Marcel Proust World Literature Analysis - Essay

Marcel Proust World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The journalist Maurice Montabré once asked Proust what type of work he would have pursued had he chosen a trade. Proust answered that he would have exercised the very same trade, that of the writer. He said that he was pleased to give the world its “daily bread,” letting his spirit guide his labor. Proust’s response illustrates some of the themes of Remembrance of Things Past. One of these is the relation of the written word to the reader. In the first lines of Proust’s work, his hero wonders whether he is the subject of the work that he is himself reading. Such wonder is even extended to the naming of the hero, since there is a certain amount of uncertainty about it. Were he given a name, it might possibly be Marcel.

Style for Proust is not a matter of technique but of vision. His incredibly long sentences, laden with imagery that is a compendium of his vast culture, invite the reader to partake of his writing, to choose among the many examples that he presents to the imagination. Proust once wanted to be a playwright, and this emphasis on the visual is perhaps a transformation of that original desire. His characters are often found in theatrical situations where the speculative and the spectacular await them.

Besides anticipation, the work also centers upon memory, which for some readers is the main image of Proust’s writing. The title, translated into English, betrays the importance that the translator himself gives to memory. “The search for lost time,” while rather literal, would be more inclusive of other themes. The search is also for time that has been lost in dissipation. Proust’s hero, in the image of his creator, realizes that only mortification will allow him to assume the writer’s task. Once assumed, that search would lead him to the reading of many art forms.

The search for love also punctuates the work. Love would be fraught with deception or disappointment. Homosexuality, sadism, jealousy, selfishness, and suspicion mark the characters. The hero speculates about his relationships with his mother and grandmother. The worldly and powerful salons are founded upon death and cruel exclusions amid intermittent outpourings of the heart. Time spent in chasing after a lovely woman gives as a reward only the realization that one has not indeed been in love. For Proust, each person seems to be alone, and the endeavor to leave self is almost an impossibility unless it be through writing, through time well spent.

Remembrance of Things Past

First published: À la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-1927; includes Du côté de chez Swann, 1913 (Swann’s Way, 1922); À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919 (Within a Budding Grove, 1924); Le Côté de Guermantes, 1920-1921 (The Guermantes Way, 1925); Sodome et Gomorrhe, 1922 (Cities of the Plain, 1927); La Prisonnère, 1925 (The Captive, 1929); Albertine disparue, 1925 (The Sweet Cheat Gone, 1930); and Le Temps retrouvé, 1927 (Time Regained, 1931)

Type of work: Novels

At the end of the nineteenth century, a young man discovers the changing world that he would like to fix permanently in a work of art.

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...

(The entire section is 2185 words.)