What is the relationship between memory and narrative in Swann's Way?  How does Proust convey the intensity of his returning memories through his narrative style?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Through his style, Proust asserts that memory is what drives narrative.  Proust argues that human memory is the construct through which narrative exists. The style that is featured in Swann's Way is driven through memory.  It is only through one's memory, something that permeates all aspects of our being, that consciousness exists.  The style that illuminates this condition of "the whole universe in a cup of tea," helping to illuminate how memory drives the narrative of our being.

One way in which Proust is able to convey the intensity of returning memories through his style is by openly embracing the episodic nature of the narrative.  There is not a direct line of narrative in Swann's Way.  There is not a third person, omniscient narrator or rather one who is driven by reliability.  Rather, the opening lines of the text reflect how the narrative is going to be driven by memory:  ""For a long time, I went to bed early."  Sleep becomes the vehicle through which memory is facilitated in opening the text.  Proust establishes that memory cradles the narrative.  The intensity of this is seen in its affirmation.  The moment in which a madeline tea biscuit being dunked in tea serves as conduit for memory shows this intensity.  Proust is able to use the moment in the present as a way to immerse the narrator in his past.  Memory is inescapable, as it functions as the basis of our being and, consequently, of our narratives:

The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.

It is in the idea of memory being a "thin slice among contiguous impressions" where memory functions in our narrative.  Proust uses memory as a way to illuminate human identity.  Understanding the narrator emerges because of memory and is reflective of Proust's style of storytelling.  

The force of the narrative in Swann's Way is present because memory is such an elusive quantity.  On one hand, it is exact.  The narrator recreates moments in his life with such stylistic precision that one thinks that memory is absolute, almost a perfect rendering of what was in light of what is.  Intensely exhaustive details are accompanied by people and places.  This helps to fulfill one aspect of the narrative style's force.  It helps to deliver the idea that narrative can be perfectly constructed by memory.  However, Proust reinforces the intensity of memory in his suggestion that it is far from absolute.  Memory in the human consciousness is elusive, unable to deliver in terms of complete and perfect recreation:  

Even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people.

In this idea, Proust suggests that the intensity of memory is driven to recreate a "material whole" that is impossible.  Thus, Proust establishes the function of memory as a type of tragic collision in its desire to establish that which is whole only to become futile in its inability to do so because of the cursed interactions of others.  This element of our "social personality" in which interactions with others is what we want and yet what detracts from our memory helps to fuel the narrative style.  The narrator's pursuit of Odette demonstrates this. Memory is what frames the narrative of our being.  It is why the smallest of moments can result in the greatest of meaning.  For Proust, this provides the frame in which narrative takes place and its force is representative of what it means to be human.