Barthes defines five codes that define a network (or a topos) that form a space of meaning that the text runs through. But, these codes and their mutual relations are not clear structures, because it would close the multivariance of the text. Thus, Barthes defines the code in a vague way: Each of the units of the text marks a virtual digression toward a catalogue of other units. Each code also appears as voices that altogether weave the text, though each of them for a while may dominate the text. (XII)

Two of the codes are sequential and structure the text in an irreversible way (XV): The hermeneutic code (HER) denotes an enigma that moves the narrative forward; it sets up delays and obstacles that maintain suspense. The proairetic (ACT) code organises (small) intertwined sequences of behaviors. Each such sequence has its own regularity that does not follow the logic of the narrative (though it is used in it). (XI)

The rest of the codes are reversible (XV). The two of them structure the text: The semic code (SEM) designates a special kind of signifiers (e.g. person, a place, an object) to which adhere unstable meanings and that enable the development of a theme through the story. (XI, LXXXI) The symbolic code (SYM) are meanings that are constitutive (stemming from the fields of rhetoric, sexuality, or economy), but cannot be represented in the text, except in metonymies, which renders the text open to different interpretations (XI, XCII).

The last code refers to meanings that are external to the text: The cultural code (REF) is the references to science or wisdom (sagesse). (XI)

Barthes does not provide an overall structure for how the codes are integrated because he wants to preserve the plurality (multivalence) of the text. Since reading is plural (IX), a different reading (reader) might invoke the codes differently and combine them differently ending up with a different understanding. Moreover, whereas the classical text tends to enforce a particular model of integrating the codes, the modern plural text does not. (XII)

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. But, he also offers a more academic outline of the text in Annex 3.

Hermeneutic Code: the voice of the truth

The hermeneutic code is associated with enigmas of the text. It is entities or elements that articulate a question and its answer, as well as events that prepare the question or delay its answer. (X-1) When Barthes identifies an enigma in the text he marks it HER. The process of revealing truth by solving enigmas is further broken down in the following sequence (LXXXIX):

  1. Thematisation. What in the narrative is an enigma?
  2. Positioning. Additional confirmations of the enigma.
  3. Formulation of the enigma.
  4. Promise of an answer of the enigma.
  5. Fraud. Circumvention of the true answer.
  6. Equivocation. Mixture of fraud and truth.
  7. Blocking. The enigma cannot be solved.
  8. Suspended answer. Stopping the answering after having begun.
  9. Partial answer. Some facets of the truth are revealed.
  10. Disclosure of the truth.

Because the hermeneutic code involves a move from a question to an answer it is one of the two codes (the other being the proairetic or action code) which Barthes calls “irreversible” (XV): Once a secret is revealed, it cannot be unrevealed—the moment of cognition is permanent for the reader. Compared to the detailed sequential actions of the proairetic code, the hermeneutic code encompasses the entire narrative, or at least large parts of it.

Proairetic Code: empirical voice

The proairetic code encompasses the actions or small sequences of the narrative (Annex 2). That is, it is not the overall narrative structure, which is associated with the HER. 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 actions of the story are created by the reader, who assimilates distinct pieces of information in a prescribed order. The reader grouping these pieces of data turns 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.

Semic Code: the voice of the person

The semic code is the connotations of the character (a person, a place or an object). The character has not only characteristics, but also unstable connotations because the person has an existence (a name proper) which is external to the characteristics, the fixed meanings. 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.

Symbolic Code: the voice of symbols

The symbolic code is due to the fact that the human body as narrator enables the text to transgress 'taboos', not least as metonymies. The entrances into the symbolic are (1) rhetorical (transgression of the rhetorical figure: antitheses), (2) sexual (transgression of the sex: castration), and (3) economic (transgression of the origin of wealth). (XCII) Thus, threatening to remove crucial differences, such transgressions create an “unrestrained metonymy” (XCII) within the text. An unrestrained metonymy is, however, close to the dissolution of meaning because it “abolishes the power of legal [according to the linguistic, etc. codes] substitution on which meaning is based”, and therefore, close to annihilation of representation. (XCII) Consequently, the symbolic code is the point where different blocked meanings merge into the same lexia, thus accentuating the plurality of the meaning of the text.

Referential Code: the voice of science

The referential code is constituted by the points at which the text refers to common bodies of knowledge.

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