Five codes

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Five codes


R. Barthes

Histo-geographical placement

This theory was proposed in the book S/Z, a comprehensive narrative analysis of the short novel by Balzac called "Sarrazine". Written in 1970, 4 years after his introduction to narratology, it favors a rich and subtle analysis over structure and formalisation of narrative components.

Type of story

Directly inspired by a literary text, this theory however does not seem to exclude other genres and media.

Parent Theories

Narrative units analysis, by the same author.

Child Theories


Brief Description

The approach adopted in this theory consists in analysing a text in all its complexity and richness, and considering that everything is meaningful.

This "step-by-step" analysis of one novel leads R. Barthes to five codes, that is, five general axes of meaning. Each sentence can be attached to one or more of these codes. The five codes are:

  • HER: Hermeneutic Code - refers to enigmas, that is, to the way knowledge about story elements is progressively disclosed to the reader.
  • ACT: Action or proairetic Code - refers to the behaviours that characters perform within the story.
  • SEM: Semic Code - refers to the connotations of story elements, which thematic categories such as wealth, perversion, or femininity are evoked by the narrative.
  • SYM: Symbolic Code - refers to large themes, along which many story elements are articulated. The symbols are subject of conflicting statements within the story.
  • REF: Referential or cultural Code - is the reference to common knowledge from a given culture, outside the narrative itself. This is related to the concept of encyclopedic competency introduced in the theory of possible worlds, as described by U. Eco.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Current Interactive Storytelling applications have mostly used the action code. Some system however explore other codes:

  • Within the Mimesis project, various aspects related to the way knowledge is provided to the user (foreshadowing for example) clearly relates to the hermeneutic code.
  • The Theme Illustrator system (Hargood, et al., 2011) aims at enhancing the quality of stories by adding illustrations related the connotative meaning (semantic code).

Systems/Tools using this theory



S/Z on Wikipedia.