The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


David Herman

Theorists working under the auspices of both structuralism and poststructuralism have developed ideas of broad relevance for the study of the novel. Although they evolved from a common heritage of concepts—in particular, those associated with Saussurean language theory, with its bipartite analysis of the sign into signifier and signified and its account of language as a system of differences—structuralist and poststructuralist approaches rely on different analytic procedures and set themselves contrasting investigative goals. Notably, whereas structuralism begins from the premise that cultural practices of all sorts are grounded in rule-systems that are subject to conscious scrutiny as well as unconscious mastery, poststructuralism is a version of antifoundationalism, i.e., skepticism concerning the existence (or accessibility) of ultimate foundations for knowledge, bedrock truths that subtend and guarantee the process of interpretation (Singer and Rockmore).

Having reached its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, structuralism openly aims for explanatory reduction; it distinguishes between metalanguage and object-language, recasting ostensibly diverse textual phenomena (e.g., different novelistic genres, or novels originating from different periods and cultural traditions) as manifestations of a shared underlying code or structure (Jakobson). Thus, the early narratologists participated in a broader structuralist revolution when they sought to use Saussurean linguistics as a “pilot-science” for studying narrative in all of its many guises. Narratologists such as Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, Claude Bremond, Gérard Genette, and Algirdas Julius Greimas adapted Saussure's distinction between parole and langue to construe particular stories as individual narrative messages supported by an underlying semiotic code.

And just as Saussurean linguistics privileged code over message, focusing on the structural constituents and combinatory principles of the semiotic system of language rather than on situated uses of that system, structuralist narratologists privileged narrative in general over individual narratives, emphasizing the general semiotic principles according to which basic structural units (characters, states, events, actions, and so forth) are combined and transformed to yield specific narrative texts. In this context, Genette's work has been especially influential for research on the novel. In particular, Narrative Discourse—with its account of narrative temporality under the headings of order, duration, and frequency; its distinction between narration and focalization, voice and vision; and its taxonomy of narrative levels (extradiegetic, intradiegetic, hypodiegetic) and voices (homodiegetic, autodiegetic, heterodiegetic)—suggests that the distinctiveness of a given text can be captured by studying how it recruits from a common stock of narrative design principles (see DISCOURSE).

By contrast, poststructuralism makes a case for the irreducible specificity and heterogeneity of texts, their limitless semantic productivity or capacity for meaning generation, including their ability to generate incompatible interpretations. The goal for poststructuralists is not to partition the textual field into particular classes or kinds (e.g., narrative, argument, or instruction), each defined by a closed system of features and principles, but rather to demonstrate how a given text submits itself only more or less to the law of any particular genre (Derrida), orienting itself to multiple generic norms at the same time. From this perspective the domain of novelistic discourse overlaps with those of philosophical, psychological, and other “nonliterary” discourses, jeopardizing the very opposition between literary and nonliterary texts, and for that matter between the object-language of fictional texts and the critical metalanguages that might be used to explicate them. Yet poststructuralist theorists, far from engaging in an anything-goes modus operandi, rely on specific, recurrent procedures for analysis. For example, deconstructionists working in the Derridean vein seek to reveal how texts signal the collapse of binary oppositions on whose force and integrity the texts simultaneously insist; those working in the tradition of Paul de Man highlight how a text's rhetorical profile (the tropes it deploys) can be at odds with its explicit themes or overt semantic content. Thus, in these and other varieties of poststructuralism (e.g., Jacques Deleuze and Félix Guattari's schizo-analytic account of literary and cultural phenomena in terms of de- and reterritorialized flows of desire), a species of explanatory reduction can be detected, however different in style or purpose from that informing structuralist analyses.

The Case of Roland Barthes: A Science of the Text?

As one of founding practitioners of structuralism in France, Roland Barthes, in his early writing, examined cultural phenomena of all sorts through the lens of Saussure's structural linguistics (Culler, Dosse). Barthes's Mythologies (1972) characterized diverse forms of cultural expression (advertisements, photographs, museum exhibits, wrestling matches) as rule-governed signifying practices or “languages” in their own right. In his classic 1966 essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” published as part of the special issue of the journal Communications that effectively launched structuralist narratology, Barthes adopted the same approach to narrative practices in particular. He used Ian Fleming's James Bond novels to explore the nature and distribution of fundamental narrative units, and more generally to outline a method of narrative analysis based on hierarchically arranged levels of description (spanning functions, actions, and, at the highest level, narration).

By the time he published “The Death of the Author” in 1968, however, Barthes had begun to speak about literary discourse in a very different way. Resisting the use of words like “code” and “message” as terms of art, and reconceiving texts as gestures of inscription rather than vehicles for communication and expression, he had come to embrace a Derridean view of the text as “a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (147). The text is, as Barthes now put it, “not a line of words releasing a single ’theological’ meaning ... but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146). The scientific decoding of messages has given way to the interpretative disentanglement of strands of meaning, “rendering illusory any inductive-deductive science of texts—no ’grammar’ of the text” (1997c, 159). Barthes here disavows the possibility of a science of the text that just a few years earlier he had, if not taken for granted, assumed as the outcome toward which structuralist research was inexorably advancing.

Barthes's autocritique of structuralism, which would eventuate in the publication of S/Z (1974), was part of a broader reaction against structuralist assumptions and methods articulated by commentators as diverse as Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-François Lyotard. Because of Barthes's uniquely double identity, as one of the world's foremost practitioners first of structuralism and then of poststructuralism, his revolution in thinking can be viewed as emblematic of this larger shift in critico-theoretical discourse. In particular, his 1971 essay “From Work to Text” can be read as a kind of internalized dialogue or debate, with Barthes adopting a persona who now embraces key tenets of Derridean poststructuralism, for example, and who thus takes issue with the author's own earlier, staunchly structuralist persona, champion of a classically semiolinguistic approach to literary and cultural analysis.

“From Work to Text”: Implications for the Study of the Novel

Though it articulates seven “principal propositions” about the nature of texts, Barthes's essay suggests that these statements should be construed less as “argumentations” than as “enunciations” or “touches” (156). The self-reflexivity, playfulness, and anti-exhaustive spirit of Barthes's proviso stems from the new, poststructuralist research paradigm that his essay goes on to outline. As Barthes puts it at the end of the essay, “a Theory of the Text cannot be satisfied by a metalinguistic exposition: the destruction of meta-language ... is part of the theory itself” (164). But what are the constructive, as opposed to critical, goals of Barthes's account? And how do those goals pertain to research on the novel?

Text versus Work

Since one of his major concerns is to distinguish between the classical concept of the work and the new, interdisciplinary notion of the text, Barthes's first proposition is that “the Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed” (156). (Throughout the essay Barthes uses the capitalized term “Text” as a mass noun, like “water” or “space,” and the uncapitalized term “text” as a count noun, like “cat” or “pencil.”) Barthes writes: “the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language, only exists in the movement of a discourse,” such that “the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work that is the imaginary tail of the Text” (156—57). Hence, Barthes emphasizes, “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production” (157). This proposition echoes Barthes's emphasis, in S/Z, on readers' use of codes of signification to participate in the active structuration of texts, instead of merely passively appreciating works as pre-given, inert structures (18—21). Barthes's account thus points ahead to reader-response and other contextualist approaches to literary interpretation. More than this, structuralist methods of decomposing fictional narratives into their constituent features must be rethought when the basic unit of analysis becomes texts-in-contexts, as Barthes makes even more explicit in some of his other propositions.

Genres and Filiation

Another proposition put forth in “From Work to Text” is that “the Text does not stop at (good) Literature; it cannot be contained in a hierarchy, even in a simple division of genres” (157). This statement or theme can be traced back to Mikhail bakhtin's investigations into the polygeneric origins and dialogic profile of novelistic discourse, but it also harmonizes with a broader deconstructive critique of evaluative hierarchies (Derrida, 1967, Of Grammatology). Further, the theme of genre is bound up with what Barthes terms “filiation.” Whereas the idea of the work is caught up in an institution that bears striking similarities to that of patrilineal descent, originating from an author and relating to other works via principles of succession, the dominant “metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic” and “can be read without the guarantee of its father” (161). Discrete, autonomous works, linked to one another in a causal and chronological sequence, give way to the Text viewed as a network of reversible, multilinear, intertextual relations, only a small subset of which can be captured by classical concepts such as “genre,” “allusion,” and “citation.” Such generalized intertextuality became not only a watchword of poststructuralist approaches to fiction but also the basis for Barthes's proposal to replace the notion of the author with that of the scriptor, who “is always anterior, never original” and whose “only power is to mix writings” 1977b, 146). Yet later analysts—e.g., those focusing on texts by women writers and others seeking to claim a voice for themselves—have taken issue with Barthes's attempt to evacuate the communicative intentions of writers, his embrace of a scriptor who functions merely as a kind of switch operator between (anonymous) discourses.

Signs and Plurality

The idea of the sign and of plurality constitutes other dimensions along which work and Text can be contrasted. On the one hand, the work “closes on a signified,” and insofar as modes of signification oriented around the signified involve either evident or hidden meanings, the work is the proper province of philology or hermeneutics, as the case may be. On the other hand, “the Text ... practi[c]es the infinite deferment of the signified, is dilatory; its field is that of the signifier” (158). Hence terms like “undecidability” and “indeterminacy” take their place alongside “intertextuality” as hallmarks of a poststructuralist approach to interpretation, which foregrounds the process over the target of signification. Another way of talking about this infinite deferment of the signified is to talk about the Text's radical plurality. The Text is plural not because (like the work) it is ambiguous and can be assigned several candidate interpretations, but instead because it involves an explosion, or dissemination, of meanings. Here readers familiar with S/Z will recall Barthes's influential distinction between classical, “readerly” (lisible) works, which he characterized as only parsimoniously plural, and postclassical, “writerly” (scriptible) texts, which are limitlessly plural and thus “make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” (4).

Barthes's account of the readerly and the writerly (like his opposition between work and text) leaves it an open question whether these terms are classifications of particular kinds of fictional texts or rather different stances toward the process of interpretation itself. The non-resolution of this issue may in turn reflect Barthes's understanding of the poststructuralist approach as fundamentally relativistic (1977c, 156). In contradistinction to structuralist methods, Barthes refuses to distance his own discourse from the research object—texts of all kinds—that he now construes as being shaped in part by the commentator's own interpretive practices.

SEE ALSO: Author, Genre Theory, Intertextuality, Narrative, Narrative Structure, Novel Theory (20th Century), Philosophical Novel, Reader.


1. Barthes, R. (1972), Mythologies, trans. A. Lavers.

2. Barthes, R. (1974), S/Z, trans. R. Miller.

3. Barthes, R. (1977a), “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” in Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath.

4. Barthes, R. (1977b), “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath.

5. Barthes, R. (1977c), “ From Work to Text,” in Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath.

6. Culler, J. (1975), Structuralist Poetics.

7. Derrida, J. (1991), “The Law of Genre,” in Acts of Literature, ed. D. Attridge.

8. Dosse, F. (1997), History of Structuralism, vol. 1, trans. D. Glassman.

9. Genette, G. (1983), Narrative Discourse, trans. J.E. Lewin.

10. Singer, B. and T. Rockmore, eds. (1992), Antifoundationalism Old and New.