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Roland Barthes might not be a household name, but he helped shape how we talk about literature to this day. Get up close and personal with this famous French literary figure in this lesson, where you’ll also get a peek at some of his work.

A Significant Life: A Brief Biography of Roland Barthes

If you’re a fan of The Da Vinci Code, you’re probably quite familiar with Robert Langdon, a world-class scholar in the fictional field of ‘symbology,’ which is supposed to represent the study of ancient symbols and ciphers. While Langdon’s clever deductions and action-packed adventures might make for a good read, he couldn’t hold a candle to Roland Barthes – a highly influential French intellectual and giant in the real field of semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols and their interpretation.

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Roland Barthes (1915-1980), influential French intellectual and literary theorist and critic
Photo of Roland Barthes

Early Life

Roland G;rard Barthes was born November 12, 1915 in Cherbourg, France.

His father died soon after Roland was born, so he and his mother moved closer to family in Bayonne. However, times were still tough for the little family, particularly when Roland’s grandparents refused to continue supporting them after his mother had a second child illegitimately. Despite these difficult straights, though, young Roland was still able to get an education from the Lycées Montagne and Louis-le-Grand between the years of 1924 and 1934.

Studies and Sickness

Barthes went on to continue his studies, but they were frequently interrupted by his bouts of poor health – particularly his fight with tuberculosis, which landed him in the sanatorium (institutionalized quarantine) twice. No stranger to adversity, though, Barthes powered through and completed two degrees at the Sorbonne (University of Paris): one in Classical letters (1939) and one in grammar and philology (1943).In spite of continuing health concerns, Roland remained active, even using his time in quarantine to keep up on reading and writing. For most of the decade following his final degree, Barthes also secured teaching jobs at a number of different schools – from primary schools in his old home of Bayonne and Paris to institutions of higher learning in Romania (French Institute, Bucharest) and Egypt (University of Alexandria).

Life of an Intellectual

Barthes’ first major scholarly appointment came in 1952 when he was awarded a research position at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. This seven-year position would prove to be the real blossoming of Barthes’ intellectual career. Just a year after his appointment there, he published his first book: Writing Degree Zero, which first revealed Roland’s fascination with how people (arbitrarily) assign and construct meaning through language, which he considered just a complex system of symbols.As Barthes’ reputation as an intellectual grew, it wasn’t always in a favorable light.

Though growing numbers of scholars and writers were beginning to agree with and even imitate him, there was also a considerable amount who thought Barthes was completely off his rocker. Nevertheless, he was able to land his longest-running and one of his most prestigious positions at the ;cole Pratique des Hautes ;tude – a center for advanced studies in Paris where he was employed for sixteen years starting in 1960. What was perhaps his crowning achievement, though, came in 1976 when he became the first person ever to be named chair of literary semiology (semiotics) at the historically esteemed Coll;ge de France.

With no apparent signs of slowing down, Roland continued to hold his chair position for the rest of his life. His life and career were tragically cut short, however, when Barthes died in Paris on March 25, 1980 from injuries sustained after being hit by a car. Though he published relatively few works (fewer than fifteen, even counting translations) during his lifetime, Roland Barthes has left an extremely significant impact on the study of literature. Keep reading to get a look at two of those works to see how he’s influenced even your own experiences with this field of study!

Books by Roland Barthes


When you think about Albert Einstein, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For some, it might be his crazy hairdo, but for many of us, the first thing we’d think of would be how smart he was. At least, that’s the way Barthes saw it when he discussed the famous physicist in Mythologies – his 1957 work on the study of signs and symbols in the modern world.According to Barthes, the creation of mythological accounts and figures didn’t just happen during antiquity; rather, he argued that people even in the modern era are producing new mythologies all the time. Take for instance Einstein’s brain, which Barthes argues has become a symbol of the utmost in human intelligence.

Barthes goes on to say that modern people elevate such symbols to the status of mythologies, constructing and applying their own meanings to the noteworthy people, things, and ideas around them.


Have you ever been assigned a ‘close reading’ in an English or literature class, where you have to read a text and pick apart and analyze all of its tiny little details? If so, you can think Barthes for the privilege. Much of Barthes’ work was concerned with the science of semiotics. That’s because he saw the interpretation of literary signs and symbols as crucial to the principles of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism that favors close reading and analysis of a text’s internal elements over relying on external (i.e.

historical, biographical) cues to give it meaning.Published in 1970, S/Z is Barthes’ own close reading of ‘Sarrasine,’ a story by Honor; de Balzac. Although he does meticulously break-down ‘Sarrasine,’ perhaps more importantly, Barthes demonstrates in S/Z that these methods for examining this story can be broadly applied to literature as a whole.

Lesson Summary

Despite early battles with tuberculosis and later ones with harsh criticism, Roland Barthes would become one of the most influential French intellectuals of the 20th century. Much of his work (i.e. Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, S/Z) deals with the science of semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols and their interpretation.

His work in this field made major impacts on the world of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism that favors close reading and analysis of a text’s internal elements over relying on external cues to give it meaning. It also led to Barthes’ being named the first ever chair of literary semiology at the Coll;ge de France – a position he held until his death in 1980.


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