Marcel Proust

Start Free Trial

Marcel Proust Long Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Like Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust believed that of all literary forms, the novel most fully reveals the temperament of its writer. As George Painter’s exhaustive biography of Proust demonstrates, there are innumerable, indeed seemingly endless, parallels between the lives of Marcel Proust and Marcel, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past.

Remembrance of Things Past

While the novel reveals much of Proust’s character and values, it is not an autobiography but a work of fiction in which the raw materials of personal experience and remembrance are transformed by the imagination into art of the highest order. Rather than yield to the temptation of a biographical reading of the novel, it is perhaps more profitable to concentrate on the development of the themes and to note the techniques that Proust employs to create his vision of humankind in their emotional, moral, and aesthetic worlds.

Like Dante and Honoré de Balzac before him, Proust creates a vast and teeming world, depicting the immense social changes that took place in French life between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the post-World War I era. While Remembrance of Things Past focuses on the wealthy bourgeois and nobility of Paris, it by no means excludes other classes. The detailed and sympathetic characterizations of Jupien the tailor, Françoise, and Aimé, the headwaiter at the Grand Hotel, testify to the social range of the novel. Given the work’s considerable time span and its scope of social inquiry, it is not surprising that Proust is able to develop a variety of themes: the Dreyfus affair, homosexuality, the difficulties of love, the growth of the artist, the vanity of society, and so on. By doing this, Proust invests the worlds of Paris, Combray, and Balbec with solidity and seriousness. Each thematic concern is ultimately registered on the growing consciousness of theprotagonist, Marcel; all themes are subordinated to the dominant thematic concern of the novel: Marcel’s attempt to overcome the disappointments of love, the false social expectations and the faulty imaginings and appearances that separate him from reality. With the aid of memory, prompted involuntarily by physical stimuli, Marcel ultimately defeats time, and through art, he finds the joy that has eluded him in love and social life. It is difficult, therefore, to understand Wilson’s characterization of the novel as “the gloomiest book ever written”; while Proust’s world is obviously complex and borders on the tragic, the existence in it of a sensuous and moral art belies the charge of pessimism.

The need to give structure and unity to a work as thematically ambitious as Remembrance of Things Past was a major challenge for Proust. While Wilson may have been off the mark thematically, his observation that the novel’s structure is symphonic, a series of shifting images with “multiplied associations,” is accurate. In so describing Proust, Wilson, like other critics, emphasized Proust’s debt to Symbolism specifically and Romanticism generally. Proust’s appreciation of introspection, his attentiveness to and enthusiasm for the natural world, his awareness of the power of the subjective and unconscious, and his use of image as symbol—all are variations on themes and techniques developed by nineteenth century French Romantics. Proust’s affinity with the Symbolists was reinforced by his appreciation of the metaphysics of Henri Bergson, who was one of Proust’s professors and a cousin by marriage. Although Proust denied any debt to Bergson, he, like Bergson, appreciated the role of intuition as a source of knowledge. Bergson also believed, as Wallace Fowlie has pointed out in his book A Reading of Proust (1964), that the capacity of an object to stimulate the memory lies...

(This entire section contains 12224 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in the individual himself, not in the object. By embracing the Symbolists and Bergson, Proust aligned himself clearly with those who resisted a purely scientific interpretation of reality.

Proust employs a variety of specific means to give shape to his world. Most important, perhaps, is the organization of Remembrance of Things Past into three major quests undertaken by the protagonist, Marcel. The first is the quest for love, a search that prompts much subjective analysis by the protagonist. In contrast, the second quest, Marcel’s emergence into society, draws upon Proust’s brilliant and often comic observations of both manners and morals. The quest for love begins with young Marcel’s desperate desire for a goodnight kiss from his mother, a desire frustrated by Swann’s call on his parents. Marcel’s subsequent infatuations with Gilberte, the Duchess de Guermantes, and Albertine are paralleled by other, equally vain quests for love by Swann for Odette, Robert de Saint-Loup for Rachel, and Baron de Charlus for Morel. The quest for love is symbolized in part by Swann’s Way, one of the two paths that leads young Marcel and his family from their home in Combray to the outside world. The other road, the Guermantes Way, symbolizes the quest for society that leads Marcel from the secure world of family, servants, and neighbors in Combray to the drawing room of Odette Swann and, later, to a higher echelon of society symbolized by the salon of the slightly déclassé “bluestocking” Madame de Villeparisis. From there, Marcel finds his way into the much sought-after world of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes and ultimately to the most socially exalted milieu of all, the soirees given by Prince and Princess de Guermantes.

In the same way that Swann’s Way and Guermantes Way are finally united when Swann’s daughter marries a Guermantes, these two quests, one private, one public, come together in mutual disillusionment. What saves the novel from utter despair is the persistence of those things that are not defeated by time and human vanity: Marcel’s memories of his grandmother’s selflessness and love, his involuntary recollection of sensations that produced great happiness, his realization of the eternity that lies within art. Thus, failure in the first two quests allows for success in the third: Marcel’s pursuit of a career as an artist. The quest for art, initially overshadowed by love and society, is hinted at, however, by the presence in the novel of three artists who, in spite of their foibles and miseries, have created enduring works of art: the novelist Bergotte, the painter Elstir, and the composer Vinteuil. Indeed, although the emphasis shifts from book to book, all three quests figure in each of the seven novels that together make up Remembrance of Things Past.

Swann’s Way

Swann’s Way, the chronicle of Marcel’s childhood, begins and ends with memories of the protagonist, the mature Marcel. The first memory, recounted in a section called “Overture,” is preceded by a description of the disorientation and pleasure that come from awakening in a darkened room at night. This sensation is one that Marcel has learned to relish, because it leads him to recall other rooms, particularly those of Combray, his childhood home. Marcel recalls the particular evening when Swann called on his family. Wealthy, Jewish, suave, and sophisticated, Swann visits Marcel’s family frequently when he is home from Paris. Swann’s visit upsets Marcel because it interrupts the ritual of his mother’s nightly kiss. In his room, young Marcel grows so desperate that he sends Françoise, the cook, to deliver a note to his mother. His mother does not come until Swann leaves, but Marcel’s stern father suggests unexpectedly that she sleep in Marcel’s room to comfort him. The triumph of Marcel, touching yet disturbing in its power to manipulate, proves to be paradoxical. Even though he possesses his mother’s attention, Marcel senses that such happiness, such a moment of unexpected success, is fleeting. “I knew that such a night could not be repeated.” One function of this incident is clear: Marcel’s quest for love has a most ambiguous beginning.

Immediately following the famous scene of the mother’s kiss, Proust draws a crucial distinction between two types of memory. The first is voluntary, or recollection associated with intellect, “an exercise of the will.” Voluntary memory is largely sterile and in vivid contrast to the sensations created by the second type, involuntary memory. Proust makes this distinction clear by recounting the episode of la petite madeleine, or little cake. The adult Marcel comes home on a winter day to tea and cakes. The crumbs in the spoon of tea give him exquisite pleasure, much to his surprise and delight. Initially puzzled by the sensation, Marcel suddenly recovers the memory: His Aunt Léonie had once given him tea and madeleines. An entire vision of forgotten elements of Combray surges over him. The incident is charming in itself, but it also anticipates a larger movement in the novel, Marcel’s quest for the source of artistic inspiration.

Having resurrected memories of his youthful home in the madeleine incident, Proust logically moves to the next section, titled “Combray.” Here emerges Marcel’s childhood as it is shaped by family, an occasional school friend such as the pugnacious Bloch, and his reading of novels, particularly the works of Bergotte, an acquaintance of Swann. While Proust has been accused of being careless, casual, and prolix, the Combray section indicates quite the opposite. The characters and the quest motifs and themes are introduced without diverting the reader’s attention away from the immediate concern, the characterization of Marcel’s early years. Like Charles Dickens, Proust creates characters that seem to have their own independent lives. The bedridden Aunt Léonie, for example, delights the reader with her quixotic pursuit of local gossip, yet her attachment to her sickroom clearly anticipates Marcel’s own frequent retirements to his bed.

The Combray section also introduces the two “ways” that will influence Marcel’s life, Swann’s and Guermantes’. These two walks, the first represented by the lover Swann and the second by the socially prominent Duchess de Guermantes, will be the symbolic means by which Marcel will come to know the world outside Combray. While walking Swann’s Way, Marcel first sees Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, who will be the object of Marcel’s first quest outside the confines of family. In an irony that is distinctly Proustian, Gilberte, standing under the pink hawthorns, makes an obscene gesture that to Marcel has the appearance of anger and rejection. The adult Marcel discovers that the reality was quite the opposite: Gilberte’s youthful intentions were entirely sexual. This misreading of appearances emerges as one of the novel’s central themes.

The Combray incidents are followed by what may seem an unlikely sequel, a novel within a novel titled “Swann in Love.” Although audacious technically, its position within the larger work is logical and effective. Swann’s affair with Odette contributes to the whole in terms of both style and theme. Proust reveals first of all his flexibility in use of point of view. The entire episode is told by an omniscient narrator; Proust recognizes that there is no way that either the youthful or the adult Marcel could be privy to the history of Swann’s romance. Focusing on the sophisticated Swann also allows Proust to characterize the social world of Paris that Marcel will someday pursue. Of particular interest is Proust’s use of the Verdurins and their “little nucleus” of friends. Not only do they enlarge one’s knowledge of the teeming social life of Paris, but also they form a comic, ironic backdrop for Swann’s tender love. Comically vulgar, the Verdurins are on the bottom rung of the social ladder—bohemians, as Marcel’s grandfather calls them. Madame Verdurin will ultimately become much more than a backdrop, however; she will marry the Prince de Guermantes and prove herself to be the most vivid example of the immensity of the social change that occurs in the full novel’s fifty-year time span. Another theme, similar in its social character, is also introduced in “Swann in Love.” It occurs in a passing comment made by Oriane, the Princess des Laumes, about Swann’s being a Jew. While apparently irrelevant in the early part of Remembrance of Things Past, the question of anti-Semitism, raised by the Dreyfus affair, later divided France profoundly.

This section’s title indicates the primary focus of “Swann in Love.” Swann’s obsession with Odette, replete with ironies and contradictions, foreshadows Marcel’s own loves; Swann is indeed the archetype of the Proustian lover. Whether heterosexual or “inverted” (Proust’s term for homosexual), the lover chooses as his object someone who at best only obliquely shares his values. Swann—a member of the Jockey Club, a friend of the Prince of Wales, a man whose eye is so sensitive that he sees reflections of Giotto’s Charity in a kitchen maid, the very spiritual and artistic father of Marcel—is also a man who seeks after prostitutes. He is continually vulnerable to “the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy human flesh.” Similarly, the elegant, manly Robert de Saint-Loup is obsessed with the plain, whorish Rachel, and the Baron de Charlus freely spends his social, moral, and emotional capital on the unscrupulous grandson of a valet, Morel. While Odette de Crécy is no ordinary courtesan, she nevertheless has little of Swann’s sophistication and sensibility. Once Swann has possessed Odette physically, their love is composed of lies, infidelities, perhaps lesbian sexuality on Odette’s part, and jealousy and obsession on Swann’s. Most significant, “this malady, which was Swann’s love,” will afflict Marcel as perniciously in his quest of Albertine.

A particularly brilliant scene, Swann attending a soiree at Madame de Sainte-Euverte’s, illustrates both the function of Swann in the larger work and the tightly woven texture of Proust’s art. Wishing to leave a drawing room—a room off-limits to Odette—Swann is irritated that he has been entrapped by the beginning of a musical piece. He soon recognizes a series of notes that proves to be a phrase from a sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil, the same piece Swann had earlier called the national anthem of his love for Odette. Swann’s experience as he listens to the piece foreshadows Marcel’s most profound discoveries: involuntary memory as the source of revelation and disappointment in love. As he listens, Swann “could see it all: the snowy, curled petals of the chrysanthemumthe address ’Maison Dorée’ embossed on the note paperthe frowning contraction of her eyebrows.” From the moment he hears the sonata, Swann knows he can never revive his love for Odette.

Not only does Swann’s epiphany, rooted in involuntary memory, foreshadow Marcel’s in the final volume of the novel, but also it indicates how Proust develops a number of themes simultaneously. The party at Madame de Sainte-Euverte’s is also fine social satire, one of Proust’s major concerns. The important theme of music, represented by Vinteuil, is present. The works of Vinteuil will eventually play as large a role in Marcel’s life as in Swann’s. Most important, Swann is, as Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature (1980), calls him, “a kind of fancy mirror of the narrator himself,” one who “sets the pattern.” Significant, too, is the pervading sense of paradox and irony that attends Swann’s realization of love gone stale. The scene unobtrusively knits together elements of plot and theme that preceded it, renders them with clarity in a fully realized present, and anticipates further enrichments of plot and theme to come. The scene does not conclude Swann’s concern for Odette; their love goes through death throes described in images of disease and decay. As “Swann in Love” ends, it appears that Swann and Odette have separated permanently; as it turns out, however, only Swann’s love has been lost.

Swann’s Way concludes with a section titled “Place-Names: The Name.” The reader has reentered the world of Marcel’s childhood, now set in Paris. Thematically, even in matters of plot, this last section is still clearly connected to “Swann in Love.” Marcel wishes to travel; the names of Venice, Florence, and Balbec are magical to him. Because of his health, however, Marcel is forced to remain in Paris. While playing in the Champs-Elysées, he meets Gilberte, Odette, and Swann’s daughter, the same girl he had seen in Combray. Initially, Gilberte is kind to Marcel; she gives him an agate marble and an essay by Bergotte on Jean Racine. Gilberte’s enthusiasm is in contrast to Marcel’s, however, much as her mother’s feelings had been for Swann. Marcel is aware that he loves alone, but he still maintains his keen interest for her parents. He tries to imitate Swann’s mannerisms, and when Gilberte chooses not to be available, he watches the resplendent Odette walk along the Allée des Acacias. In this same locale twenty years later, the adult Marcel makes the closing observations of Swann’s Way. On a somber November day, Marcel finds that “vulgarity and fatuity” have replaced the standards of elegance that Odette had set years before. More important, Marcel is led to reflect on memory and its relationship to reality: “The reality that I had known no longer existed.” The sadness of Marcel as he feels the onslaught of fugitive time is not yet assuaged by the knowledge that time can, in fact, be regained with all of its color and truth. All he knows is that physical space, in this instance the Bois de Boulogne, does not contain the reality of the past. Marcel can remember Odette, but he experiences none of the ecstasy associated with involuntary memory. Thus, the melancholy tone of these closing pages indicates clearly that Marcel’s goals of love, society, and an artistic vocation have not yet been achieved.

Within a Budding Grove

Even though Marcel’s exact age is not stated, Swann’s Way concerns itself generally with the years of Marcel’s childhood, while Within a Budding Grove develops his adolescence. A sign of Marcel’s increasing independence is his frequent visits to the drawing room of Madame Swann, whom Marcel’s parents will not receive, despite their warm feelings for her husband. Thus, the first long chapter of Within a Budding Grove is titled “Madame Swann at Home.” The second, somewhat shorter section, “Place-Names: The Place,” and the third and concluding chapter, “Seascape, with Frieze of Girls,” depict Marcel’s first venture away from his parents. Even though his grandmother accompanies him for reasons of health to the seaside hotel at Balbec, Marcel experiences considerable freedom. He mingles with the lower classes, young women, the members of the aristocratic Guermantes family, and the Impressionist painter Elstir (who, like the composer Vinteuil, is a composite of several real artists), all of whom contribute to his largely unconscious search for the real. Indeed, appearances still make their claim on Marcel, but new realities begin to make themselves felt.

In spite of Within a Budding Grove’s concentration on Marcel’s life apart from parental influence, its first great scene occurs within the confines of the family; furthermore, it is one of the few scenes in which Marcel’s father emerges with much clarity. The occasion is a small dinner for the Marquis de Norpois, a distinguished member of the Foreign Office (Marcel’s father is Permanent Secretary there). While Norpois reappears frequently in later novels, his primary function at the dinner is to introduce subtly the themes that will find elaboration in subsequent scenes. Marcel’s career as a writer, the major concern of Remembrance of Things Past, is first discussed openly at the dinner. Norpois champions the vocation of writer, an important gesture, because Marcel’s father has opposed it. In the hands of Dickens, Norpois would be the archetype of the good uncle who intervenes on behalf of a young boy beset by an incompetent or hostile father figure.

While Proust’s method of characterization does seek out the type in the individual, as Swann sees the Botticellian possibilities in Odette, the type is always fully rounded, almost to the point of contradicting the type. Françoise is the good, faithful servant, but her limitations are never ignored. Similarly, Swann is the connoisseur, yet, as Norpois points out, since his marriage to Odette he has at times played the parvenu. In the case of Norpois, while he promotes Marcel’s writing career, he nearly cuts it short by agreeing with Marcel’s falsely modest assertion that his first writing exercise was “childish scribbling.” Norpois goes on to attack Marcel’s beloved Bergotte, judging him precious and an “evil influence.” In a manner typical of him, Proust makes twofold use of Norpois’s literary remarks. They obviously frustrate and antagonize the sensitive Marcel; they also contain many of the objections that Proust’s own novels met critically. Norpois particularly dislikes “all those Chinese puzzles of form,” saying that “all these deliquescent mandarin subtleties seem to me to be quite futile.” Ironically, when Marcel soon thereafter meets Bergotte at Odette’s, he is immensely disappointed and recalls Norpois’s assessment. Marcel’s lofty vision of the novelist, inferred from his work, is mocked by Bergotte’s disappointing physical qualities and his snobbery and ambition.

In addition to its effect on Marcel’s writing career, Norpois’s conversation reminds the reader of other topics and themes. Norpois’s personal political credentials are established by his recollections of service to France under reactionary and radical governments; later he appears as the most reasonable of the anti-Dreyfusards. While Swann’s Jewishness is not mentioned by Norpois, he does provide the missing exposition on Swann’s marriage, and the reader is once again reminded of the love theme, which is reinforced by Norpois’s insistence that Marcel be allowed to see the famous actress Berma perform as Phèdre in Jean Racine’s great play. Norpois also plays a minor but important role in Marcel’s growing social awareness; his influence extends from Odette’s drawing room to the court of kings, yet he will not honor Marcel’s simple, enthusiastic request that he mention his, Marcel’s, name to Odette.

Before his journey to Balbec, Marcel does find admittance to Odette’s salon. Marcel himself describes his time spent at Swann’s house as a stage in his movement upward in society. Ironically, it was Marcel’s quest for love, not society, that originally attracted him to Swann’s. His first visit comes after Gilberte invites him to tea following his attack of asthma. He continues to call, but Odette takes more pleasure in his presence than does Gilberte. Finally, while coyly refusing to see Gilberte, Marcel remains faithful to Odette, among her chrysanthemums and coterie of bourgeois acquaintances. Marcel discontinues his visits when he learns another fact of love: Absence breeds forgetfulness. He still visits the Bois de Boulogne, knowing the exact time when Odette walks there, the very personification of Woman as she strolls with her mauve parasol, followed by Swann and his friends from the Jockey Club. This particular vision of Odette leads the adult Marcel to conclude that one’s memories of “poetical sensations” are much greater than one’s memory of suffering.

Two years pass before Marcel takes the 1:22 train to Balbec with his grandmother. The summer and fall Marcel passes there greatly increase his knowledge of society and, to a lesser extent, his knowledge of love. Although he longs to die when he first sees the unfamiliar room in the Grand Hotel, habit and the presence of Françoise and his grandmother soon make this new world bearable, even pleasurably exciting.

The much-desired world of society appears at first to be closed off to Marcel. He must resign himself to the presence of chattering, vulgar provincials and disdainful members of the local aristocracy. Circumstances, however, prove kind, and an accidental meeting between his grandmother and the Marquise de Villeparisis, her old schoolmate, slowly opens up a new world to Marcel. The Marquise is a member of the distinguished Guermantes family, and she proves to be an indispensable step in Marcel’s movement to the very top of the social hierarchy. To demonstrate her fondness for Marcel, she takes him on carriage rides about the countryside. Proust identifies her closely with the arts; her family owns paintings by Titian, and her father entertained Stendhal. She herself will write a highly regarded memoir. She is also, unbeknown to Marcel, the Marquis de Norpois’s lover. Madame de Villeparisis illustrates one of the central principles of Proust’s world: A character’s identity cannot be known at once; time will unfold its secrets, and the reader comes to see, as Nabokov has put it, that Proust’s characters wear a series of masks.

Madame de Villeparisis also introduces Marcel to her nephews, two characters who figure prominently in the evolution of a variety of themes, including love and the analysis of society. Marcel’s first impression of the handsome, elegant Robert, Marquis de Saint-Loup, is negative. His apparent insolence, however, masks a generosity that conquers both Marcel and his unpretentious, socially indifferent grandmother. The other, older nephew, Palamède, Baron de Charlus, wears an even more impenetrable mask. To characterize the Baron for Marcel, Robert relates an incident that illustrates both the Baron’s virility and his hostility to inversion; Robert clearly is unaware that the Baron, who has stared fixedly at Marcel, is, in fact decidedly homosexual. Robert also points out with some family pride that the Baron, who moves with ease in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the pinnacle of Parisian society, has a list at the Jockey Club of two hundred members to whom he would not permit himself to be introduced.

The Baron will play one of the central roles in Marcel’s drama. His two major functions, furthering Marcel’s social awareness and explicating the homosexual theme, are joined by a third: His formal social demeanor provides a vivid contrast to the crude behavior of Bloch, Marcel’s Jewish friend. Part of Marcel’s social education is his exposure to the Bloch family as well as to the Guermanteses. Lest Proust’s portrayal of the vulgarity of the Blochs be seen as anti-Semitic, however, one must recall that Proust’s mother and her family, whom he loved and honored, were Jewish, as were many of his closest friends. As in his treatment of other minorities—ethnic, social, and sexual—Proust proves to be compassionate without indulging in apologies or sentimentality. No character would have been more offended by the Bloch family’s lack of decorum than the Jewish Swann. Also, Robert’s Jewish mistress, Rachel, while seen as manipulative, “had opened his mind to the invisible, had brought a serious element into his life, delicacy into his heart.”

While Marcel finds pleasure in his new acquaintances at Balbec, his attention is most avidly focused on a band of young girls whom he sees about the town and countryside. He meets them through an unexpected source, the famous painter Elstir. Marcel’s easy access to Elstir brings to mind one of the most frequent criticisms of the novel: The young, inexperienced Marcel makes a quick conquest of almost everyone he meets, from duchesses and novelists to lift boys. The reader’s only direct clue to Marcel’s charm is found in The Guermantes Way, when Marcel wittily entertains Robert’s friends at the army town of Doncières. Marcel is usually passive both in tête-à-têtes and in society. Elstir nevertheless takes Marcel seriously enough to deliver a stirring monologue on aesthetic matters and the nature of wisdom. Marcel, however, seems more concerned with the failure to appear of a young girl who occasionally visits Elstir’s studio. Marcel does eventually meet this young girl, Albertine. His immediate response to her is distinctly Proustian: The real Albertine is less than the imagined one. Following an innocent courtship that thrives on games played in the sand dunes with a band of girls, Marcel chooses Albertine to be his love interest. When Marcel makes advances toward her, however, she repulses them, and Marcel’s initiation into the larger world of Balbec ends, as does Swann’s Way, on a melancholy, cool note. The novel has, however, furthered Marcel’s quest for love and prepared for his entry into the salons of Parisian society.

The Guermantes Way

The Guermantes Way begins with a mundane fact, but one crucial to the success of Marcel’s dual quest for love and society. Marcel’s family has moved to the Hôtel Guermantes, the Paris residence of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes and Madame de Villeparisis; there, too, is Jupien’s tailor shop. While it is conceivable that Marcel might have made his way into the most distinguished drawing rooms of Paris without this change, it clearly makes Proust’s plotting easier, even though plot is, perhaps, comparatively a lesser concern in such an expansive, comprehensive work as Remembrance of Things Past. Proust’s keen psychological analyses, his brilliant use of metaphors to give depth and clarity to his themes, his elegance of style, and his sense of comedy are his chief virtues. Perhaps of all the novels of Proust’s epic, The Guermantes Way best illustrates the truth of such a proposition.

The key organizing principle of The Guermantes Way is a series of social engagements: matinees, dinners at restaurants, and evening parties. Their only interruption, by what might appear to be an incongruity, is the death of Marcel’s grandmother. There is, however, a unity of action provided by Marcel’s growing consciousness, fostered by his exposure to the world of the Guermanteses. Once exposed, Marcel, relieved of his obsession with Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes, states that “what troubled me now was the discovery that almost every house sheltered some unhappy person.Quite half of the human race was in tears.” He discovers the disparity between the romance that envelops a royal name and the reality of the royal person. Proust makes Marcel’s disillusionment clearer by the use of metaphor. Marcel observes that each of my fellow guests at dinner, smothering the mysterious name under which I had only at a distance known and dreamed of them with a body and with a mind similar or inferior to those of all the people I knew, had given me the impression of flat vulgarity which the view on entering the Danish port of Elsinore would give to any passionate admirer of Hamlet.

Having met and conquered two of the members of the Guermantes family in Balbec, Madame de Villeparisis and Robert de Saint-Loup, Marcel, at the beginning of The Guermantes Way, sets his sights on Oriane, the beautiful Duchess de Guermantes. Marcel’s own dreamlike state is reinforced by the magic of the great Berma’s performance in Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677.) To Marcel’s utter surprise, the Duchess acknowledges him with a wave of her hand. In comedy reminiscent of Dickens, Marcel thereafter stalks the Duchess, loitering in the streets in the hope of seeing her. When word reaches Marcel that his infatuation irritates the Duchess, he employs a new tactic: He goes to the military camp at Doncières to visit Robert de Saint-Loup, hoping to gain access to the Duchess through Robert’s influence.

Even though Robert is unable to help Marcel, the rekindling of their friendship allows Proust the novelist to develop themes previously introduced. Robert’s obsession with his mistress Rachel reminds the reader of Swann’s relationship with Odette and anticipates both the Baron de Charlus’s mad pursuit of Morel and, most important, Marcel’s tortured relationship with Albertine. Even an apparently insignificant incident in which Robert strikes a gay man is preparation for Robert’s own sexual inversion later.

Robert’s pursuit of his mistress brings him and Marcel back to Paris. Marcel is encouraged by his father to attend a matinee at the home of Madame de Villeparisis. While this occasion is of greater social significance than the gatherings Marcel had previously attended at Odette Swann’s, it has limited status. Madame de Villeparisis, from the point of view of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, has been careless of her famous family name. She has married beneath her station, has had liaisons, and has associated herself closely with the academic and artistic worlds. Although the Duchess de Guermantes and the Baron de Charlus attend the matinee, they do so out of family loyalty. The matinee, essentially comic in tone, focuses in part on the foibles of guests such as Legrandin, a shameless flatterer, and Marcel’s boyhood friend Bloch, who upsets a vase of apple blossoms. Few of Proust’s scenes are as comic as that of Madame de Villeparisis pretending to be asleep when the humiliated Bloch comes to bid her farewell. The comic, however, is interwoven with themes of tragic potential, such as Norpois’s discussion with Bloch about the Dreyfus affair and the pervasive evidence of vicious snobbery. Most important, Marcel and the reader gain a clearer picture of the complexity of the Guermanteses: Oriane, the Baron, and Madame de Marsantes, the mother of Robert. The Baron’s comically indirect, elegant propositioning of Marcel as he leaves the matinee develops the homosexual theme and reveals Marcel’s naïveté.

A hiatus of sorts follows Marcel’s initiation into the world of the Guermanteses. First, Marcel’s grandmother dies. Having been convinced by an eminent physician, Dr. de Boulbon, that her ill health is psychosomatic, Marcel’s grandmother follows his advice and accompanies Marcel to the Champs-Élysées. She rather suddenly interrupts their stroll to go into a public toilet. During the interim, Marcel talks to “la marquise,” who attends the toilet, to which she refers as her “salon.” Her conversation, coming so soon after the de Villeparisis matinee, is brutally satiric, as is Marcel’s experience with a doctor, Professor E——, to whom he turns when it is apparent that the grandmother has suffered a stroke. Although he does examine her, Professor E—— is clearly more concerned with the mending of a buttonhole, a repair that is necessary before he calls on the Minister of Commerce. The protracted suffering of the grandmother and the devotion of Marcel’s mother to her are set in stark contrast to the vanity, insinuations, and archness of the drawing room. Marcel will continue his social ascent, but the vision of his grandmother’s love will provide a vivid contrast to the falseness of the beau monde.

Deeply touched by his grandmother’s death, Marcel’s attention nevertheless turns again to women. Although he successfully pursues a Madame de Stermaria, he is consoled by the reappearance of Albertine, finding that she no longer repulses his physical advances. Albertine’s return coincides with a number of discoveries by Marcel. In spite of the kind of attention that Robert de Saint-Loup gives him, Marcel concludes that friendship is basically incompatible with the vocation of writing. Most important, he discovers that he has grown indifferent to the Duchess de Guermantes, as he had to Gilberte. This realization occurs ironically when Marcel receives an invitation from the Duchess to dine with her. Marcel’s observations during the dinner, more than one hundred pages in length, are an excellent example of what Nabokov calls “Marcel the eavesdropper.” Marcel’s personality and concerns intrude little, if at all, in the description of the Guermanteses at home. At the center is Oriane, the Duchess herself. One learns that as a young woman she was, by the Guermanteses’ standards, poor. What distinguished her was her beauty, her style, and her spirit: “She had had the audacity to say to the Russian Grand Duke: ’Well, Sir, I hear you would like to have Tolstoy murdered?’” In spite of her liberal views, she was most careful to marry well. With the aid of her aunt, Madame de Villeparisis, she married the Prince des Laumes, the future Duke de Guermantes. Their marriage has scarcely been a happy one. The Duke is tight with money but profligate in his affection for other women. The Duke admires his wife, however, particularly her sharp “Guermantes wit,” which in reality often consists of terrible puns, poor imitations, cruel characterizations of her friends and family, and fatuous literary judgments. Marcel nevertheless finds something of value in the Faubourg Saint-Germain world that she represents. Like the peasants, the great noblemen still have a concern for the land, for history, for custom. In this way, they are superior to the bourgeoisie, who are interested only in money.

Although Marcel’s social education is not yet complete, his evening with the Duchess does much to strip away the appearances and the magic of the world of names. Before the evening is out, however, Marcel will receive one more lesson. Invited by the Baron de Charlus to call on him after dinner, Marcel encounters a hostile Baron, who accuses Marcel of ingratitude and talebearing. Marcel retaliates by trampling the Baron’s new silk hat and begins his exit. The formerly imperious Baron seems sobered by Marcel’s anger. A civilized conversation follows, one that reveals the Baron’s quixotic intelligence and sensitivity, as well as his appreciation for his family. The scene, both comic and touching, reveals him in his fullness and has led Wilson to compare Proust’s characterization of the Baron to William Shakespeare’s characterization of Falstaff.

In the final scene of The Guermantes Way, Proust provides—as he had in the episode of the grandmother’s death—a brilliant gloss on the artificiality and vacuity of the Guermanteses’ world. Marcel has received an invitation from the Princess de Guermantes, and being unsure of its authenticity, he goes to visit the Duke and Duchess upon their return to Paris. While he is there, Swann arrives with a photograph for a book he is writing on the knights of the Order of Malta. Oriane claims a great interest in Swann’s project, but the Duke hurries her off to a dinner at a relative’s. As they leave, Swann announces that he is dying. Although Swann is one of her oldest friends, the Duchess yields to her husband’s demands that they leave for the dinner. The Duke tells Swann that he will outlive them all. The detail that fully reveals the cruelty of the Guermanteses, however, is the Duke’s concern for Oriane’s forgotten red shoes. The Duke and his world chose to ignore whatever unpleasant reality discomforts them in favor of a dramatic appearance.

Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain, a novel of brilliantly contrasted scenes, records the beginning of Marcel’s descent into his own personal hell, fuller description of which occurs in The Captive and The Sweet Cheat Gone. In Cities of the Plain, Marcel moves from the pinnacle of Parisian society, symbolized by the soiree given by the Prince and Princess de Guermantes, downward to the ridiculously comic Wednesdays at the Verdurins’ home at La Raspelière. More significantly, Marcel himself reluctantly changes from detached observer to subjective sufferer because of the emergence of the phenomenon that dominates the novel: homosexuality.

One of the lingering criticisms of Remembrance of Things Past is that it gives excessive attention to the homosexual theme, thus presenting a distorted picture of society as it was in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some consider Proust’s fascination with the subject merely self-indulgent; others, seeking to justify the theme, have called it a symbol of Original Sin or a symbol of the corruption and coming destruction of the aristocracy. Both the critics and Proust’s defenders miss the point. Within the self-contained world of the larger novel, homosexuality functions primarily as an aesthetic device. Without its presence, there would be no Baron de Charlus, Proust’s most brilliantly drawn character. Homosexuality also contributes to other major concerns of the novel, such as the characterization of much of the aristocracy, the love theme, and the education of the narrator. Without homosexuality, the central plot would not advance; had Albertine not mentioned her friendship with the lesbian who was the companion of Vinteuil’s daughter, Marcel would not have urged her to come to Paris. One may further assume that the heterosexual Marcel’s inability to find human love is directly connected to his ultimate quest for salvation in art. To see the function of homosexuality in terms of plot, theme, and characterization does not, however, negate its intrinsic interest. Like the characterization of the aristocracy and the descriptions of life in a provincial French town or sea resort, homosexuality resonates with the tragicomic complexity of human experience.

Cities of the Plain begins as an apparent extension of Marcel’s pursuit of the world of the Guermanteses. In a flashback, Marcel awaits the return of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes to ask about the authenticity of an invitation he has received from the Princess de Guermantes. Marcel sees instead the Baron de Charlus meeting Jupien, the tailor. Although Marcel could scarcely be ignorant of the Baron’s sexual proclivities, he is still surprised by the cooperation of Jupien in such matters. Marcel is, nevertheless, fascinated by the coquetry that takes place, and he uses an extended botanical metaphor, comparing Jupien to an orchid and the Baron to a bee. The effect of the metaphor is to suggest that, while the encounter is unusual, it is in the larger scheme of things natural, “a miracle.”

Jupien is just another member of the “human herbary” that intrigues Marcel, a “moral botanist.” Samuel Beckett has noted the importance of Proust’s use of “vegetal” images, stating, This preoccupation accompanies very naturally his complete indifference to moral values and human justices. Flowers and plants have no conscious will. They are shameless exposing their genitals. And so in a sense are Proust’s men and women.

Although Beckett perhaps overstates the case, there is indeed no moral censure on young Marcel’s part; neither is there a defense of homosexuality. Marcel concludes that gays are essentially men-women and that in spite of the Baron’s pretension of virility, he, in fact, has the sensibility of a woman. Marcel concludes that homosexuals are like “an Oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has certain charming qualities and intolerable defects.” Proust’s objective characterization of homosexuals is perfectly consistent with those of other minorities: Jews, aristocrats, artists, and so on. Thus, Marcel later says that, like his extremely moral grandmother, he also “enjoyed the diversity of other people without expecting anything of them or resenting anything that they did.”

There is another Marcel in Cities of the Plain who does not take such a sanguine view of humankind or homosexuality. The Marcel who captures the comedy, homosexual and otherwise, of the soiree at the Guermanteses’ (where the Baron shamelessly pursues two vapid brothers in the presence of their unwittingly cooperative mother) is quite different from the Marcel who returns to Balbec and discovers that he is not immune to the sting of “vice.”

Marcel’s return to Balbec with his mother marks a general movement toward a more somber, reflective, subjective protagonist. Upon reaching his old room at the Grand Hotel, Marcel takes off his boots, and involuntarily his memory returns to his grandmother. For the first time, he feels the effect of her death and learns from Françoise of the courage and sacrifice his grandmother concealed from him during their earlier stay at Balbec. His suffering diminishes, however, with Albertine’s return to town. His comfort proves to be short-lived. While visiting a casino with Cottard, the doctor, Marcel sees Albertine dancing with Andrée. Cottard casually remarks that the two women are aroused. Unlike his detached response to the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, Marcel is deeply distressed by the possibility of a lesbian liaison between Albertine and Andrée. From this point on, Cities of the Plain develops the torturous relationship of Marcel and Albertine, a relationship that reveals the sometimes sadistic, paranoiac, and self-indulgent aspects of Marcel’s character.

In Cities of the Plain, Proust does not yet entirely extricate Marcel and Albertine from the larger social fabric. Their physical but loveless affair grows within the context of life at the Grand Hotel and, more important, the Wednesdays at the Verdurins’ home. The “nucleus” that gathers around “The Mistress” has changed little since they first appeared in Swann’s Way. If possible, they are even more ridiculously savage in their comedy. The evenings at La Raspelière are the supreme achievement of Proust’s comedy. Whether it is the Faithful mistaking Meyerbeer for Claude Debussy, or Madame Cottard falling asleep, or the Baron de Charlus revealing his sexual proclivities by choosing strawberry juice rather than orangeade, the comedy is sublime. Madame Verdurin herself has become even more imperious and amoral. To her, the death of Deschampes the pianist is essentially a nuisance that threatens to spoil her first entertainment in her new country residence. Besides, she has a new protégé, the violinist Charles Morel. Morel, the grandson of Marcel’s Uncle Adolphe’s valet, emerges as one of Proust’s greatest achievements in characterization. A fit companion for the Verdurins, Morel is utterly amoral, available either to men or women, entirely free of any loyalty, and he almost proves to be the Baron’s nemesis. The Baron is so in love with Morel that he suffers the vulgarities and ignorance of the Verdurins and their circle in order to promote the young man’s career and simply be in his presence. Like Odette and Albertine, Morel is one of those faithless creatures that ironically have the power to enslave a sensibility finer than their own. Morel’s affair with the Baron is one panel in Proust’s triptych of the vanity of human love.

In time, Marcel’s jealousy and paranoia concerning Albertine lead him to resemble the Baron in his pursuit of Morel. At Balbec, however, Marcel’s feelings are at best ambivalent. He is indeed possessive of Albertine and even jealous of her attention to his old friend Robert de Saint-Loup. So corrosive is the effect of this attachment on his moral behavior that he refuses to leave her alone with Saint-Loup in order to speak even briefly to Bloch’s father. Marcel still dreams of traveling, however, and he finally resolves that he will abandon her. Only when Marcel inadvertently discovers that Albertine is an old friend of the lover of Vinteuil’s daughter does the specter of lesbian sexuality rise up to shatter his resolution. It is scarcely the same detached Marcel, the moral botanist who watched Jupien lure the Baron, who announces to his mother that he will return to Paris and marry Albertine. While The Guermantes Way reveals Marcel’s disillusionment in his quest for society, Cities of the Plain does the same for his quest for love. Salvation, if it exists it all, has thus far eluded Marcel.

The Captive

Coupled with The Sweet Cheat Gone, The Captive has as its central concern Marcel’s destructive relationship with the elusive Albertine. Although the love theme appears earlier, in the histories of Swann and Odette, Robert and Rachel, and the Baron de Charlus and Morel, it is in the painstaking treatment of Marcel’s paranoid obsession with Albertine that Proust most fully explores the paradoxes of love. Wilson describes their relationship as “trying” at best: “It is quite without tenderness, glamour, or romance.” There is in it neither “idealism [nor] enjoyment.” This extended episode is crucial to the central concern of the novel, however: Marcel’s discovery of his true vocation as an artist. Once love has proved itself impossible for Marcel, the only salvation is the world of art—as the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past will show.

Although The Captive includes one of Proust’s most brilliant social scenes, the Verdurins’ quarrel with the Baron de Charlus, it begins and ends with Marcel’s life with Albertine. The novel opens with Marcel in his bedroom in Paris. As a number of critics have pointed out, the bedroom functions as one of the primary motifs in the work. Marcel’s recurring bouts of ill health make his stays in bed, be it at Combray, Balbec, or Paris, credible; however, the emphasis in each instance is elsewhere. Consciously or not, Marcel’s retirements represent a power struggle of sorts. His delicate health as a child guarantees the attention of his mother, and the famous scene at Combray where Marcel awaits and ultimately receives his mother’s kiss represents an ambivalent victory for Marcel over his father. At his Balbec hotel room, the adolescent Marcel, although he is unaware of it, has a rival for his grandmother’s attention: death itself. Again, Marcel temporarily wins the struggle. As an adult, Marcel once again retires to his bedroom and uses this withdrawal to imprison the third important woman in his life, Albertine. Her presence is in part a repetition of earlier experience. Marcel himself twice sees Albertine’s kisses late at night as a reenactment of his mother’s visit to his side after Swann had left that fateful night in Swann’s Way. As was true with his mother and grandmother, Marcel has a rival for Albertine, her probable inclinations toward lesbian sexuality.

It has been suggested that Albertine’s presence in the home of Marcel’s parents violates credibility. Bourgeois values would not have allowed it. Proust does, however, cover his tracks. First, Marcel’s father is away on diplomatic business, and his indulgent mother is conveniently in Combray, attending a sick relative. Only the disapproving Françoise is present. Moreover, Marcel conceals Albertine’s residency from friends. Most important, Marcel has never particularly adhered to social strictures, as is indicated by his moral indifference to the male citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.

While Marcel the social observer is admirably tolerant, Marcel the lover has little to recommend him other than his lucid candor; why Albertine accepts Marcel’s paranoia and jealousy as long as she does is not clear. Marcel’s motives and behavior, on the other hand, are scrutinized uncompromisingly. Marcel tells Albertine that the doctor has ordered him to stay in bed. In truth, Marcel is so jealous of Albertine that he cannot bear to see her responses to other people in public. Thus, the tyrant Marcel permits Albertine to go out only with Andrée or alone with the chauffeur, but he also asks both, in effect, to spy on her.

Marcel’s desire for control over Albertine leads him to like her best when she is sleeping or just awakening. Marcel compares the waking Albertine to Eve come from the side of Adam—“astonished and submissive.” So consuming is Marcel’s jealousy that he finds he is less interested in Albertine’s frequent intelligent comments than he is in some unguarded remark that will fuel his paranoia.

While his jealousy proves intensely painful to Marcel, he does find some pleasure in life with Albertine. He both admires and takes some credit for her intelligence. She does provide him physical titillation and satisfaction. His greatest pleasure seems to reside in his capacity simply to control her, to hold her captive. Whether he is choosing her clothing after consultation with the Duchess de Guermantes or begging her to return home from the Trocadéro, Marcel seeks to reduce Albertine to merely an instrument of his will. Marcel is fully conscious not only that his attachment to Albertine prevents him from traveling and working but also that he himself has become a captive to Albertine’s lies and his own mania. Although unable to act on his knowledge, Marcel sees clearly that “I had clipped her wings, she had ceased to be a Victory, was a burdensome slave of whom I would fain have been rid.”

The Captive does not develop Marcel’s relationship with Albertine exclusively. Another love story, the Baron de Charlus’s obsession with Morel, is also carried to a disastrous climax at the musical soiree held at the Verdurins’. The humiliation of the imperious Baron at the hands of the Verdurins is but one of the important events that this brilliant scene develops. Its objectively cruel satire, directed toward the aristocrats and the members of the Verdurins’ circle, provides a necessary contrast in tone and texture to the Albertine-Marcel story. The playing of Vinteuil’s lost septet during the soiree also allows Marcel to consider questions crucial to his development as an artist.

In The Captive, the theme of the artist is like an underground stream that slowly makes its way to the surface. Marcel points out early in the novel that when he is not with the Duchess, he examines an album of Elstir’s work, or one of Bergotte’s books, or Vinteuil’s sonata. Later, Marcel learns of Bergotte’s death as he is viewing a Vermeer at an exhibition. Proust, anticipating Time Regained, suggests that the dead Bergotte’s books, arranged three by three, are the symbol of his resurrection, his salvation. Marcel, while awaiting Albertine’s return from the Trocadéro, plays Vinteuil’s sonata. Fowlie points out that this scene is of primary importance in the transition of Marcel from lover to artist. After the sonata, Marcel plays a score of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859), and this arouses a number of questions in him. He admires the giants of the nineteenth century—Wagner, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo—and their capacity to produce “Vulcan-like” massive works leaves Marcel unhappy and unsure whether a commitment to art is preferable to life as he leads it. At the Verdurins’, Marcel hears Vinteuil’s septet, and he realizes that Vinteuil’s later work has been enriched by his love and suffering for his daughter. In this septet, Vinteuil, like Bergotte, has found a means of defeating time.

In contrast to the violet mist in which Vinteuil’s immortal work is shrouded is the unheroic world of the Verdurins. The Baron’s aristocratic guests ignore Madame Verdurin, and to get revenge, she poisons Morel’s mind against the Baron. Even in this atmosphere of snobbery and viciousness, Proust avoids caricature. At evening’s end, the Verdurins decide to provide anonymously for the financially broken Saniette, whom they have abused in the past. More dramatic, however, is the Queen of Naples, who returns to the Verdurins’ for a misplaced fan and rather magnificently comes to the aid of the devastated Baron de Charlus. Thus, the major concerns that propel the previous novels—homosexuality, the development of the artist, the vanity of love, the emptiness of the aristocracy, the Janus-like nature of reality—are in this scene recapitulated seamlessly.

Marcel returns home to Albertine. They quarrel, and Marcel asks Albertine to leave. A reconciliation follows, but Marcel learns more disquieting facts about Albertine’s past. Albertine herself grows restless, as symbolized by her violent opening of her window. When Marcel plans to end the relationship, Albertine ensures his continued bondage to jealousy by leaving him first. It would appear that Marcel’s quest for love has reached its nadir. The descent, however, is not yet complete.

The Sweet Cheat Gone

The Sweet Cheat Gone, more than any of the novels that precede it, concerns itself with Marcel’s loss of innocence. Proust emphasizes this theme by ending the novel with Marcel’s return to the Combray of his childhood. There he finds the youthful object of his imagination and love, Gilberte, living in a fallen world. For Marcel, not only has Gilberte lost her appeal, but also her husband and his friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, seems stripped of nobility. Most poignant, the once beautiful Vivonne is now little more than “a meagre, ugly rivulet.”

The novel begins with Marcel’s desperate strategies to bring Albertine back to him. He recognizes the irony of seeking the return of one who afforded him mediocre pleasures while preventing him from realizing loftier goals. Alas, she had become a habit. No longer having Albertine about to lie to him, Marcel lies to himself. He persuades himself that her departure is an attempt to negotiate better terms. He therefore dispatches a letter telling Albertine that her departure is final, while Robert de Saint-Loup is sent to bribe Albertine’s aunt. A second letter reveals an even baser Marcel; in it, he suggests that a Rolls-Royce and a yacht might be in the offing. The final communication, a telegram, asks Albertine to name her terms; all he wants is to hold her three times a week. So summarized, Marcel’s actions are comic. The news of Albertine’s death in a riding accident alters the tone, as does her last letter, in which she asks Marcel to take her back on any terms. Proust, however, makes no attempt to sentimentalize her death. There is a peculiar flatness in its description that undercuts any pronounced emotional response. The reader has known so little of Albertine that he is moved only by the irony of events.

The ironic tone is sustained in the treatment of Marcel’s grief. The former captor is now enslaved by memory, and Marcel discovers that each season brings with it a new set of painful recollections. Temporarily affectionate memories of Albertine replace his former suspicions. Marcel feels guilt, as though he had murdered her. He deifies her, calls her “my sister, my child, my tender mistress.” The exaggerated, unexpected sincerity of Marcel’s grief once again approaches comedy. He begins to believe that Albertine is not dead and considers the possibility of immortality. At the same time, Marcel has commissioned Aimé, a former headwaiter at Balbec, to investigate Albertine’s life at the resort; Aimé writes that Albertine had been an active lesbian. Aimé, on a second mission, discovers a laundress from whom Albertine had received profound pleasure, and Aimé believes the laundress’s report because she has excited him sexually as well. Such revelations Marcel both believes and doubts. He continues his quest for the true Albertine, and while Andrée admits to having lesbian feelings, she denies any involvement with Albertine. Marcel is thus frustrated in his attempt to locate the one, the absolute Albertine. Instead, he discovers that memory crumbles, and the time will soon come when Albertine’s room will be occupied by someone else.

Although Marcel’s relationship with Albertine will surface again, the novel abandons it in favor of another and crueler kind of oblivion, which has taken place without Marcel’s knowledge. Marcel is introduced in the drawing room of the Duchess de Guermantes to Mademoiselle de Forcheville, who is Gilberte Swann. While she had earlier recognized Marcel, Marcel had thought, indeed hoped, that she was a young woman of easy virtue whom Robert de Saint-Loup had once known. The return of Gilberte allows Proust to recall the aftermath of Swann’s death. To everyone’s surprise, Odette exhibited a long and sincere grief. She then married Forcheville, who in time adopted Gilberte. Gilberte has inherited an immense fortune from an uncle and has thus been received in aristocratic houses. Even the Duchess de Guermantes receives her, an event devoutly desired by Swann but denied to him during his life. Although Gilberte has inherited her father’s tact and charm, she contributes to Swann’s oblivion by addressing Forcheville as father, and soon no one mentions Swann’s name in her presence. Her hypocrisy and snobbery are seen in her signature, “G. S. Forcheville.” The Guermanteses, whom Marcel now describes as “people whose lives have no purpose,” aid in the destruction of Swann’s memory. When Gilberte notices some Elstir sketches in the Guermanteses’ drawing room, the Duchess remarks that “some friends” recommended Elstir rather than embarrass Gilberte with the name of Swann.

While the scene serves the necessary function of reintroducing Gilberte to the plot, it also reveals the growth of Marcel, who no longer is enamored of names and rank. The concerted attempt to erase Swann’s memory is particularly offensive to Marcel, because it was Swann who so unobtrusively provided a type of paternal authority for Marcel. In his affair with Albertine, Marcel constantly sees Swann’s life with Odette as the prototype of love. Swann has also introduced Marcel to Bergotte and to an appreciation of Vinteuil. Had it not been for Swann’s remarks about the Persian quality of the church at Balbec, Marcel believes, he might never have met Albertine or Elstir. Appropriately, the connoisseur of art, Swann, will himself be immortalized in the art of his aesthetic son, Marcel.

Albertine has not yet been forgotten either. Marcel speaks again with Andrée, from whom he receives “a terrible revelation.” Andrée has lied previously about her lack of contact with Albertine; moreover, she tells Marcel that Albertine and Morel together enticed virginal girls into occasional orgiastic revels. Suggesting that while Albertine lived with Marcel she had reformed and looked to him to save her, Andrée further implies that Albertine’s death was a suicide related to a lesbian scandal. The effect of Andrée’s tales, however, is less than might be expected. Marcel no longer feels the need to believe in Albertine’s innocence; so detached has he become that he now realizes that Albertine’s lesbian orientation was perhaps a precondition for her frank and open manner, one that permitted their special camaraderie. Marcel realizes he will never know the truth about Albertine, and sorrow is finally replaced by exhaustion. Marcel knows that oblivion has made a conquest of him when, in Venice, he receives a telegram from Gilberte that at first appears to be from Albertine. Even the possibility that Albertine is alive does not interest him.

Once the Albertine theme has reached its inevitable conclusion, Proust uses the closing pages of the novel to foreshadow the major concerns of the final volume, Time Regained. Foremost among them is the theme of time. While visiting Venice with his mother and an old friend, Madame Sazerat, Marcel sees Madame de Villeparisis seated with her old lover, Monsieur de Norpois. Time has grievously altered the Marquise; Madame Sazerat, whose father was ruined by a youthful affair with the noblewoman, can scarcely believe that the woman once “beautiful as an angel, wicked as a demon” is now “hunch backed, red-facedhideous.” A second theme, the social change brought by time, is contained in the news of two marriages: Gilberte to Robert de Saint-Loup and Jupien’s niece to the nephew of Legrandin. In the union of Gilberte and Robert, Swann’s Way and Guermantes Way unexpectedly come together. More startling is the story of Jupien’s niece. Adopted by the Baron de Charlus and given a name, she dies shortly after her marriage to an impoverished member of the provincial aristocracy. This young girl, enamored of and abused by Morel, through her death sends the royal houses of Europe into mourning. It is the same sense of irony and dramatic change that will permeate Time Regained.

The Sweet Cheat Gone concludes with a series of revelations that further strip away from Marcel any remaining romantic illusions. Gilberte’s marriage to Robert is not a happy one; Robert appears to have inherited both his uncle’s proclivities and his infatuation with Morel. Gilberte tries to make herself look like Rachel in a vain attempt to stop his infidelity, but she reaps only lies and melodramatic confessions of guilt. Marcel learns also that Gilberte’s childhood gesture under the arch of hawthorns had been intentionally vulgar, a revelation that serves to reinforce one of Proust’s central tenets. There is not a single Gilberte, but many Gilbertes: the little girl amid the hawthorns, the loving daughter of Swann, the snob, the suffering wife. What exists is not an absolute Gilberte but a series of Gilbertes relative to time and place. Even places fail to present an absolute image, as Marcel’s disappointment in his walks in Combray reveals. Innocence has been stripped away. The only quest left is the one for art.

The final installment of an ambitious and lengthy chronicle has a considerable number of tasks to perform. The reader nurtured on the nineteenth century novel expects to see the numerous loose threads of the plot knotted and the conflicts resolved. Themes must evolve, ripen, and produce; the characters that reflect such truths must complete their move from ignorance to greater knowledge. Most of all, there must be a sense of the conclusion’s inevitability. Proust brilliantly fulfills such expectations in the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past. The matinee at the new mansion of the Prince and Princess de Guermantes allows Marcel to arrive at a knowledge that has eluded him previously in his various quests for society and love. Marcel, no longer young, himself victim of the onslaughts of time, discovers that, indeed, he is capable of the literary vocation that he had previously considered beyond his grasp. Time Regained is nothing less than a gallery of transformations. The guests at the matinee have aged so that Marcel first thinks he has come to a masquerade. French society itself has undergone a massive upheaval. Most significant, however, is the transformation in Marcel after he fortuitously steps on the uneven paving stones outside the Guermantes mansion.

Time Regained

Time Regained begins in Combray, where Marcel lives among the shattered images of his youth. His own first love, Gilberte, now suffers from the same-sex infidelities of Marcel’s dearest friend, Robert de Saint-Loup. In addition to these disappointments, a book given to Marcel by Gilberte, an unpublished Journal of the Goncourt brothers, convinces Marcel that he has no vocation in literature. A passage from the Journal describes an evening at the Verdurins’. The description of Cottard and other members of the clan makes Marcel feel that he lacks the capacity to see and hear accurately. Also, if the Goncourts’ work is genuine art, then art lies, for Marcel knows that the circle surrounding the Verdurins has little of the glamour that the Goncourts’ account suggests. Although realistic in its detail, the passage has failed, because it has not penetrated the surface. Marcel recalls that Bergotte succeeded where the Journal fails, because he had the ability to become a mirror that reflected life accurately. His reading of the Journal leaves Marcel in a state of artistic depression, one that will not be relieved until he steps on the uneven stones.

The Goncourt Journal has a second function: Its description of society prepares the way for Marcel’s return to the Paris of World War I. Although the war rages less than an hour away, Paris seems largely unaffected; the feud between Madame Verdurin and the Baron de Charlus continues. Although Madame Verdurin, with the aid of Morel’s journalistic pieces, appears to have turned society against the supposedly pro-German Baron, he has lost none of his intellectual or sexual fervor. What the Baron dislikes about wartime France is its love of the hypocritical chauvinistic cant written by men such as Norpois and Brichot. The Baron, however, does find the soldiers attractive; indeed, when Marcel encounters him, he is following two Zouaves. By chance, Marcel also learns of the Baron’s preference for the sexually bizarre. Jupien has come to operate a male brothel for the sake of the Baron’s pleasures, among which is a whipping administered to him while he is chained to an iron bed. Robert de Saint-Loup also frequents Jupien’s establishment, but the war has restored his old nobility: Robert dies when he returns to the front in order to cover the retreat of his men. Gilberte, in the meantime, is in Tansonville, and Marcel learns from her that the Meséglise Way of his childhood has been the scene of an eight-month battle in which 600,000 Germans have died.

The final scene in the novel comes several years after the war has ended. Marcel has returned to Paris from a sanatorium. He continues to regret his lack of talent for literature; even his desire to produce a great work is apparently dying. Having thus no reason to avoid society, banal as it is, he accepts the invitation of the Prince and Princess de Guermantes to a matinee. The afternoon produces two major surprises. First, Marcel discovers that the past can be profoundly recaptured, although involuntarily; then, he witnesses the shocking effect time has wrought on the people he has known. His afternoon reaffirms his judgment that society has little to offer and that his one hope is to cheat death long enough to complete the work he now knows he must write.

Marcel’s discoveries begin as he walks the last, short distance to the Guermanteses’ new mansion. He encounters an aged Baron de Charlus supported by Jupien. The Baron brings to Marcel’s mind the image of great tragic figures such as Lear and Oedipus. In this accidental meeting, the larger spectacle of aging apparent at the matinee is anticipated. Filled with gloom, Marcel approaches the mansion, but, in avoiding a passing car, he trips against the uneven paving stones. Immediately, a happiness like that evoked by the madeleine his Aunt Léonie had fed him, the trees at Balbec, and the music of Vinteuil dispels his melancholy. He then remembers the experience that lies at the source of this pleasure: The uneven stones have produced the same sensation he experienced when he stood on similar stones in the baptistery of Saint Mark’s. Once inside the Guermanteses’ mansion, Marcel continues to savor such memories: The sound of a spoon, the stiffness of a napkin invoke involuntary recollections. As Marcel relives the past, he is conscious of moving outside time.

Once cognizant of his ability to recapture past time, Marcel explores its relevance to creativity. In a profusion of brilliant, often aphoristic observations, Marcel indicates that the role of the artist is that of a translator of the impressions and sensations that lie within him into spiritual equivalencies. As Proust’s own prose reveals, this transformation is accomplished primarily through the use of metaphor. Metaphor aids the artist in his search for the truths that lie obscured by conventional knowledge: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own.” Unlike ordinary men, the artist understands that the images of daily life, the people one meets, are symbols waiting to be interpreted and read. As Wilson points out, Proust sees the role of the artist as prophetic and moral. Ideally, as Marcel states, “every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.”

As Marcel savors his discoveries about the nature of art, he also perceives that Swann has indeed been his primary mentor and inspiration. Through Swann’s influence, he has gone to Balbec and subsequently made the acquaintance of both the Guermanteses and Albertine. Marcel observes that even the Guermantes Way has emanated from Swann’s Way, an idea reinforced when he meets Mademoiselle de Saint-Loup at the matinee. In this granddaughter of Swann, the two ways have literally become one. This recollection of Swann also provides a smooth transition back to Marcel’s immediate concern, the matinee. With irony characteristic of the novel as a whole, Marcel discovers, with something akin to horror, the destructive effect of time precisely at the moment that he conceives of a work that depends on memories existing outside time. Gathered at the Guermanteses’ home are most of the personages—the “interwoven threads,” as Marcel calls them—that have populated the novel: Bloch, Legrandin, Gilberte, Odette, the Baron, the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, Morel, even Rachel, Robert de Saint-Loup’s old mistress. Marcel discovers curious reversals and startling revelations: The Duchess de Guermantes now patronizes Rachel, whom she once had snubbed; the Duke, described as a “magnificent ruin,” loves Odette; most shocking of all, the new Princess de Guermantes is Madame Verdurin. Marcel is struck by the vast change that has taken place in a society that he once considered stable, monumental, and without flux.

The vivid display of decay and cruelty that Marcel sees at the matinee, coupled with the news of the tragic death of the great actress, Berma, produces the appropriate effect on Marcel and the reader. The physical world, awash in the tide of time, is rendered absurd by the inevitability of suffering and death. For Marcel, the visceral knowledge of such a fact is the necessary spur to action. Rather than sink into despair, he sees that life can be restored to its “pristine shape” only within the confines of a book; he repeatedly insists that his purpose in writing such a work is that others may examine their own lives.

The end of Remembrance of Things Past is also its beginning. Marcel removes himself from society, and, under the shadow of its own approaching death, he begins the work that will immortalize Swann, the Guermanteses, Albertine, and himself. While the quests for love and society fail or lead to disappointment, the greater quest for immortality in art succeeds.


Marcel Proust World Literature Analysis