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Figurative, Thematic and Axiological Analysis

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski



Algirdas Julien Greimas

Figurative / thematic / axiological analysis is based on a semantic typology formulated by Greimas. An element of content (a seme or an isotopy) may be figurative, thematic or axiological. The figurative includes anything that evokes what is perceivable. Conversely, the thematic is characterized by its strictly conceptual nature. For example, love is a theme, and its various concrete manifestations are figures (flowers, kisses, etc.). The figures and themes of a text derive from an axiology: They are correlated with a value in the category euphoria/dysphoria (or in non-technical terms, pleasure/displeasure or positive/negative). For instance, the themes love/hate are generally associated with euphoria and dysphoria, respectively.

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « Figurative, Thematic and Axiological Analysis », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),

An updated and extended version of this chapter can be found in Louis Hébert, An Introduction to Applied Semiotics: Tools for Text and Image Analysis (Routledge, 2019,


Greimas' semantics (or at least his linguistic semantics) is based on the seme, which is part of a signified. The repetition of a seme creates an isotopy. On the textual level (or discursive level, as opposed to the word and sentence levels), isotopies, like the semes upon which they are based, may be classified as figurative, thematic or axiological.


In figurative / thematic / axiological analysis, the theme is by definition opposed to the figure. "In a given universe of discourse (verbal or non-verbal)", figurative elements include "anything that can be directly registered by one of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; that is, anything that concerns perception of the outer world." Conversely, thematic elements "are characterized by their strictly conceptual nature." (Courtés, 1991, 163). For instance, love is a theme whose various perceivable manifestations are figures: flowers, kisses, etc.


Axiology is based on what is known as the thymic category, meaning the opposition euphoria/dysphoria (or, in less technical terms, positive/negative or attractive/repulsive). From this initial opposition, the inventory of axiological values may be created. The primary values are euphoria, dysphoria, phoria (euphoria and dysphoria simultaneously, that is, ambivalence) and aphoria (neither euphoria nor dysphoria, that is, indifference). For other values, and an elaboration of axiological analysis, refer to the chapter on thymic analysis.


Figurative elements are classified as iconic/abstract, while thematic and axiological elements are classified as specific/generic. The first term of each opposition is the more precise (for example, iconic figurative); the second term is the more general (for example, abstract figurative). How an element is classified as iconic/abstract or specific/generic depends on the relationships involved. To illustrate, /movement/ is an abstract figure relative to /dance/, which is an iconic figure; but /dance/ becomes an abstract figure in relation to /waltz/, which is an iconic figure. And the thematic opposition virtue/vice is generic relative to generosity/selfishness, for instance (generosity is only one of many possible virtues). According to Courtés (1991, 243), the axiological category euphoria/dysphoria is generic relative to joy/sorrow or calm/rage.


We must make a distinction between signifier/signified and figure/theme. The signifier is the perceivable part of a sign. (For example, the letters v-e-l-v-e-t of the word "velvet" can be perceived visually.) The signified is the content, the understandable part of the sign. (For example, the signified for "velvet" refers to the idea of a fabric, softness, etc.) The figure is an element of content that evokes sensory perception. (For instance, in the content of the word "velvet", we have the idea of touch.) The theme is an element of content that does not suggest sensory perception. (For example, the content of the word "glory" does not suggest sensory perception, at least not directly.) In other words, despite being quite distinct, figure and signifier are similar in that they are matters of perception, whereas thematic content is in some ways the quintessence of content, because, like the signified, it belongs to the realm of understanding, rather than perception. In short, there is a homology: the signifier is to the figure as the signified is to the theme.

Courtés (1991, 161-176) noticed the homology between signifier/signified and figurative/thematic signifieds, although he qualifies it. The relationship of reciprocal presupposition that is said to underlie the sign (homonymy and polysemy apart, any change to the signifier must produce a change in the signified and vice versa (compare "moose" and "noose", for instance)) does not exist between figure and theme. For example, the figure /tears/ may be related to a theme of either joy or sorrow. There are also figures not attached to any theme and themes with no figures. However, recursivity (the repetition of the signifier/signified structure) does not stop there. As we have just seen, the figurative and thematic sub-categories of the signified are in turn split into the iconic/abstract and specific/generic sublevels respectively. According to Courtés, the iconic figurative element is the signifier's homologue, since it is the figure that yields the best referential illusion (illusion of reality) and elicits the greater sensory response. The same would apply, although to a lesser degree, to the thematic and axiological levels.


It is generally helpful to try and group the figures into oppositions, and the themes as well. In this way, the figure /day/ implies /night/, and the theme /love/ implies /hate/. As for axiological values, although the opposition euphoria/dysphoria is readily accepted, other combinations of axiological values, such as phoria/aphoria are not so easily set in opposition, and are subject to debate.

We shall go on now to the relationships between the different kinds of content. Various relationships may occur between figurative, thematic and axiological contents. We shall focus on the figure-theme relationship, although the same principles are valid for the figure-axiology and theme-axiology relationships. We have the following relationships:

(1) One figure may relate to one theme (especially in the case of stereotypical symbols, as in a horseshoe for luck).

(2) One figure may relate to several themes, which may or may not be grouped into opposition(s) (as in the colour green for hope and Irish-ness).

(3) Several figures, which may or may not be grouped into opposition(s) may relate to a single theme (to take the same example, a horseshoe and a four-leaf clover for luck).

(4) One or more figurative oppositions may relate to one or more thematic oppositions. These oppositions would be homologous with each other. (For example, the figure /high/ is to the theme /ideal/ as the figure /low/ is to the theme /reality/.)


When a relationship is established between a figurative opposition and a thematic opposition, as in day/night (figures) with virtue/crime (themes), it is known as a semi-symbolic relationship in Greimasian semiotics. It is tempting to extend the semi-symbolic relationship to the figure-axiology relationship (for example, day/night and euphoria/dysphoria) and the theme-axiology relationship (hope/despair and euphoria/dysphoria). The common factor in semi-symbolic relationships of any kind would be a homology between two oppositions, one of which is more sensory (perception) and the other of which is more conceptual (understanding). However, the distinction between perception and understanding is the clearest in the figure/theme distinction.

When a one-on-one relationship is established, we call it a symbolic relationship: for example, /boat/ as a figure and /journey/ as a theme, in a case where the boat is the only figure associated with the journey in that particular semiotic act. In all other cases, we speak of relationships as being semiotic, for example, if the relationship is between an element and an opposition (in the same text, tears as a figure may belong with euphoria in one case (tears of joy), and dysphoria in another).


The inventory of figures, themes and axiological values, as well as the relationships between the three kinds of content are likely to vary depending on culture, discourse, genre, the specific semiotic act, the observing subjects (author, narrator, character, etc.), and the particular moment in a given temporality (real time (for example, historical time), thematised time (time as presented in a text or a painting), and so on).


* * *

"I Miss the Land."
Georges Bouchard (1917, 70-71)

To His Honour Judge Pouliot

Thirteen year-old René, face haggard with consumption. He shields his chest with an emaciated hand as if to keep life from pouring out in the fits of coughing. Faintly, these barely spoken words slip out:

"I miss the land."

Poor little flower of the fields, all withered in the city! His father left the farm five years ago to come and work in the factories of Victoriaville.

You are not the only one who feels this way, my little tad...

He stares at me, his big eyes languid from suffering and the lights of eternity already flickering there.

"I miss the land."

This is the unspoken cry, smothered by pride, rising out of the depths of wretched souls in the destitution of the city. Their remorse is all the more intensified by the war, turning into a kind of distress never seen in the countryside.

"I miss the land."

This is the innocent confession of the children suffocating in the tiny courtyards of urban dwellings, starving for air and light. For these youngsters, the wide-open fields, the verdant hillsides and the snowbanks where they first cavorted are a memory that calls out incessantly.

"I miss the land."

This is the deep scar that cuts to the heart when the factory worker in the city recalls the freedom of being in the fields. Gaiety, tenderness, intimacy, domestic peace - these are rural products that often perish when exported.

"I miss the land."

This is the truth that emanates from the works of many famous writers who have made their homes out in the fields and woods, like Botrel, Mercier, Bazin, ...

"I miss the land."

This is the cry of longing that shrouds the gentle soul, full of dignity and ideals ... without ever being voiced.

— My boy, you miss the land, but soon you will go live in the gardens of Paradise...

You miss the land... So do I.

* * *

We shall apply figurative, thematic and axiological analysis summarily to "I Miss the Land", a French-Canadian rural legend (for further analysis, see Hébert 2000). We consider the central figurative opposition to be a spatial one: country/city. Another important figurative opposition corresponds to this one, which is heaven/hell. Note that we must distinguish what is real and perceivable, as unreal elements like heaven and hell are nonetheless traditionally depicted as places of sensory delight and torture, respectively. The figure /heaven/ is explicit: "you will soon go live in the gardens of Paradise." (p. 71). The figure /hell/ is implicit; it crops up in expressions like "wretched souls" (p. 70) and "calls out incessantly" (p. 71). These two oppositions are associated with a third figurative opposition: life/death. The land would have brought life to René, the dying hero of the short story; and as for heaven, isn't it generally considered to be the abode of those who have "eternal life"? Yet another important figurative opposition is the one between nature and culture. In the anthropological sense of the term, any typically human production belongs to culture (a chair, agriculture, war, theatre, etc.). The dominant theme appears to be the opposition between spiritual and temporal. Let us examine the axiology of the figures and themes we have identified. Oppositions are formulated with the first term being the euphoric one in the context of this text. The euphoric elements are: country, heaven, life and nature; conversely, the dysphoric elements are: city, hell, death and culture. These oppositions all appear to be homologised with each other (meaning that the terms on the left are all interrelated and the terms on the right are all interrelated). Even life, in the biological sense of the term, is associated with the spiritual realm, since the countryside, an earthly paradise, promotes health.


One postulate of standard Greimasian semiotics is that the oppositions life/death (an individual opposition) and nature/culture (a social opposition) are found in any instance of semiotic performance. For Courtés, life/death and nature/culture are not themes, but abstract figures (1991, 232) that he classifies as existential figurative (1991, 237). We can quibble at length over this classification, especially for nature/culture, but we have classified both of these oppositions as figures.

Thematic, figurative and axiological structure in "I miss the land"
Thematic, figurative and axiological structure in "I miss the land"

The main ideological concern of the text is René's position in one of the four spaces (temporal death, of course, allows him to go from temporal spaces to spiritual ones). Moving from a positive space to a negative space takes the form of an exile here. The opposition stay/leave, which is suitable for the first space, turns into stay/return in the second space (returning from exile). Spatial change is not dysphoric in itself (although nomadism, which is associated with the figure of the trapper, among others, is generally dysphoric in French-Canadian rural legend); staying, leaving and returning are euphoric or dysphoric depending on the starting and ending points we have in mind. The temporal exile cannot help but evoke a spiritual exile. No one needs to be reminded that the earthly paradise Adam and Eve were chased out of is described as a garden. Thus, there is a double exile: the farmer from the countryside, and man from paradise. René, who has been exiled for five years from his land, will be definitively cut off from it by his death. However, he will attain a homologous object of higher value: "the gardens of Paradise". A preference for nature under man's dominion shows through in the higher value attributed to the land and the "gardens of Paradise": we are a long way from the forest, and for good reason! In French-Canadian rural legend, the forest (a place for trapping and logging) is perceived as a place of going astray and moral perdition. (For example, in Maria Chapdelaine, a famous novel of French literature, the seductive trapper-logger François Paradis is presented as morally inferior to the dull farmer, Eutrope Gagnon.) The story and its genre (and the ideology underlying them) exalt nature, but it is nature as ordered by man, a sort of nature-culture. Notice that René will turn from a "flower of the fields", that is a wildflower, into a flower in the "gardens of Paradise", in other words, a cultivated flower (in the anthropological sense as well). The land, and also the garden, is simultaneously in the position of culture relative to the forest, and nature relative to the city. The absolute opposite of the city is the forest. The ancient and classical topos ("common-place" motif) of the happy medium seems to play on this spatial triad.


BOUCHARD, G., "Je m'ennuie de la terre", Premières semailles, Québec: Imprimerie de l'Action Sociale, 1917, p. 70-71.
COURTÉS, J., Analyse sémiotique du discours. De l'énoncé à l'énonciation, Paris: Hachette, 1991.
COURTÈS, J., Du lisible au visible, Brussells, De Boeck University, 1995.
HÉBERT, L., "Analyse des espaces représentés dans la littérature. Le récit du terroir «Je m'ennuie de la terre» de Georges Bouchard", RS/SI, Montreal: Canadian Semiotic Association, 2000, vol. 19, 2-3, p. 193-215.
MASON, W., ed. and trans., Rimbaud Complete, New York: Scribner, 2003.


In Rimbaud's "A Sleeper in the Valley", pick out the main figures, the main themes and their axiology.

"A Sleeper in the Valley"

A green hole where a river sings;
Silver tatters tangling in the grass;
Sun shining down from a proud mountain:
A little valley bubbling with light.

A young soldier sleeps, lips apart, head bare,
Neck bathing in cool blue watercress,
Reclined in the grass beneath the clouds,
Pale in his green bed showered with light.

He sleeps with his feet in the gladiolas.
Smiling like a sick child, he naps:
Nature, cradle him in warmth: he's cold.

Sweet scents don't tickle his nose;
He sleeps in the sun, a hand on his motionless chest,
Two red holes on his right side.

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