Roland Barthes’ Analysis of Balzac’s Sarrasine

Barthes’ analysis of Balzac’s Sarassin in S/Z (1970) has led to some major development in poststructuralist theory. Barthes identifies two main types of literature, roughly corresponding to the 19th century realist novel and the twentieth century experimental modernist novel. Traditionally, the realist text, which Barthes calls the “readerly text” was thought to be transparent, with seemingly unitary meaning that is immediately accessible to the reader, consisting of the unique expression of the writer’s individual genius. Thus the reader’s role in a realist text is only that of a passive and inert consumer of the author’s product. On the contrary, the experimental text which Barthes calls the “writerly text” retires the active participation of the reader in the establishment of the text’s meaning. In order to demonstrate the incorrectness of these assumptions, Barthes analysed Balzac’s Sarassine, a prototypical readerly text, bringing to the fore, the text’s totally signifying nature.

In Sarrasine, Bathes identified 561 units of meaning, or lexiasi and classified these units using five “codes”, all working in combination in a narrative. These codes, which are common to all narratives, are the narrative’s modes of organising the units so that meaning is generated.

Thus Sarrasine, the story is an individual item in a larger structure of the system of codes, which according to Barthes, generates all possible actual narratives, just as the grammatical structures of a language generate all possible sentences which can be written or spoken in it.


The five codes identified by Barthes are:

1) Proairetic code  (the code of action), which is the most indicative aspect of a narrative, and refers to the seqence in which the events of a story unfold, which is most often, a temporal sequence. This code governs the reader’s expectation of the narrative.

2) Hermeneutic code which informs the reader’s interpretation, and poses questions which provide narrative suspense.

3) Cultural Code (the reference code), which the narrative assumes that all the readers share, and includes those elements of common knowledge that the readers share as a community and do not require a glossary.

4) Semic code (the code of signifiers) or the connotative code, which like the cultural code, draws upon a common set of stereotypes that are self-descriptive and self-evident. This, like the cultural code, requires explanation to a person from outside the community.

5) Symbolic code, which is similar to the semic code but extends beyond the immediate icon or stereotype to refer to something larger. It consists of contrasts and pairings related to the most basic binary polarities — male/ female, day/night, good/evil and so on. These are the structures of contrasted elements which the structuralists see as fundamental to the human way of perceiving and organizing reality.

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3 replies


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