Roland Barthes was born in Cherbough, Manche. After his father's death in a naval battle in 1916, Barthes' mother Henriette Binger Barthes moved to Bayonne, where Barthes spent his childhood. In 1924 she moved with her son to Paris, where Barthes attended the Lycée Montaigne (1924-30) and Lycée Louis-le-Grand (1930-34). In 1927 Henriette gave birth to an illegitimate child, Michel Salzado, Barthes' half-brother. When Barthes' grandparents refused to give her financial help, she supported her family as a bookbinder. At the Sorbonne Barthes studied classical literature, Greek tragedy, grammar and philology, receiving degrees in classical literature (1939) and grammar and philology (1943).
In 1934 Barthes contracted tuberculosis and spent the years 1934-35 and 1942-46 in sanatoriums. During the Occupation he was in a sanatorium in the Isère. Numerous relapses with tuberculosis prevented him from carrying out his doctoral research, but he read avidly, founded a theatrical troupe, and began to write. Barthes was a teacher at lycées in Biarritz (1939), Bayonne (1939-40), Paris (1942-46), at the French Institute in Bucharest, Romania (1948-49), University of Alexandria, Egypt (1949-50), and Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles (1950-52). In 1952-59 he had research appointments with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, from 1960 to 1976 he was a director of studies at École Pratique des Hautes Études. In 1967-68 he taught at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and from 1976 to 1980, he was the chair of literary semiology at Collège de France.
Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953) was initially published as articles in Albert Camus' journal, Combat. It established Barthes as one of leading critics of Modernist literature in France. It introduced the concept of écriture as distinguished from style, language, and writing. The work connected him closely with the writers of nouveau roman. He was the first critic to identify the goals of the writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. Barthes looked at the historical conditions of literary language and posed the difficulty of a modern practice of writing: committed to language the writer is at once caught up in particular discursive orders.
In Michelet par lui-même (1954), a biography of Jules Michelet, a 19th-century historian, Barthes focused on Michelet's personal obsessions and saw that they are part of his writing, and give existential reality to the historical moments related by the historian's writing. In Mythologies (1957) Barthes used semiological concepts in the analysis of myths and signs in contemporary culture. His material was newspapers, films, shows, exhibitions, because of their connection to ideological abuse. Barthes' starting point was not in the traditional value judgments and investigation of the author's intentions, but in the text itself as a system of signs, whose underlying structure forms the meaning of the work as a whole. An advertising firm found Barthes' works so compelling that it persuaded him to work briefly as a consultant for the auto-manufacturer Renault.
Barthes' study Sur Racine (1963) caused some controversy because of its nonscholarly appreciation of Racine. Raymond Picard, a Sorbonne professor and Racine scholar, criticized in his Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? (1965) the subjective nature of Barthes' essays. Barthes answered in Critique et vérité (1966), which postulated a science of criticism to replace the university criticism perpetuated by Picard and his colleagues. Barthes recommended that criticism become a science and showed that critical terms and approaches are connected to dominant class-ideology. The values of clarity, nobility, and humanity, taken as a self-evident basis for a research, are a censoring force on other kinds of approach.
During his career, Barthes published more essays than substantial studies, presenting his views among others in subjective aphorism and not in the form of theoretical postulates. In Le plaisir du texte(1973) Barthes developed further his ideas of the personal dimensions in relationship with the text. Barthes analyzed his desire to read along with his likes, dislikes, and motivations associated with that activity. L'Empire des signes (1970) was written after Barthes's visit to Japan, and dealt with the country's myths.
In El´ments de Sémiologie (1964) Barthes systematized his views on the science of signs, based on Ferdinand de Saussure's concept of language and analysis of myth and ritual. Barthes made his most intensive application of structural linguistics in S/Z (1970). By analyzing phase-by-phase Balzac's short story Sarrasine, he dealt with the experience of reading, the relations of the reader as subject to the movement of language in texts. According to Barthes, classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader. But the reader is the space, in which all the multiple aspects of the text meet. A text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. The study has become the focal point and model for multilevel literary criticism because of its analytical concentration on the structural elements that constitute the literary whole.
Barthes' last book was La chambre claire (1980), in which photography is discussed as a communicating medium. It was written in the short space between his mother's death and his own. Photography, especially portraits, was for him a magic, not an art. Through his life Barthes lived with or near his mother, who died in 1977. Barthes died three years later in Paris as the result of a street accident on March 23, 1980. Posthumously published Incidents (1987) revealed the author's homosexuality and secret passions.