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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717

Roland Barthes’s approach to Balzac’s novella is based on several important theoretical assumptions about the nature of literature derived from the study of linguistics. What the structuralist attempts to do, says Barthes, is decompose an object (a literary work, a film, or any other cultural creation) and then reconstruct the object in such a way as to make clear the rules by which the object functions— that is, the very means that make it possible for the object to be a cultural object and communicate itself as such. For Barthes, although an artwork may seem to copy something outside itself (for example, the novel Huckleberry Finn may seem to copy or “be about” the adventures of a young boy in mid-nineteenth century America); it is not the nature of the copied object that makes the work an artwork, although that is a prejudice of a realistic approach to literature. Instead, what makes Mark Twain’s novel a novel is the technique that differentiates it from the hypothetical “real world” that it seems to imitate.

What the structuralist activity succeeds in creating, says Barthes, regardless of whether it is engaged in by an artist or by a critic, is a simulacrum or similitude of an object or an experience which differs from the original object in that the simulacrum makes clear or lays bare the means by which the original object is perceived; that is, its functions or structure. The structuralist activity thus makes the object intelligible or meaningful.

This approach is based on the basic assumption of modern linguistics and semiotics (the study of signs and sign systems) that the meaning of anything which can be communicated is determined not by its essence but by differences within a patterned structure; what makes the object meaningful is its position within the pattern, that is, its difference from, or boundaries between, other objects. There is no essential connection between the sound a person makes when he says “zipper” in English (what structuralists call the “signifier”) and the mental concept he has when he utters or hears that sound (what structuralists call the “signified”); there is only an arbitrary connection which speakers of English have agreed upon. The sound “zipper” refers to a fastener, while the sound “sipper” refers to one who drinks slowly only because of the difference between the s and the z, that is, that the s is a voiceless dental sound and the z a voiced dental sound.

Moreover, structuralists such as Barthes argue that in trying to understand a story such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, one cannot understand the narrative as it exists as a similitude of actual events. Such events which take place in time, as they seem to do in everyday life, are, after all, merely “one damn thing after another”; in order to render these events intelligible, one must decompose them, break down their sequence into units, and then recompose them according to some principle other than simply that they take place in time. One must break up the temporal flow of the events which follow the principle of combination (what structuralists call the “syntagmatic”) into sets of events that follow the principle of similarity of function (what structuralists term the “paradigmatic”). This is what Barthes does in S/Z. By using the five codes, he decomposes the “one-damn-thing-after-another” temporal flow of the story into lexias (that is, separate bits of information) based on their derivation from the five paradigmatic codes; then he “reads” the story in terms of the relationship between the paradigmatic codes, not in terms of the syntagmatic narrative flow.

Finally, Barthes makes a distinction between two kinds of narrative works to make his purpose in S/Z clear. One is typified by the so-called realistic works of the nineteenth century, works such as Sarrasine, in which the primary emphasis is to direct attention to its so-called referent, that is, what it seems to be about. These works Barthes calls lisible, or “readerly.” The connection between the signifier and the signified in such works is so firmly grounded in the reader’s “realistic” notion of reality that he does not make a distinction between them. He assumes that when one is talking about the work (which is after all a map of some assumed real “territory”), one is indeed talking about the territory itself. On the other hand, there are works which Barthes calls scriptible, or “writerly.” In these works, the reader is not led to forget the work as a work or map and to leap immediately into what the work seems to be about, but rather to focus on the means by which the work makes the reader think it is “about” something outside itself. In “writerly” works, the reader is made to focus on the “literariness” of the work itself, that is, its existence as a map made up of differences rather than reality made up of some hypothetical essential actuality.

In effect, what Barthes does by analyzing a “readerly” work such as Sarrasine is to demonstrate that even the most “realistic” work is actually not realistic at all, but rather drawn from artistic and cultural conventions and codes which in fact constitute their very being as artworks. Although the title S/Z refers to the initial letters of the two primary characters in the novella, the sculptor-protagonist, named Sarrasine, and the object of his desire, the beautiful opera singer Zambinella, it could just as easily refer to the basic example of “difference” he uses in his essay “The Structuralist Activity” (1963); that is, the voiced and voiceless difference between the sounds [s] and [z]. For it is indeed difference, and particularly a difference that is not easily perceived as difference, which motivates the narrative. The basic premise of the plot is that Sarrasine falls in love with Zambinella ignorant of the fact that she is not really a woman at all, but rather a castrato, a castrated man who Italian custom dictated had to play the soprano part in opera.

Although Barthes is indeed interested in the thematic implications of this potboiler plot, for in many digressions he discusses the issue of masculinity and femininity and the complexity of one parading as the other, he is interested in using the work as an excuse for practicing his sophisticated “structuralist activity,” the most important aspect of which is the creation of the five master codes. In order to understand how important Barthes’s notion of codes is, one must realize that for the structuralists the very stuff which makes up literature is not raw “life,” for that in itself cannot be communicated, but rather the literary and cultural conventions which make the creation and communication of meaning possible. For Barthes, the text of a work is actually a meshing of many previous, already-written texts; thus, when we speak of texts, we are really speaking of intertextuality. Every lexia in Sarrasine owes its existence to one or more of the five codes Barthes determines; the lexias, or coded elements, are fragments, he says, of that which has already been read, seen, done, experienced, or written.

The hermeneutic code (from a Greek word which designates the art of interpretation) includes the lexias which either formulate a question or pose a response to a question. Because stories always progress as a series of questions and answers (the basis of suspense), the hermeneutic code is the primary code of storytelling itself. For example, a question such as “Is he her husband?” belongs to the hermeneutic code because it poses a question which the story moves toward answering. The proairetic code, from a Greek word referring to the ability to determine the result of an action, is simply the code of sequence; it determines the syntagmatic flow of the narrative as being one thing following another in sequence. For example, in the opening sentence of Sarrasine, “I was deep in one of those daydreams,” the act of “being absorbed” is an example of an event determined by the proairetic, or action, code. The notion of being in a daydream, however, makes this opening lexia also part of what Barthes calls the symbolic code, because it sets up a tension between two states—“day” and “dream”—an antithesis which is so frequently repeated throughout the story that it takes on thematic significance.

The final two codes Barthes describes are culturally bound. The semic code encompasses culturally stereotyped characteristics which readers attach to particular proper names, thus making them take on the role of fictional characters. The referential code is the most clear-cut cultural code, because it embodies the knowledge, wisdom, or values of the culture from which the work derives. For example, a sentence that refers to the long and laborious time it takes to become a sculptor partakes of a referential, or cultural, code of art which suggests a difficult apprenticeship, whereas Sarrasine’s distracting himself in church by whittling on a pew is part of a semic code of Sarrasine’s impiety which makes him a transgressor in the eyes of the reader.

Throughout S/Z, as Barthes divides the story into lexias and places each within the code that makes it meaningful and gives it communicative power, he also pauses to digress on those aspects of the lexia which deserve further generalization and commentary. These ninety-three digressions constitute some of the most salient points and theoretical implications of Barthes’s study. It is within these digressions that he makes clear the logic that underlies his use of codes, the text’s inevitable intertextuality, the distinction between a “readerly” and a “writerly” text, the means by which narrative creates character, the means by which the text creates thematic meaning—in short, the very means by which any text becomes a text, a narrative that paradoxically can communicate in a purely temporal way that which exceeds temporality. The many mysterious means by which meaningless action is transformed into meaningful discourse are the subjects of these theoretical mini-essays. Taken altogether—the concept of dividing the work up into lexia, the attributing of each meaningful unit to a preexistent artistic or cultural code, and the many theoretical ideas which derive from this process—all this makes Barthes’s S/Z one of the most important critical documents in twentieth century literary studies.

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Critical Context