The Death Of The Author Summary and Analysis.

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In his well-known novella,  Sarrasine, the famous French writer Balzac describes a castrato disguised as a woman in the following words: “This was a woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims,  her instinctive worries,  her impetuous boldness, her fussings and her delicious sensibility.” This description raises several questions. Who is speaking this? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the man furnished by his personal experience with the philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing “literary” ideas on femininity? Or is it inherited universal wisdom or romantic psychology that is speaking through this description?

No Single, Simple Answer to These Questions

There is no single answer to these questions. The reason is that writing destroys the source of its own origin as well as the very identity of the voice that we hear in it. We cannot say with any degree of certainty whether is it the writer or the narrator or some character speaking in the writing. However, there is nothing new about this situation concerning the author. In fact, it has always been this way. As soon as something is narrated in the form of clusters of dark symbols on a white paper the link between the writer and the narrative is severed. The writer loses his voice and his identity. To put it differently and rather strongly, the writer suffers his own demise in so far as his writing his concerned. In ethnographic societies the person who narrates the story may be admired for his performance but he is never admired for his genius.

The Author is a Modern Construct

In fact, the author is a modern figure created by English empiricism, French rationalism, and the stress on the personal faith of the individual emphasized by the reformation. In literature the author still remains the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology which attaches great importance to the individuality of the author. This explains why the concept of the author continues to dominate not only the histories of literature, biographies of writer interviews and magazines but also the very “consciousness” of the men of letters who try to establish a link between the writer and his work. In ordinary culture the image of literature is still centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions and so on. A work of literature continues to be explained in terms of its author’s life history, as if he or she were taking us, the readers, into confidence about his or her personal life.

Writers / Critics who Emphasized Impersonality

Although the hold of the author remains powerful, certain writers have tried to make it somewhat loose. In France Stephane Mallarmé, a French symbolist was the first one to realize the need to substitute language for the person who had been supposed to be its owner. For him, it is the language that speaks and not the author. To write is to reach that point where only language “performs” and not the person who writes it. Indeed Mallarmé’s whole poetics “consists in suppressing the author in the interest of writing.” Paul Valéry was another poet and critic to ignore his own Ego and emphasize the linguistic and the verbal condition of literature. Then Marcel Proust demonstrated in his A la recherché du temps perdu how, instead of literature copying a character from real life, life could be made to copy a character. His Baron de Charlus, who is believed to be modelled on Proust’s friend Count Robert de Montesquiou, reverse the situation because it is not Charlus who imitates Montesquiou, but it is the other way round. Then the Surrealist emphasized the importance of automatic writing in which the writer has no control over what he or she rights. Yet another experiment that they made was the practice of making several people write together so that the writing did not seen to bear the stamp of any single writer. Finally, linguistics has provided for the death of the author by insisting that “the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I.”

Gains from the “Death” of the Author

What are the possible gains from the “death” or removal of the author from his writings? First of all, the text can be read in such a way that the author is absent at all levels. This makes the temporality, the time of the narrative, different for the presence of the author always makes a work a thing of the past and makes him have the same relation with his work as a father has with his child. To put it differently, the work is then seen in the light of the writer’s presence behind it. But a modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text. Unlike that traditional classical writer, he is “in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing.” He is “not the subject with the book as predicate,” and there is no other time than “here and now.” Writing, seen from this perspective, becomes a performance in which enunciation has no other content than the act by which it is uttered. For the modern scriptor the hand, cut off from any voice, “traces a field without origin” because language calls all origins into question.

The second important gain from the death of the author is the freedom of the text from any “theological” meaning, the specific message from the writer as its creator. Liberated from the centrally controlled “theological meaning” the work becomes a “multi-dimensional space” in which a variety of writings clash and blend with each other. The text becomes a tissue of quotations from numberless centres of culture. The task of the writer is to mix different writings in such a way as never to rely entirely on any one of them. Even if he thinks that he is trying to express himself, he ought to know that the inner something that he is trying to translate into words and transcribe on the blank page of a notebook is nothing but something already formed. The scriptor, the modern writer, has no passions, feelings, humours or impressions to express. “Life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs and imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.

From this it follows that once the author is removed, there is no need to decode what was thought to be the meaning enshrined by the writer in his work. To put it differently, having a writer behind a book implied that he had a single, univocal meaning to convey through his book. But the “death” of the author liberates the critic or the commentator from trying to decode this meaning. The critic does not have to discover author, his life-history, social and economic back ground etc. By refusing to assign a “secret” meaning to a text, literature does releases “what may be called and anti-theological activity,” namely, the refusal to fix meaning.

Returning to the sentence from Sarrasine, one can then say that no one speaks that sentence about the castrato disguised as woman. The ambiguity of the voice here is like the ambiguity found in the ancient Greek tragedy which uses words with double meanings, one unilateral meaning for one character and another unilateral meaning for another character. It is only the reader who is able to understand “each word in its duplicity.” In this way is revealed the “total existence” of writing: “ A text is made of multiple writings drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where the multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader.” Thus unlike what many people traditionally believe, the unity of a text does not lie in its origin, namely its writer, instead it lies in its destination, namely its reader. It is strange that the role of the reader in deciphering meaning was not recognised by classical criticism. It was thought all along that it was the writer who enshrined and controlled the central meaning of a text. This myth has been exploded. What is now being widely recognised is that it is the reader who finds meaning in a text ( and one may say that there are as many meanings as there are readers, which may amount to saying that there is no fixed, univocal meaning in any text). This is why the “birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”


First published in 1968, La Mort de l’auteur ( “The Death of the Author ”) not only heralded Barthes’ conversion to poststructuralism rather shortly after his “ Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” ( a structuralist document published in 1966) but, more significantly, became a seminal document of poststructuralism. At the same time, this essay took to the logical extreme the progressive devaluation of the writer initiated by T.S Eliot in his “Tradition and Individual Talent” wherein he had described the mind of the poet as no one more than a mere “medium” in which the poetic and the creative process took place. The best work according to Eliot, was the one that was characterized by the total “extinction”of the writer’s personality: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotions but an escape from emotions; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.” In his Practical Criticism, I.A. Richards made his own contribution to the demotion of the writer by removing the names of poets and all references to the periods to which they belonged. His purpose in so doing was to draw attention to poems rather than the poet’s who wrote them. Subsequently, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley published their highly influential essay “The International Fallacy ” in which they questioned the relevance of the intention of the writer to the work he had created. The focus of Anglo-American New Criticism was entirely on the autonomy of the work rather than the authority of the writer. It is no wonder, then, that Cleanth Brooks and W.K. Wimsatt entitled their separate books on literary criticism respectively as The Well-Wrought Urn and The Verbal Icon.

Biographical Fallacy” and Barthes’ attack on it

The shock – treatment that T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and the Anglo American New Critics gave to the biographical author – centred criticism- rightly nick – named as the “biographical fallacy” which dominated literary and critical thinking even until the beginning of the 20th century was well deserved; for a book was seen as the expression of the poet’s own life experiences- “the precious life – blood of a master spirit,” as John Milton had called it. It was customary to interpret the work of a writer in the light of what was known about his life and to reconstruct the life of the writer from his writings, if little or no knowledge of his life was available. This explains the existence of title of books like Frederick S. Boas’ Christopher Marlowe : A Biographical and Critical Study or Peter Alexander’s Shakespeare’s Life and Art. Even as late as 1952 F.R Leavis thought it pertinent to say about Swift: “In the attempt to say what makes these writings so remarkable, reference to the man who wrote them is indeed necessary.” It is this fallacy that Roland Barthes attacks in “The Death of the Author”.

Barthes’ argument is that as soon as a literary work is written, the disconnection between the writer and the work takes place. The voice behind the work loses its origin or source. In other words, as soon as any piece of writing is completed, the writing takes over and the writer enters into his own death. As the quotation from Balzac’s short novella Sarrasine at the beginning of Barthes’ essay shows, it is difficult to identify the voice of the person who speaks in narrative. According to Barthes, there is nothing new about this phenomenon because in the distant past little attention was paid to the writer as a narrator: “In ethnographical societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person (its author) but buy a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’.”

The writer is in a way a modern figure, a product of the English empiricism, French ressionalism and of the stress laid on personal faith by the Reformation. What Barthes says about authorship in the ancient times is largely true; for even as late as the 15th century many works continued to be published anonymously. Tottel’s Miscellany, for example, contained many anonymous sonnets and other lyrics Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was first published without his name; and the authorship of The Arden of the Feversham, a well known Elizabethan domestic tragedy is still unknown. And this is true of many ancient works all over the world. We know, for example, that the Indian epic Ramayana was written by Valmiki and the Mahabharata by Ved Vyas, but who wrote the Puranas or the Upnishadas or the Vedas and so many other ancient works? It is in the modern times that the concept of “patents”, “copyright” and “intellectual property rights” began and made the writer the owner of what he wrote. There would be nothing wrong about the writer earning name, fame and money from his writing and using his work as his “intellectual property”. Barthes’ argument is that the writer should not be considered the origin and source of meaning once the work is written and the umbilical cord between the writer and the work is snapped.

The Trend away from the Author

Barthes says that some modern writers like Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust have tried to loosen the hold of the author on his text. For Mallarmé it is language and not the writer, that speaks. Indeed, “ Mallarmé’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing, ” and Valéry, despite his inflated Ego, stressed the linguistic and the verbal condition of writing at the expense of the writer, whom he never tired of questioning and deriding. In his well – known novel, A la recherché du temps perdu, Marcel Proust has demonstrated how life could be made to imitate art (according to Barthes, Proust’s Baron de Charlus, the central character in this novel, becomes the model for the real – life Count Robert de Montesquious from whom this character is otherwise derived). Then there were the Surrealist whose stress on automatic writing and on several people writing together emphasized the importance of language and writing and not that of the author. And finally the primacy accorded to linguistic by recent criticism, especially structuralism (which derives its critical tools from the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure), has demonstrated that “the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I”; “for language knows a subject, not a person, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, exhaust it.”

Critical Gains from the “Death” of the Author

(a) The Liberation of the Text

The most important gain from the “death” of the author, according to Barthes, is that once the umbilical cord which joins the text to the writer is cut, the text begins to lead an independent existence. It begins to be read in such a way that all the levels the writer is absent. As a result, the temporality of the work becomes different; for the presence of the writer tends to make the work a work of the past. The writer now becomes a scriptor (écrivain) “who is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way a equipped with being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate.” The hand of the scriptor “traces a field without origin.” He knows that his language which is intransitive by choice and by labour, inaugurates an ambiguity. And as Barthes says in “écrivain and écrivant”, the scriptor knows that his language has “no other motto but Jacques Rigaut’s profound remark: “and even when I affirm, I am still questioning.” To put it differently, a scriptor knows that by its very nature language is for ever engaged in self – destruction.

It is interesting to note that the distinction that Bartges makes between two kinds of writers- the écrevain and the écrivant- was earlier made in a different way by Carl Jung. He too put writer into two categories: the extravertive and the introvertive. The first is close to Barthes’ écrivain later to his écrivant. The difference between the two can be illustrated from what G.K. Chesterton said about Charles Dickens. According to him, Dickens may not be a good writer (by which he meant that technically Dickens was not as sound as Jane Austen) but he was certainly a great writer.

(b) Freedom from Author-controlled Univocal Meaning

The second important game from the “death” of the author, according to Barthes, is the freedom of the reader to search for the “theological meaning” (the message of the Author-God) supposedly enshrined in the text. Taking a poststructuralist stance, Barthes argues that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centre of culture.” It is “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” The scriptor does not bear in him any feelings, impressions, humours or passions which he expresses in his work. On the contrary, he knows that “the inner thing he thinks to translate is itself only ready-formed dictionary” whose words are explainable through other words. To put it differently, a text is a network of words and not the embodiment of any single, author-controlled meaning.

(c) The irrelevance of Claims to Decipher a Text

According to Barthes, the third important gain from the “death of the author” is the irrelevance of any critical claim to decipher a text. As the presence of a writer imposes a limit on the text and tends to furnish it with a single, univocal signified, critics enter the arena and try to decipher this meaning with reference to the life, psychology, history, culture, politics etc. of the writer and his times. So in a way the “reign of the author” has in essence been the reign of the critic. But once the text is liberated from the control of the writer, it becomes a “multiplicity of writing” in which everything is to be distangled and nothing is to be deciphered. Literature- it would be better to use the term writing or écreture at this stage- thus refuses to assign a “secret”, ultimate meaning to the text and, in Jacques Derrida’s words, becomes a free play of traces present and traces absent.

(d) The Birth of the Reader

Finally according to Barthes, the “death of the author” heralds the birth of the reader. When the text is seen as a network of “multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation”, there is only one place where this multiplicity is focused: the reader. That is to say, the unity or the lack of it in a text does not lie in its origin (that is the author) but in its destination, that is the reader. And this reader, Barthes would say, is not a single, universal reader (addressed by classical writers) but a person without “history, biography and psychology”. He is, instead, “simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted”. Thuss the death of the author will lead to the birth of the reader. Once the writer is removed from the scene and with it the quest for a univocal meaning intended by the writer, the reader-response criticism begins something which W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley have named “affective fallacy”.


It is obvious that Barthes considers the presence of the author a hurdle in the proliferation of meaning that a text otherwise generates. In this he is supported by Michael Foucault in the essay “What is an Author?” written a year after “The Death of the Author”. Like Barthes, Foucault also argues that the presence of the author confers an identity on a writing, controls the free circulation of literature and restricts the meanings which can otherwise arise from the text. What is more, the knowledge of the author, according to Foucault, places a literary work in a predetermined ideological process and thereby maintains knowledge and power in certain dominant sections of the society. Foucault also makes another point conserning the author. He says that the convention of the author follows rather than precede the text because we tend to reconstruct a writer from his work. After all, the biography of a writer derives not merely from what is known about his or her personal life, which in many cases rather scant, but more significantly, from what we know about his work.

Nevertheless, it is difficult fully to endorse the views of Barthes and Foucault about the author because these are certainly extreme. Following the arguments of these two writers, it is also possible to say that their own texts are subject to the same treatment and thus indicate their own “death” as authors. In any case, their views cannot be considered definitive views on the author. As Derrida himself condescendingly conceded in an essay, the writer will at least remain as a kind of signature to separate one text from another. Nevertheless, by taking the extreme position on the role and relevance of the author, Barthes and Foucault do succeed in putting a question mark on the tendency to equate an author with God the Creator and put him or her on a high pedestal. In the same way they liberate the critics from hunting for a univocal meaning supposedly embodied by the writer in his work

To conclude with Roger Webster, the essays by both Barthes and Foucault succeed in making “the figure of the author” a site for debate. Provocative though these two essays are, they “do lead us to question what have been taken as axiomatic truths regarding literature. The essays in question seek to theorize and problematize the ‘author’ so that it is no longer and assumed or natural category.

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