The world of words, reading and writing

Death of the Author

This just in: the author is dead. Ok, this is old news. The author has been dead for 45 years.

In 1967 literary critic Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled ‘Death of the Author’, in which he claimed the author was no longer relevant to an understanding of the text. Anyone who has done high school English will probably remember writing copious essays about how an author’s context influences their values and beliefs, and how these in turn influence the text and the values it expresses. This traditional approach to literary criticism sees the influences on an author – their historical, cultural, geographical, political and religious etc. context – as shaping the author’s text. To understand a text we must first understand the author.

Barthes rejected this approach, saying that “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text”. Basically, Barthes was rejecting a definitive explanation of texts that relied only on authorial intent. I agree wholeheartedly with Barthes. Of course it makes sense when trying to interpret a text’s meaning, to look at what the author may have meant. They DID write it after all. Surely they’re the best judge of what the text meant. But mightn’t a text have more than one meaning? Mightn’t a text have no meaning at all?  If we focus only on trying to discover what the author intended then we miss many other interpretations. How do we know what an author intended anyway?

That’s what I dislike most about traditional literary criticism. It assumes we can definitively know what an author meant. How? How can we read a text, come up with a single explanation of it and decide that is what the author meant?


We can’t. Unless they tell us. And even then, that’s just their interpretation. We can have our own. And if they won’t let us, then there’s only one solution. Kill the authors!

Too late. They’re already dead.

Zombie authors? I’m going to stop writing now.


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2 thoughts on “Death of the Author

  1. I love this! In English class I was always told to be wary of the authorial intent argument; at the same time, there are significant elements, issues, and concepts of an authors’ time that inevitably show up in the authors’ writing, though you are correct, we absolutely cannot assign a specific argument to an author. I really liked your point about how even the author is just interpreting their own work; do you think texts can/should be read as applying universally to any situation, regardless of the context of the author? I just looked at some of Roland Barthes’ works last year; I think you might find Catherine Belsey’s “Critical Practice” on the nature of language interesting.

    Also, I think zombie authors are an excellent idea.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Yeah, we definitely can’t discount an author’s context and their intention and interpretation, but I believe that it isn’t the definitive ‘answer’.
    Your question is an interesting one, but I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking. Do you mean could there be an infinite number of interpretations or meanings to be drawn from it? I guess there would be a limit to what you could draw from a text. When we look back at an older text, we might interpret it through our current context which would differ from the author’s context, so we might be taking a meaning from it that the author never intended. Although, that meaning wouldn’t be wrong.
    Or are the ‘values’ of a text universal? Like, if a text promotes social justice it could be applied to any form of social justice?
    I studied Sylvia Plath’s poetry in English for a topic about post-WW2 and Cold War anxiety. We were supposed to discuss how Plath’s poetry reflected this anxiety, loss of social order etc. but I found her poetry to be intensely personal and thought that we were imposing these ideas and values on her work. I think whatever interpretation a person comes up with is just as valid as any other, but there is a problem when we start claiming it as what the author meant.
    Imagine zombie authors! “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of BRAIIIINS!!!”

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