The Five Codes

“To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.” (Barthes S/Z, 4)

Reading the Plural Text

According to Barthes, there is always more than one way to read a text. Within any given text there is a plurality of meaning rather than one correct reading. Uncovering a text’s plural meaning requires not only reading but also re-reading. Every time you read a text, you read it in a slightly different way. With each re-reading, another meaning comes to the surface. We are familiar with there being more than one plot line in a text. Barthes’s threads, however, are found at the semiotic rather than the narrative level. His theory of the five codes is a way of grouping signifiers according to the role they play in the text.

The Five Codes

Barthes identifies five different kinds of semiotic elements that are common to all texts. He gathers these signifiers into five codes: Hermeneutic, Proairetic, Semantic, Symbolic, and Cultural. To learn more about each code, use this interactive explanation.

The term codes can be misleading. Rather than a set of rules for how a text should be interpreted, Barthes’s codes are a perspective from which you can view a text. Reading a text with the five codes in mind is like looking at an image through a series of coloured lenses. The image remains the same but your impression of it changes.

Another way to think of the five codes is as a set of voices speaking at the same time. Barthes advises us to “. . . listen to the text as an iridescent exchange carried on by multiple voices, on different wavelengths” (S/Z 41-42). In some texts there will be one or two dominant voices. The Hermeneutic and Proairetic codes dominate what Barthes refers to as classic texts. Often these are texts that have been read and criticized to such an extent that they have an accepted meaning. Lexias from these texts must be read in order if the narrative is to make any sense. Barthes would classify many of the poems and novels we think of as canonical in this group. Some genres rely more heavily on one code than the others. Mystery novels are dominated by the Hermeneutic Code because they rely on the reader’s desire to learn the answer to the question Whodunit? by the end of the story.

In other texts, the five voices speak all at once. Tuning in to each voice lets us hear what the text is trying to tell us. Texts in which the Semantic, Symbolic, and Cultural Codes dominate are closer to Barthes’s idea of the writerly text. Because elements of these codes are connotative rather than denotative, they do not have to be read in order. They give you a sense of what the narrative is like rather than tell you what happens.

The Starred Reading

In his 1970 book S/Z, Barthes performs what he calls a starred reading of Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine.” In a starred reading, the master text is broken up into lexias, short passages of text that can be examined individually for one or more kinds of meaning. The reader then examines each lexia to discover which codes are in play and labels each section with the name of the code and a short explanation. This kind of reading is a useful way of identifying which voices are speaking in the text. In the next section of this learning object you will have the opportunity to view a starred reading of an excerpt from James Joyce’s Ulysses.