Roland Barthes’ “introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”, A Summary and Response
In the essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”, Roland Barthes outlines an integrative, hierarchical theory for the structure and meaning of the narrative. His starting point is linguistic, but Barthes goes beyond the scope of this discipline by treating the narrative, a discourse, as “a long sentence” (84). The narrative derives its meaning from three hierarchical levels: functions, actions and narration. The relationships within and between these levels are reciprocal. Barthes’ interest is not only to “follow the unfolding of the story,” but also to “recognize its construction in ‘storyes (sic)’”(87).
The level of function relates to the “functional nature of certain segments of the story”(88). Barthes claims that the narrative is made up of segments of functions, acquiring their meaning when in combination with other units. The next level of meaning is action - the level of the character. Structuralist criticism has redefined and restricted the role of the character from a “being” to a “participant”(106). The third level of meaning is the level of narration. It is the “point of communication”(107) between a narrator and a reader. Here Barthes discusses different types of authors and points of view. He concludes that the narrative has its own logic and time, unrelated to the mimetic order.
It is unclear whether a certain fatigue from the classics or just plain trendiness prompted Roland Barthes to use the popular James Bond as a tutor text, but in retrospect Barthes’ brilliant analysis suffers from this unfortunate choice. Although Aristotle much quoted and admired by Barthes also used the popular writings of his time as examples, it seems that the Greek texts have aged much better than those of Ian Fleming. Moreover, Barthes’ painstaking investigation of every aspect in the meaning and form of such narratives would have mystified even the great detective himself.
Barthes, Rolans.”Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives.” Image-Music-Text.Trans.Stephen Heath.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.79-124.