In his book “S/Z” (1970), Roland Barthes argued signifiers could be grouped into five narrative codes that “weave” together to form the story. The hermeneutic and proairetic codes provide the internal chronology of the narrative, while the semantic, symbolic and cultural codes work on a connotative level and add depth to the tale.
The French theorist described how “the gradual order of the narrative sequence” was like the many notes coming together into a “melody”. This guide will take your through each of these beats. Read our definitions of the five narrative codes and then see how they apply to Barthes’ original example, “Sarrasine“, and a more recent media text, “Frozen 2“.
When a writer deliberately withholds information from the audience to leave a plot point unexplained, they are using a hermeneutic code. We are left to form our own interpretation of the event or question how it might be resolved later in the story.
Barthes said writers might use “snares” and “partial answers” before the audience learns the truth and reach a satisfying conclusion to the narrative. These enticing clues and entertaining traps delay the resolution and keep us engaged in the text.
More commonly known as enigma codes, this narrative technique is used by mystery writers who want the reader to keep on guessing who committed the crime until the final reveal at the end of the story.
Horror stories also feature plenty of hermeneutic codes. The classic slasher film “Scream” (1996) has some great twists and turns until the audience finds out who is behind the murders. In Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), the protagonist makes some disturbing discoveries before the final revelation about what is actually happening in the house. These stories are successful because of their terrific use of enigma codes.
You already know a narrative is the sequencing of events into a coherent and meaningful order. Proairetic codes are plot points which are caused by previous events and lead to other actions.
These beats of the story are easily defined: a car chase through the crowded city in an action film; the hero battling the evil villain at the end of the computer game; and the actor using whatever product is being advertised and transforming their lives.
Writers create a pleasing sort of tension by making the audience wonder how the event will be resolved. Will the criminal evade capture during the car chase, and will the protagonist defeat the boss and save the world?
A really successful example of an action code is the dramatic and visceral fight sequence between Captain America and Iron Man in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). Since it is not a traditional conflict between good and evil, the audience are eager to see which protagonist will be victorious.
Barthes argued some codes had “flickers of meaning” in the text. Rather than simply working on a denotational level, these signs carried connotations beyond their basic definition and gave the reader a little more insight to the characters, setting and plot.
James Bond wears tuxedos and drives flashy cars to connote his sophistication. Wayne Manor is a magnificent mansion to connote Bruce Wayne’s unimaginable wealth whereas Peter Parker lives in a simple apartment to demonstrate his humbler background. And the train to Hogwarts departs from Platform 9 ¾, connoting the world of magic Harry Potter is about to enter.
Although these examples come from comic books and novels, the signs will continue to function as semantic codes when they are adapted for the big screen. Put simply, the establishing shot of Wayne Manor in every Batman film connotes his immense wealth.
Symbolic codes are best defined as thematic or structural devices.
Barthes suggested symbolic codes are a “battle” between contrasting signs. For example, the words “hot” and “cold” could be two very different semantic codes. However, when they are placed together in a story, the binary opposites help emphasise the difference between whatever characters or setting are being represented. It is the writer’s deliberate use of antithesis that elevates the signs to symbolic codes.
The different colours of lightsabers in the Star Wars franchise are obvious examples of symbolic codes. The Jedi’s lightsabers are typically blue or green, whereas the Sith use red-bladed weapons which are more menacing and aggressive. This simple contrast highlights their very different views of the Force.
Some signs might also recur throughout the text, but our interpretation of their meaning gradually shifts so they become symbolic codes.
Sticking with Star Wars, in “A New Hope”, Luke Skywalker climbs out of his home in Tatooine to stare at the two suns setting on the horizon. In 1977, when the film was released, this shot demonstrated the protagonist’s innate desire to leave the planet and explore the universe. It could be labelled as a semantic code.
However, when J.J. Abrams recalls this iconic shot in the final scene of “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019), it becomes a symbolic code because the director is inviting the audience to compare and contrast Rey’s experience to Luke’s story in the first film.
We are going to look at another symbolic code because it will help explain the use of a cultural code later in this guide. In Stanley Kubric’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), the film begins with a sequence called “The Dawn of Man”. After the arrival of a mysterious monolith, a monkey realises he can use an animal bone as a tool or weapon. When the launches the bone into the air, the director famously jump cuts to a spaceship travelling to the moon.
Kubric is juxtaposing these two signs to force the audience to compare the monkey’s evolution to mankind’s technological progress. This structural device turns the two images into symbolic codes.
Barthes admitted it was difficult to separate semantic and symbolic codes because they both work on a connotative level. Remember, the use of antithesis is the key difference between the two narrative codes.
Many stories allude to concepts and ideas that exist outside the text. In order for these signifiers to be decoded fully by the audience, that information needs to be part of our framework of knowledge. These cultural codes include historical, social, psychological or literary references.
“The Big Bang Theory” is full of references to science-fiction texts, such as Star Trek and Star Wars. For example, Howard has two replica lightsabers above his bed, and Raj gives him a lightsaber belt buckle as an apology.
“The Simpsons” also incorporates lots of popular culture into their episodes. The following extract is an homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”:
The joke is straightforward: even the intervention of an alien monolith cannot help Homer Simpson to evolve. It is important to note that audiences also appreciate this sort of clever intertextuality.
To illustrate his five narrative codes, Barthes focused on a novella written by Honoré de Balzac called “Sarrasine” (1830). In fact, the title of the story and its first sentence contain all five of his codes.
Barthes argued the unusual title was a hermeneutic code because it forced the reader to question the meaning of the word. It is not revealed until much later in the story that Sarrasine actually refers to a sculptor of that name.
Read the opening sentence and try label each part with Barthes’ other codes:
I was deep in one of those daydreams which overtake the shallowest of men, in the midst of the most tumultuous parties.Honoré de Balzac
The phrase “I was deep in” is a proairetic code because it simply describes the action of the narrator. It works on a basic denotative level.
The signifier “tumultuous party” refers to a social gathering, but it also connotes wealth and sophistication, especially in the 1800s. Therefore, it is a semantic code.
However, the narrator universalises his situation by comparing himself to the “shallowest of men” at “tumultuous parties”. In other words, everyone has experienced this situation because “parties” are a regular feature of our social lives. This makes the phrase a cultural code. Barthes recognised that most signifiers are cultural, but his cultural codes rely on our own experience and framework of knowledge to make full sense of the image.
In terms of symbolic code, there is a contrast established in this sentence between the individual’s “daydreams” and the group of people enjoying themselves at the party. The narrator’s quiet self-absorption is given a deeper significance because it is being compared to the lively and loud gathering. The writer juxtaposes the two concepts so the reader can draw a more rhetorical interpretation of the text – the antithesis between the personal and collective identity.
A more recent example might help explain Barthes’ five narrative codes so we are going to look at Disney’s “Frozen 2”.
The sequel relies more on hermeneutic codes than the first film. When Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling out to her in the night, it leads her on an incredible journey to the Enchanted Forest and the mythical river, Ahtohallan, to discover the truth about her family and the past. The enigma is solved when she learns about the source of her own magical powers and the origins of the terrible conflict between Arendelle and Nuthuldran.
“Frozen 2” is a fantasy film full of adventure so it is no surprise it contains lots of proairetic codes. After Arendelle suffers from some very strange misfortunes, Grand Pappie informs our heroes that the spirits are angered by an evil wrongdoing which has to be corrected. This is the main quest of the narrative.
Later, Elsa finds her parents’ wrecked ship and a map to Nuthuldran, enabling her to continue her search for the truth. Anna awakens the Earth spirits in order to destroy the dam and Elsa is able to divert the flood and save Arendelle from certain destruction. All these plot points are action codes.
The name Olaf is a good example of a semantic code because the pun on “laugh” points to his role as the comic relief in the film. When Kristoff sings about being “lost in the woods”, it connotes his inability to express his feelings and propose to Anna.
This song also contains an homage to Queen’s music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”. However, cultural codes are not limited to intertextual references.
Consider the formal clothing worn by Kristoff for Anna’s coronation at the end of the film. With our framework of knowledge about royalty, the audience will recognise the character’s new status because his outfit consists of shiny black shoes, trousers, and jacket with gold details.
Finally, an obvious symbolic code is the antithesis between the progression of time and the firmness of the love between the main characters. The wind might get a little colder, but their connection to each other will never fade – “the flag will always fly”.
For his analysis of “Sarrasine”, Barthes divided the text into units of reading, or lexias. A lexia might include a few words or stretch to several sentences, but they can all be labelled with his five codes. This term might be useful when you are using Barthes’ approach to analyse a media text.