also received new attention, with, for example, John Vignaux Smyth discussing Barthes's handling of irony and his growing tendency to treat his own works as fictional in his late writings. Finally, critics have shown particular interest in Barthes's autobiographical writings, with his biographer, Louis-Jean Calvet, reexamining the twists and turns of Barthes's reputation after his death, and such critics as Ross Chambers and Pierre Saint-Amand exploring the influence of Barthes's homosexuality on his life and works.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Le degré zéro de l'écriture [Writing Degree Zero] (criticism) 1953

Michelet [Michelet] (criticism) 1954

Mythologies [Mythologies] (criticism) 1957

Sur Racine [On Racine] (criticism) 1963

“Eléments de sémiologie” [Elements of Semiology] (essay) 1964

Essais critiques [Critical Essays] (essays) 1964

La Tour Eiffel [*The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies] [with André Martin] (essays) 1964

Critique et vérité [Criticism and Truth] (criticism) 1966

Système de la...

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Paul de Man (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: de Man, Paul. “Roland Barthes and the Limits of Structuralism.” In Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers, edited by E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski, pp. 164-77. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, written in 1972, de Man discusses Barthes's ideas in Mythologies and several other works and notes that Barthes's theory of the impossibility of ultimate signification also calls into question the logic of any type of literary criticism.]

Despite the refinements of modern means of international communication, the relationship between Anglo-American and...

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Jane Gallop (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gallop, Jane. “Feminist Criticism and The Pleasure of the Text.” In Critical Essays on Roland Barthes, edited by Diana Knight, pp. 188-201. New York: G. K. Hall, 2000

[In the following essay, first published in 1986, Gallop explores Barthes's ideas in The Pleasure of the Text as they relate to feminism, focusing on his association of pleasure with woman and leftist politics.]

In 1973 Roland Barthes, the foremost practitioner of structuralist literary criticism, published a book entitled The Pleasure of the Text.1 It is an attempt to elaborate a theory of the text based on the notion of pleasure rather than, say, structure or...

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Stamos Metzidakis (essay date October 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Metzidakis, Stamos. “Barthes's Image.”1Neophilologus 71, no. 4 (October 1987): 489-95.

[In the following essay, Metzidakis traces a change in Barthes's use of the term “image” in his writings, asserting that it corresponds to a change of attitude in his critical thinking.]

Roland Barthes did more to change the way literature is read and taught than perhaps any other French critic of the last thirty years. Having begun his career with the simple desire to write, he passed through successive phases of aesthetic and intellectual evolution during which he was—to borrow his terms—a social mythologist, semiologist, textual critic, and finally,...

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Diana Knight (essay date July 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knight, Diana. “Roland Barthes in Harmony: The Writing of Utopia.” Paragraph 11, no. 2 (July 1988): 127-42.

[In the following essay, Knight discusses Barthes's notion of Utopia as presented in several of his works, stressing that it “is a central—and highly conscious—preoccupation” for him.]

Civilization/Harmony: thus did Charles Fourier, archetypal Utopian socialist, polarize wretched contemporary society and unutterably blissful new world. The binary works well for Barthes's part-political, part-ethical, part-aesthetic analyses of his own society and culture; indeed I wish to explore Utopia as the meeting point of his lifelong concern with...

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Lawrence D. Kritzman (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kritzman, Lawrence D. “The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender.” In Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today, edited by Steven Ungar and Betty McGraw, pp. 99-118. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, first published in 1988, Kritzman examines the relationship between language and desire in Barthes's theory, and traces an evolution in his thinking about the subject, culminating in Camera Lucida.]

In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1964)

In what he writes,...

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Armine Kotin Mortimer (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. Introduction to The Gentlest Law: Roland Barthes's “The Pleasure of the Text,” pp. 1-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

[In the following essay, Mortimer examines various influences on Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text and provides detailed explanations of key terms and concepts to aid in a correct understanding of the text.]

“Roland Barthes has just published The Pleasure of the Text, incontestably one of the great books of the decade.” So wrote Les Nouvelles littéraires in January 1975 (GV [The Grain of the Voice] 198), and it was not an exaggeration. Well beyond the end of that decade, the...

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Louis-Jean Calvet (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Calvet, Louis-Jean. “The ‘After-Death.’” In Roland Barthes: A Biography, translated by Sarah Wykes, pp. 256-67. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in French in 1990, Calvet examines works by Barthes published after his death and summarizes his intellectual and activist legacy.]

After his death, there were dozens of people who claimed that they had been Barthes's best friend, the person who was closest and dearest to him. Dozens of people sent letters of condolence to Michel Salzedo. The fact that there were so many is proof of the pretension of these self-proclaimed friends, some of whom had...

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Dennis Porter (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Porter, Dennis. “Writing the Orient: Barthes.” In Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing, pp. 287-304. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Porter analyzes Barthes's The Empire of Signs, suggesting that in writing the book Barthes consciously tried to go beyond “Orientalism” as a travel writer, and that Japan appealed to him as a “place where knowledge is uncoupled from power.”]

The first part of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques proclaims “The End of Travel.” Yet, in spite of its author's opinions on the subject, it does not announce the end of travel writing....

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Ross Chambers (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chambers, Ross. “Pointless Stories, Storyless Points.” In Loiterature, pp. 250-69. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1994, Chambers comments on Barthes's treatment of his homosexuality in Incidents and Soirées de Paris in the context of postcolonialism and historical consciousness.]

Conversely, a book is conceivable: which would report a thousand “incidents” but would refuse ever to draw a line of meaning from them; it would be, quite specifically, a book of haikus.

—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland...

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John Taylor (essay date 6 October 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, John.“The Art of Shaving Gently.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4827 (6 October 1995): 10-11.

[In the following essay, Taylor presents an overview of Barthes's works, concluding that they remain fascinating objects of study because they reveal his inner turmoil as well as his complex critical thinking.]

Of all the French structuralists and poststructuralists from the 1950s to the present day, Roland Barthes (1915-80) surely remains the most difficult to pin down. He devoted himself to an extraordinary—his critics claim “dilettantish”—variety of subjects, from professional wrestling to semiological theory, from fashion design to photography,...

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Pierre Saint-Amand (essay date fall 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Saint-Amand, Pierre. “Barthes's Laziness.” Yale Journal of Criticism 14, no. 2 (fall 2001): 519-26.

[In the following essay, Saint-Amand discusses the concept of laziness as it applies to Barthes and several of his writings, noting that for Barthes it remained a form of desire that never became a reality.]

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes confesses his passion for dialectic, for binary play: in Barthes's view, this demon of contradiction is the beginning of meaning, of writing as “deporting.”1 In the constellation of dialectical terms that cut across his work, I would like to explore the opposition between work and leisure,...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Brown, Andrew. Roland Barthes: The Figures of Writing. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, 1992, 303 p.

Discusses the structure of Barthes's discourse, treating him as both a writer and a theorist.

Calvino, Italo. “In Memory of Roland Barthes.” In The Uses of Literature, translated by Patrick Creagh, pp. 300-06. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Eulogizes Barthes on the occasion of his recent death, suggesting that his legacy is a scientific critical approach that emphasizes the uniqueness of every object studied.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “On the One Hand. …” In...

(The entire section is 652 words.)