Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Honore de Balzac wrote Sarrasine in 1831, near the beginning of his literary career. When he finally put the novels and short stories in The Human Comedy into specific categories, he included Sarrasine in his “Scenes of Parisian Life.” Like other works in this series, Sarrasine is rich with details that evoke a particular time and place. A critic, however, should not stress too much the distinctively Parisian elements in Sarrasine, for this novella, with profound psychological insight, explores universal emotions.

Sarrasine was rescued from obscurity by the critic Roland Barthes, who devoted an entire book, S/Z (1970; English translation, 1974), to Balzac’s novella. In S/Z , Barthes analyzes Balzac’s text minutely, dividing the novella into 561 sections ranging in length from a single word to a dozen lines or more. Barthes undertook this project during the heyday of structuralism, with its aspirations to infuse literary studies with the rigor of the sciences, and S/Z bristles with talk of narrative “codes.” As a brilliantly sustained act of reading, however, S/Z transcends critical dogma. Indeed, few works of literature in any language have enjoyed the loving attention which Barthes lavishes on Sarrasine; thanks to S/Z, Balzac’s novella remains in circulation.