S/Z Critical Context - Essay

Roland Barthes

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Most critics and commentators agree that S/Z is Roland Barthes’s masterwork, a summa, or compendium of his views, a model of practical structuralist analysis. The work has even been called one of the most celebrated masterworks of contemporary criticism. Barthes’s method has been much imitated since the publication of S/Z, and the ideas which Barthes generated in the many “digressions” in the work have proved fruitful for subsequent critics. Much of what is now called “narratology,” that is, the theoretical study of narrative structure, derives from S/Z.

The book falls into a tradition of critical analyses which use individual works from which to derive theoretical knowledge about the nature of narrative. Although the tradition is as old as Aristotle’s study of tragedy in the Poetics, the most immediate predecessor within the twentieth century formalist tradition is Vladimir Propp’s Morfologiya skazki (1928; Morphology of the Folktale, 1958). Other, more recent, works within this tradition are Claude Levi-Strauss’ structural study of myth in 1955 and Tzvetan Todorov’s study of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron in 1969.

In terms of Roland Barthes’s own life’s work, many critics believe that S/Z not only constitutes a high-water mark in his career but also signals Barthes’s impending shift from structuralism to poststructuralism, for in the work he moves beyond structuralism’s concern with discovering “deep structures” of unity and totality toward the purposeful fragmentation and undermining of such an effort which is typical of modern “deconstruction.” Regardless of whether readers see S/Z as the high point of structuralism or the harbinger of deconstruction, no one interested in modern literary theory can afford to ignore it. When structuralism as a methodology and deconstruction as a point of view pass away from current literary criticism to be replaced by yet another critical perspective, S/Z will still remain for the valuable insights it provides readers into the nature of narrative.