Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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
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
When to the sessions
of sweet silent thought
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.
I summon up remembrance
of things past
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).
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.
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.
also takes place in other French towns and in Venice, Italy.
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.
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.
the narrator tells the story, he also explains how he created it—by
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Amédée: Narrator's maternal grandmother. She is a loving,
caring, morally upright woman who buys books for Marcel.
Amédée: Grandfather of the narrator and husband of Bathilde.
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.
Swann: Wealthy stockbroker and a friend of Marcel's family. He has
friends in the highest social circles in Paris.
de Crécy: Promiscuous woman whom Swann marries.
Daughter of Swann and Odette de Crécy. Marcel falls in love with
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.
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
Lesbian actress with whom Albertine is intimate.
Cook for Aunt Léonie. After the latter dies, she becomes the cook
in the Paris home of Marcel and his family.
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."
Marcel's favorite writer. Bergotte is a fictional personage. However, Proust
based him on writers and thinkers whose works he read.
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
de Guermantes: Duke (Duc) and husband of the Duchesse de Guermantes.
He is a womanizer.
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.
Talented violinist who benefits from the patronage of Charlus and Robert
de Saint-Loup. Morel is self-centered and mean-spirited.
A tailor and homosexual friend of Charlus. Jupien acts as a procurer for
Charlus and arranges for him to meet with Morel.
de Crécy: First husband of Odette.
Verdurin: Obnoxious social climber who attempts to rule her circle
of friends with an iron hand.
Verdurin: Husband of Sidonie Verdurin.
de Forcheville: Acquaintance of the Verdurins. He becomes intimate
with Odette while she is seeing Swann. After Swann's death, he marries
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.
Vinteuil: Daughter of Vinteuil. She engages in a lesbian relationship
with a friend she invites to her house.
Friend of Mademoiselle Vinteuil
Marcel's uncle. He is a womanizer and, even in his old age, keeps company
Painter who lives in Balbec and becomes acquainted with the narrator.
and friend of Marcel's family.
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.
of the Novel, Publication Dates, and Title Translations
Volume 1: Du côté
de chez Swann (1913)
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:Swann's
Literal Translations: (1)
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:
a Budding Grove.
Literal Translations: (1)
the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom. (1) In the Shadow of Young Girls
Volume 3: Le Côté
de Guermantes (1920)
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:
Literal Translation: The
Way of the Guermantes.
Volume 4: Sodome et
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:
of the Plain.
Literal Translation: Sodom
Volume 5: La Prisonnière
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:
Literal Translation: The
Volume 6: Albertine
disparue or La Fugitive (1925)
C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translation:
Sweat Cheat Gone.
Literal Translations: (1)
Albertine Gone. (2) Albertine Disappears. (3) The Fugitive.
Volume 7: Le Temps
Stephen Hudson's Translation:
Literal Translations: (1)
Time Found. (2) Time Recovered.
of the Novel
the original French text and on C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Translations of
Volumes 1-6 and Stephen Hudson's Translation of Volume 7
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
novel flashes back to a time long before Marcel first visited Combray to
tell the story of Swann.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 occurs in the final volume of the novel, Time Regained,
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
theme of promiscuity and debauchery helps to support another theme, the
degeneration of French society.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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)
are examples of figures of speech from the above paragraphs.
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.
steam; (2) still
by the soil
and Direct References
preparing food with "all the forces of nature"
of Françoise to a colonel
of the peas to platoons of soldiers
of "little creatures" to vegetables
of the peas to "little green marbles"
preparing food with "all the forces of nature" (aux forces de la
comparison of Françoise to a military officer (Françoise,
commandant aux forces de la nature)
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.)
of the peas to "little green marbles" (les petits pois alignés et
nombrés comme des billes vertes dans un jeu)
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.
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
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
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.
drama by French playwright Racine (1639-1699).
town whose name became synonymous with fine tapestries because of the factory
there that made tapestries of exceptional quality.
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, a stage drama by Pierre Corneille (1606-1684).
Corot: French landscape
Saint Eligius (588-660), patron saint of goldsmiths and horses.
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).
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
de Brabant. Golo is counselor to the duke.
Renaissance painter (1420-1497).
of Israel in the Old Testament (Genesis). He was the son of Abraham and
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.
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).
in Greece that was believed to be the abode of Zeus, Hera, and other major
deities of Greek mythology.
drama by French playwright Racine (1639-1699).
Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Italian architect and printmaker famous
for depicting scenes of ancient Rome.
to Proteus, a sea god in Greek mythology who could change his appearance
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,
Vesuvius in Eruption.
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,
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.
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
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)
following passage precedes a scene in Swann's house.
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
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
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
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.
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
Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the narrator, Marcel, with Proust..