Form and Content

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By 1970, when S/Z first appeared, Roland Barthes had already established his reputation in France as the most influential formulator and advocate of the philosophical approach to literature, film, myth, and other cultural artifacts known as structuralism. Yet, in spite of the publication of several theoretical pieces by Barthes, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and others, which explored the implications of structuralism and its usefulness for understanding myth and popular culture, the approach still lacked a full-scale practical application of its methods to a literary work. It is this deficiency that Barthes sought to remedy with S/Z, his tour de force study of a single fictional work.

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Although structuralism seems to work best when used to approach either highly formalistic myths and folktales or twentieth century avant-garde works, Barthes chose for his exercise in practical structuralist criticism a little-known novella by the great nineteenth century French realist Honore de Balzac titled Sarrasine (1831). Whereas Balzac’s novella is only about twelve thousand words long, Barthes’s discussion of the work is approximately seven times that length. Although S/Z is an exercise in detailed close reading somewhat reminiscent of the poetry explications of the American formalist critics of the 1940’s and 1950’s, because of structuralism’s divergence from formalism’s focus on poetic unity and thematic integrity, it is quite distinct from that approach.

Instead of attempting to show the organic unity of the work, the intrinsic relationship between the content and style, and ultimately the central theme, as a formalist critic might, Barthes instead wishes to show that the work is pluralistic rather than unified, inconclusive rather than thematically solid, and self-reflexive rather than mimetically referential. In keeping with this atypical and iconoclastic purpose, Barthes’s method is similarly unique.

First of all, Barthes breaks up or decomposes the novella into 561 units of meaning; some of these units, which Barthes calls “lexias,” are sentence-length, some are merely phrases, and some are groups of sentences. He then examines each lexia separately and consecutively throughout the book in a sort of sentence-by-sentence annotation. The commentary on each lexia is not, however, based on the formalist assumption of the relationship of technique to theme, but rather on the structuralist assumption that a literary work communicates by participating in, or drawing from, various conventional literary and cultural codes. Thus, each commentary identifies each lexia in terms of the code or codes on which it depends.

Barthes defines five codes which inform the work: the proairetic, which governs the way the plot of the story is organized; the hermeneutic, which governs the presentation of puzzles and their solutions; the semic, which determines the way characteristics are attributed to personalities and thus create character; the symbolic, which enables the reader to move from details in the text to thematic meanings; and the referential code, which provides a cultural matrix of values from which the story draws.

In addition to this division of the work into code-bound lexias, Barthes provides ninety-three brief digressions, most of them a page or so in length, in which he comments on the theoretical and practical implications, for literature in general or narrative in particular, of the code-determined lexia which he has just discussed. Many critics believe that it is the methodology of analyzing the work in terms of codes and the digressions, miniature essays on theoretical matters, that constitutes Barthes’s major contribution in S/Z. It is not the interpretation of Balzac’s novella that constitutes the work’s importance, for it is not an interpretation of the story that Barthes is seeking, but rather an exemplum of the means by which narratives communicate—not what Sarrasine means, but rather how Sarrasine, and therefore narrative in general, means. Balzac’s novella, reconstituted in its original form, although with each lexia numbered, is included at the end of the book in an appendix, along with an index of the lexias identified.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58

Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes, 1983.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, 1975.

Hawkes, Terrence. Structuralism and Semiotics, 1977.

Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading, 1980.

Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, 1983.

Scholes, Robert E. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction, 1974.

Sturrock, John, ed. Structuralism and Since: From Levi-Strauss to Derrida, 1979.

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