Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’

‘The Death of the Author’ is an influential 1968 essay by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes. But what does Barthes mean by ‘the death of the author’? This important short essay was crucial in the development of poststructuralist literary theory in the 1970s and 1980s, as many English departments, especially in the United States, adopted Barthes’ ideas (along with those of other thinkers such as Jacques Derrida).

Let’s take a closer look at Barthes’ argument in this essay. You can read ‘The Death of the Author’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of it.

‘The Death of the Author’: summary

Barthes begins ‘The Death of the Author’ with an example, taken from the novel Sarrasine by the French novelist Honore de Balzac. Quoting a passage from the novel, Barthes asks us who ‘speaks’ those words: the hero of the novel, or Balzac himself? If it is Balzac, is he speaking personally or on behalf of all humanity?

Barthes’ point is that we cannot know. Writing, he boldly proclaims, is ‘the destruction of every voice’. Far from being a positive or creative force, writing is, in fact, a negative, a void, where we cannot know with any certainty who is speaking or writing.

Indeed, our obsession with ‘the author’ is a curiously modern phenomenon, which can be traced back to the Renaissance in particular, and the development of the idea of ‘the individual’. And much literary criticism, Barthes points out, is still hung up on this idea of the author as an individual who created a particular work, so we speak of how we can detect Baudelaire the man in the novels of Baudelaire the writer. But this search for a definitive origin or source of the literary text is a wild goose chase, as far as Barthes is concerned.

He points out that some writers, such as the nineteenth-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, have sought to remind us, through their works, that it is language which speaks to us, rather than the author. The author should write with a certain impersonality: writing is done by suppressing the author’s personality in order to let the work be written.

Moving away from our traditional idea of ‘the Author’ (Barthes begins to capitalise the word as if to draw a parallel with a higher entity, like God) can help us to see the relationship between writer and text in new ways. In the traditional view, the author is like a parent, who conceives the text rather as a parent conceives a child. The author thus exists before the novel or poem or play, and then creates that literary work.

But in Barthes’ radical new way of viewing the relationship between the two, writer and text are born simultaneously, because whenever we read a literary work we are engaging with the writer here and now, rather than having to go back (to give our own example) four hundred years to consider Shakespeare the Renaissance ‘author’. ‘Shakespeare’, as writer, exists now, in the moment we read his works on the page in the twenty-first century. Writing is a performative act which only exists at the moment we read the words on the page, because that is the only moment in which those words are actually given meaning – and they are given their meaning by us, who interpret them.

Instead, then, we should think of not ‘the Author’ but ‘the scriptor’ (Barthes used the French scripteur in his original essay, a rare French term which means, essentially, ‘copyist’). We shouldn’t view a work of literature as a kind of secular version of a sacred text, where the ‘Author’ is a God who has imbued the text with a single meaning. Instead, the literary text is a place where many previous works of literature ‘blend and clash’, a host of influences and allusions and quotations. Indeed, ‘none of them’, Barthes asserts, is ‘original’. Instead, the text is ‘a tissue of quotations’.

Barthes concludes ‘The Death of the Author’ by arguing that imposing an Author on a text actually limits that text, because we have to view the literary work in relation to the author who wrote it. Its meaning must be traced back to the person who produced it. But writing, for Barthes, doesn’t work like that: it’s a ‘tissue of signs’ which only have meaning when the reader engages with them. The meaning of a text lies ‘not in its origin but in its destination’, and that in order for the reader of the text to exist and have meaning as a term, we must do away with this idea that the author determines the meaning of the text.

‘The Death of the Author’: analysis

‘The Death of the Author’ makes several bold but important claims about the relationship between author and literary text: that works of literature are not original; and that the meaning of a work of literature cannot be determined simply by looking to the author of that work. Instead, we as readers are constantly working to create the meaning of a text.

Writing is ‘the destruction of every voice’ – not the creation of a voice, which is how we tend to think of a creative art such as writing. The literary text is not original, either: indeed, every text is a ‘tissue of quotations’. This may strike us as Barthes overplaying his hand – surely works of literature contain original thoughts, phrases, and ideas, and aren’t literally just a string of quotations from existing works? – but Barthes is interested in language throughout ‘The Death of the Author’, and it’s true that in every work of literature the words the author uses, those raw materials through which meaning is created, are familiar words, and therefore not original: merely put together in a slightly new way. (A notable exception is in the nonsense works of Lewis Carroll, whose ‘Jabberwocky’ does contain a whole host of original words; but part of the fun is that we recognise this poem as the exception, rather than the normal way works of literature generate their meaning.)

‘The Death of the Author’ was a bold and influential statement, but its argument had numerous precursors: his emphasis on impersonality, for instance, had already been made almost half a century earlier by T. S. Eliot, in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, although Eliot still believed in the poet as an important source of the written text. And in the mid-twentieth century, New Criticism, particularly in the United States, argued that the text had meaning in isolation, separate from the author who produced it, and that searching for authorial intention in the work of literature was something of a red herring.

‘The Death of the Author’ makes a compelling argument about the way a work of literature has meaning in relation to its readers rather than its author. We twenty-first-century readers of Dickens are not the same people as the Victorians who read his work when its author was alive, for instance. Words change their meanings over time and take on new resonance.

However, we might counter Barthes’ argument by making a couple of points. The first is perhaps an obvious one: that it needn’t be an ‘either/or’ and that the birth of the reader doesn’t necessarily have to be at the cost of the death of the author. We can read Keats’s poems and try to understand what the young Romantic poet meant by his words, what he was trying to say as the author of the work, while also acknowledging the fact that ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ has new resonances for us, two centuries after it was written.

The second point is that viewing a work of literature as a mere ‘tissue of signs’ threatens to put it on the same level as a bus timetable or a telephone directory. They, too, contain nothing but familiar words, names, and numbers, and are not original. Works of literature may (in the main) draw on familiar words and even familiar phrases, but great works of art put these words and ‘signs’ into new combinations – and there is a virtually infinite number of those – which can create new meanings for us.

So we might view the relationship between author, text, and reader as a tripartite partnership rather than bipartite one: all three elements are important in creating the text’s meaning. If I give a poem to my students and don’t tell them anything about its author, they can analyse the poem’s language and try to determine its meaning; but knowing something about the author and their context may help to reveal new meanings which are important in understanding the text. As soon as we know a poem is by Sylvia Plath, and we can bring the details of her life (and death) to our reading of the poem, its meaning changes. So we do need to bear in mind who wrote a text and how that might be significant in creating its meaning, even if we also need to acknowledge (as Barthes does) that once a text is written and goes out into the world, it is no longer solely the property of the author who wrote it, but its meaning is also generated by those who read it.

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