The Author according to Barthes and McEwan

The Author, like any other prominent figure in society, has been subject of fluctuating viewpoints over time. Few, however, have been pronounced dead. Barthes in his 1968 famous essay “Death of the Author” extravagantly declares the death of the Author and the birth of the reader. It is the purpose of this work to look at his work under the light of a text self-conscious about the theme of authorship, Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement. First it is necessary to better understand what Barthes means by the ‘death’ of the author, in his essay Barthes says,

As soon as a fact is narrated  no longer in a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs , the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.

He derives this idea from Linguistics (Wilson, 2004) views that language does not represent a person but a subject. The word I does not allude to me as a person but to an idea. Bathes, taking this into consideration then understands that by the act of writing one obliterates his own individuality becoming simply a vehicle through which writing takes place. Therefore it is useless to try to fathom the author’s intention when writing a text, it is the reader, Barthes argues, that holds the treads of meaning, solely consolidating the readings of the text within himself. Barthes also speaks of the ‘modern scriptor’, his idealised version of the new author who should write for the sake of language itself. Writing, for Barthes, is not about depicting or imbuing one’s work with ideals, individual concepts or any concern with depicting the world around us as we see it, a quote from Barthes’ essay should clarify it further,

Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer believe, as according to the pathetic view of his predecessors, that this hand is too slow for his thought or passion and that consequently, making a law of necessity, he must emphasize this delay and indefinitely ‘polish’ his form. For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin – or which at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.

For him, therefore, texts should be devoid of any form of expression from its writer being up for the reader to make of it what he wills. This directly counters Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, which is as much about the struggle of authorship as it is a criticism on pre-War society and an attempt on representing the horrors of war. Although this 2001 novel is by no means as groundbreaking as Barthes’ essay, it raises issues related to the very subject of which Barthes speaks of in his work: a piece of literary work ascribed to an author. In it, McEwan expresses views far different from the French scholar’s in its own internal narrative.

The overall plot is not overly complex or convoluted; it follows what the book itself self-consciously calls in one of its many storytelling concerned passages ‘a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens.’ It is divided in three numbered parts and a final part titled ‘London 1999’; part one tells us of the events in the Tallis House in a particularly awful summer in the year of 1935, it is here that we are introduced to the two, arguably, main characters of the story, Briony Tallis a 13 year old ambitious writer, who has problems separating her role of Author-God from her real life and Robbie Turner a young Cambridge student who is in love with his benefactor’s daughter and Briony’s older sister Cecilia Tallis, his life is irreparably ruined by the little girl’s overpowered imagination.

Part two focuses solely on Robbie’s retreated through a war ravaged French countryside; unlike part one where the focus point of the narrative shifted to and from several different characters, its style also changes with crispier shorter sentences, Part three returns us to budding writer Briony now a trainee nurse in London, following in the footsteps of her now estranged older sister, at the end she meets Robbie and Cecilia again seeking atonement for her crime of separating them. Finally in the last part name London 1999 we meet a 77 year old Briony who is a successful writer and is dying of vascular dementia, it is here that we learn that the previous three parts constituted Briony’s book and attempt at redemption for separating Robbie, who died in at the end of his retreat from France, and Cecilia who died 3 months after him in a blitz attack on Balham Underground Station.

It is this final part framing the narrative and the character of Briony that interests us most in a discussion of authorship. As a child, Briony is the opposite of Barthes’ ‘modern scriptor’; she is controlling over not only her literary work but also the world around her, which must be ordered according to her ideals and narrative interests. She is the embodiment of the Author-God that Barthes professes against, as can be seen in the description of her room and the overseeing of her mother’s reading of her play controlling her reading, however this does not mean that McEwan identifies himself with authoritative supremacy, far on he contrary, Briony is a troubled character, she has a penchant for secrets, but no one wants to know of them and this vexes her. For her, life is meaningless without the other, without the reader, but this is a reader whose sole purpose is to read what she wants them to read. She does not see the reader/other as a person but as a tool for self-gratification and it is this trait that leads to the tragic events in the story.

Barthes says in his essay that writing is, ‘but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’ this view in particular might not have been shared by Briony as we meet her in part 3, however many other ideas which they both share can be seen on the following extract regarding her thoughts on her own piece of writing titled ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’,

What excited her about her achievement was its design, the pure geometry and the defining uncertainty which reflected, she thought, a modern sensibility. The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. (…) A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony.

Briony does not go as far as Barthes, who believes that writing is pure inscription of language. Her views reflect a structuralist standpoint. Briony however quickly comes to change her ideas as her work is criticised in a letter for lacking the backbone of a story, this letter strikes a personal note with her as can be seen from her reaction to it,

Did she really think she could really hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream – three streams! – of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella – and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story she lacked. It was backbone.

Atonement is very much a work of literary ‘evolution’. Not only does McEwan change the style of the narrative and locations depicted throughout the book, from an Austen-like idyllic country house to a realist war novel,  but so does the opinion of his character-author on literary practice. By learning that the three first parts of the work of fiction, is Briony’s attempt at atonement, the readers is led to question the very significance of the act of writing. Briony is an author with a vision and a clear intent that are then imbued into her work, as is McEwan or any other writer before and after him, even, I dare say, Barthes himself. Proof of this is his choice of extreme language in expressing his point (buried authors, pathetic views, cut off hands, pure gestures) clearly designed to shock and impress his reader. Tthere is also the curious and self-contradicting fact that Barthes draws on many different authors to validate his argument and that, after declaring the death of the Author, he signs his own essay.

McEwan ends the book with Briony musing over the role of the author as the creator God and of the reader. In her boo,k the ending, or so she says, is closed: the couple survives; on the other hand, McEwan kills them off in his meta-narrative by transforming the previous parts into Briony’s work. This leads to a final and important theme of the book, which also influences one’s reading of Barthes’ work, the validity of readings and the power of fiction, the later prominent in the passage involving Briony and the French patient Luc Cornet. Here Briony learns to let go of the real and engage into Luc’s fantasy in order to facilitate his last moments, her ‘Yes’ to his ‘Do you love me?’ is no less real then one uttered by real lovers not engaged in role playing.

While I agree with Barthes premise that each reader’s reading of text is equally valid, it is excessive to declare the author ‘dead’. The author reduces the number of possible readings through plot and language, which in turn stem from his own vision and intention for the text.  Moreover, the very act of reading is a learning experience in viewing the world through different angles. Thus the figure of the author provides as good an angle as any other. Although the author is by no means the source of ultimate and universal truth of the text, in fact, the figure of the author as a unique individual, socially constructed or not, is necessary for the enrichment of the reader.

Yet both Barthes and McEwan seem to agree that there is no universal truth, either in the real world or in the fictional world of a novel, as can be seen in Briony’s statement that after her death she will be as much of fantasy as her surviving lovers.


  • Barry, P. (1995) Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.
  • Barthes, R. (1977) “Death of the Author” in S. Heath (ed) Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Finney, B. (2004) “Briony’s Stand Against Oblivion: The Making of Fiction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement” in Journal of Modern Literature – Volume 27, Number 3, Winter 2004, pp. 68-82.
  • McEwan, I. (2001) Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Park, C. C. (1990) “Author! Author! Reconstructing Roland Barthes” in The Hudson Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 377-398.
  • Wilson, A. (2004) “Foucault on the “Question of the Author”: A Critical Exegesis” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 99, No. 2 (Apr., 2004), pp. 339-363.