Roland Barthes Barthes, Roland (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roland Barthes 1915–1980

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

The following entry provides an overview of Barthes's career. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Vol. 24.

One of the seminal figures in the French intellectual movement known as Structuralism, Barthes was a fundamental influence on the practice of modern social and literary criticism. His most widely studied works are those in which he rigorously applied semiologic principles—derived from Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics and influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre's approach to political engagement—to the practice of literary criticism and the analysis of modern cultural artifacts. Barthes's theoretical approach developed and changed over time, however, and his later works largely eschew systematic, scientific investigation for more meditative, belletristic considerations. While some commentators view this evolution negatively as an abandonment of his earlier aspirations toward a scientific theory of narrative and culture, most see it as a refinement of style and perspective.

Biographical Information

Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was killed in a naval battle in World War I, and Barthes was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, first in Bayonne and then in Paris from the age of nine. In 1935 he began his studies at the Sorbonne, focusing on French, Greek, and Latin. A case of tuberculosis that Barthes suffered when he was nineteen left him ineligible for military service during World War II. He taught off and on for a number of years in Bayonne, Paris, Biarritz, and Bucharest, Romania, although a relapse of his TB in 1941 forced him to spend most of the next six years in sanatoriums. After being pronounced cured of tuberculosis in 1947, Barthes began publishing the essays that would later be collected in his first book, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero). From 1952 to 1959, while working as a teaching fellow at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Barthes published the essays that were later compiled in his famous book, Mythologies (1957; Mythologies). In 1960 he joined the faculty at the École Practique des Hautes Études, serving as director of studies from 1962 until 1977 when he was elected to the chair of literary semiology at the Collège de France. From the 1960s on, Barthes's reputation as France's foremost literary theorist, social critic, and essayist was confirmed by 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 Frag-ments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse). Commentators have noted that Barthes came to assume the unofficial position—formerly occupied by Jean-Paul Sartre—of the leading French intellectual and preeminent Western thinker. Barthes remained at the Collège de France until his death in 1980 from injuries suffered during a traffic accident.

Major Works

Critic Bjørnar Olsen has distinguished four stages in Barthes's critical development. He labels Barthes's first three works—Writing Degree Zero, Michelet (1954; Michelet), and Mythologies—his "committed writings" in that they reflect the influence of the two dominant ideological systems of their time, Marxism and Sartrean existentialism. Writing Degree Zero examines the distinctions Barthes perceived between language, literary style, and écriture, the aspect of discourse in which the author's existential situation, or sociohistorical context, imbues writings with unintended meanings that are revealed through close structural analysis. In Michelet he demonstrated the significance of écriture in the writings of French historian Jules Michelet, analyzing linguistic characteristics and textual structure in order to reveal hidden connotations and meanings. Karl Marx's early writings provided a model for Mythologies, in which Barthes studied aspects of contemporary French culture—such as professional wrestling, strip-tease, travel guides, the advertising of soap and laundry detergent—to illuminate the ways in which bourgeois ideology is disseminated and made to seem natural. The second phase of Barthes's career according to Olsen encompasses his most rigorous semiological writings of the 1960s, works that marked the highpoint of Structuralism in France. In his 1964 essay "Eléments de sémiologie," published in English in book form as Elements of Semiology, Barthes elaborated on ideas from Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and other noted linguists to distinguish between language, which refers to the abstract set of rules and conventions governing verbal and written communication, and speech, which refers to individual instances of the actual use of language. In The Fashion System Barthes's method, according to Mason Cooley, was "to study and classify the captions under the photographs in a year's issues of two fashion magazines, examining the theoretical ramifications of such statements as 'Prints win at the races' and 'Slim piping is striking.'" Whereas Elements of Semiology laid out the blueprint for semiological analysis, The Fashion System demonstrated it. The third phase of Barthes's career—in which he popularized concepts formulated by French literary theorists Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva—signalled the general shift in Western critical thinking in the early 1970s from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism. While his previous writings championed the notion that a text's meaning inheres in the structure of its components and is therefore knowable and fixed, works such as S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text examine the ways in which texts present a plurality of shifting connotations that are open to numerous interpretations. S/Z is a painstakingly detailed, line-by-line analysis of the Honoré de Balzac novella Sarrasine in which Barthes detects five "codes"—specific kinds of references, meanings, and connotations—that, through their interplay, offer the reader a multiplicity of meanings. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes categorizes all literary works as either texts of pleasure or texts of bliss. He associates the former with classic literary works and those that emulate them, describing texts of pleasure as "readerly" texts in that they reward traditional forms of interpretation and refer to common areas of knowledge. Texts of bliss he associated with modernist works, describing them as "writerly" texts in that they require the reader to "complete" the text by filling in gaps and making intertextual connections in ways that mainstream literature does not. The final phase of Barthes's career—typified by such works as Roland Barthes, (1975; Roland Barthes), A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, and Le chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida)—is frequently described as his "hedonist" period because his subjects are more purely aesthetic than earlier ones and his style is meditative and introspective. Referring to himself in the third person throughout his autobiography, Roland Barthes, Barthes comments on photographs from his childhood and expounds upon matters of personal intellectual interest, presenting a portrait of his mind rather than of his social, emotional, and professional life. The most popular book Barthes ever wrote, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments was a bestseller in France and served as the basis for a play. The work grew out of a seminar he taught on "amorous discourse" in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Werther) and uses monologues by a semi-autobiographical narrator to attempt to explain the meaning of love in a variety of contexts. In the first section of Camera Lucida, he analyzes news photographs and family snapshots and concludes that photography, though it can touch the emotions, is not an art because its close connection to reality fixes the interplay of connotations and thus leaves little room for interpretation. In the second part Barthes meditates on a photograph of his deceased mother and, writing movingly of his relationship with her, draws a connection between photography and death.

Critical Reception

Being at the forefront of "the new criticism" in France, Barthes's works of the late 1950s through the 1960s were frequently criticized by older, university-based academics and critics for being pseudoscientific and jargon-laden. In two essays later collected in Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays)—"Les deux critiques" ("The Two Criticisms") and "Qu'est-ce que la critique?" ("What Is Criticism?")—Barthes distinguished between the kind of criticism practiced in universities; which he disparaged as boring, naively objective, and excessively reliant on author biographies for causal explanations; and the structuralist, ideologically aware criticism he espoused. The controversy sparked by these two essays came to a head when Barthes published Sur Racine (1963; On Racine). This structuralist and psychoanalytic reading of the French dramatist's works was attacked by noted Racine scholar Raymond Picard in an essay entitled "Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture?" (meaning "New Criticism or New Fraud?"). Picard's main points were that Barthes's brand of criticism was subjective and did not take history into account. Outside of France, Barthes's works were accorded great critical acclaim and did much to establish Structuralism and, subsequently, Post-Structuralism in the United States. As his work began to focus on issues of pleasure and became increasingly autobiographical, Barthes was attacked by some commentators for abandoning his earlier Marxist and Structuralist agendas. However, his work, praised for its uniqueness and instructiveness, is generally regarded as among the most significant contributions to critical theory of the twentieth century, as much for the qualities of individual works as forthe unique and instructive character of the oeuvre. As noted Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson noted, Barthes's work is "a veritable fever-chart of all the significant intellectual and critical tendencies since World War II."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le degré zéro de l'écriture (criticism) 1953
[Writing Degree Zero, 1967]
Michelet (criticism) 1954
[Michelet, 1987]
Mythologies (criticism) 1957
[Mythologies (partial translation), 1972]
Sur Racine (criticism) 1963
[On Racine, 1964]
"Eléments de sémiologie" (essay) 1964
[Elements of Semiology, 1967]
Essais critiques (essays) 1964
[Critical Essays, 1972]
La Tour Eiffel [with André Martin] (essay) 1964
[∗The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies, 1979]
Critique et vérité (criticism)...

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Gérard Genette (essay date 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Genette is a distinguished French literary theorist, critic, and educator best known in the United States for his Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1980), in which he analyzes Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1954; Remembrance of Things Past) and proposes general categories for the study of narration. In the following essay, first translated into English in 1982, he analyzes the approach to semiology Barthes delineated in such early works as Writing Degree Zero, Critical Essays, and Mythologies.]

The work of Roland Barthes is apparently highly varied, both in its object (literature, clothes, cinema, painting, advertising, music, news items,...

(The entire section is 5855 words.)

Edward W. Said (review date 30 July 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Said is a Palestinian-born American critic and educator who has written extensively on culture and politics. In the following review, he offers praise for Mythologies and Critical Essays and examines the principal tenets of Barthes's early writings.]

Roland Barthes is one of the very few literary critics in any language of whom it can be said that he has never written a bad or uninteresting page….

Barthes is neither an academic critic, nor a reviewer, but strictly an occasional writer: he produces writing for prefaces, commemoratives, conferences, events, seminars, commissions from publishers, captions for pictures, descriptions of striking objects. Although...

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Paul de Man (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[De Man was a Belgian-born American literary theorist, critic, and educator. His reputation as a pioneer in establishing the literary theory known as "deconstruction"—promoted in such works as Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971), Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (1979), and The Resistance to Theory (1986)—was tainted by the discovery of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi articles he wrote while working for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium in the early 1940s. In the following essay, posthumously published in 1990, he examines the strengths and weaknesses of Barthes's theoretical positions.]


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Frank Kermode (review date 7 August 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Kermode is an English critic and educator. In the following review, he praises the autobiography Roland Barthes and discusses the many paradoxes that define Barthes's literary career.]

[Roland Barthes] is a sort of serious joke. It first appeared in a series called x par lui-même—for example, Michelet by Himself, to name the volume for which Barthes happens to have been responsible. So to ask a writer to do his own "par lui-même" was part compliment, part gag, and Barthes followed up by reviewing the book himself in the Quinzaine litteraire, under the heading "'Barthes by Barthes' by Barthes." But the joke is serious because there is more to it than literary...

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Geoffrey H. Hartman (essay date 4 February 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hartman is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he discusses Image—Music—Text, A Lover's Discourse, and Barthes's attempt to construct a unique critical style out of "fictional and systematic forms of learning."]

These are still the Banquet Years in France, though not everyone will savor the feast of books and essays produced there since 1945. One might have thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had exhausted a certain vein. Philosophy and literature invaded each other's realm; science mingled with cultural criticism. Yet Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and others are still taking on linguistics,...

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Susan Sontag (essay date 15 May 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sontag is a distinguished American critic, essayist, and novelist. In the following essay, occasioned by Barthes's death, she reviews his life as a writer and singles out A Lover's Discourse: Fragments and Roland Barthes as "his most wonderful books."]

Roland Barthes was sixty-four when he died last week [26 March 1980], but the career was younger than that age suggests, for he was thirty-seven when he published his first book. After the tardy start there were many books, many subjects. One felt that he could generate ideas about anything. Put him in front of a cigar box and he would have one, two, many ideas—a little essay. It was not a question of knowledge (he couldn't have...

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Kaja Silverman (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Silverman is an American critic and educator best known for her books The Subject of Semiotics (1983) and The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (1988). In the following excerpt from the former work, which also includes a chapter-length analysis of S/Z, she examines Barthes's notion of connotation, showing how it evolved from an early formulation in Mythologies to its complex articulation in S/Z.]

Because of the liveliness of his prose, and the sophistication of his textual interpretations, Barthes has probably done more than any other single theoretician to introduce recent semiotics to American readers.


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Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Todorov is an eminent Bulgarian-born French literary theorist, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt from a work first translated in 1987, he discusses the "fictional," or literary, aspects of Barthes's criticism.]

A personal relationship linked me with Roland Barthes while he was alive, and it did not end with his death. I cannot claim even the illusion of impartiality if I am to speak of him. Not only will I be irresistibly tempted to suppress anything in him that does not suit me and to valorize the ways in which he is close to me, but I cannot find in myself the necessary strengths that would allow me to see him as a closed entity capable of being completely circumscribed, an...

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Colin MacCabe (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[MacCabe is an English critic and educator who has written extensively on literary and film theory. In the following excerpt, he examines S/Z, focusing on the five codes Barthes proposed for the study of narrative texts.]

The written trace of a seminar held in the years 1968 and 1969, S/Z is the text which focuses, for me, the strengths and weaknesses of that period in an intellectual form.

It is Barthes's choice of a story to analyse which determines Balzac's place in the title of this paper ["Realism: Balzac and Barthes"] but it would be a mistake to think that Barthes's choice was aleatory. If the immediate occasion for the selection of Balzac's story...

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Peter Fitting (essay date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Fitting examines Mythologies, showing that semiology and a desire to expose ideology inform the essays that comprise the book, and comments on changes in Barthes's thought later in his career.]

In a single day, how many really non-signifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Pennants, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.


To speak of Roland Barthes's...

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Clara Claiborne Park (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Park is an American educator and essayist who has written widely on such diverse topics as English literature and the nature of mental illness, particularly autism. In the following essay, she describes the intellectual milieu in which Barthes was raised and educated—examining the French system of public education and the cultural importance of the French language to the French people—thereby attempting to account for much that appears unique, difficult, or idiosyncratic in not only Barthes's work but most contemporary French critical theory as well. Park concludes by praising Barthes "for his commitment to freedom, to multiplicity, and to delight, for his intelligence, and the generosity of his...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Freedman, Sanford. Roland Barthes: A Bibliographical Reader's Guide. New York: Garland, 1983, 409 p.

Extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.


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

Detailed analysis of Barthes's works that attempts to "chart some of the difficulties inherent in reading Barthes."

Calvino, Italo. "In Memory of Roland Barthes." In his The Uses of Literature: Essays, pp. 300-06. San Diego: Harcourt...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)