Barthes endeavors to set up a primary structure of character relations in "Sarrasine" along the lines of gender. However, he subsequently defines the characters not in relation to biological gender, but rather along what he calls the “axis of castration.” The initial categorization of the characters in phallic terms (the men who are the phallus, the women who have the phallus, and the ambiguous group of the androgynous and the castrated) gives way to the division he later constructs between the castrated and castrating, the passive and active. Furthermore, Barthes’s structuralist analysis exposes the fact that Balzac’s text has multiple signifiers that do not refer to one fixed signified. For example, Barthes is fascinated by the nuance of the double entendre, which most clearly fractures the traditional conception of signification: this play on words proffers two distinct and incompatible meanings that must be entertained simultaneously by the reader. The title S/Z refers to the clash between the ‘S’ of ‘Sarrasine,’ the male protagonist of the work, and the ‘Z’ of ‘Zambinella,’ the castrato with whom Sarrasine falls in love. Sarrasine is an artist who, functioning under the assumption that all beauty is feminine, regards Zambinella as the epitome of beauty, and therefore as the paradigm of femininity. Sarrasine’s Pygmalion-like sculpted image of the “female” La Zambinella accordingly represents the “complete woman.” This “masterpiece,” however, is highly problematic given its original starting point as a male body—and its refashioning into a female one through the psychological projections and artistic expertise of a man. What ultimately grounds the text is the fundamental destabilization caused by Zambinella’s anatomy, which is perceived by Sarrasine as masterpiece, origin, and referent: in Zambinella, therefore, lies Sarrasine’s own potential for castration.
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