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À la recherche du temps perdu
English Title: A Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time
A Novel by Marcel Proust (1871-1922)
Study Guide
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The Title
Type of Work
Setting
Structure and Approach
Point of View
The Narrator's Name
Characters
Divisions of the Novel
Summary
Climax
Themes
Writing Style
Allusions, Direct References
Nature Imagery
Dramatic Irony
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Proust Biography
Free Text in English: All Volumes
Free Text in French: All Volumes
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
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The Title

.......The title of French author Marcel Proust's most famous work, À la recherche du temps perdu, has found its way into English as A Remembrance of Things Past and as In Search of Lost Time. The French idiom à la recherche de means in search of. Du temps means of time, and perdu means lost or wasted. A literal translation of the title thus yields In Search of Time Lost or In Search of Time Wasted. Scotsman Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff (1889-1930) decided to bestow poetry on his English translation of the title of the work, using a phrase from the second line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 30. 

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past
.......British scholar Dennis Joseph Enright (1920-2002) translated the title as In Search of Lost Time in a 1992 revision of the Moncrieff translation of the novel. 

Type of Work

.......À la recherche du temps perdu is a roman-fleuve, a long novel in several volumes (or a series of novels) centering on a single character or several characters, succeeding generations of a family, or an epoch in history. Other examples of this genre include Honoré de Balzac's Comédie humaine (1834-1876) and Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe (1904-1912).
.......The novel also has characteristics of a bildungsroman. In addition, because Proust based the work loosely on his life, it is semi-autobiographical. However, Proust significantly altered the story of his life to suit his task. Consequently, many characters, events, and experiences are inventions. Readers looking for Proust in the novel will find pieces of him. 

Setting

.......Most of the action in the novel takes place in Paris and in two small French towns, Combray and Balbec, between the late 1870s and 1925. Combray, about fifteen miles southwest of Chartres, is the fictional name of a town known as Illiers in Proust's time. In 1971, the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Proust, it was renamed Illiers-Combray. Balbec is the fictional name of Cabourg, a town near the sea in the Basse-Normandie region of France. Proust spent the summers of 1907 and 1914 in the Grand Hôtel at Cabourg.
.......Action also takes place in other French towns and in Venice, Italy. 
.......The rural locales maintain long-standing social customs and traditions and offer quiet byways with beautiful flowers and trees. Paris, of course, is a center of intellectual and social change. It offers the excitement of busy streets, the latest fashions, the arts (painting, sculpture, music, etc.) and elegant, gossipy social life.

Structure and Approach

.......Most novels present a story with events that unfold sequentially. In Proust's novel, the narrator presents a story with impressions, events, and episodes that are sometimes out of sequence. For example, a passage centering on his childhood might follow one centering on his adult years. 
.......While the narrator tells the story, he also explains how he created itby piecing together memories that occur intermittently. A sensory experience, such as a song or a taste of a particular food that he associates with an experience from the past, triggers the most vivid memories. In a sense, his memories are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that he gradually assembles. Thus, the structure of the novel consists of bits and pieces of the past. When the last piece of the puzzle is in place, all of his remembrances form a work of art. 

Point of View

.......The narrator, Marcel, presents most of the novel in first-person point of view. However, he alternates between first- and third-person point of view when telling the story of Charles Swann's relationship with Odette de Crécy. This relationship began and ended before Marcel was born. A question arises here: How could Marcel recount events that took place before his birth? He answers that question in the following passage:

And so I would often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, of my melancholy and wakeful evenings there; of other days besides, the memory of which had been more lately restored to me by the taste—by what would have been called at Combray the 'perfume'—of a cup of tea; and, by an association of memories, of a story which, many years after I had left the little place, had been told me of a love affair in which Swann had been involved before I was born; with that accuracy of detail which it is easier, often, to obtain when we are studying the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than when we are trying to chronicle those of our own most intimate friends, an accuracy which it seems as impossible to attain as it seemed impossible to speak from one town to another, before we learned of the contrivance by which that impossibility has been overcome. All these memories, following one after another, were condensed into a single substance, but had not so far coalesced that I could not discern between the three strata, between my oldest, my instinctive memories, those others, inspired more recently by a taste or 'perfume,' and those which were actually the memories of another, from whom I had acquired them at second hand—no fissures, indeed, no geological faults, but at least those veins, those streaks of colour which in certain rocks, in certain marbles, point to differences of origin, age, and formation.
The Narrator's Name

The narrator of the novel identifies himself only as "M." However, the narrator suggests that his name is Marcel, as the following paragraph in the fifth volume (The Captive) indicates.

The uncertainty of awakening revealed by her [Albertine's] silence was not at all revealed in her eyes. As soon as she was able to speak she said: "My——" or "My dearest——" followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would be 'My Marcel,' or 'My dearest Marcel.'
Main Characters

Marcel: The narrator and protagonist. As a child, he suffers from sleep problems but looks forward to the good-night kiss of his mother. He is very attached to her and his maternal grandmother. Marcel aspires to become a writer and is an avid reader. He is also a keen observer of the people and events around him. But, like most people, he has trouble recalling the details of these events in his adult years. Occasionally, external stimuli help him to remember his past vividly so that he can make it central part of the novel he plans to write.
Mother of the Marcel (Mamma): Marcel's mother forms a close bond with him and one evening even stays up with him all night when cannot sleep.
Father of Marcel: Marcel's father generally opposes coddling his son but urges his wife to go to him one night when he realizes the boy is clearly upset because of his sleeping problems.
Bathilde Amédée: Narrator's maternal grandmother. She is a loving, caring, morally upright woman who buys books for Marcel.
Monsieur Amédée: Grandfather of the narrator and husband of Bathilde.
Aunt Léonie: Marcel's great-aunt, a widow. Marcel and his family stay at her home when they visit Combray. Upon her death, she leaves her money and furniture to Marcel, who gives the furniture to ladies in a brothel.
Charles Swann: Wealthy stockbroker and a friend of Marcel's family. He has friends in the highest social circles in Paris. 
Odette de Crécy: Promiscuous woman whom Swann marries.
Gilberte: Daughter of Swann and Odette de Crécy. Marcel falls in love with her.
Robert de Saint-Loup: Officer in the French army and good friend of Marcel. He is kind and cultured. He uses his reputation as a charmer of women to hide his homosexuality. 
Albertine Simonet: Beautiful young woman with whom Marcel falls in love after Gilberte marries Robert de Saint-Loup. Marcel suspects her of having lesbian encounters and jealously keeps watch over her. His suspicions are well founded.
Léa: Lesbian actress with whom Albertine is intimate.
Françoise: Cook for Aunt Léonie. After the latter dies, she becomes the cook in the Paris home of Marcel and his family.
Bloch: Jewish friend of Marcel. He recommends that Marcel stop reading the works of Alfred de Musset and instead begin reading the works of Bergotte. In so doing, Block says, Marcel will experience "the ambrosial joys of Olympus."
Bergotte: Marcel's favorite writer. Bergotte is a fictional personage. However, Proust based him on writers and thinkers whose works he read.
Oriane de Guermantes: Duchess (Duchesse) at the pinnacle of Paris society. She comes from a noble family that goes further back than even families of royals that she knows. Marcel eventually gains acceptance in her circle of friends.
Basin de Guermantes: Duke (Duc) and husband of the Duchesse de Guermantes. He is a womanizer.
Charlus (Palamède de Guermantes): Pompous friend of Marcel and Swann and younger brother of Basin de Guermantes. Baron de Charlus is a homosexual who is obsessed with finding young men.
Morel: Talented violinist who benefits from the patronage of Charlus and Robert de Saint-Loup. Morel is self-centered and mean-spirited.
Jupien: A tailor and homosexual friend of Charlus. Jupien acts as a procurer for Charlus and arranges for him to meet with Morel.
Comte de Crécy: First husband of Odette.
Sidonie Verdurin: Obnoxious social climber who attempts to rule her circle of friends with an iron hand.
Gustave Verdurin: Husband of Sidonie Verdurin.
Comte de Forcheville: Acquaintance of the Verdurins. He becomes intimate with Odette while she is seeing Swann. After Swann's death, he marries her.
Monsieur Vinteuil: Extremely polite and self-effacing widower. He is a musician and composer who lives near Combray. Vinteuil dotes on his daughter but dies of a broken heart after she engages in a lesbian relationship.
Mademoiselle Vinteuil: Daughter of Vinteuil. She engages in a lesbian relationship with a friend she invites to her house.
Lesbian Friend of Mademoiselle Vinteuil
Adolphe: Marcel's uncle. He is a womanizer and, even in his old age, keeps company with courtesans.
Berma: Well-known actress.
Elstir: Painter who lives in Balbec and becomes acquainted with the narrator.
Norpois: Diplomat and friend of Marcel's family. 
Legrandin: Parisian with a country house at Combray.
Dr. Cottard: Oafish member of the Verdurin circle.
Brichot: Boring professor in the Verdurin circle.
Rachel: A mistress of Robert de Saint-Loup.
Andrée: Friend of Albertine.

Divisions of the Novel, Publication Dates, and Title Translations

Volume 1: Du côté de chez Swann (1913)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:Swann's Way
Literal Translations: (1) In the Vicinity of Swann's House. (2) The Way of Swann.

Volume 2: À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation: Within a Budding Grove.
Literal Translations: (1) In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom. (1) In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

Volume 3: Le Côté de Guermantes (1920)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation: The Guermantes Way.
Literal Translation: The Way of the Guermantes.

Volume 4: Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation: Cities of the Plain.
Literal Translation: Sodom and Gomorrah.

Volume 5: La Prisonnière (1923)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation: The Captive.
Literal Translation: The Prisoner.

Volume 6: Albertine disparue or La Fugitive (1925)

C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation: The Sweat Cheat Gone.
Literal Translations: (1) Albertine Gone. (2) Albertine Disappears. (3) The Fugitive. 

Volume 7: Le Temps retrouvé (1927)

Stephen Hudson's Translation: Time Regained.
Literal Translations: (1) Time Found. (2) Time Recovered.

Summary of the Novel
By Michael J. Cummings

Based on the original French text and on C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translations of Volumes 1-6 and Stephen Hudson's Translation of Volume 7

.......The main character, Marcel, writes the story of his life and the world in which he lives. He begins his story as an adult looking back on his life. 
.......When he was a child, he says, he found it difficult to fall asleep. At times, it was torture to lie there in bed. However, he welcomed the moment when his mother came in to kiss him good night. 
.......Remembering his childhood and the rest of his past is important to Marcel, for he plans to complete a book that recaptures his memories and shows them to readers of the present. 
.......Marcel can remember many episodes from his youth, including summer sojourns at Combray, southwest of Paris, with his great-aunt Léonie and his grandfather and grandmother, Bathilde Amédée. It was in his boyhood at Combray that he decided to become a writer. There, his young friend, Bloch, spoke of a writer named Bergotte. When Marcel began reading this writer, he was enthralled.
.......“I observed the rare, almost archaic phrases which he liked to employ at certain points, where a hidden flow of harmony, a prelude contained and concealed in the work itself would animate and elevate his style. . . . ,” Marcel says.
.......At Combray, Marcel experienced much that he plans to write about: walks in the country, the beautiful scenery, the people. He continued to have trouble going to sleep, he recalls, even after someone “had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window.” But this gift did not relieve him of his bedtime problems.
.......The most frequent visitor he and his family received at Combray was Charles Swann, a wealthy stockbroker and art connoisseur who a neighbor with a pond and beautiful hawthorn trees. Swann was conversant on many subjects and had access to the drawing rooms of Paris society. His father had been a close friend of Marcel's grandfather, who in turn became a friend of Swann. 
.......Among those who often came to dinner, besides Swann, were Bathilde's sister and Marcel's Aunt Celine. The conversation ranged over a wide number of topics—the abilities of a particular orator, the co-operative movement in Scandinavia, the Pensées of philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and gossip. The members of the family enjoyed stories that Swann told, although they secretly looked down on him because of his middle-class background. In this regard, their attitude toward him would probably have changed if they were aware that he had gained entry to the highest circles of Paris society and even moved among nobles and royals. 
.......During this time, Marcel's mother continued to soothe his fears when he went to bed. In fact, one evening when he was extremely anxious, she read to him from a novel by George Sand (1804-1876) and spent the night in his room. 
.......The adult Marcel recalls that these and other remembrances of his childhood are never detailed enough for an aspiring writer. He concludes that it is “a labor in vain” to try to recapture the past. 
.......“The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect," Marcel says. "And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”
.......Fortunately for Marcel, that moment of chance arrived when he came home one cold winter day. To help warm him, his mother gave him hot tea. She also gave him a little cake called a petite madeleine. The taste of the madeleine had a profound effect on him, as his narration indicates:

I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
He concluded that a “visual memory” locked deep inside him—a memory associated with the taste of the madeleine—was attempting to surface and manifest itself. Several moments later, the memory emerged—a memory of Sunday mornings at Combray when his Aunt Léonie used to give him a morsel of a madeleine, dipped in lime-flower tea, before he went to mass at a nearby Roman Catholic church. The taste of the madeleine also unlocked many other earlier memories. He could now see his past in vivid detail. He could begin to remember things past; he could begin to recapture lost time. 
.......Marcel recalls a time at Combray when he was older and was out walking with his family. Outside Swann's house, they encountered his wife, Odette, who was with her daughter, Gilberte, and a friend of Swann, Baron Charlus de Guermantes. Marcel was captivated by Gilberte. But in locking the memory of her in his mind, he mistakenly gave her blue eyes even though he clearly saw her black eyes.
.......Meanwhile, another neighbor, the pianist Vinteuil, became terribly disappointed in his daughter when another woman moved into his home as the lover of his daughter, whom he had always doted on. In a short while, he died of a broken heart. One day, while walking by their house, Marcel saw Mademoiselle Vinteuil's friend making advances toward her. Mademoiselle ran off, and “and then they began to chase one another about the room, scrambling over the furniture, their wide sleeves fluttering like wings, clucking and crowing like a pair of amorous fowls.” 
.......When Mademoiselle Vinteuil saw her father's portrait on a table, she called her friend's attention to it. The latter proposed that they spit on it. Marcel observed that Mademoiselle Vinteuil's indifference to the suffering she caused her father was the same kind of indifference he saw in other people and that it was “the one true, terrible and lasting form of cruelty.”
.......The novel flashes back to a time long before Marcel first visited Combray to tell the story of Swann. 
.......At the Paris residence of Monsieur and Madame Verdurin—ambitious social climbers—Swann cultivated a relationship with a woman named Odette de Crécy. He was unaware of her reputation as a courtesan. She made advances. At the time, however, he was keeping company with a seamstress and avoided becoming overly friendly with Odette. But she persisted and won his attentions. One of the little tricks she used was to have a musician play a sonata that he enjoyed. 
.......At first, he did not regard her as particularly attractive. But later, after comparing her to the image of the daughter of Jethro in a Botticelli painting, he thought her exquisitely beautiful. They became lovers. Meanwhile, Odette's promiscuous nature led her into the arms of other men, including the Comte de Forcheville. Swann married Odette. Baron de Charlus learned of her infidelities and informed Swann of them in an unsigned letter. Swann realized he should never have married Odette, lamenting, "To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!"
.......Many years later, Marcel fell in love with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette. In time, though, she became bored with him and he abandoned his relationship with her. About two years later, he fell in love with Albertine Simonet, a young woman he met while sojourning with his grandmother at the Grand Hôtel de la Plage in Balbec, in northwestern France near the English Channel. He grew cool toward her, though, when she appeared to prefer only a platonic relationship with him. 
.......At Balbec, Marcel became reacquainted with his old friend Bloch (the one who introduced him to Bergotte) and made a new friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, a charming, personable military officer. Meanwhile, Marcel continued to witness the follies and pretensions of social climbers. 
.......As a young man, Marcel entered Parisian society under the aegis of one of the grande dame of the Parisian upper class, the wealthy Madame Guermantes, who lived in an elite section of Paris, Faubourg Saint-Germain. Before gaining entry to Madame's social circle, Marcel had idealized it as a refined and lofty niche in the haute monde. But after attending many dinners at her residence, he began to see that the high society of the Guermantes was just as vulgar and prosaic as life in the salons of bourgeois social climbers. During this time, his grandmother died.
.......In time, Marcel renewed his relationship with Albertine, who no longer held platonic relationships in high esteem. The Dreyfus Affair became a topic of conversation all over France, including the social affairs Marcel attended, and exposed the anti-Semitism running through much of society. From time to time, Marcel saw Swann at dinner parties. To the detriment of his reputation, Swann defended Dreyfus. And to the detriment of his health, he became ill with cancer. He had wanted to introduce his wife, Odette, and daughter, Gilberte, at the Guermantes' social gatherings but did not gain Madame's approval before he died.
.......Meanwhile, Marcel became obsessed with Albertine and began to suspect her of having lesbian relationships. Oddly, his desire for her became intense only when she strayed from him. At this time, he became a regular in the social circle of the Verdurins. So did Baron de Charlus, who had been active in the homosexual underworld with a tailor named Jupien. Jupien acted as a procurer of young men for Charlus. Charlus latched onto a violinist named Morel. Like Marcel's preoccupation with Albertine and her behavior, Charlus became obsessed with Morel. 
.......As Marcel kept a close watch on Albertine, he considered marrying her and made her a virtual prisoner in his Paris residence when his mother was away caring for a sick relative. Although he gave Albertine gifts and pledged to marry her, she ran away one day and completely vanished. He later learned that she had died falling off a horse. A foreshadowing of her death occurred when Marcel and Albertine left Balbec for Paris.
On the first day, at the moment of leaving Balbec, when she saw how wretched I was, and was distressed by the prospect of leaving me by myself, my mother had perhaps been glad when she heard that Albertine was travelling with us, and saw that, side by side with our own boxes (those boxes among which I had passed a night in tears in the Balbec hotel), there had been hoisted into the 'Twister' Albertine's boxes also, narrow and black, which had seemed to me to have the appearance of coffins, and as to which I knew not whether they were bringing to my house life or death. (The Captive)
.......Marcel eventually became interested again in Gilberte. She and her mother, Odette, by this time had been deemed acceptable in Faubourg Saint-Germain society. However, their father, Swann, was forgotten—the memory of him obliterated—by the salon crowd that knew him. 
.......Marcel and his mother vacationed in Venice. While there, he received a letter informing him that Gilberte had married Robert Saint-Loup. Not long after the latter's marriage, Robert began practicing homosexuality. In fact, he had been a homosexual all along. His various encounters with women and his marriage to Gilberte were designed merely to disguise his homosexuality.
.......After the First World War broke out, and Robert died in battle. The decline and fall of the French aristocracy became complete when Madame Verdurin, whose husband had died, became the Princesse de Guermantes. Charlus, meanwhile, continued his old ways, roaming Paris for male companions. 
.......Marcel attended a party at which he realized the shallowness of life in the salons and, because his health was declining, made a decision not to put off any longer the pursuit of a writing career and the production of a work of art that captured his remembrances of things past. 

Climax

.......The climax occurs in the final volume of the novel, Time Regained, when Marcel realizes the shallowness of life in the drawing rooms and decides to write his book. He observes, 

Finally, this idea of Time had the ultimate value of the hand of a clock. It told me it was time to begin if I meant to attain that which I had felt in brief flashes on the Guermantes' side and during my drives with Mme de Villeparisis, that indefinable something which had made me think life worth living. How much more so now that it seemed possible to illuminate that life lived in darkness, at last to make manifest in a book the truth one ceaselessly falsifies. Happy the man who could write such a book. 

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Themes

Quest

.......Like a knight of old, the narrator of Proust's book sallies forth on a quest. But he rides into an inner world, the labyrinth of the mind, to find what he seeks—buried memories. They are not easy to resurrect. But when he succeeds in bringing them to life with the help of sensory stimuli associated with them—such as the taste of the madeleine (Swann's Way)—he comes away with vivid mental pictures of his past and the people and places who occupy it. He uses these pictures to piece together a portrait of himself and society.

Degeneration

.......Marcel witnesses and records the decadence and degeneration of French middle- and upper-class society. In the final book, he speaks of this degeneration in relation to the Guermantes family. 

.......Thus in the faubourg Saint-Germain the apparently impregnable positions of the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes and of the Baron de Charlus had lost their inviolability as everything changes in this world through the action of an interior principle which had never occurred to them; in the case of M. de Charlus it was the love of Charlie who had enslaved him to the Verdurins and then gradual decay, in the case of Mme de Guermantes a taste for novelty and for art, in the case of M. de Guermantes an exclusive love, as he had had so many in his life, rendered more tyrannical by the feebleness of old age to which the austerity of the Duchesse's salon where the Duc no longer put in an appearance and which, for that matter, had almost ceased functioning, offered no resistance by its power of rehabilitation. (Time Regained)
Inevitability of Change

.......Many people go through life believing that things will always be as they are now. There is a certain comfort in living as if the world will always be as it is. Marcel makes the point, however, that change will occur even when people are certain that it will not: "Thus the face of things in life changes, the centre of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded and during his life-time a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him least possible" (Time Regained)

Memory and Time

.......Adopting the ideas of philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Proust presents the view that the conscious mind tends to inhibit the ability to recall past events. This is a problem for the narrator, Marcel, since he plans to become a writer who brings the past alive. The past is there, of course, waiting to be tapped. As Bergson wrote in Creative Evolution, "In its entirety, probably, it [the past] follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside." 
.......Marcel eventually discovers that a memory cue—such as the taste of the petite madeleine (Swann's Way)—can activate "involuntary memory" that brings the past into the conscious mind in vivid detail. In the following passage, Marcel recounts how a smell activated memories of his life in Combray. The passage is followed by a long account of these memories. The passage begins when Marcel is about to leave a Roman Catholic church after attending mass. 

When, before turning to leave the church, I made a genuflection before the altar, I felt suddenly, as I rose again, a bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds steal towards me from the hawthorn-blossom, and I then noticed that on the flowers themselves were little spots of a creamier colour, in which I imagined that this fragrance must lie concealed, as the taste of an almond cake lay in the burned parts, or the sweetness of Mile. Vinteuil's cheeks beneath their freckles. Despite the heavy, motionless silence of the hawthorns, these gusts of fragrance came to me like the murmuring of an intense vitality, with which the whole altar was quivering like a roadside hedge explored by living antennae, of which I was reminded by seeing some stamens, almost red in colour, which seemed to have kept the springtime virulence, the irritant power of stinging insects now transmuted into flowers. (Swann's Way)
Everyone experiences involuntary memory from time to time. For example, a man of seventy may recall the atmosphere of an old movie theater when he sees on television the same film he saw in a theater when he was a teenager. Or a woman of the same age may recall her wedding day in detail when she smells the same perfume that she wore on that day. 
.......Marcel's grandmother believes that the past holds lessons for people in the present. In this regard, she almost always gives antiques as gifts teach the recipients about bygone days. "Even when she had to make some one a present of the kind called 'useful,' when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick," Marcell recalls, she would choose "antiques,"as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own" (Swann's Way). 
.......In following the ideas Bergson in the novel, Proust suggests that time is a continuously flowing duration (durée, as Bergson called this phenomenon in French) rather than as a sequence of seconds or a chronology. Bergson believed that duration was indivisible and that past and present are both real in the here and now. Scientists such as Albert Einstein, believed that time was divisible and therefore measurable in mathematical units. The consensus among thinkers in the early twentieth century was that Einstein was right and Bergson wrong. 
.......In presenting his ideas on memory and time as themes in À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust may have been attempting to demonstrate that the way the human mind functions and perceives reality has as much a bearing on a person's life as the events that unfold around that person.

Hyprocrisy

.......Throughout the novel, the narrator calls attention to the hypocrisy he sees in French society and even in his own family. The following paragraph, for example, centers on this theme. Here is the situation: Monsieur Vinteuil, Marcel, and other members of his family have a conversation with Swann while they are out on a walk. After Swann leaves, Marcel observes, 

.......And then, so strong an element of hypocrisy is there in even the most sincere of men, who cast off, while they are talking to anyone, the opinion they actually hold of him and will express when he is no longer there, my family joined with M. Vinteuil in deploring Swann's marriage, invoking principles and conventions which (all the more because they invoked them in common with him, as though we were all thorough good fellows of the same sort) they appeared to suggest were in no way infringed at Montjouvain. (Swann's Way)
Promiscuity and Debauchery

.......The narrator notes that promiscuity is commonplace in French society. Odette was a prostitute before her first marriage and organized and participated in orgies. Her second husband, Swann, receives a letter saying that "Odette had been the mistress of countless men (several of whom it named, among them Forcheville, M. de Breaute and the painter) and women, and that she frequented houses of ill-fame" (Swann's Way). Marcel's Uncle Adolph is a womanizer even into his old age. Baron de Charlus roams Paris for homosexual lovers. The Marquis de Vaugoubert, an acquaintance of Charlus, is obsessed with desire for men. Jupien the tailor, a friend of Charlus, opens a male brothel at the behest of Charlus. While married to Gilberte, Robert de Saint-Loup has liaisons with other women—and men. Marcel learns that Albertine had once teamed with Morel to recruit young girls for brothels. 
.......The theme of promiscuity and debauchery helps to support another theme, the degeneration of French society. 

Jealousy

.......Jealousy motivates several characters in the novel. The odious Verdurins, for example, are jealous of the social success of others and strive to climb over them. But this theme is most apparent in Marcel's relationship with Albertine. Jealous of anyone—a man or a woman—who exhibits an interest in Albertine, Marcel takes her to his residence in Paris and makes a virtual prisoner of her to keep her from seeing others. But his jealousy continues to torture him, as he reports in the following paragraph about Albertine's activities when she is not with him.

Even in the first days after our return to Paris, not satisfied by the information that Andrée and the chauffeur had given me as to their expeditions with my mistress [Albertine], I had felt the neighbourhood of Paris to be as tormenting as that of Balbec, and had gone off for a few days in the country with Albertine. But everywhere my uncertainty as to what she might be doing was the same . . . with the result that I returned with her to Paris. In leaving Balbec, I had imagined that I was leaving Gomorrah, plucking Albertine from it; in reality, alas, Gomorrah was dispersed to all the ends of the earth. And partly out of jealousy, partly out of ignorance of such joys (a case which is rare indeed), I had arranged unawares this game of hide and seek in which Albertine was always to escape me. (The Captive)
Writing Style

.......Proust dresses much of his prose in evocative details—spiced with allusions to art, literature, and history—in order to create vivid portraits of people, places, and things. Louis Cazamian says the author "reveals himself in two different moods."

The one chiefly apparent in the initial volume, Du côté de chez Swann, and parts of the others, is a warm, lovely, wistful evocation of scenes, landscapes and characters from the enchanting book of years, and of moments of emotion in the life of the hero. At such times the style is glowing and impressionistic, full of charm and poetry. But, and with increasing frequency as the work proceeds, the writer's attitude changes and becomes one of cool, disillusioned, and somewhat bitter interest in the vagaries of the world and the complexities of conduct. Here it is no longer the poet who speaks, but the analyst of thought and behaviour, whose object is not to move, but to instruct. The style is forceful, precise, and rather austere, animated only by a kind of subdued excitement, akin to that of the impassioned moralist. In spite of their interest, these argumentative digressions will strike many readers as somewhat heavy. (A History of French Literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1959, page 434)
.......The language in the novel is specific, and the sentences are often long, labyrinthine adventures into rhetoric. For example, the following passage from volume 5 (La Prisonnière) consists of three hundred twenty words in just two sentences in its translated version.

.......But all of a sudden the scene changed; it was the memory, no longer of old impressions, but of an old desire, quite recently reawakened by the Fortuny gown in blue and gold, that spread itself before me, another spring, a spring not leafy at all but suddenly stripped, on the contrary, of its trees and flowers by the name that I had just
uttered to myself: 'Venice,' a decanted spring, which is reduced to its essential qualities, and expresses the lengthening, the warming, the gradual maturing of its days by the progressive fermentation, not (this time) of an impure soil, but of a blue and virgin water, springlike without bud or blossom, which could answer the call of May
only by gleaming facets, carved by that month, harmonising exactly with it in the radiant, unaltering nakedness of its dusky sapphire. And so, no more than the seasons to its unflowering inlets of the sea, do modern years bring any change to the gothic city; I knew it, I could not imagine it, but this was what I longed to contemplate with
the same desire which long ago, when I was a boy, in the very ardour of my departure had shattered the strength necessary for the journey; I wished to find myself face to face with my Venetian imaginings, to behold how that divided sea enclosed in its meanderings, like the streams of Ocean, an urbane and refined civilisation, but one that,
isolated by their azure belt, had developed by itself, had had its own schools of painting and architecture, to admire that fabulous garden of fruits and birds in coloured stone, flowering in the midst of the sea which kept it refreshed, splashed with its tide against the base of the columns and, on the bold relief of the capitals, like a dark
blue eye watching in the shadows, laid patches, which it kept perpetually moving, of light. (The Captive)

One of Proust's strong points is his ability to capture specific details in vivid language, as in the following passage. (The original French passage follows the English translation of it.)

At the hour when I usually went downstairs to find out what there was for dinner, its preparation would already have begun, and Françoise, a colonel with all the forces of nature for her subalterns, as in the fairy-tales where giants hire themselves out as scullions, would be stirring the coals, putting the potatoes to steam, and, at the right moment, finishing over the fire those culinary masterpieces which had been first got ready in some of the great array of vessels, triumphs of the potter's craft, which ranged from tubs and boilers and cauldrons and fish kettles down to jars for game, moulds for pastry, and tiny pannikins for cream, and included an entire collection of pots and pans of every shape and size. I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume. (Swann's Way)

A cette heure où je descendais apprendre le menu, le dîner était déjà commencé, et Françoise, commandant aux forces de la nature devenues ses aides, comme dans les féeries où les géants se font engager comme cuisiniers, frappait la houille, donnait à la vapeur des pommes de terre à étuver et faisait finir à point par le feu les chefs-d'œuvre culinaires d'abord préparés dans des récipients de céramiste qui allaient des grandes cuves, marmites, chaudrons et poissonnières, aux terrines pour le gibier, moules à pâtisserie, et petits pots de crème en passant par une collection complète de casserole de toutes dimensions. Je m'arrêtais à voir sur la table, où la fille de cuisine venait de les écosser, les petits pois alignés et nombrés comme des billes vertes dans un jeu; mais mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d'outremer et de rose et dont l'épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d'azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu'au pied,—encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant,—par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s'étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d'aurore, en ces ébauches d'arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j'en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leurs farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.

.......Following are examples of figures of speech from the above paragraphs.
Alliteration: (1) putting the potatoes to steam; (2) still stained a little by the soil
Hyperbole: preparing food with "all the forces of nature"
Metaphor: comparison of Françoise to a colonel
Metaphor: comparison of the peas to platoons of soldiers
Metaphor: comparison of "little creatures" to vegetables
Simile: comparison of the peas to "little green marbles"

Allitération: (1) comme cuisiniers; (2) collection complète de casserole 
Hyperbole: preparing food with "all the forces of nature" (aux forces de la nature)
Métaphore: comparison of Françoise to a military officer (Françoise, commandant aux forces de la nature) 
Métaphore: comparison of little creatures to vegetables ("Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s'étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes.)
Simile: Comparison of the peas to "little green marbles" (les petits pois alignés et nombrés comme des billes vertes dans un jeu)

Allusions and Direct References

.......To support his narration in À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust uses hundreds of allusions and direct references to literature, history, philosophy, myth and other subjects. Following are examples from Swann's Way.

Abraham: First patriarch of Israel in the Old Testament (Genesis) and forefather of the Hebrews.
Ahasuerus: See Esther.
Aladdin: In the Arabian Nights, a boy who finds a magic lamp in a cave. When he rubs it, he can call up genies that do his bidding.
Ali Baba: In the Arabian Nights, a woodsman who happens upon a cave hiding the treasure of forty thieves. He causes the portal of the cave to open by uttering the words "Open sesame." 
Apollo: In Greek mythology, the god of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and he was thus also considered the god of the sun.
Aristaeus: In Greek mythology, a son of Apollo. Aristaeus safeguarded hunters and shepherds.
Athalie: Stage drama by French playwright Racine (1639-1699).
Beauvais: French town whose name became synonymous with fine tapestries because of the factory there that made tapestries of exceptional quality.
Bellini: Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), Venetian painter of religious scenes and portraits. After traveling to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), he completed an oil painting of Sultan Mahomet II (Mehmet II). 
Bengal fire: Firworks or flare producing blue light.
Cid: Le Cid, a stage drama by Pierre Corneille (1606-1684).
Corot: French landscape painter (1796-1875).
Éloi, Saint: Saint Eligius (588-660), patron saint of goldsmiths and horses.
Esther: In the Old Testament, the Jewish wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus. She persuaded her husband to halt a plan to annihilate Jews (Book of Esther).
Geneviève de Brabant: Operetta by Jacques Offenbach. The title character is a beautiful woman married to a duke.
Giotto: Giotto di Bondone (circa 1267-1337), Italian fresco painter and probably the greatest artist of his time.
Golo: Character in Geneviève de Brabant. Golo is counselor to the duke.
Gozzoli, Benozzo: Renaissance painter (1420-1497).
Isaac: Patriarch of Israel in the Old Testament (Genesis). He was the son of Abraham and Sarah.
jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare: Allusion to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and/or The Tempest.
like the eyes of a good-looking martyr whose body bristles with arrows: Probably an allusion to Saint Sebastian, a third-century Christian martyr. Art works depict him pierced with arrows while tied to a tree or post.
Mahomet II: Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Mahomet ((1432-1481) was also known as Mehmed II.
Quatre Fils Aymon: Epic poem in Old French about a man who kills the nephew of Charlemagne. Its English title is The Four Sons of Aymon
Sarah: Wife of Abraham in the Old Testament (Genesis).
Olympus: Mountain in Greece that was believed to be the abode of Zeus, Hera, and other major deities of Greek mythology.
Phèdre: Stage drama by French playwright Racine (1639-1699).
Piranesi: Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Italian architect and printmaker famous for depicting scenes of ancient Rome.
Protean: Allusion to Proteus, a sea god in Greek mythology who could change his appearance at will.
Robert, Hubert: French landscape painter (1733-1808).
Rousseau: Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Swiss-born French philosopher and author. Among his most important works was Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract).
Second Empire: Allusion to the era in which Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, ruled France (1852-1870).
Thetis: In Greek mythology, a daughter of the sea god Nereus. She was the mother of Achilles, the greatest warrior in the Trojan War.
Titian: Great Renaissance painter (circa 1488-1576) from Venice.
Turner: J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), English landscape painter. In À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust refers to one of his paintings, Mount Vesuvius in Eruption.
Vichy-Celestins: Sparkling mineral water from the French town of Vichy.
Virgil: Ancient Roman author (70-19 BC) who wrote one of the great epics in world literature, The Aeneid.
William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquérant): Duke of Normandy who conquered England in 1066. William (circa 1028–September 1087) then became king of England and reigned until his death.

Nature Imagery

.......Proust frequently compares and contrasts idyllic nature scenes with the artificial scenes in buildings and cities or to make a transition from one activity to another. Following are examples from Moncrieff's translation of the novel.

Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to 'come on' for a while, and so goes 'in front' in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself. (Swann's Way)

Often the sun would disappear behind a cloud, which impinged on its roundness, but whose edge the sun gilded in return. The brightness, though not the light of day, would then be shut off from a landscape in which all life appeared to be suspended, while the little village of Roussainville carved in relief upon the sky the white mass of its gables, with a startling precision of detail. A gust of wind blew from its perch a rook, which floated away and settled in the distance, while beneath a paling sky the woods on the horizon assumed a deeper tone of  blue, as though they were painted in one of those cameos which you still find decorating the walls of old houses. (Swann's Way)

The moon was now in the sky like a section of orange delicately peeled although slightly bruised. But presently she was to be fashioned of the most enduring gold. Sheltering alone behind her, a poor little star was to serve as sole companion to the lonely moon, while she, keeping her friend protected, but bolder and striding ahead, would brandish like an irresistible weapon, like an Oriental symbol, her broad and marvellous crescent of gold. (Cities of the Plain/Sodom and Gomorrah, transitional sentences)

My walks, that autumn, were all the more delightful because I used to take them after long hours spent over a book. When I was tired of reading, after a whole morning in the house, I would throw my plaid across my shoulders and set out; my body, which in a long spell of enforced immobility had stored up an accumulation of vital energy, was now obliged, like a spinning-top wound and let go, to spend this in every direction. The walls of houses, the Tansonville hedge, the trees of Roussainville wood, the bushes against which Montjouvain leaned its back, all must bear the blows of my walking-stick or umbrella, must hear my shouts of happiness, blows and shouts being indeed no more than expressions of the confused ideas which exhilarated me, and which, not being developed to the point at which they might rest exposed to the light of day, rather than submit to a slow and difficult course of elucidation, found it easier and more pleasant to drift into an immediate outlet. (Swann's Way)

.......The following passage precedes a scene in Swann's house. 
I could see from afar in the Swanns' little garden-plot the sunlight glittering like hoar frost from the bare-boughed trees. It is true that the garden boasted but a pair of them. The unusual hour presented the scene in a new light. Into these pleasures of nature (intensified by the suppression of habit and indeed by my physical hunger) the thrilling prospect of sitting down to luncheon with Mme. Swann was infused . . . . (Within a Budding Grove)
.......Here is a passage that mixes nature imagery with the noise of urban life.
The first sounds from the street had told me, according to whether they came to my ears dulled and distorted by the moisture of the atmosphere or quivering like arrows in the resonant and empty area of a spacious, crisply frozen, pure morning; as soon as I heard the rumble of the first tramcar, I could tell whether it was sodden with rain or setting forth into the blue. And perhaps these sounds had themselves been forestalled by some swifter and more pervasive emanation which, stealing into my slumber, diffused in it a melancholy that seemed to presage snow, or gave utterance (through the lips of a little person who occasionally reappeared there) to so many hymns to the glory of the sun that, having first of all begun to smile in my sleep, having prepared my eyes, behind their shut lids, to be dazzled, I awoke finally amid deafening strains of music. (The Captive)
.......Sometimes nature imagery inspires Marcel in regard to his plan to become a writer. Here is an example.
I used to dream that Mme. de Guermantes, taking a sudden capricious fancy for myself, invited me there, that all day long she stood fishing for trout by my side. And when evening came, holding my hand in her own, as we passed by the little gardens of her vassals, she would point out to me the flowers that leaned their red and purple spikes along the tops of the low walls, and would teach me all their names. She would make me tell her, too, all about the poems that I meant to compose. And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. (Swann's Way)
Dramatic Irony

.......Readers of À la recherche du temps perdu will discover many instances of dramatic irony in the novel. For example, the Verdurins and their followers are unaware of how foolish they appear as they pursue social ascendancy. Meanwhile, the Guermantes and other members of the upper classes are unaware that they are living in a world of degeneration and decline. Even the astute Swann is a victim of his own ignorance in regard to Odette's history of reprehensible behavior. 

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Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Do you believe that Marcel suffers from an Oedipus complex?
  • Some readers of À la recherche du temps perdu maintain that it is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Other readers maintain that the novel is insufferably boring and a waste of time. What is your opinion? If you read only one volume of the novel, such as Swann's Way, then respond in relation to that volume.
  • Write an essay that attempts to answer this question: Does Proust present a true picture of French society in the late nineteenth century? 
  • Which character in the novel do you most admire? Which character do you least admire? Explain your answers. If you read only one volume of the novel, such as Swann's Way, then respond in relation to that volume.
  • Proust was the son of a French Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother. Does he use his religious and/or ethnic background to help him develop themes in the novel? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator, Marcel, with Proust..

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