THE PREVIOUS MODULE,
Barthes argues in S/Z that every narrative is interwoven with
multiple codes. Although we impose temporal and generic structures onto
the polysemy of codes (and traditional, "readerly" texts actively
invite us to impose such structures), any text is, in fact, marked by
the multiple meanings suggested by the five codes. The five codes are
The hermeneutic code (HER.) refers to any
element in a story that is not explained and, therefore, exists as
an enigma for the reader, raising questions that demand explication.
Most stories hold back details in order to increase the effect of
the final revelation of all diegetic
truths. We tend not to be satisfied by a narrative unless all "loose
ends" are tied; however, narratives often frustrate the early
revelation of truths, offering the reader what Barthes terms "snares"
(deliberate evasions of the truth), "equivocations" (mixtures
of truth and snare), "partial answers," "suspended
answers," and "jammings" (acknowledgments of insolubility).
As Barthes explains, "The variety of these terms (their inventive
range) attests to the considerable labor the discourse
must accomplish if it hopes to arrest the enigma, to keep
it open" (76).
The best example may well be the genre of the detective story. The
entire narrative of such a story operates primarily by the hermeneutic
code. We witness a murder and the rest of the narrative is devoted
to determining the questions that are raised by the initial scene
of violence. The detective spends the story reading the clues that,
only at the end, reconstructs the story
of the murder. See the Star
Trek Lesson Plan for an example of a television episode that invokes
The proairetic code (ACT.) refers to the other
major structuring principle that builds interest or suspense on the
part of a reader or viewer. The proairetic code applies to any action
that implies a further narrative action. For example, a gunslinger
draws his gun on an adversary and we wonder what the resolution of
this action will be. We wait to see if he kills his opponent or is
wounded himself. Suspense is thus created by action rather than by
a reader's or a viewer's wish to have mysteries explained.
These first two codes tend to be aligned with temporal order and thus
require, for full effect, that you read a book or view a film temporally
from beginning to end. Barthes at one point aligns these two codes with
"the same tonal determination that melody and harmony have in classical
A traditional, "readerly" text tends to be especially "dependent
on [these] two sequential codes: the revelation of truth and the coordination
of the actions represented: there is the same constraint in the gradual
order of melody and in the equally gradual order of the narrative sequence"
next three codes tend to work "outside the constraints of time"
are, therefore, more properly reversible, which is to say that there
is no necessary reason to read the instances of these codes in chronological
order to make sense of them in the narrative.
The semantic code (SEM.) points to any element
in a text that suggests a particular, often additional meaning by
way of connotation. In the
previous module, for example, in the first lexia that I quote
from Barthes' S/Z, "Sarrasine" is associated with
"femininity" because of the word's feminine form (as opposed
to the masculine form, "Sarrazin"). The question of femininity
later becomes an important one in Balzac's story about a man's love
for a castrato that he, at first, believes to be a woman. By "connotation,"
Barthes does not mean a free-form association of ideas (where anything
goes) but "a correlation immanent in the text, in the texts;
or again, one may say that it is an association made by the text-as-subject
within its own system" (8).
In other words, Barthes marks out those semantic connotations that
have special meaning for the work at hand.
The symbolic code (SYM.) can be difficult
to distinguish from the semantic code and Barthes is not always clear
on the distinction between these two codes; the easiest way to think
of the symbolic code is as a "deeper" structural principle
that organizes semantic meanings, usually by way of antitheses or
by way of mediations (particularly, forbiddend mediations) between
antithetical terms. The concept is perhaps most analogous to Algirdas
Greimas' understanding of antagonism and contradiction in narrative
structure. (Note that the modules on Greimas are still under construction;
however, for comparison, you can read an
application of Greimas to the sentence, "There is a road").
A symbolic antithesis often marks a barrier for the text. As Barthes
writes, "Every joining of two antithetical terms, every mixture,
every conciliation—in short, every passage through the wall
of the Antithesis—thus constitutes a transgression" (27)
The cultural code (REF.) designates
any element in a narrative that refers "to a science or a body
of knowledge" (20).
In other words, the cultural codes tend to point to our shared knowledge
about the way the world works, including properties that we can designate
as "physical, physiological, medical, psychological, literary,
historical, etc." (20).
The "gnomic" code is one of the cultural codes and refers
to those cultural codes that are tied to clichés, proverbs,
or popular sayings of various sorts.
Together, these five codes function like a "weaving of voices,"
as Barthes puts it (20).
The codes point to the "multivalence of the text" and to "its
partial reversibility" (20),
allowing a reader to see a work not just as a single narrative line
but as a contellation or braiding of meanings: "The grouping of
codes, as they enter into the work, into the movement of the reading,
constitute a braid (text, fabric, braid:
the same thing); each thread, each code, is a voice; these braided—or
braiding—voices form the writing" (160).
For an application of Barthes to Emily Brontë's Wuthering
Heights, see Applications: