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Death of the Author with Reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall through the Lens of Reader-Response Theory

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Roland Barthes was born on November 12, 1915 at Normandy in France. He was a literary critic, theorist, semiotician and philosopher. Barthes as the French writers, helped in the development of several schools of theory such as anthropology, semiotics, social theory, design theory, structuralism and post-structuralism. He was well recognized in the field of semiotics. The “Combat” was his first literary work which became the foundation for his successive works. ‘Writing Degree Zero’ was his first full-length work which was published in 1953. ‘S/Z’ published in 1970 is one of his most important works and offers a structuralist analysis of ‘Sarrasine’. Apart from being a famous French philosopher, Barthes was also one of the key proponents of Reader-Response Criticism which emerged from his essay, “Death of the Author” published in 1967. This artistic work remained as one of the important literary principles till date. Barthes’ essay argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. Roland Barthes in the essay (1967) says, “…the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins”. Therefore, this essay became his tool to attack the traditional literary analysis. This essay is believed to have had a major impression in literary criticism and is considered a masterpiece that helped develop structuralism and post-structuralism ideologies. This paper attempts to analyze subject matter of the poems, traditional literary criticism, death of the author and birth of the reader and, the role reversal of author and reader. An analysis will be done with reference to Robert Frost’s poems “Mending Wall” and “The Road Not Taken”.

The subject matter of the poems are on the purpose of communal existence with values and importance of decision making. The “Mending Wall” literally talks about an issue of having wall which keeps the neighbours divided in the society. It discusses the opposing idea of two neighbours upon the wall. But then it is one way of living which gives harmonious existence in the community. The poetic persona seems to argue that he is against the idea of having a fence where there is no cows. On the other hand, the other neighbour keeps insisting for maintaining the wall annually in which the fence make them a good neighbours. However, the metaphorical concepts of “Mending wall”, could be interpreted in a way reconciling the human relationship between family, society and the country at large. Here, in these poems, Frost has used the wall and the road as symbol to unfold the meaning of the poems. “The Road Not Taken” talks about choices and decision making in life as one often comes across. Decision making is an important aspect of life and people often find it as a difficult task. Many people regret upon making inappropriate decision where they land up in trouble. It specially happens in marriage when one cannot make a decision wisely. This essay will discuss this poem through the lens of “Reader Response theory”. The poem generally speaks about making of wise decision as it is always associate with people. It deliberates about the two roads that go through the forest in which one is less travelled and the other one is often used. The poetic persona chooses the road in the woods that is less travelled which has made difference in his life. On the other hand, the under lying connotation could be on marriage, taking up a new job, joining an adventurous journey, choosing academic courses in colleges and universities, making a critical judgment etc. which would certainly make difference in one’s life if chosen carefully. If not it is very much sure that one has to regret because thing does not give satisfaction. The following lines support this argument, “Two road diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” (Frost, line: 18-20). However, for some other people, choosing the untrodden road may not make difference, thus, it differs from individual to individual. The Road Not Taken, conveys that one must make a good decision in life for the sake of success and happiness. However, a success and happiness do not always depend in good decision and sometime it might downturn. However, sometimes, it happens as a blessing in disguise and that accomplishment can be equated with that of chosen success and happiness.

Barthes questions the traditional way of studying and analyzing the text which is author-centered in nature. Traditional literary criticism focused too much on the author where he is seen as a medium through which the work is expressed and the meaning of the text was understood from the author’s point of view. Barthes ask readers to adopt a more text oriented approach that focuses on the reader’s interaction, not the writer. For example, Robert frost is a well-known American nature poet and most of his poems are based on the nature themes. As a reader one may conclude or expect to have elements of nature in his poem though the poem may not have it. This is what conventional literary theory emphases upon the author’s context. However, Barthes opposes the idea of author-centric work and says that any literary work should be free of writer’s personalities. In the essay Tradition and Individual Talent, Eliot (1919) stated that a great poetry may be made without the direct used of any emotion, whatever composed without feelings solely. Here, he has emphasized about the theory of impersonality in which he deliberates that the piece of literature should not be influenced by the writer, or a literary work should be free of author’s prejudices. The term ‘author’ is derived from French word ‘auteur’ which means authoritarian. According to the meaning of “author”, a writer should have complete authority over his creation. This is how literature in the past were studied which limited the scope for the readers to create new meaning from the texts. However, Barthes proclaims that author does not have power over his writing, therefore, creator and his creation are considered to be two different entities because the writer and the book become isolated. The “Mending Wall” according to the author, it stands as barrier that keeps the neighbours divided which also engages them in annual reconstruction, thus, he does not want the wall. He expresses his emotions and personalities through this poem. This is evident from the lines:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it…

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…I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone…” (Frost, 1914, line, 1-7).

This is how an author uses his authority to have control over his work which is full of his personalities. That is why the new critics like Barthes, Eliot and others attacked on the conventional literary theory. This interpretation of the author can have completely different perspective for a reader who does not take the author into consideration. For instance, a reader may interpret the lines as, a challenge faced by a student in order to get through from one to another grade despite hard work. No matter how hard one works by all the possible means but fails as if a teacher does not love and fails him or her. “The task of meaning making falls in the destination of a reader” (Gallix, A. 2010). Through this statement one can understand that Gallix is also inclined towards Barthes’s standpoint. The interpretation of the literature would lie upon author’s context if a reader evaluates the work through author’s prospective. However, he argues that the author has no authority over the literary works once it is published. He further argues that the author does not hold much of the responsibility after the creation of work. While writing, author claim that it is his idea but in fact he borrows the ideas from already existing sources such as literature, arts and so on. He states that when the piece of literary work is created, somehow it exhibits different ideas such as language, culture and beliefs and the work of an author needs to be re-examine for authorship. Therefore, Barthes said that “text is a tissue of citations resulting from thousand source of culture” Barthes, 1967, p. 4).

Roland Barthes highlights another noteworthy argument in his essay and says “the death of author must be ransomed by the birth of the reader” (Barthes, 1967). In this, he allegorically stated that birth of the reader happens at the cost of the death of the author. Since the reader has occupied the place of the author, now reader must shoulder the responsibility of the author creating the meaning of the text. On the other hand, once the piece of writing is published, the choices of interpreting the concept and meaning lies in the reader where one should ignore the presence of the author. As a reader one must read, re-read, interpret and re-interpret the text in order to understand in-depth concept and meaning hence one cannot simply generalize a piece of writing based on the author’s background. For instance, “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple tree will never get across and eat the cones under his pines” (Frost, 1914, line; 24-26). Based on these lines, one cannot directly conclude that this Mending Wall is about a nature recalling the poet’s context. Through these lines a reader may view it as human relationship and peaceful co-existence which does not know the boundary. The most important aspect of the reader will have to be a careful analysis of the text to create a true meaning and essence of the text. Barthes holds that reader can truly create the multiple meaning for the text than the author. Whenever, the reader approaches the text he should not be preoccupied by the author’s context before reading the text. Likewise, in the poem “The Road Not Taken”, Frost has laid the scope for the readers to comprehend the poem and interpret their understanding because the poem appears bit ambiguous in which reader can take chance to re-interpret it ignoring the poet’s intension. For instance, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood, and look down one as far as I could to where it bent in the under growth” (Frost, 1916, stanza 1). Through this lines, Frost, conveys that in life such critical situation arises in which one cannot decide or choose the options lying before where one needs to make a careful decision what to choose and what not. Then Frost further says that he would share the story of his journey in the times to come with a sigh of satisfaction if he meets with a success, if not with a sigh of regret. This is evident from the line, “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: … and that has made all the difference”. (Frost, 1916, stanza, 4). In reality it is quite difficult to make a wise decision sometime. People encounter challenges in terms of decision making in life. For instance, marriage, employment, purchasing property and pursuing academic courses etcetera are the critical aspect of life where one needs to make a careful judgment and wise decision. In such cases if one makes quick decision then one may have to face serious consequences.

Barthes’s “Death of the Author” is also a deliberation on the rules of author and reader. His essential argument is that the author has no sovereignty over his own words as they belong to the reader who interpret them once it is published. This means that the author has no control or influence over the readers. He states that when reader encounters a literary manuscript, he need not ask what the author intends to say but the words themselves should speak their meaning. The text employs symbols which are decoded by booklovers and since the purpose of the text is to be read, the author and course of writing becomes irrelevant. This study identifies the reader as an important and dynamic instrument who is accountable to communicate the real meaning of the literary composition. Barthes states that the “meaning of the text neither lies in author nor the text itself rather it lies exclusively upon the reader” (Barthes, 1967). The writer and the text have no authority over giving meaning but reader has power to create it. The readers unfold the meaning of the text by reading, rereading, interpreting and reinterpreting a piece of text. Therefore, Frost states that he took the other road that looks fair enough which gave a better hope to travel through to his destination. This is evident from the line “Then took the other as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear; though as that the passing there had won them really about the same” (Frost, 1916, stanza 2). Barthes proclaims that “birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”, this statement states a true essence of the theory. According to Barthes, “the intentions of the author becomes irrelevant once the writing is over. The authority to create meaning of the text completely lies upon the readers. For instance, Frost in his “Mending Wall” states that “He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well, He says again, Good fences make good neighbours” (Frost, 1914, line, 43-45). Here, whatever the author’s intention may be but a reader may say that having ‘Wall’ is something a good tradition and value that maintains harmony between the two families or the neighbours. He emphasizes the reader-centered approach in learning and analyzing any literature. If the work is read through the context of the writer then it limits the scope of interpretation by the reader. For instance, it appears like taking photograph of three dimensional object thus reducing it into two dimensions.

To conclude, the essay “Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes discusses primarily on ‘death of the author and the birth of a reader’. Barthes focusses on the importance of the reader response and disregards the author’s message while dealing with any literature. He opposes the traditional method of literary criticism which is grounded with author’s context by putting forward the Reader-response criticism. He believes in impersonality of author while writing any literary composition. He is against the idea of author-centric work which kills the creativity of the readers. In this regard Barthes argues that the writer-centric works limit the scope of the learner’s interaction with the text and creation of meaning. This essay also analyzed the general theme of the poems “Mending Wall” and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. These poems deliberated on co-existence as part of community and making choices and decisions in life. These poems have been analyzed from reader’s point of view. In fact, this theory encourages the reader to come forward to interact with literature of their interest and build their intellectual capacity. Reading is the chief source of learning in order grow rationally and wisely.

Reference

  1. Cultural Reader. (2017). Short summary: Death of the Author – Roland Barthes Retrieved on 19/10/2019 from http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2017/02/roland-barthes-death-of-author-summary.html
  2. Ramaswami, S & Seturaman, V.S. (2017). The English Critical Tradition, An Anthology of English Literary Criticism (Volume 2). Tradition and the Individual Talent.
  3. Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Retrieved on 19/10/2019 from http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf
  4. Gallix. A (2010). Analysis of Poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost Retrieved on 18/10/2019 from https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-The-Road-Not-Taken-by-Robert-Frost
  5. The FAMOUS PEOPLE. (n.d). Roland Barthes Biography, Retrieved on 07/10/2019 from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/roland-barthes-2747.php

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Death of the Author with Reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall through the Lens of Reader-Response Theory. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-the-author-with-reference-to-robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-and-mending-wall-through-the-lens-of-reader-response-theory/
“Death of the Author with Reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall through the Lens of Reader-Response Theory.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-the-author-with-reference-to-robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-and-mending-wall-through-the-lens-of-reader-response-theory/
Death of the Author with Reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall through the Lens of Reader-Response Theory. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-the-author-with-reference-to-robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-and-mending-wall-through-the-lens-of-reader-response-theory/> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2022].
Death of the Author with Reference to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall through the Lens of Reader-Response Theory [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Dec 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/death-of-the-author-with-reference-to-robert-frosts-the-road-not-taken-and-mending-wall-through-the-lens-of-reader-response-theory/
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