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Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) is something of a cultural icon. His books and quotes have appeared in the scenes of well-known films like Birdman (2015) and The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996). Roland Barthes was a French intellectual most famous for his work in literary theory. His areas of interest were broad, but centred on specific issues in semiology (the study of signs) and related to structuralism and post-structuralism (which we'll talk about below).

A 1957 collection of essays called Mythologies contains his most famous contribution to literary theory, including one idea which sparked interest in the development of reader-response theory. The contribution was an essay entitled 'The Death of the Author'. This essay criticised accepted ways of understanding the relationship between the reader and the author. Before exploring Barthes' theories and influence, let's look at his life.

Roland Barthes life

Barthes was born in Normandy, France. He studied at the Sorbonne, the famous Paris university where many intellectuals have studied over hundreds of years. Classical Literature was the focus of his studies. However, despite his success as an academic, he often had bouts of illness which severely affected his work. After university, his focus turned to lexicology (the study of words) and sociology (the study of societies). He taught at several institutions across Europe.

In the 1960s, Barthes delved into the area of semiology.

Semiology is the study of signs and symbols, which had been pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

Barthes developed several original theories of textual analysis. He was deeply critical of bourgeois society and is considered to be a Marxist critic.

Marxist criticism is a way of interpreting texts which draws on Marxist theories about class oppression and the struggle for self-determination experienced by the working class.

In his early days as a burgeoning intellectual, Barthes was drawn to Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and his existentialist theories, which prompted an early book entitled Writing Degree Zero (1953). See the end of this article for a list of significant works by Barthes.

Barthes died in 1980 after being run over by a laundry van.

Roland Barthes theory

Barthes argued that the way certain realities are portrayed by certain levels of society (the middle classes, for example) was an act of deception. Let's break that theory down.

Roland Barthes semiotics

When Barthes and other semiologists use the word signs they mean any indicator of meaning.

That could be a traffic light (red means stop etc), a word on a page (a linguistic sign, so that the word cat means a particular kind of mammal), or something like a status symbol (a cool car, for example, which may convey a social meaning for the owner: I'm rich, I'm cool, I'm fast etc).

So signs can be visual, linguistic, or take other forms, such as clothing, mannerisms, and music. A sign's meaning can depend on the context in which it is found.

For Barthes, there are two types of sign, and therefore two types of 'sign system': the denotative sign system and the connotative sign system.

A denotative sign is a direct reference to the 'signified' (this is the thing the sign refers to). Denotation is descriptive. For example, the word 'hat' describes an item you put on your head.

A connotative sign is an indirect sign. A hat can connote authority in some situations. It is no longer just an item of clothing, but a symbol of power or some other role. For example, a policeman's hat or a head chef's tall white toque.

Roland Barthes Mythologies

After developing his ideas in the collection of essays called Mythologies and a book called The Fashion System, Barthes turned to language and text as the objects of his study. His first venture, one which sprang naturally from his work in semiology, was structuralism.

Structuralism was a popular school of thought in the early to mid-twentieth centuries. It believed that individual units of meaning (words, for example) should be understood as parts of a larger system or 'structure'.

Barthes' contribution to this idea lay in literary theory, where he developed an approach for identifying 'levels of language' in a text: the functions, the actions, and the narrative.

Barthes was interested in the relationship between these levels, and how they worked together to create semantic unity.

The word semantic means meaning.

Semantic unity means that there is an agreement among the meaningful parts of a sentence.

Roland Barthes 'The Death of the Author'

Barthes' most famous essay is called 'The Death of the Author' (1967).

In this ground-breaking short piece, Barthes lays out his theory of authorial intent. He theorised, along post-structuralist lines, that language's fluid and dependent nature meant that a text (a novel or a poem) could never be fully explained or understood as the product of an author. What the author meant to say in the novel or poem is not truly accessible.

He raised questions about the reliability of the author, of the author's known or imagined 'intent' when writing, and criticised the very idea that it is necessary to know and explain what a novel is 'really about'. As he had done in his work on bourgeois myths, he claimed that any search for ultimate meaning in texts was another myth.

Roland Barthes S/Z

In his famous book, S/Z (1975), Barthes develops a theory known as a 'readerly' reading of a text. This means that the reader's experience of and interaction with a text generates its meaning. Barthes said that a novel or poem would have multiple 'meanings' because each reader would approach the text differently, from their own perspective and background. Texts, Barthes contended, have an openness rather than a closedness of interpretation.

Barthes also developed what is known as the five semantic codes. These codes are designed to help readers and critics analyse and understand texts. These are:

  • The Hermeneutic or enigma code. This is when a mystery in a text needs to be solved.
  • The Proairetic or action code. This relates to action, normally action which needs to be interpreted.
  • The Semantic code. This means 'meaning'. There is something in the text which has a specific, or many, meanings.
  • The Symbolic code. This is when one thing in a text stands for another thing.
  • Referential code. This is when something in a text refers to something outside the text itself.

Roland Barthes's books and essays

Barthes was a prolific writer. During the course of a highly successful academic career, and despite long-term health issues, he wrote numerous books and essays. Some of the most well-known of these are collected here.

  • Writing Degree Zero (1968)
  • Elements of Semiology (1968)
  • Mythologies (1972)
  • The Pleasure of the Text (1975)
  • S/Z: An Essay (1975)
  • Image—Music—Text (1977)
  • Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981)

Roland Barthes remains a significant intellectual influence today and is much-cited in both popular and academic culture. The evolution of his work, from Writing Degree Zero to S/Z: An Essay, has secured for him a place among the most notable intellectuals of his generation.

Roland Barthes quotes

These are some quotes about language and meaning by Roland Barthes.

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” Roland Barthes

..language is never innocent.” Roland Barthes

…the book creates meaning, the meaning creates life.” Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

...what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. Which has nothing to do with the deep laceration the text of bliss inflicts upon language itself, and not upon the simple temporality of its reading.” Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

Roland Barthes - Key takeaways

  • Barthes was born in Normandy, France and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.
  • Barthes was deeply critical of bourgeois society and is considered a Marxist critic.
  • Barthes is best known for his 'semiotic theory'.
  • Barthes started as an existentialist and worked within the field of literary theory influenced by Structuralism.
  • Barthes died in 1980 after being run over by a laundry van.

Frequently Asked Questions about Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes is known for his theory of the Death of the Author. 

Some of Barthes' ideas influenced postmodern thought.  

Some of his work can be considered structuralist. 

Barthes wrote numerous books about modern culture. 

He said that the meaning of a sign depends on the context in which it is found. 

Final Roland Barthes Quiz


Who was Roland Barthes?

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A French intellectual and literary theorist. 

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What were his main ideas?

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Barthes is best-known for his ‘semiotic theory’, his idea about myth, and his contributions to structuralism and post-structuralism.

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What was his most famous essay called?

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The Death of the Author

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What were Barthes' most well known and influential books?

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Writing Degree Zero (1968)

Elements of Semiology (1968)

Mythologies (1972)

The Pleasure of the Text (1975)

S/Z: An Essay (1975)

Image—Music—Text (1977)

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981)

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Where was Barthes born?

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Barthes was born in Normandy, France

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Which famous university did Barthes work at?

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Le Sorbonne, in Paris

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How and when did Barthes die?

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He died in 1980 after being run over by a laundry van.

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What is a denotative sign?

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A denotative sign is a direct reference to the ‘signified’ (this is the thing is refers to). 

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What is a connotative sign?

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A connotative sign is an indirect, allusional one (it alludes to something)

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Which existentialist thinker influenced Barthes?

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Jean-Paul Sartre

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