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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

S/Z, published in 1970, is Roland Barthes's structuralist analysis of Sarrasine, the short story by Honoré de Balzac. Barthes methodically moves through the text of the story, denoting where and how different codes of meaning function. Barthes's study has had a major impact on literary criticism, and is historically located at the crossroads of structuralism and post-structuralism. Barthes's analysis is influenced by the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure; both Barthes and Saussure aim to explore and demystify the link between a sign and its meaning. Barthes seeks to establish the overall system out of which all individual narratives are created, using specific "codes" that thematically, semiotically, and otherwise make a literary text "work". By pointing out how these codes function subconsciously in the mind of the reader, Barthes flags the way in which the reader is an active producer of the text, rather than a passive consumer.



Barthes defines five major codes that form a network of meaning (a “topos”) in the text; this network, in turn, provides a framework for analyzing not only Sarraisine, but all texts. As Barthes guides the reader through the entirety of Balzac’s text, he systematically notes and explains the usage of each of these codes as they occur. The hermeneutic code (HER) denotes the series of questions or enigmas that move the plot forward; it sets up delays and obstacles that maintain suspense. The semic (SEM) code designates a special kind of signifier that marks the development of a theme through the lexia (the language of the text that creates the possibility for its symbolic interpretation) of a story. The symbolic (SYM) code identifies details in the story that are interpreted on a figurative level. The proairetic (ACT) code indicates the actions and behaviors that constitute the plot. The cultural (REF) code references types of knowledge that offer scientific or moral authority. Neither the number nor the type of codes that Barthes applies in his analysis of Sarrasine are meant to be seen as prescriptive for all texts. A different reader might define different codes; those chosen and described by Barthes are merely one reader’s reading. Any reader’s interpretations of a text can change an infinite number of times and every reader may have a different interpretation. That said, Barthes defines the five codes with which he analyzes Sarrasine quite precisely.

Hermeneutic Code

The hermeneutic code is associated with enigma. Elements of the text that contribute to the hermeneutic codes are the devices which put forth, define, and then slowly reveal or solve a mystery. When Barthes identifies an element of this variety in the text he marks it HER. He then numbers the enigma and describes the place in the movement toward disclosure (whether the lexia presents, complicates or solves the enigma it presents), and then a description of the enigma in question. The process of revealing truth by solving enigmas is further broken down in chapter XXXVII: The Hermeneutic Sentence. Barthes suggests that “‘well-made’” sentences work similarly and can be seen as a microcosm of the hermeneutic code: the sentence is “the proposition of truth” . . . [which] contains a subject (theme of the enigma), a statement of the question (formulation of the enigma), its question mark (proposal of the enigma), various subordinate and interpolated clauses and catalyses (delays in the answer), all of which precede the ultimate predicate (disclosure).” (84) Because the hermeneutic code involves a move from from a question to an answer it is one of the five codes which Barthes calls “irreversible.” Once a secret is revealed, it cannot be unrevealed—the moment of cognition is permanent for the reader.

Semic Code

The semic code is primarily metonymic. Barthes says that “the seme is the unit of the signifier.” (17) This code focuses upon the pieces of data the text provides in order to suggest abstract concepts. For example, the mention of “party,” “Faubourg,” and “mansion” are all semes for the abstract concept “Wealth.” The semic code allows the text to “show” instead of “tell” by describing material things in order to suggest immaterial ones.

Proairetic Code

The proairetic code is closely related to the text’s narrative structure. The basis of the proairetic is the dependency of the lexias upon both sequence and content to impart meaning. Barthes says that “setting up a sequence of actions is to name it.” (261) This notion is connected with Barthes notion of the “readerly” text. The action or plot of the novel is created by the reader who assimilates distinct pieces of information in a prescribed order. The reader groups these pieces of data by turning them into events. Even acts of introspection are classified by the reader in terms of the occurrence of movements or activities. Thus, the proairetic code pictures the text as a location with spatial and temporal dimensions through which the reader moves.

Symbolic Code

The symbolic code is the most interpretable. It exists to explain the complexities of an element of the text. One of the most important entrance points into the symbolic is the antithetical because concepts suggest their opposites. But the symbolic code does not merely break the code into binaries; instead it eradicates the boundary between opposites creating a “disturbance in classification.” (215) This transgression creates an “unrestrained metonymy” (216) within the text. An unrestrained metonymy is, however, nearly equivalent to a nonexistent one because it “abolishes the power of legal substitution on which meaning is based.” (216) That is to say, the symbolic code is the point where multiple meanings can be read into the same lexia, so that the text produces no definitive meaning

Cultural Code

The cultural code is, perhaps, the most straightforward of the five. It is constituted by the points at which the text refers to common bodies of knowledge. By referencing easily-identified traditions could be scholarly, historical, mythological or stereotypical.


The five codes together constitute a way of interpreting the text which suggests that textuality is interpretive; that the codes are not superimposed upon the text, but, rather, approximate something that is intrinsic to the text. The analogy Barthes uses to clarify the relationship of codes to text is to the relationship between a performance and the commentary that can be heard off-stage. In the “stereographic space” created by the codes, each code becomes associated with a voice. To the proairetic code Barthes assigns the Voice of Empirics; to the semic the Voice of the Person; to the cultural the Voice of Science; to the hermeneutic the Voice of Truth; and to the symbolic the Voice of Symbol.


Barthes endeavors to set up a primary structure of character relations in Sarrasine along the lines of gender. However, he subsequently defines the characters not in relation to biological gender, but rather along what he calls the “axis of castration.” The initial categorization of the characters in phallic terms (the men who are the phallus, the women who have the phallus, and the ambiguous group of the androgynous and the castrated) gives way to the division he later constructs between the castrated and castrating, the passive and active. Furthermore, Barthes’s structuralist analysis exposes the fact that Balzac’s text has multiple signifiers that do not refer to one fixed signified. For example, Barthes is fascinated by the nuance of the double entendre, which most clearly fractures the traditional conception of signification: this play on words proffers two distinct and incompatible meanings that must be entertained simultaneously by the reader. The title S/Z refers to the clash between the ‘S’ of ‘Sarrasine,’ the male protagonist of the work, and the ‘Z’ of ‘La Zambinella,’ the castrato with whom Sarrasine falls in love. Sarrasine is an artist who, functioning under the assumption that all beauty is feminine, regards La Zambinella as the epitome of beauty, and therefore as the paradigm of femininity. Sarrasine’s Pygmalion-like sculpted image of the “female” La Zambinella accordingly represents the “complete woman.” This “masterpiece,” however, is highly problematic given its original starting point as a male body—and its refashioning into a female one through the psychological projections and artistic expertise of a man. What ultimately grounds the text is the fundamental destabilization caused by La Zambinella’s anatomy, which is perceived by Sarrasine as masterpiece, origin, and referent: in La Zambinella, therefore, lies Sarrasine’s own potential for castration.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "S/Z" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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