Authors: Roland Barthes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French literary critic

Author Works


Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, 1953 (Writing Degree Zero, 1967)

Michelet par lui-même, 1954 (Michelet, 1986)

Mythologies, 1957 (English translation, 1972)

Sur Racine, 1963 (On Racine, 1964)

Essais critiques, 1964 (Critical Essays, 1972)

La Tour Eiffel, 1964 (The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies, 1979)

Éléments de sémiologie, 1964 (Elements of Semiology, 1967)

Critique et vérité, 1966 (Criticism and Truth, 1987)

Système de la mode, 1967 (The Fashion System, 1983)

S/Z, 1970 (English translation, 1974)

L’Empire des signes, 1970 (Empire of Signs, 1982)

Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971 (English translation, 1976)

Nouveaux essais critiques, 1972 (New Critical Essays, 1980)

Le Plaisir du texte, 1973 (The Pleasure of the Text, 1975)

Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975 (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1977)

Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977 (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1978)

Image-Music-Text, 1977

Sollers écrivain, 1979

La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie, 1980 (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1981)

Le Grain de la voix: Entretiens, 1962-1980, 1981 (The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980, 1985)

A Roland Barthes Reader, 1982

L’Obvie et l’obtus, 1982 (The Responsibility of Forms, 1985)

Le Bruissement de la langue, 1984 (The Rustle of Language, 1986)

The Semiotic Challenge, 1988


Roland Barthes (bahrt) was one of the leading proponents of the new French criticism and one of the founders of structuralism. He was born in Cherbourg, France, in 1915 to the solid bourgeois family of Louis and Henriette Barthes. Louis Barthes, a naval officer, was killed in 1916, and in 1924 young Roland moved to Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that he lived most of his life and received his education. In 1939, he received a license in classical letters from the Sorbonne, and between recurring bouts of tuberculosis he taught in and around Paris while continuing his education. During the convalescence from his second attack of tuberculosis, Barthes was first published, and he began a distinguished career as a teacher, researcher, critic, and writer.{$I[AN]9810001325}{$I[A]Barthes, Roland}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Barthes, Roland}{$I[tim]1915;Barthes, Roland}

One result of Barthes’s years of convalescence was that he had the time to read widely and to decide that he was more aligned to Marxist ideology than to the bourgeois ideology in which he had been reared. With this willingness to embrace leftist ideas came a willingness to question and explore many of the commonplaces of his world. It was in this frame of mind that he was introduced to modern linguistics while teaching in Alexandria, Egypt, and this introduction gave Barthes a tool with which to explore his world.

Barthes was able to acquire several scholarships after his return to France in the early 1950’s. The first provided funds for him to study lexicology and the second supported his sociological study of fashion. Neither project was immediately successful, but both helped produce several of Barthes’s important early works: Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, and, eventually, The Fashion System.

Barthes was a prolific writer during the period from 1950 to 1965. He worked on projects ranging from studies of contemporary culture to essays on literary subjects. Although he published widely, including such pivotal works as the essays collected in Critical Essays, it was not until after the publication of his book On Racine in 1963 that Barthes became a leading figure on the French intellectual scene.

In 1965, Sorbonne professor Raymond Picard attacked Barthes’s approach in On Racine and set in motion a heated debate out of which Barthes wrote Criticism and Truth. Because of this controversy, Barthes made a name for himself in the international intellectual community. In Criticism and Truth, Barthes concerns himself with the justification and further explanation of the structuralist agenda.

It was under the banner of structuralism, with its pretensions to a “scientific” study of literature and its emphasis on structural linguistics as the model for the human sciences, that Barthes first became known in the United States. Ironically, by the time Barthes’s structuralist works were widely available in English translation, he had already abandoned the structuralist program.

The new direction of Barthes’s work was adumbrated in S/Z, which some critics regard as his masterpiece. S/Z is a line-by-line reading of Sarrasine (1831), an obscure novella by Honoré de Balzac. On the surface, it is a structuralist work par excellence– formidably systematic, with each fragment of the text assigned to one or more of five narrative “codes.” In reality, however, Barthes’s study is an orgy of close reading, a virtuoso performance in which a gifted reader abandons himself to the pleasure of the text. The elaborate codes (which lesser readers have sought to employ, with disastrous results) are merely a pretext.

In subsequent works, Barthes largely dropped any pretense to systematizing or “scientific” criticism. He wrote prolifically throughout the 1970’s, producing such brilliant, idiosyncratic books as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, a critical study of himself, and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. He continued to work at that pace until his death in 1980 after being struck by a laundry van while crossing a street.

It is impossible to overestimate Roland Barthes’s influence on contemporary literary studies. In the decade following his death, several collections of essays and miscellaneous works were published, further suggesting the range and diversity of his interests. In his lifetime, he was known as a literary theorist. Insofar as his works endure, he will be read not as a theorist but as a protean writer who sought to create new genres or hybrids of old ones, a writer who repeatedly left his would-be disciples expounding doctrines which he had discarded.

BibliographyCalvet, Louis Jean. Roland Barthes: A Biography. Translated by Sarah Wykes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. This comprehensive account of Barthes’s life frequently provides connections between Barthes’s biography and his literary production. Includes numerous photographs, a bibliography, and an index.Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes. Bridgewater, N.J.: Replica Books, 2001. A lively and accessible introduction to Barthes, the man and the critic. Contains clear, direct, and insightful discussions.Freedman, Sanford, and Carole Anne Taylor. Roland Barthes: A Bibliographical Reader’s Guide. New York: Garland, 1983. An extensive Barthes bibliography.Knight, Diana. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. Knight thoroughly examines Barthes’s work, thereby placing his work into larger political and theoretical contexts.Knight, Diana, ed. Critical Essays on Roland Barthes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 2000. A volume in the series Critical Essays on World Literature.Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A detailed study of Barthes’s literary criticism. Lavers discusses not only Barthes’s thought but also critics who influenced and were influenced by him. Scholarly.Moriarty, Michael. Roland Barthes. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. A lucid introduction to Barthes’s writings, usefully equipped with definitions, illustrations, and relevant contextual background for the benefit of new readers of his work. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies and a brief “Biographical Appendix.”Payne, Michael. Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Barthes’s principal works are introduced and carefully examined. Payne also devotes a section to the study of Barthes’s important work S/Z.Sontag, Susan. “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes.” In A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982. Sontag provides a sympathetic and revealing introduction to Barthes’s thought and an excellent selection of Barthes’s writing. Students who wish to read Barthes might begin here.Stafford, Andy. Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Stafford examines the influences on Barthes’s work and how that work was received.Wasserman, George. Roland Barthes. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A brief biographical section is followed by a critical overview of Barthes’s works. Includes a bibliography, a chronology, and an index.
Categories: Authors