Marcel Proust Proust, Marcel - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Marcel Proust 1871-1922

French novelist, essayist, poet, and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Proust's life and works. For additional discussion of Proust's complete career, see TCLC Volumes 7 and 13; for discussion of the novel Remembrance of Things Past, see TCLC Volume 33.

Proust is widely considered the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century, and, with James Joyce, one of the two most important authors of the early twentieth century. His reputation, based almost entirely on his sprawling multi-volume novel À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-27; Remembrance of Things Past), is that of a talented prose stylist, and keen observer. Proust's masterwork is grounded in the author's powers of recollection, and features both comic and psychological dimensions, encompassing characters from all strata of French society. Proust is most noted for his ability to form his memories into a compelling narrative and his penetrating view into his own life.

Biographical Information

Proust was born in 1871, in Auteuil, France to Dr. Adrien Proust, a prominent physician, and Jeanne Weil, the highly-educated daughter of a stockbroker and member of a prominent family. As a child, Proust suffered from asthma, an illness which would follow him throughout his life. In school, Proust showed an aptitude for composition and classical languages, graduating from the Lycée Condorcet in 1889. Following a mandatory one-year term of military service, Proust entered into Parisian society. He frequented the many literary salons of the city, where he met notable figures including author Anatole France. During the early years of the 1890s Proust began publishing his first writings in the magazine Le Banquet, which he founded with his friends Daniel Halevy and Jacques Bizet, son of famed composer Georges Bizet. These early works were primarily anecdotes or short reviews of Parisian social events. During this period Proust also studied law at the Sorbonne in order to please his parents. Proust's first self-published collection of writings, Les Plaisirs et les jours, appeared in 1896. The work met with negative critical reception, and its sales failed to cover the cost of its publication. Over the next several years, Proust devoted himself to writing a vast, autobiographical novel. Published posthumously in three volumes, Jean Santeuil (1952) refined Proust's writing style and influenced his later composition of Remembrance of Things Past. In 1900 Proust began translating the works of English critic John Ruskin into French, recognizing that Ruskin's intricate, detailed style resembled his own. His translations of Ruskin's works, including The Bible of Amiens in 1904, were met with minimal attention from French critics.

The first portion of Remembrance of Things Past, Du côté de chez Swann, was published in 1913, at significant personal expense to Proust after it was rejected by numerous publishers. It garnered a largely negative reception from his contemporaries, who, though acknowledging Proust's keen perception, found the work needing significant reduction. Proust continued work on Remembrance of Things Past, publishing the second and third volumes À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur and Le côté de Guermantes in 1919 and 1920-21, respectively. Proust did not live to see his entire work published. He did, however, realize his dream of winning a literary prize when the prestigious Prix Goncourt was awarded to him for À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur in 1919. By 1922, with the final three volumes of his masterwork written but still unpublished, Proust's health had diminished. He fell ill after contracting a cold and died in November of that year.

Major Works

Proust's primary contribution to twentieth-century literature is his masterwork, Remembrance of Things Past, which comprises seven individual novels, each of which was first published in two-, three-, or four-volume editions. Proust lived to see the publication of four novels, but the rest of the work was published posthumously: La prisonnière in 1923, Albertine disparue in 1925, and Le temps retrouve in 1927. Vivid characters, elaborate descriptions, and meticulous attention to memories are all hallmarks of this work. A massive work, Remembrance of Things Past, defies summarization. Thought not strictly autobiographical, the work uses aspects of Proust's life to explore themes such as the journey from childhood to adulthood, the nature of love and sexuality, and the interaction between the artist and society.

Critical Reception

At the outset of Proust's literary career, critics were generally dismissive of his intricate, analytical style. One editor, referring to the massive size of Du côté de chez Swann,, remarked “… I cannot understand how a gentleman can use thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before getting to sleep.” After À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur received a literary prize in 1919, however, critics began to reconsider their negative assessments of Proust's unique style. In the years after the author's death, Remembrance of Things Past received more and more positive attention, and the work now ranks among the century's most respected works of French literature. Significant critical and scholarly attention to Proust's masterwork continues more to this day, and has driven critics to examine his minor works as well. The enduring appeal of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, is described by Nadine Gordimer, who maintains that “Marcel Proust is a writer with whom one moves along, for life; reading and re-reading without ever exhausting the sources he reveals only when one is ready for, or made ready for them.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Les Plaisirs et les jours [Pleasures and Regrets, 1948; Pleasures and Days, and Other Writings, 1957] (prose and verse) 1896

Sésame et les lys [translator; from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin] (nonfiction) 1900

La Bible d'Amiens [translator; from The Bible of Amiens, by John Ruskin] (nonfiction) 1904

À la recherche du temps perdu [Remembrance of Things Past] (novel) 1913-27

*Du côté de chez Swann [Swann's Way]. 2 vols. (novel) 1913

*A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs [Within a Budding Grove; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,]. 3 vols. (novel) 1919

Pastiches et Mélanges (essays) 1919

*Le côté de Guermantes [The Guermantes Way]. 2 vols. (novel) 1920-21

*Sodom et Gomorrhe [Cities of the Plain; Sodom and Gomorrah]. 4 vols. (novel) 1922

*La prisonnière [The Captive]. 2 vols. (novel) 1923

*Albertine disparue [The Sweet Cheat Gone,; Albertine Gone; The Fugitive]. 2 vols. (novel) 1925

*Le temps retrouvé [The Past Recaptured; Time Regained]. 2 vols. (novel) 1927

Chroniques (essays) 1927

Oeuvres complétes de Marcel Proust 10 vols. (essays, fiction) 1929-1936

Jean Santeuil 3 vols. (fictional autobiography) 1952

Contre Sainte-Beuve [By Way of Sainte-Beuve] (essays) 1954

Marcel Proust on Art and Literature, 1896-1919 [trans. by Sylvia Townsend Warner] (essays) 1958

Correspondance de Marcel Proust 21 vols. [ed. by Philip Kolb] (correspondence) 1970-93

Poémes (poetry) 1982

On Reading Ruskin: Prefaces to La Bible d'Amiens and Sésame et les lys with selections from the notes to the translated texts [trans. and ed. by Jean Autret, William Burford, and Phillip J. Wolfe] (essays) 1987

Mon cher petit: Lettres à Lucien Dadet (correspondence) 1991

The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust [ed. and trans. by Joachim Neugroschel] (short stories) 2001

*These works, taken together, comprise Remembrance of Things Past.

Milton Hindus (essay date 1962)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hindus, Milton. “Minor Works.” In A Reader's Guide to Marcel Proust, pp. 181-95. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, first published in 1962, Hindus offers an overview of Pleasures and Days, Pastiches and Mélanges, and Chroniques, all of which are considered minor works of Proust.]


The first book published by Proust in 1896 at the age of twenty-five, with a perceptive preface by Anatole France, is a collection of prose and verse (the English translation retains the prose but drops the half dozen pages of verse “portraits of painters and musicians” which the French text includes). This excision, except perhaps from a scholarly point of view, seems to me to have been advisable, not only because it is difficult to carry over the quality and felicities of even the greatest poetry from one language to another but because Proust's gift was definitely not for verse. To convince ourselves of this fact, we have only to compare the fifteen line verse tribute to Chopin with the beautiful passage which he devoted to that composer in Swann's Way (429).

But the prose is another matter. The dichotomy between the two gifts is a matter of repeated observation in literary history. When John Dryden, according to tradition, said to Jonathan Swift: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet!” he was right in the technical sense, if we identify poetry and verse as people were inclined to do in England at the time, but he was wrong if we use the word poet in its larger Aristotelian sense as a maker of plots and creator of characters. Swift, though indifferent as a versifier, became the greatest prose writer in his language. In our own time in America, Dreiser, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald all tried their hands at poetry in the narrower sense and published the results, which are not very interesting except in the documentary or biographical sense. Like Melville, whose poetry is to be found mainly in Moby Dick rather than in his voluminous verse, Proust incorporated his poetry into Remembrance.

This earliest collection of his sketches, stories, satires, verses is by no means a negligible production. In the authentic sense of a much abused and frequently undeserved term of praise, it is promising. Of course it does not promise so much as Proust was to perform, for whereas it is characteristic of facile and clever talents to promise more than they are able to redeem, it is characteristic of something far higher than talent sometimes to promise less. Anatole France (or, according to malicious legend, his mistress), who had the advantage of knowing the young writer personally and was consequently better able to gauge the depth of meaning in his words, caught the hint of “things to come” completely. His oft-quoted descriptive phrase about Proust as “a depraved Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and an ingenuous Petronius” is possibly more applicable to Remembrance, which was many years away, than to the slim volume to which it is affixed.

André Gide, after changing his mind for the better about Swann's Way, went back to this earlier book of Proust's and did penance by confessing that he had not done justice to it on first reading and that viewing it retrospectively it turns out to have many of the themes and qualities which later went into its author's masterpiece. Edmund Wilson, who did not have to change his mind because he came to Proust's work when it had long been famous, has also done a good job of tracing the connections of subject and manner of treatment evident between Les plaisirs et les jours and Remembrance. Without attempting to deny the validity of the insights of such gifted creators and critics, which are only too easy to document satisfactorily with quotations, it must be admitted, I think, that this book of Proust's is by no means as ripe an artistic production as, for example, Joyce's Dubliners is. Had Joyce died before he wrote Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake (not to mention Chamber Music or Exiles) his first precocious publication should have survived and been rediscovered in time. The same, I am afraid, cannot be said of Les Plaisirs et les Jours, which owes its continuing interest and preservation solely to its author's later work.

The resemblances in some details to Remembrance are not difficult to discover. In the story “A Young Girl's Confession,” which deals with a familiar Proustian theme: the profanation of the parental image and the intolerable burden of guilt this brings with it, we come across a clear reminder of the incident involving the mother's good-night kiss in the opening section of Swann's Way. (Pleasures and Days, p. 80). And two pages later on, there is an aphorism which is an abbreviation of the same theme that in its most complete development appears in the volume Sweet Cheat Gone: “Absence taught me other and still more bitter lessons, that one grows accustomed to absence, that the greatest diminution of oneself, the most humiliating suffering is to feel that one no longer suffers.” (82)

The protagonist of this story, though of a different sex, obviously has the same basic character (or maybe the more appropriate word is characterlessness) as the narrator of Remembrance, and her mother is just as concerned about it as his is: “What grieved my mother was my lack of will. I did everything on the impulse of the moment.” (83-84)

When he speaks of the benefits we derive from suffering and of those who cause us to suffer (women, “cruel friends”) as benefactors, we are reminded of how much his vision of life has in common with that of Schopenhauer. Proust adds to the fundamental pessimism of this philosopher a masochistic twist of his own which occasionally has the effect of giving to it an air of affectation or preciosity. The theme of the vanity of snobbery and ambition could come from the same source or be traceable all the way back to Ecclesiastes, and yet there is a Proustian grace in the phrasing, a sense of style that is personal to himself and is the initial gift he brought with him to the art of writing. This stylistic grace is evident when he speaks, for example, of “the universal scandal of human lives, not excepting his own, that walked toward death backward with eyes turned toward life.” (10)

In the story “Violante, or Worldly Vanities,” there is an evocation of the torrid, lustful atmosphere of Gomorrah (32-33) which is significant in the light of the importance of this theme later on and at the same time makes more understandable Anatole France's mention of the name of Petronius in connection with that of Proust, though I do not see his reason for qualifying with the adjective “ingenuous” the name of the Roman satirist, unless the adjective indicates (aside from adding a characteristic spice of paradox) that the old author was loathe to believe that his young friend was as sophisticated about corruption in sexual mores as certain passages in this book seemed to suggest. But Proust was certainly not ingenuous, and if his work reminds one of the satire of the Roman decadence it may be because he was so well acquainted with the seamier side of contemporary manners and morals.

But Petronius is not the only Latin satirist whom Proust brings to mind. In “Fragments from Italian Comedy,” in addition to its titular models, the reader is reminded of a range of satire from the relative good-nature of Horace to the bitter sarcasm of Martial's epigrams. Here is one of the characters whom he rather mildly makes fun of: “Myrto, witty, pretty, and kind, but something of a social climber, prefers, to all her other friends, Parthénis who is a duchess and smarter than herself; yet she enjoys the companionship of Lalagé whose social standing is exactly equal to her own, and she is also by no means indifferent to the attractions of Cléanthis who is obscure and has no pretensions to brilliant rank. But the friend Myrto cannot endure is Doris. Doris's worldly situation is a little below that of Myrto, and she seeks out Myrto, as Myrto does Parthénis, because she is more fashionable.” (36)

The eccentric Oranthe is delineated in a more incisive, epigrammatic manner. In this character, foibles and vices are almost indistinguishable from each other: “So you didn't go to bed last night? You haven't washed this morning? But why proclaim it from the housetops, Oranthe? Brilliantly gifted as you are, isn't that enough to distinguish you from common mortals? Must you insist upon acting such a pitiful role besides? You are hounded by creditors, your infidelities drive your wife to despair … You know how to make yourself very agreeable, and your wit, without your long hair, would be enough to make people notice you … The trouble with you is that to the soul of an artist you have added all the prejudices of a bourgeois, only showing the reverse side and without deceiving us.” (43)

The character Olivian, though he is described in more than a page, is really caught with a single sentence: “Olivian, you are truly unfortunate. Because, almost before you were a man, you were already a man of letters.” (51)

But if he is clearly indebted to ancient models (beginning with the very title of his book, which is an ironic echo of Hesiod's Works and Days) he has learned from the standard authors in his own culture as well. A maxim such as the following is a recognizable variation upon a well-known theme by La Rochefoucauld: “A libertine's need of virginity is another form of the eternal homage love pays to innocence.” (45) And a passage such as the following derives not only from observation but even more obviously from Madame Bovary: “There are women in the provinces, it would seem, little shopkeepers whose brains are tiny cages imprisoning longings for Society as fierce as wild animals. The postman brings them the Gaulois. The society page is gobbled up in a flash. The ravenous provincial ladies are satisfied. And for the next hour their eyes, whose pupils are inordinately dilated by veneration and delight, will shine with an expression of perfect serenity.” (41)

At least one other literary debt of Proust's deserves mention—the one he owes to Tolstoy. The last story in the book entitled “The End of Jealousy” and particularly its concluding pages read in parts (152-153, 161-162) almost like involuntary pastiches of the Russian master's great story The Kreutzer Sonata and the scene at the death-bed of Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in War and Peace. Tolstoy is explicitly mentioned by Proust on a number of occasions, and it is certain that his work was one of the most lasting admirations in Proust's life.


In an essay on Flaubert reprinted in the volume Chroniques, Proust speaks of the therapeutic function of writing conscious imitations or pastiches of famous authors. His idea is that the styles of the masters are so infectious to the sensitive beginner that if he does not get them out of his system somehow, he will continue in involuntary servitude to them all of his life without knowing it. To exorcise them and neutralize their gravitational pull upon himself, he must consciously imitate them (to the degree of parody) instead of unconsciously doing so.

This may have been a rationalization of his own delight in mimicry (of the mannerisms of his friends as well as those of celebrated stylists in literature). In any case, he succeeds in these pastiches in being both amusing and instructive. (Especially excellent, I think, is his take-off on a typical Lundi article by Sainte-Beuve. (24 ff) Here, in a few lively pages, he has condensed the essence of his hundreds of expository pages directed against Sainte-Beuve in his then unpublished work of that name, and furthermore he has made his serious point in a delightfully entertaining way. Presumably criticizing a mythical novel by Flaubert (a portion of which served for the previous pastiche), Sainte-Beuve displays a positive aversion to the prospect of coming to grips with the work he is supposed to be criticizing. He escapes from his duty as a critic somewhat in the manner of Stephen Leacock's celebrated horseman who galloped rapidly off in all directions. The “article” consists of an endless series of irrelevancies: digressions about Flaubert's father, digressions about the lack of complete realism in his portrayal of a scene in a law court (Sainte-Beuve's authority is an eminent lawyer of his acquaintance), pedantic allusions—a la Brichot—to Martial, to Napoleon, to Villemain and to whatever and whomever else the critic's capacious memory can dredge up. At the end, we realize (if we are reflective—but how many newspaper readers reflect on what they have read?) that we have been titillated, interested, and informed on every possible subject but the one that the critic is ostensibly concerned with and ought to have dealt with—namely, the work of art by Flaubert. And we realize, through the distortion of caricature, that this parody has exposed the journalistic technique of Sainte-Beuve, which is never so completely awry from its critical purpose as Proust pretends here but is so only at its weakest points which the parodist has mercilessly seized upon.

And we realize the cardinal sin of journalism—which according to Proust means writing to please others, in distinction from “true” writing which is more subjective in its motivation (to the point of being self-centered) and derives its possible importance from this central characteristic. In another connection, later in this book, he...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date 23 April 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Monsieur Proust's Masterwork.” The New Criterion 16, no. 8 (23 April 1998): 19-28.

[In this essay, Epstein offers a survey of critical commentary on Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.]

What do we come away with when we read not merely a masterpiece but a masterwork of literature? The distinction between the two, masterpiece and masterwork, I take to be in favor of the latter, for a masterwork is not necessarily perfect of its kind, as a masterpiece ought to be, but of a significance beyond the question of mere (some “mere”) perfection. Usually large, often sprawling, always the product of monstrous ambition, a masterwork is a key...

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Susan Stewart (essay date fall 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stewart, Susan. “Proust's Turn from Nostalgia.” Raritan 19, no. 2 (fall 1999): 77-94.

[In the following essay, Stewart argues against the notion that Proust's masterwork is a memoir rooted in nostalgia.]

You can return to a book, but you cannot return to yourself. I had remembered Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a memoir driven by a nostalgic yearning for the past. Yet when I went back to it after a period of twenty years, Proust's research, in fact, turned out not to be about nostalgia at all. Rather, he frames a critique of such willful yearning and poses a certain form of aesthetic practice as counter to it. Proust's many-volumed book bears an...

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Marion Schmid (essay date October 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schmid, Marion. “Ideology and Discourse in Proust: The Making of ‘M. de Charlus pendant la guerre.’” Modern Language Review 94, no. 4 (October 1999): 961-77.

[In the following essay, Schmid discusses real historical events which are referred to in Remembrance of Things Past.]

Marcel Proust has often been described as apolitical.1 It is true that apart from a well-known involvement in the Dreyfus Affair and a lesser-known intervention against the separation of Church and State in 1904, he generally refrained from expressing his political opinions in public.2 Given the highly politicized and ideologically charged milieux he...

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Sara Danius (essay date January 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Danius, Sara. “The Aesthetics of the Windshield: Proust and the Modernist Rhetoric of Speed.” Modernism/Modernity 8, no. 1 (January 2001): 100-26.

[In the following essay, Danius explores Proust's use of photographic and cinematic techniques to heighten sensory perception in his essays and fiction.]

J. M. W. Turner once depicted a harbor seen against the light.1 He showed the drawing to a naval officer, who remarked that the ships had no portholes. “No, certainly not,” Turner replied and told the naval officer that if he would look at the ships against the sunset, he would find he could not see the portholes. The naval officer retorted that...

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Frank Rosengarten (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosengarten, Frank. “Problems of Structure, Unity and Aesthetic Philosophy.” In The Writings of the Young Marcel Proust (1885-1900): An Ideological Critique, pp. 101-17. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.

[In the following essay, Rosengarten examines narrative structure in Proust's Les Plaisirs et les jours.]

Much of the critical debate about PJ [Les Plaisirs et les jours] has centered around the question of whether it can be considered a structured, unified whole rather than a mere patchwork of miscellaneous pieces. This is an important question inasmuch as the way a writer organizes and arranges the material of a fictional work often...

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Allen Thiher (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thiher, Allen. “Proust and the End of Epistemic Competition.” In Fiction Rivals Science: The French Novel from Balzac to Proust, pp. 167-215. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Thiher explores Proust's attempt to reconcile science and art in his fiction.]

Chaque jour j'attache moins de prix à l'intelligence.
[Each day I value intelligence less.]

—Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve.


1826: Lobachevsky lectures on a non-Euclidian geometry in which more than one parallel to a given line goes through a given point....

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Robin Mackenzie (essay date July 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackenzie, Robin. “Proustian Doubles: Patterns of Duality and Multiplicity in À la recherche du temps perdu.Forum for Modern Language Studies 38, no. 3 (July 2002): 291-301.

[In the following essay Mackenzie explores the contradictory patterns of dualism and fragmentation in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.]

Man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point [and] I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.1

As readers of Proust's...

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Margaret Topping (essay date autumn 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Topping, Margaret. “Proust's Orient(alism).” French Studies Bulletin 84 (autumn 2002): 10-3.

[In the following essay, Topping discusses Orientalism in Proust's fiction.]

In Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, the mature narrator exposes the dangers of preconceptions:

C'est ainsi qu'un cousin de Saint-Loup avait épousé une jeune princesse d'Orient qui, disait-on, faisait des vers aussi beaux que ceux de Victor Hugo ou d'Alfred de Vigny et à qui, malgré cela, on supposait un esprit autre que ce qu'on pouvait concevoir, un esprit de princesse d'Orient recluse dans un...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Carter, William C. Marcel Proust: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000, 946 p.

Biographical study of the life and work of Marcel Proust.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. “Proust regained.” The New Criterion 19, no. 2 (October 2000): 13-21.

Biographical overview of Proust; assesses recent studies on the life and works of Proust.


Andrews, Chris. “Proust and Fandom.” Romance Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2001): 160-72.

Examines the behavior of the narrator in Remembrance of Things Past as that of a fan...

(The entire section is 451 words.)