(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Swann’s Way, the first volume in Remembrance of Things Past, Proust presents Marcel in bed wondering where he is, what he is reading, whether he is asleep, and finally remembering the places where he has spent his life. This scene reminds one of the meditative reflections of René Descartes, the seventeenth century philosopher. Proust then presents the reader with a more traditional plot and introduces many of the characters who will figure in the intricate work: his mother and grandmother, his father, Aunt Léonie, the maid Françoise, Charles Swann, the baron Charlus and other members of the Guermantes family, and a host of others.

The description of Combray, seen as a church, occupies a great part of Proust’s first volume. Many of the activities are presented against a background of ecclesiastical imagery. Aunt Léonie wants to know whether Mme Goupil has gotten to church on time. She awaits the visit of Eulalie, who should be able to tell her, as she spends so much time there. Léonie, a hypochondriac, fulfills her Sunday obligations by praying next to a bedside table that resembles an altar. Her nephew, Marcel, and his parents spend their time going to church and taking walks near Combray. When not walking or reading, Marcel spends his time witnessing the maid Françoise’s cruelty toward her own helper.

Swann’s own anguish and jealousy are material for Proust’s psychological insight into human relations. Swann seems to be more successful in the world of art than he is in the search for love. This quest takes him into the Verdurin salon, where love of the arts and fear of being excluded from high society are a constant concern. Once married to Odette, he realizes that she is not really his type of woman. When he contemplates her, it is to transform her into the biblical figures portrayed by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli.

In Within a Budding Grove, Marcel continues to discover that people are not who they seem to be. He attends the theater and is disappointed with the interpretation of his favorite actress, La Berma. He realizes that the play of his imagination, the play in anticipation, gives him more pleasure.

He experiences his first love for Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte. His friendship with Odette evolves into a closer relationship with the Swanns in their home, a kind of sanctuary filled with artworks. The world of art and his understanding of it continue to be marked by revelations, for it is in Odette’s salon that he hears Vinteuil’s sonata. He does not realize that Vinteuil is the music teacher whom he had known in Combray and who then had seemed quite ordinary. In the Swanns’ salon, he meets the writer Bergotte, for whom he recognizes some affinity.

A trip to Balbec, a resort town of the Normandy coast, allows Marcel to continue his appreciation of architecture and to learn the ways of the wealthy. Through the savor of cake dipped in a cup of tea, he discovers that chance often brings people together as much as it resurrects the past. He recognizes the baron Charlus, the nephew of Madame de Villeparisis, to have been Odette’s lover. Marcel also establishes ties with Charlus’s nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, and the socially conscious Bloch family. One day, he visits the painter Elstir in his studio. Elstir talks to him of church architecture and introduces him to Albertine Simonet, whom he had known only from afar and who will later become his lover.

The action of The Guermantes Way is centered in Paris and in the military town of Doncières, where Saint-Loup is garrisoned. Marcel travels to Doncières to visit Saint-Loup in the hope that he will be introduced to Oriane de Guermantes. When he returns to Paris, he finds his grandmother gravely ill. On an excursion in the Parisian suburbs, he meets Saint-Loup’s mistress, Rachel, and discovers in her the prostitute whom he had once known in a brothel.

The spectacle of the world is played out in the receptions that Marcel attends. There, he is able to analyze more...

(The entire section is 1668 words.)

Remembrance of Things Past Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

All of his life Marcel finds it difficult to go to sleep at night. After he blows out the light, he lies quietly in the darkness and thinks of the book he had been reading, of an event in history, of some memory from the past. Sometimes he thinks of all the places in which he had slept—as a child in his great-aunt’s house in the provincial town of Combray, in Balbec on a holiday with his grandmother, in the military town where his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, had been stationed, in Paris, in Venice during a visit there with his mother.

He remembers always one night at Combray when he was a child: Monsieur Swann, a family friend, has come to dinner. Marcel is sent to bed early, and he lays awake for hours, nervous and unhappy until at last he hears Monsieur Swann leave. Then his mother comes upstairs to comfort him. For a long time, the memory of this night remains his chief recollection of Combray, where he spent a part of every summer with his grandparents and aunts. Years later, while drinking tea with his mother, the taste of a madeleine, or small sweet cake, suddenly brings back all the impressions of his old days at Combray.

Marcel remembers the two roads. One is Swann’s way, a path that runs beside Monsieur Swann’s park, where lilacs and hawthorns bloom. The other is the Guermantes way, along the river and past the château of the duke and duchess de Guermantes, the great family of Combray. He remembers the people he sees on his walks. There are familiar figures like the doctor and the priest. There is Monsieur Vinteuil, an old composer who died brokenhearted and shamed because of his daughter’s friendship with a woman of bad reputation. There are the neighbors and friends of his grandparents. Most of all, he remembers Monsieur Swann, whose story he pieces together slowly from family conversations and village gossip.

Monsieur Swann is a wealthy Jew, accepted in rich and fashionable society. His wife is not received, however, for she is his former mistress, Odette de Crecy, a prostitute with the fair, haunting beauty of a Sandro Botticelli painting. Odette had first introduced Swann to the Verdurins, a common family that pretends to despise the polite world of the Guermantes. At an evening party given by Madame Verdurin, Swann hears a movement of Vinteuil’s sonata and identifies his hopeless passion for Odette with that lovely music.

Swann’s love is an unhappy affair. Tortured by jealousy, aware of the commonness and pettiness of the Verdurins, determined to forget his unfaithful mistress, he goes to Madame de Saint-Euverte’s reception. There he hears Vinteuil’s music again. Under its influence he decides, at whatever price, to marry Odette.

After their marriage, Swann drifts more and more into the bourgeois circle of the Verdurins. He travels alone to see his old friends in...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)