Study Guide

Roland Barthes Influences

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Sarrasine (1830) by Honoré de Balzac 

Usually when a critic writes about a novel or novella, they have to choose what to quote. Not me. I quote Sarrasine in its entirety, in order, and break it up with my analysis. In S/Z (1970), I systematically categorize every word of Balzac's novella, so we can see its underlying structure and purpose. Yeah, I'm a little neurotic.

Sorrows of Youth Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I'm at my most experimental in A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1977). On one page I'll quote some favorite passages about weepy lovers in Goethe or Plato, and on the next, I'll brood over the nature of love. I started this project because I was teaching a seminar on Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Youth Werther. I looked at some of those key moments in the novel, like Werther falling in love at first sight with Charlotte, or Charlotte ordering Werther to stop visiting so often. It's like getting at the deep structures behind romance.

Elle, French fashion mags, 1960s

I turn a critical eye on fashion magazines in The Fashion System (1967). The more you think about clothing, the stranger it gets: who actually wears out their clothes before buying new ones? And yet, we feel the need to buy ever so many pairs of jeans and shoes. The fashion industry veils the fact that we don't actually need so many clothes. They just invent all sorts of ideas about clothes to sell us more and more. My goal with this one was to show that systems of signs are everywhere—not just in texts. Advertising and fashion have their own languages that need to be decoded, too.

Flaubert (writing from 1837-1880)

Whenever critics write about writing style, Gustave Flaubert comes up. No biggie. But I wanted to reveal the work behind Flaubert's artful prose. Flaubert endured "unspeakable suffering" ("Flaubert and the Sentence"). And it wasn't just hard for Flaubert to produce a novel, it was hard for him to produce every single sentence—each sentence is a tiny unit of the whole story and the whole style. But no pressure, Gustave.

Jean Racine (writing from 1664 to 1691) 

Some of my early and controversial work was on the super canonical Racine. I dissected Racine's plays to get at the elements that make a tragedy a tragedy. Like how tragic plots use blackmail and doubles, or how the characters end up exactly opposite to where they started. Not everyone agreed with my fresh readings (see: "the Picard affair" under Disputes).

André Gide (publishing from 1891-1950)

Before I came along, many critics accused Gide of contradicting himself. But I gave a fresh reading: Gide isn't a contradictory writer, but a "simultaneous being" ("On Gide and His Journal")—he's two things at the same time. So Gide is full of paradoxes; he's always young and always old, always passionate and always wise.

The Erasers (1954) by Alain Robbe-Grillet

When this novel came out, critics were majorly opposed. It was written in a different way from the old style—it was seemingly simple, but open to lots of different interpretations. In my essay "Objective Literature," I took up Robbe-Grillet's cause. Robbe-Grillet's style of writing is the new solution for literature: a style that's all about surface and the visible, but that lets readers figure things out for themselves. Because hiding one single answer beneath textual depths is so over.

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