Born on November 12, 1915, in Cherbourg, France, French literary philosopher Roland Barthes was educated at the Sorbonne, and went on to help establish structuralism as one of the leading intellectual movements of the 20th century. His work made important advances in the areas of semiotics, anthropology and post-structuralism. Barthes died in Paris in 1980.
Roland Gérard Barthes was born on November 12, 1915, in Cherbourg, France. When Barthes was an infant, his father was killed in a naval battle. Shortly thereafter, his mother, Henriette Barthes, moved the family to Bayonne, where Roland spent most of his early childhood. In 1924, the Bartheses moved to Paris, where Roland first studied at the Lycée Montagne. From 1930 to 1934, he was enrolled at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
Barthes's prominent grandfather was a famous explorer and colonial administrator. Though his grandparents were wealthy, food often lacked in his home; his grandparents refused to help them after Barthes's mother bore an illegitimate child. His mother then worked as a bookbinder to make ends meet.
In the late 1930s and early '40s, Barthes continued his education at the Sorbonne, focusing on classical letters, grammar, philology and Greek tragedy. During this time, he fell ill to tuberculosis, spending time in sanatoriums during the occupation (from 1934 to 1935, and from 1942 to 1946).
Roland Barthes taught at many schools, including in Biarritz, Bayonne and Paris (1939-46), as well as at the French Institute in Bucharest (1948-49), the University of Alexandria in Egypt (1949-50) and the Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles (Directorate General of Cultural Affairs, 1950-52). He then worked in research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre for Scientific Research, 1952-59), later moving into a directorship of studies position at the École Practique des Hautes Étude (Practical School of Higher Studies; 1960-76). Barthes came stateside to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1967-68), and went on to act as chair of the literary semiology at the Collège de France (College of France, 1976-80).
Barthes wrote several books over his teaching career, including Writing Degree Zero (1953), Criticism and Truth (1966) and S/Z (1970), which analyzed the fiction of Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine.
Barthes became known as a leading critic of his time with his 1977 book, A Lover's Discourse, which sold more than 60,000 copies in his native country. The book was translated into other languages to reach audiences throughout Europe and in America. Barthes's works influenced structuralism, semiotics and anthropology.
An influential thinker, Barthes delved into complex theoretical concepts and was skilled as an interpreter and a disseminator. He questioned how much one could understand the written word in relation to speech, stating in Image-Music-Text (1977): "For writing can tell the truth on language, but not the truth on the real... ."
Influenced by his mother's death, in October 1977—an event that left him devastated—Barthes wrote his final book, La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida), discussing photography as a mean of communication, in 1980. (Barthes and his mother had lived together for nearly 60 years prior to her death.)
Barthes fell ill during his young adult years, which, along with the realization that he was homosexual, affected his self-esteem. He was able to make close friendships, including with famed psychologist and writer Julia Kristeva, of whom he once reportedly said, "She's the only person I'm really in love with, the only woman who could make me change my sexuality."
Friends noted Barthes's loyalty, thoughtfulness and inability to say "no" to requests. They also praised his rich voice (Barthes enjoyed music and even took singing lessons).
Succumbing to injuries that he'd sustained after being hit by a vehicle weeks earlier, Roland Barthes died in Paris on March 25, 1980, at the age of 64.