Marcel (mahr-SEHL), the narrator, who tells the story of his life from unsettled childhood to disillusioned middle age. Dealing with time lost and time recalled, Marcel says, as he looks back to a crucial childhood experience when his mother spent the night in his room instead of scolding him for his insomnia, that memory eliminates precisely that great dimension of time that governs the fullest realization of our lives. Through the years, from his memory of that childhood experience to his formulation of this concept of time, Marcel sees the principals of two social sets spurn each other, then intermingle with the change of fortunes. He experiences love in various forms: an innocent affair with a friend’s daughter, an adolescent passion for the friend’s coquettish wife, an intermittent love affair with a lesbian. He develops friendships and animosities among individuals in the different social levels on which he moves. Reminded, by seeing the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, that he is old, he realizes the futility of his life and senses the ravages of time on everyone he has known.
M. Swann, a wealthy broker and aesthete, a friend of Marcel’s parents. Swann, having known the comte de Paris and the prince of Wales, moves from level to level in the social milieu. Having married beneath his station, he knows that wealth sustains his social position and keeps his fickle wife dependent on him. Jealous and unhappy in courtship and marriage, he manipulates social situations by cultivating officers and politicians who will receive his wife. He dies, his life having been as meaningless as Marcel sees his own to be; in fact, Marcel sees in his own life a close parallel to that of his sensitive friend.
Mme Swann, formerly Odette de Crécy, a courtesan. A woman whose beauty is suggestive of Botticelli’s paintings, she is attractive to both men and women. Stupid and uncomprehending, Odette continues affairs with other men after her comfortable marriage. She introduces Swann to the social set below his own. Despite her beginnings, she moves to higher levels and becomes a celebrated, fashionable hostess when she remarries after Swann’s death.
Gilberte Swann (zheel-BEHR), the Swanns’ daughter and Marcel’s playmate in Paris. Their relationship develops into an innocent love affair, and they remain constant good friends after Gilberte’s marriage to Marcel’s close friend, Robert de Saint-Loup. The sight of Gilberte’s daughter, grown up, reminds Marcel that he himself is aging.
Mme de Villeparisis
Mme de Villeparisis (deh veel-pah-ree-SEE), a society matron and the friend of Marcel’s grandmother. It is said that her father ruined himself for her, a renowned beauty when she was young. She has become a dreadful, blowsy, hunched-up old woman; her physical deterioration is comparable to the decline of her friends’ spiritual selves.
(The entire section is 1282 words.)