Roland Barthes and Ishiguro: The Butler as Myth

Randall Bass, Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes discusses myths, not as stories, but as "semiotic" systems. According to Barthes, myths are "acts of signification," and one of their chief characteristics is that they become very particular kinds of vehicles of meaning. Barthes says,

Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from....We can see all the disturbing things which this felicitous figure removes from sight: both determinism and freedom. Nothing is produced, nothing is chosen: all one has to do is to possess these new objects from which all soinling trace of origin or choice has been removed. This miraculous evaportaion of history is another form of a concept common to most bougeois myths: the irrespobsibility of man. (151)

In Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, how does the Butler, Stevens, serve as a kind of Barthesian "myth"? As an ideal servant, could it be said that Stevens becomes emptied of his original form? How is Stevens' subjectivity "possessed" by the systems of meaning that he serves?

How is the underlying narrative tension in The Remains of the Day like the process of signification in the production of myth? Or, in other words, could you say that the novel is partially about the "privation of history"?

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