S/Z was published in 1970 and written by Roland Barthes, a French philosopher and writer. Barthes dabbled in quite a few schools of theory, and made significant contributions to quite a few, including semiotics, social theory, anthropology, and, in this work especially, structuralism. Structuralism, as its name suggests, suggests that there is always a larger realm or reason that can explain the more complex examples of human phenomena. Structuralism can be applied to almost any field that is related to humans, and so Barthes used structuralism, as well as post-structuralism, as a lens through which he analyzed “Sarrasine” in S/Z.
As mentioned above, this work is actually a structural analysis of “Sarrasine,” which is a novella that was written by another French writer named Honore de Balzac. This short story tells of the story of a “castrato” named Zambinella, whom Sarrasine, a troubled artist, believes to be the “ideal woman” and he falls in love with Zambinella. Sarrasine’s story is actually told by a narrator to his guest, the lovely Madame Rochefide, after a ball at a house where an old man, revealed to be Zambinella, wanders around the elegant mansion.
In S/Z, Barthes identifies and defines five codes that create meaning through which a text progresses, though this structure is neither clear nor defined. Barthes defines these five codes vaguely enough to where these ideas can be modified to fit the specific relationship between the text and the structure. The first two are irreversible codes, in that 1) the hermeneutic code forces the narrative forward, never backwards, and 2) the proairetic code creates regular, patterned behaviors that aren’t expected from the text’s flow itself. The last three of Barthes’ codes are reversible, and only two of them actually work to structure the text: 1) the semic code identifies specific and concrete signs and objects that work together to create lasting themes in the text, 2) the symbolic code employs concepts that aren’t physical and are more abstract, such as sexuality and the like, and are more open to individual interpretation. The last reversible code that Barthes identifies is the cultural code, which has meanings that are derived from or deeply rooted in the culture or society the work is being received in, such as philosophy or science. With these five codes in mind, Barthes identifies all of them in “Sarrasine” and really focuses on the structure of Balzac’s novella.