PAGE 152: An Application of Roland Barthes' S/Z

What constitutes a text?

In his essay S/Z Roland Barthes intimately analyses the short story Sarrasine by Balzac. What I found particularly fascinating about Barthes’ analysis was that it dealt with such a short text, yet managed to extend, and prolong that analysis to almost absurd lengths. The depth of Barthes’ insight (or folly, if you prefer) led me to question whether an even smaller block of text could be, in itself, considered a ‘readerly text’

Definition: Readerly text; any text that has a definite 'solution'. A text that one can be satisfactorily finished with (see also: Stephen King, Tom Clancy). Opposed to the writerly text, see below for definition).

(or at least a self-contained, analyzable block of text). So, rather than answer the question ‘what constitutes a text?’ theoretically, I’m going to analyze a single page of a larger work in some detail to see whether it is at least comprehensible without reference to a larger textual framework.

The title of this write-up comes from the fact that I chose to analyze page 152 of James Joyce’s Dubliners (for the insightful reason that it fell out of the copy that I happen to own). The purpose of the paper is to discover whether or not such a small fragment of a text (a text which, moreover, I had not read the rest of) can provide a viable and self-contained analysis in the tradition of BarthesS/Z. Rather than simply copy the Barthesian model wholesale, I will utilize some of the general tools that he provided. Most notable (for my purposes) is the idea of the ‘enigma’ as both the driving force behind, and the justification for, the readerly work. (see note)

Note: Barthes notes that: “Sarrasine is free to heed or to reject the unknown man’s warning. This alternative freedom is structural: it marks each term of a sequence that ensures the story’s progress in “rebounds.” No less structurally, however, Sarrasine is not free to reject the Italian’s warning; if he were to heed it and to refrain from pursuing his adventure, there would be no story. In other words, Sarrasine is forced by the discourse to keep his rendezvous with La Zambinella” (S/Z 135). So, in other words, if the character of Sarrasine had discovered or ignored the enigma (of La Zambinella’s identity) the discourse itself would have effectively ‘died’. The text (the readerly text especially) cannot exist without the force of the enigma (Barthes’ ‘hermeneutic code’) propelling the story forward. Thus, when the enigmas are resolved, the action ceases.

One further note is necessary before I begin my analysis. Like Barthes, I have broken the analyzed text up into lexias (units of reading), and, also like Barthes, these units are entirely subjective. I broke the text at points that I thought were individually analyzable, and it seems that the break point is a fundamental determinant of the interpretation of the passage. Some passages if broken down further (or read as larger blocks) could certainly have been read radically differently. I think that this fundamentally arbitrary nature of the lexia allows for a seemingly ‘readerly text’ (such as the rather straight-forwardly linear text which I will analyze) to be analyzed in an almost infinite number of ways, dependant upon the sections chosen and how they interrelate. It is in this way that I think the Barthesian model already blurs the very terms which it attempts to define; the readerly text can (with considerable effort by the reader-as-author) fade into the writerly text.

Definition: Writerly text; a text that is not so easily closed off, one that postpones (infinitely?) a 'solution' (see also: Jean Cocteau, Maurice Blanchot, etc.). Opposed (by Barthes) to the readerly text, see above for definition.

So, with all that being said, here is my arbitrarily chosen group of lexias, and their subsequent analyses:


He was helped to his feet.

The phrase ‘helped to his feet’ indicates (proposes?) to the reader that ‘he’ had fallen in some way, and required assistance. Indirectly, two questions are posed in this sentence:

  • Enigma 1: Who is 'he'?
  • Enigma 2: Why was he ‘helped to his feet’?

These, then, are the first of the enigmas proposed to the reader by the text. (For simplicity’s sake I will contain my analysis to these two: ceasing to analyze when they are ‘resolved’). Just as in Barthes’ S/Z these ‘enigmas’ will be woven into the text like a fibre, and their solution (in the readerly text) brings about the ‘closure’ of the text.

((Separate)) Surprisingly, this metaphor of ‘closure’ applies quite well to the single page I have chosen (which is to say that the crucial enigmas are all resolved within the page itself. I found this somewhat strange: but it seems that the very analysis of a text (as a text) perhaps leads to the text’s constitution as a text. Ha! That sounded pretentious: but it’s not (well at least it isn’t unrealistically pretentious, or uselessly so). What I mean to say is this: in the act of treating a certain something as a text, we inevitably force that certain something into the form of ‘text’ however we may wish to define it. Similarly: what physicists expect the result from a super collider to be, may affect what that result ‘turns out to be’. Nothing terribly exciting here: just the social construction of objects of study, see Bruno Latour for the details… Now I’ll return to my analysis, constructed (painfully) though it may be….

Within this hermeneutic code and its ‘proposal’ of enigmas, there is also the proairetic code, which pertains to the action (the ‘plot?’) of the story itself. The ‘action’ of helping or being helped (which is part of the proairetic code, in Barthes’ terms) in itself advances the story to its readerly (linear) conclusions through the proposal, stalling and solution of the enigmas by and through the actions of the story’s characters.

The act of being helped also immediately sets up our first ‘impression’ of the character that is designated by the ‘he’ of ‘He was helped to his feet’. Though we do not even know the character’s proper name, through his mention by the narrator, we (immediately, eventually) begin to build a view of him based on the accretion of these mentionings. For instance, the notion that ‘he’ is in some way inferior, lacking, or requiring assistance is impressed upon the reader by the action ‘helped’. This accretion affects how this character’s is viewed later on by the reader. (It’s the snowball affect: the snowball (‘he’) slowly collects more and more snow (character traits) through his placement/mention within the various codes…). This code of accretion I will call (oh so creatively) the ‘character code’. ((Break))

((Break: To keep this write-up of a manageable length, I will limit my discussion of the character code to the character denoted in the first lexia as ‘he’. It is obvious that this is an oversimplification of the possibly infinite semiosis that occurs within the page.))

It is because of this action that the reader proposes scenarios and questions what it is about him (‘he’) that requires help. In addition to attributing certain qualities to the character, the action also provides information that moves toward the solution of the enigmas, and enable snares (Barthes’ term) to be placed in the path towards those solutions. For example, we may think (in the context of a murder mystery) that the butler did it because he was written to have had a menacing attitude towards the victim (when in reality the valet done did it). This is precisely a ‘snare’ (a deliberate one) placed by interweaving all three of the codes that I am working with: the enigma (who done it?) the action (a murder) and the character code (the butler’s menacing attitude). Even in such a tiny fragment of a ‘whole’ text (though, as we can see, the notion of ‘text’ is as problematic as ever here) we can begin to see how the codes interweave and interrelate.


The manager said something about a hospital and some of the bystanders gave advice. The battered silk hat was placed on the man’s head.

Here we see the first of a number of restatements of the original two enigmas. The reader is reminded that there are unresolved tensions by the fact that there is still some hullabaloo about the scene of the ‘accident,’ (the subject of the second enigma). The confusion about what to do, the offering of advice, the muttering of the manager and the replacement of the man’s hat (whoever ‘he’ may be: the subject of enigma one) all serve to remind us that there has been an accident, though it is unlikely we would have forgotten (as the sentence immediately preceding it introduced the action). “Why had he been helped to his feet,” is the intended question re-posed and sustained by these further actions. As we shall see, it is through this suspension and elongation of its primary enigmas that the story ‘justifies’ its own existence…((INCision))

((INCision: check me out up here, ascribing the action of justification to a piece of writing. How postmodern of me.))

What I find most interesting in this lexia is the character code and its interaction with the action (proairetic) code. The action of placing a hat on a man’s head does not implicitly contain any distinct character judgment about that man, but within this context (of a man who is the subject of a bustling inquiry, a man who has just been stamped with the characteristic of ‘requiring aid’) it can speak volumes. The condescension in the objective discussion of the man, without his participation (as of a ‘thing’, a non-person) indicates that not only has this man fallen, but that he is in some way inferior. He has possibly damaged his head and is in some sort of stupor, or he is intoxicated, etc. etc… At this point the character code is uncertain of itself, other than to suggest that the man is inferior, or in some way ‘damaged’ comparative to the onlookers. The character code relates both to the action code (through the actions of the crowd) and the enigmatic (hermeneutic) code (through its own confusion about what specific trait to add to the character. That is, it asks us the subject of the sub-enigma: what is it about this guy that is ‘wrong’?)


The constable asked - Where do you live?

Again, the suspension of the enigma through its repetition. The question of the man’s identity and his past (the relation to his being ‘helped to his feet’) is not only left unanswered, it is posed, reposed and inscribed throughout the text. By asking, ‘where do you live,’ the reader is reminded both of the first enigma (who is ‘he’) and the second (what happened to him) by indirect reference. In fact, every reference to the character ‘he’ is a contribution to the hermeneutic code, because the reader immediately re-questions the ‘value’ of this character. ((Mark))

((Mark: Value? The character’s value consists in his constructed identity within the text itself, which means that even in this very questioning of the character’s value, the reader is creating that value. His value becomes the questioning, as well as the result of this questioning. His character is qualified as an enigma (albeit temporarily in this case).

The action code here is that of questioning, of asking. In this instance, it reminds us of the subject’s (‘he’) position. We so far know that he has been recently injured, or in some way requires aid, he is being questioned, and the enigmas surrounding him are trying to be solved by the crowd around him. The other characters (the manager, the bystanders and constable) are all manifestations (interior to the text) of the will-to-solution that the reader of the readerly text is supposed to exhibit. These characters are vehicles of suspense through which the story passes en route to its final solution (and a final solution the truly readerly text must have…). In effect, these characters, this supposed will-to-solve, are the knives with which the text itself is murdered

All these metaphors of violence and closure…

Without this will, these interior actions, the story would never come to closure; it would endlessly signify. It would, in effect, become a writerly text.

The question-as-action has important effects for the reader’s interpretation of the character code (once again we see how intimately intertwined the three codes are). In two contradictory ways, the act of the question places the constable and the character ‘he’ in context (of dominator/dominated). First of all, the signifier ‘constable’ is (often, and even generally) related to the signified ‘authority’ (though, in the case of a self-deprecating constable, this connection may seem less evident, it is a prevalent relation in the Western World…). The relation of constable-authority leads the reader to see the situation in terms of the constable’s domination over ‘he’. The act of questioning, in this view, becomes an act of domination, an act of extortion. But the exactly opposite viewpoint is equally signified by the action of questioning. If one sees the questioning as an act that hopes to gain knowledge for the questioner, then the relationship between the constable and the subject (‘he’) is entirely reversed! The subject possesses information that the constable lacks and, thus, there is an important economic difference between the two. This puts ‘he’ in the position of dominance over the constable. Both of these interpretations potentially contribute to the accretion of traits for the character ‘he’. Equally important is the relationship between these two opposing viewpoints; when taken into account, the reader begins to attribute not only the characteristics of dominator and dominated, but also that of fluctuation (of characteristics). This character may not be simply one thing or the other, he may, in fact, be both at once, or one at one time, and the other at a different time. In this way even the individual ‘thread’ of a particular character code is woven of smaller individual strands that connect and intertwine.


The man, without answering, began to twirl the ends of his moustache. He made light of his accident. It was nothing, he said: only a little accident. He spoke very thickly.

Here we see the first ‘intentional’ delay of the enigma (one which is obvious on the ‘surface’ level of the text). The character ‘he’ refuses to answer the question of the constable and instead twirls his moustache and makes light of his accident. The text here has both a concealing and a revealing force.((empty))

((empty: murder, force, closure: metaphors of violence? Aren’t they just words?)) It conceals insofar as the character conspires (with the interests of the ‘life’ of the narrative itself) to prolong the enigmas by refusing their solution; a solution, moreover, which he (seemingly obviously) knows. It is revelatory insofar as there is mention of his accident, though he makes light of it (in an attempt to conceal further information). This is a revelation because for the first time the text states that there was in fact an accident. This is a partial solution to the second enigma. This partial solution, however, only serves to heighten the suspense accruing towards the final> solution. It is similar to the ‘exhilaration’ (to radically exaggerate the mundane…) one experiences as one gets closer and closer to completing a jigsaw puzzle. To continue the (dis?)analogy: the readerly text, much like the jigsaw puzzle, ‘dies’ from lack of interest once it is ‘solved’.

The combined actions of twirling ones moustache, refusal to answer a question, speaking thickly, and making light of an accident all conspire to signify one thing to the reader: avoidance. There is a delay that takes place here, one that interacts both with the hermeneutic code and the character code.

The actions taking place here paint a much more obvious picture of our character than has been suggested in previous lexias. We learn some actual ‘physical’ (in the sense that literary description is physical in the interior of the text) details about him. He speaks thickly and has a moustache. Though I speak only from my own personal experience (specifically: my experience of Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I.) I think these traits indicate a sort of swarthy commonness. Or, in lieu of his ‘accident’, a state of drunkenness that would coincide with the locale indicated by the crowd of lexia 2. Here again, there is a double indication of character provided by the same action. His avoidance in answering the question can be construed in two completely opposite ways. First we can see this as defiant resistance against a supposed authority (that of the constable). Second, it can be seen as a fearful backlash at the consequences of dealing with an authority. So, again, this contradictory thread is brought together in the same character. He represents (really within the story he doesn’t represent anything, but things ‘represent’ him) both sides of a binary opposition.

((the limits of my analysis))


- Where do you live? Repeated the constable. The man said they were to get a cab for him. While the point was being debated a tall agile gentlemen of fair complexion, wearing a long yellow ulster, came from the far end of the bar.

In this lexia we see the continuance of the enigmas (in a second refusal to answer the constable’s question). But we also see the attempted avoidance of the enigma by the action of demanding a cab. The cab, as a symbol (a taxonomy of ‘symbol’ is not something I’m going to get into just here) of transportation, and of motion, also becomes a symbol of escape. The man will escape the questioning and avoid the enigma through the action of requesting a cab. The enigma of his identity is also prolonged by the simple narrative description of him as ‘the man’ and not ‘the rowdy and drunken Italian’ or some other more descriptive turn of phrase. The debate over his decision to call a cab also indicates a delay or avoidance of the enigma. Rather than solve or refuse to solve the enigma, its solution is postponed.

The characterization of this man is becoming clearer and clearer (on the ‘readerly’ level). He has evidently become both jocular and stubborn after his accident, which was, almost certainly at this point, caused by drunkenness. His request for a cab, based on this ever-greater characterization, sounds to the reader more like a drunken demand. The reaction of debate over the point only serves to heighten this interpretation. And, continuing the sub-code of dominated/dominator, we can see this demand either as fear of questioning or indignant refusal to be subjected to questioning.

In the following lexias, the codes that surface are markedly similar to those already mentioned, and rather than repeatrepeatrepeat> myself (any further) I will only briefly touch on them, excepting when there is a partial or full solution proposed to one of the enigmas, or an important addition to the character code.


Seeing the spectacle he called out: - Hallo, Tom, old man! What’s the trouble?

Hermeneutically, this is a key passage. It reveals the solution to the first enigma. The man, ‘he’, is ‘Tom’. He has been identified. ((CONNOTE))

((CONNOTE: I will take the revelation of a ‘name’ as a sufficient criterion for identity in this obviously already over-simplified case. Though I will at least pose the questions: What constitutes identity? Is the ‘problem’ of identity ever really ‘solved’? Isn’t the identity enigma one that can very well explode any seemingly ‘readerly’ text…?))

Now of the original two enigmas (and, indeed, there could have been others enumerated if this were a project of larger scope) only the second requires a full solution: why had Tom required help? This enigma is re-posed in the most obvious (surface-level) form yet: the newcomer, who apparently knows Tom (the source of another possible enigma: how does he know him?) asks what the trouble with him is (i.e.: what is the source of your accident). We are also reminded of the accident (and, hence, the question of its origins) by the word ‘spectacle’.


- Sha, ‘s nothing, said the man. The new-comer surveyed the deplorable figure before him and then returned to the constable saying: It’s all right, constable. I’ll see him home.

This lexia serves the character code more than any other. The signifier 'deplorable' combined with Tom’s speech and the newcomer’s insistence of seeing him home serve to nearly solidify the reader’s picture of Tom as a drunkard. He is 'a deplorable figure,' someone in disrepair, as if he is often better than his current state would indicate. There is both a deprecatory and an affirmative instance of the character ode here. The ‘partial’ deplorability of an alcoholic is insinuated (that is, he is only ‘deplorable’ some of the time, or else the newcomer would not so eagerly offer to take the man home); this characterization also provides information contributing to the solution of the remaining enigma.

In the back of the reader’s mind is the notion that Tom is drunk. If we connect the signifiers ‘drunk’ and ‘accident’ we undoubtedly arrive at… ‘drunken accident’. So the reader has come to the conclusion that Tom’s accident was at least caused by his drunkenness. All that remains of the enigma now is the form the accident took. Did he fall and knock his head against the bar, was he found unconscious in the bathroom, did he foolhardily attack a fellow bar patron? The solution to this final facet of the second enigma will constitute the end and ‘death’ of the text, of the narrative and most importantly, of the interest the reader has in the character (if we accept the simplified account that only contains two enigmas…).


The constable touched his helmet and answered: All right, Mr. Power! - Come now, Tom, said Mr Power, taking his friend by the arm. No bones broken. What? Can you walk? The young man in the cycling-suit took the man by the other arm and the crowd divided. - How did you get yourself into this mess? Asked Mr Power.

Even while the enigma is dismissed (by the constable, formerly a fine purveyor of enigmatic curiosities, which further illustrates my point that the characters of the story are fickle vessels which, once their ‘cargo’ has been delivered, fade into the background) is reinforced, by the newcomer, Mr power. The enigma is further sustained through repeated mention of the accident and the deliberate interior restatement of the enigma by a character (“How did you get yourself into this mess?”)

The character code has important implications here. We see that the character of the constable (who has, for simplicity’s sake, been characterized mainly as a figure of ‘authority’) defers to the newcomer, Mr Power. Subsequent to this deferral, it is mentioned that Mr Power is a friend of Tom’s. Thus, we begin to connect the deference of the constable towards Power with Tom himself. The relation between Tom and the constable has been characterized as a fluctuating one where the titles dominator/dominated simultaneously shift between the two characters (preventing a firm solution). But if the action of the story shows us that the constable is deferential toward Mr Power (and indirectly toward Tom) this fluctuating relation cannot remain tenable. There is a readerly necessity for the elimination of the constable from the action once he has ‘deferred’ and confirmed that he is dominated, and not the dominator. The confirmation of his position eliminates his role both hermeneutically and as a contributor to the character code of Tom. Thus, he is ‘written out’ of the text.


- The gentlemen fell down the stairs, said the young man - I’ ‘ery ‘uch o’liged to you, sir, said the injured man. Not at all. ‘an’t we have a little…? - Not now. Not now. The three men left the bar and the crowd sifted through the doors into the laneway. The manager brought the constable to the stairs to inspect the scene of the accident. They ((page break))

Here we finally achieve a complete solution to the second enigma. Why was Tom helped to his feet? Because he was drunk (which we are reminded of by his slurred speech and his request, no doubt for alcohol) and fell down the stairs of a bar (as revealed by the necessarily uninvolved character of the cyclist). After this disclosure, the action must cease. Without the sustenance of an enigma, the text cannot exist because the readerly text exists only insofar as there is a question of suspense remaining.

Following this, we see the necessity of the action of ‘leaving’. The men (and the reader) are in full comprehension of the two proposed enigmas; there is no longer any readerly reason for them to remain. Leaving becomes both a signifier of, and the literal exhibition of the closure of the text: its death.

Thus, through a detailed analysis of even a single page, we can see that if can, indeed, fulfill the criterion of a ‘readerly’ text. It can be seen as a self-contained system that proposes an enigma and solves it within itself. Though the analysis may have been rather simplistic, I believe there can be no question that a readerly text is limited to what I generally referred to as a ‘work’ (a novel, a play, a short story, etc.). Rather, a fragment of any unity can be analyzed (and fragmented further: as in my choice of lexias) and made to be seen as its own hermeneutic unity.

Another consequence, which I believe is important to address in light of the above analysis, is the quite realistic possibility that any readerly text can blend/fade into what Barthes pictures as the writerly text. Throughout my analysis (of a perfectly ‘straightforward’ text) I found there were far more enigmas than could possibly be addressed in a short analysis. Admittedly this is not ‘proof’ of any kind that the readerly and the writerly are not distinct categories. But I do believe that even the most mundane of texts can be analyzed and fragmented in such a way that the ‘closure’ of the text is not an absolute limit, but the limit of the analyst themselves. A good example of this is Jacques Derrida’s book “Cinders” which is a full length examination of a single sentence.


Roland Barthes, S/Z, translated by Richard Howard (Farrar Straus and Giroux Inc., New York, 1999).
James Joyce, Dubliners (The Viking Press, New York, 1961) p152.