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Essay “Toys “from Roland Barthes Book Mythologies

For the purpose of analysis, I have chosen the essay “Toys “from Barthes book Mythologies. In this essay, he analyses the denotation and connotation of children's playthings and what underlying message the playthings convey. He was one of the first theorists to understand and assert that these toys are pre-conditioning children to the specific gender roles that they will be expected to assume in later stages of their life. He says that "All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world"(Barthes, 1972, p.53), and that for instance, a girls doll is "meant to 'condition' her to her future role as a mother" (Barthes, 1972, p.53).

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What Is the Purpose of 'Toys' by Roland Barthes

The article proceeds to point the unfairness of limiting the imagination of the children to the gender roles that they have to play in later stages of their lives.

"French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators." (p. 54) where toys are a "microcosm" of life according to Barthes, French toys are an illustration of the belief that children are a miniature reflection of adults. Barthes argues that toys offer too much direction to children in their play and they do not allow children to indulge in their own imagination.

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Toys by Roland Barthes Critical Analysis

Here we shall analyze the element of language of the essay ‘Toys” by Roland Barthes in the light of his own theory of language.

In the essay Toys, Barthes uses the concept of language as a semiotic. The same approach was first used by Varda Leymore (1975). As indicated by Ferdinand Saussure (1949, p.100), signifiers (basic objects) are connected to signified (concepts) by the signification process. Barthes’s explanation of semiotic in a language goes beyond this. According to him, the sign can take part in a new level of signification when the sign becomes a signifier for a new signified at another level.

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... le signe linguistique unit non une chose et un nom, mais un concept et une image acoustique (Saussure: 1949 p.98)

The basic level of signification or denotation as Barthes calls it can become the basis for another signification or connotation. To Barthes, this second level of meaning at the level of denotation is the mythological meaning or cultural association that underlies the primary linguistic meaning. He names the language system that myth appropriates the "language-object", while myth itself is termed the "meta language", i.e. that language which is used to structure and manipulate everyday language. On the level of everyday language, the signifier is the "meaning" but on the level of myth, it becomes the "form". The signified remains the "concept" in both cases. That which is the "sign" on the first level, however, is equated to "signification" at the level of myth.

L. Hjelmslev’s Theory

Barthes basis his theory of language on L. Hjelmslev’s theory which describes the usage of the language to govern the sign’s structure, operation and signification, Barthes contradicted Saussure’s declaration that linguistics is a part of semiology as he claims it is semiology that is a part of linguistics. He uses his linguistic analogy to provide insight to the inborn character of society and culture. It shows that Barthes has the view that language has a dual function one being the public view which is available for all to see in a social context and the second is the psychological view that underlies within the public view and communicates the society's real message behind a public view.

We can observe the same system of denotations and connotation in the language analysis of the essay toys, where the everyday toys used for play by children is a denotation that is employed by the French society according to Barthes to define gender roles for children.

As Barthes says in his essay: “French toys: one could not find a better illustration of the fact that the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self. All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they have all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size

The rest of the essay goes on to speak of toys as objects that condition the user for future roles. This theory acts as the connotation of the French society that is the society is sending an underlying message to the children in terms of their preparation for future roles in society. Barthes writes on how the doll conditions little girls for example, “There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an esophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies, soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as a mother”. If we apply this to games played in our modern society, we can immediately see that semiotics, especially as applied to ideology, might shed more light on the role that games play in our globalized society. We have assigned different roles to our children since their childhood through different child play toys.

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Comparing the Essay 'Toys' with the Essay 'Wine and Milk'

Comparing the essay 'Toys' with the essay 'Wine and Milk' in which a construction of French nationhood is examined through the symbolic representation of red wine, the consumption of which is indelibly tied to the concept of "Frenchness", while milk as the "anti-wine" is linked to strength, purity and traditional American values.

In the essay 'Milk and Wine' Barthes points out how society uses cultural material to assert their own values upon others like the portrayal of wine in French society as a robust and healthy habit is ideal perception portrayed by the society for Frenchmen although contradicted by certain realities that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating. He found semiotics, the study of signs, useful in these interrogations. Barthes explained that these cultural myths were second-order signs or connotations. A picture of a full, dark bottle is a sign, a signifier relating to a signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage – wine.

Toys by Roland Barthes Summary

Similarly, In the Essay “Toys” Barthes portrays the effects and messages conveyed by the society to children by categorizing their playthings, preparing them to follow their gender roles at a later stage in life. Here also Barthes uses semiotics for uncovering the underlying message of the society through innocent children's toys.

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