An Analysis of Barthes Essay in 1977

Barthes essay in 1977 claimed that authorial interpretation was insignificant in finding meaning from any literary text, and the role of the reader was thus more important in interpreting a meaning. This brings up questions surrounding how much authorial intent is the foremost and only meaning a text can have, and then how much knowledge do we need of an author in order to interpret this intent, or whether readers differing meanings should be focused on and if these interpretations are any more or less valid than one which the author has intended.

This essay will explore the idea of the author and the reader in literary texts, and also the problematic issue of language as a flawed medium which hangs over this authorial concern.

In “What Is An Author”, Foucault claims that the author has a function of a description, serving as a way of classifying texts; ‘a name can group together a number of texts and thus differentiate them from others’ (Foucault 235).

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This considers the author to repeatedly use a type of manner and discourse within their work which classifies it apart from other texts. Foucault surmises in his essay that a text has value attributed to it because of its association with the author (Foucault 243). Such a belief in the value of the author in texts within literary criticism also attributes the meaning to be found in a text to the author, which seems to imply that the author has a presence in their text. Even if the author has an intended meaning within the text which is to be valued as the only valid interpretation, the question then arises about how critics are to determine what this intention is.

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Wimsatt and Beardsley argue in ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it works’ (Wimsatt & Beardsley 91). A successful poem then should directly show the intention as internal evidence. If external evidence is needed, then the poem has failed. The external evidence is private and not part of the text’s words, therefore internal evidence is given a priority in discovering meaning. The author, therefore is not important in judging a poem as it is not the author who owns it, ‘it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend or control it’ (Wimsatt & Beardsley 92), instead the public own it and decipher a meaning from it.

There is also the question over whether if we could ask the author the intention in their work that they would necessarily be the best person to talk about the meaning. If we were to ask the meaning, the reply would also be text of some sort, which would also need interpreting to establish a meaning from, and even once we have established their intention, this may not be as valued as any other interpretation which readers could determine (Bennett & Royle 20).

Barthes essay, however, argues that the author is dead, being spoken through by language and merely an arranger of pre-existing words or ideas and not the organiser of them, therefore concluding that the author is absent from the text, leaving meaning open to interpretation for the reader. However, it could be seen that the author is a ghostly figure in their work, never being able to fully disassociate the author from the text, in some part because the common sense position of the author sees them as owners of their work, an outlook which is institutionalised through laws such as copyright, but the author has less of a central commanding role within the text due to readers interpretations also being valued in contemporary criticism (Bennett & Royle 21-22).

E. D Hirsch, an ‘intentionalist’, argues that determining what a text means is a moral duty to the author, where we wrong them if we misconstrue their intended meaning. However, Hirsch does acknowledge that everyone reads literature from their own viewpoint and will respond to it through their own circumstances, each response being equally valid and claiming their own degree of truth. Hirsch notes that, for example, a Marxist and a Feminist critic can understand a text and decipher a meaning, but the difference between the two is the significance that they give to the meanings within the text. What Hirsch claims is that there are ways in which we can discern meanings which are more valid and more in tune with what the author might have intended. By this he means historical or social concerns which would give broad outlines to a valid meaning with if not certainty, then confidence of the probability of it being close to authorial intention (Hirsch 36-49).

The development of reader-criticism was seen as a response to criticism which dismissed the impact of the author or the context in which the literary work was produced and instead focused solely on the text on the page. This emerging criticism thought that a text and its meanings could not be detached from the function of the reader, believing that the meaning of a text is made due to the practice of reading (Bennett & Royle 11-12), Within this reader-criticism, the reader can form many roles: the reader being a theoretical construct able to interpret a text; the reader taking on the role of reading according to their ‘identity theme’ (Bennett 2) or as a community working to interpret according to skills used by one particular member of this community; or the reader as a member of a minority whose response is determined by a resistance produced by their ‘ethnic, sexual or social difference’ (Bennett 3). There are therefore issues of reading from different perspectives, for example, how a man reads might differ to a woman’s reading of the same text, allowing for gendered responses. Post-structuralists debate over the issue of what came first, the reader or the text. A deconstructive reading of a text would seek to investigate the area between these two options, emphasising the ways in which texts can be read, highlighting contradictions and disunity within a text, using this as a means of exploring the whole text (Bennett & Royle 16).

Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal is useful in looking at the ideas of the author and reader in determining meaning within a text. There is a certain tone of unease throughout the pamphlet, Swift himself stating that the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it’, (Swift 102) and this it would appear he succeeds in, with discussion in A Modest Proposal about recipes for eating babies. It is possible for the meaning of the text to be misconstrued as some readers without knowledge of Swift, could consider the content of the text to be taken at face value, therefore thinking that the author really does advocate eating babies to prevent poor children being a burden on their parents. With knowledge of Swift however, we know that he devoted his time to writing satires about politics and religion and readers can acknowledge that there are certain devices in the text which Swift often uses in his satires. Although, even without this knowledge, there are certain points within the text where we sense that some internal decipherment is needed, for example:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a very young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted or baked, or boiled: and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout (Swift 2475)

This passage should guarantee that we know that the speaker is not rational or serious. There is also a sense that there are two speakers in the text, Swift as the author does have some presence, but there is also a narrator here, and this can be perceived in places throughout the text, so we should be aware that this text is actually bearing an ethical and political argument by means of a satire. As Robert Phiddian states, the two voices in the text are ‘as mutually antagonistic patterns of absence and presence, they appear under erasure, with the sense of voiced authority flickering back and forth between the two poles’ (Phiddian 614). Swift’s voice does emerge intermittently throughout the text, for example, we can sense in the passage quoted that it is Swift making the recipe suggestions, although his input is never enough to represent his authority in the text fully, however it is through these excessive interjections that Swift allows us to make sense of the ironies of the piece (Phiddian 614 – 615). A Modest Proposal shows how the author’s presence in a text can be ghost-like, hidden behind a narrator and allowing their readers to decipher their intentions.

There is an issue which hangs over this though: the question over whether language is ever neutral. There is always a danger in writing literature that language can control the author, therefore there is a very likely possibility that their meaning can be misunderstood. Language then, can be seen to be a flawed medium, Plato said,

“Writing is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind and what in reality can only be in the mind. Writing is simply a thing, something to be manipulated, something inhuman, artificial, a manufactured product.” (Plato)

Language shows a mediated reality which possesses certain ideological values, which readers can make sense of due to their own cultural, historical and social circumstances.

Structuralists believe that words are arbitrary, whereby meanings for words are preserved only by convention and there is no bond between the word and what it signifies. Therefore, it can be said that meanings that we attribute to words could change over time, history and culture, so what one culture understands, another will find a different meaning for. This implies then that author’s intention is not stable as circumstances differing to theirs can change the meaning of their work. This structuralist approach also sees language as relational, where no word can be defined without being associated with words which are related to their role and meaning so that they can swapped for one of these words. There is also the belief that a word can be defined in relation to it’s opposite, for example, a man can be defined as not a woman (Barry 39-42). Post-structuralists judge the universe as uncertain, where any complex language situation has a widespread anxiety over it where we cannot be sure that we are expressing ourselves in the way that we want to be expressed, worried that our meanings might be misunderstood. This implies that we are not in control of our language. So where structuralists take a more scientific approach to language where it is a methodical structure, poststructuralists insist that language is in control of us and therefore meanings can never be fully guaranteed. Barthes essay ‘The death of the author’ is a post-structuralist account where he emphasises the liberty of the text, therefore dismissing that it can have one singular meaning. This approach argues that while there may be differing interpretations of texts, not one can be seen as valid and authoritative. Post-structuralists are often associated with deconstructive readings of texts, this approach exposes unconscious meanings within the text, dismissing the conscious meanings at face value within the text (Barry 61-73). Barry’s book Beginning Theory gives the example of the word ‘guest’ to highlight the issue of language as flawed. ‘Guest’ is similar to ‘host’, which if taken to mean its original Latin meaning ‘hostis implies a foe. Therefore, ‘guest’ can be seen as having a double meaning, and the idea of it meaning ‘hostility’ is the unconscious meaning of the word which a deconstructive reading would reproduce (Barry 71).

We can see this multiple meanings of words in play in Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness where the meaning of the title is fluid, Conrad leaving it to the reader to decipher a possible meaning. We could interpret it as the inhumanity of colonisers, the greed of Kurtz, the journey of Marlow into Africa as a figurative ‘heart of darkness’, or a metaphorical journey for Marlow into his own ‘heart of darkness’ (Conrad 1958)

Eliot’s poem “The Love Song” of J. Alfred Prufrock plays with our expectations of meaning. The title, for example, assumes reader knowledge of a love song, however, these expectations are played with simply by using as bland and unromantic a name as J. Alfred Prufrock, so already the meaning is distorted. The meaning throughout the poem is also indirect, and we are given a hint that this will be the case with the epigraph which is in Italian. This immediately means that unless we have knowledge of the Italian language we will not be able to decipher the meaning of the epigraph which sets the tone for the rest of the poem where the meaning will be meandering, or external, therefore making it difficult for us to release a meaning from the work without going outside of it. The poem also questions language and its ability to be misrepresented. The speaker often refers to a question which he has to ask, and due to the title of the poem, we assume that this will be something to do with love. However certain devices are used by the speaker to defer asking this question, for example, we are told of him meandering through streets, hoping to lengthen time. There is some clue as to why he is putting off asking this question, for example, there is repetition of the word ‘formulated’ which implies language and definition, although this is coupled with references to the idea that there is no definite meaning for language. There are, for example, suspension marks between some stanzas, which denotes the formal breakdown of language. The speaker also directly refers to his fear of being misunderstood:

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

‘That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all (Eliot 2366)

This idea of misrepresentation can also be seen in the poem where the decipherment of images is not straightforward, there are several mentions in the poem of famous figures, which could work to contrast with Prufrock and highlight his unexciting character, or could serve to put the poem into the context of a love poem with love themes. With the movement of the speaker to a social setting, there is a reference to Michelangelo. Through knowledge of the artist, we know that his work represented saints and god-like figures, which contrasts with the dull figure of Prufrock who is emphasised as being anything but heroic, but we could also see this as Michelangelo who wrote love poems. The mention of John the Baptist, with knowledge of this character would produce the image of a prophet or martyr, again placing Prufrock in a relationship to figures of esteemed repute. There is also an implication with John the Baptist though of love, after all he was killed as a result of King Herod’s lusting after his step-daughter. Finally, Prufrock also notes the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Danish Prince who emerges as a tragic hero. Prufrock could be likened to Hamlet as they are both indecisive characters, although tragedy is too heroic a model for Prufrock to go by as he is possibly too unassuming, and has therefore been likened to the more self-effacing advisor to Hamlet. There is however, another way to look at this reference to Hamlet, as Shakespeare’s story is also that of a love affair between Hamlet and Ophelia.

Eliot’s poem shows an example then, of how different meanings can be taken from literary work depending on reader’s backgrounds and prior knowledge, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is problematic in terms of deciphering an internal meaning, as the allusions used require knowledge which the poem does not provide us with. The poem also represents the issue of language as a flawed medium, and how it is difficult to overcome this to get meaning across.

In terms then of how much the ‘death of the author’ implies the ‘birth of the reader’, there are obvious differing opinions within critical spheres, the most persuasive being that the author has merely a ghost-like presence in their work, where there is authorial intention to uncover, but with different readers deciphering a common sense meaning for themselves and their own values, the author’s intended meaning is only one of many and can not always be given validity as the foremost meaning to understand. This then means that the ideas of individual readers can be given validity as well, with Marxist, feminist or gendered readings for example, however the author can never fully be dismissed, mostly due to the institutionalisation of the author as owner of their work. The issue hanging over all of this then is that of language as a flawed medium, where simple choice of language in literary work could be diverge from the author’s original intention due to cultural, historical or social misunderstanding. The question this raises is then whether author’s overcome this problematic nature of language to make their meaning clear within their work.



  1. Barry, Peter, Beginning Theory. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.
  2. Barthes, Roland, ‘The death of the author.’ Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana (1977): 142-148.
  3. Bennett, Andrew, Readers and Reading. London & New York: Longman Group Ltd. 1995.
  4. Bennett, Andrew, Reading Reading – Essays on the Theory and Practice of Reading Tampere: Tampere University Offsett. 1993.
  5. Bennett & Royle, Literature, Criticism and Theory. London: Pearson Education Ltd. 2004.
  6. Conrad, Joseph, ‘Heart Of Darkness’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume II Ed. M. H. Abrams, New York & London: W. W Norton & Company Ltd. (2000) 1957-2017.
  7. Eliot, T. S, ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’, The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume II, Ed. M. H. Abrams, New York & London: W. W Norton & Company Ltd. (2000) 2364-2367.
  8. Foucault, Michael, ‘What Is An Author’, Authorship: From Plato to postmodern: A Reader, Ed. Sean Burke, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, (1995) 233-246.
  9. Hirsch, E. D, The Aims Of Interpretation, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.
  10. Phiddian, Robert, ‘Have you Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal’, Studies In English Literature 1500-1900, Vol.36, Iss.3 (1996), 603-802.
  11. Swift, Jonathon, ‘A Modest Proposal’, The Norton Anthology Of English Literature Volume 1 Ed. M. H. Abrams, New York & London: W. W Norton & Company Ltd. (2000) 2364-2367.
  12. Wimatt Jr. W. K. & Beardsley, Monroe C. ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Authorship: From Plato to postmodern: A Reader, Ed. Sean Burke, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, (1995) 90-100.

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An Analysis of Barthes Essay in 1977. (2021, Oct 09). Retrieved from

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