About the Book

Book Protagonist: Marcel, Charles Swann
Publication Date: 1913
Genre: Classic, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Historical Context

Swann's Way

By Marcel Proust

'Swann's Way' is the first of a seven-volume series by Marcel Proust. Unfortunately, Proust died before he could see the publishing of the full book, 'In Search of Lost Time'

The first of the two interconnected tales in ‘Swann’s Way’ centers on Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in and memories of the French village of Combray. The narrator talks about his apprehension of going to bed at night after being moved by the “gusts of remembrance” that come up within him as he dips Madeleine into hot tea.

The Origins of In Search of Lost Time

In 1909, the novel’s development got underway. Proust kept working on it until he was forced to stop by his fatal illness in the fall of 1922. Early on, Proust defined the structure, but even after the first few volumes were published, he continued to add fresh material and prepare each volume for publication. As they were only in draft form at the time of the author’s death, the final three of the seven volumes include errors and incomplete or unpolished passages; his brother Robert oversaw their publishing.

In France, the book was published between 1913 and 1927. Proust paid for the first volume’s publication (by the Grasset publishing firm) after eminent editors who had been provided the longhand manuscript rejected it. Though the perspective and treatment are distinct, many of its themes, incidents, and ideas were foreshadowed in Proust’s incomplete novel Jean Santeuil (1896-1899) and his incomplete philosophical essay/story Contre Sainte-Beuve (1908–09).

The Origins of Swann’s Way

Publishers such as Fasquelle, Ollendorff, and the Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF) all rejected ‘Swann’s Way’ (‘Du côté de chez Swann’, also known as ‘The Way by Swann’s’) (1913). When André Gide was famously handed the manuscript to read to advise NRF on publication, he found a few minor grammatical problems while reading through the seemingly unending accumulation of memories, philosophizing, or melancholy experiences, which led him to decide to reject the work in his audit.

Economic classicism in Swann’s Way

Swann, the son of a stockbroker from the middle class, makes his way into high society in ‘Swann’s Way’ by hanging out at the prestigious Jockey Club in Paris and mingling with the Prince of Wales. Conversely, Marcel’s family believes that “everyone at his birth found himself called to that station in life which his parents had inhabited” and that French society “consist[s] of sharply defined castes.” While Marcel’s family views social classes as rigid, Swann perceives class mobility.

Since Swann and Marcel’s families are focusing on slightly different facets of class, both perspectives have some truth in reality. With a noble aristocracy that owned titles and landed estates, France used to be a monarchy. The monarchy was overthrown during the French Revolution of 1789, and some property was distributed as a result. However, wealth was still passed down by inheritance, and according to recent research by French economist Thomas Piketty (born 1971), inherited wealth is likely to concentrate over time in a smaller number of hands. Piketty might concur with Marcel’s family in saying that everyone continues to live at the same economic station as their parents.

Homosexuality in Swann’s Way

Like the other books in the ‘In Search of Lost Time’ series, ‘Swann’s Way’ employs homosexuality to examine the secret lives of its protagonists. Early in the 20th century, homosexuality was tolerated in France more so than in other parts of Europe. This tolerance has roots in the numerous social upheavals that the French Revolution brought about in French society (1787–99). A new constitution was adopted in 1791 as a result of the revolution, and the French penal code changed. The new legislation decriminalized “sodomy”—which in this context refers to “sexual interactions between people of the same sex”—between consenting adults.

The homosexuality motif in ‘Swann’s Way’ is connected to sin and secrecy. Mlle. Vinteuil and her “boyish” lesbian lover make jokes about defiling her father’s portrait as a result. Vinteuil indulges in the wickedness she believes is acceptable for such pleasures because she fears the pleasure of love. Homosexuality is proof that ‘Swann’s Way’ has a secret life. It stands for the inaccessible aspect of Odette’s existence that Swann is attempting to learn about by questioning both her and other prostitutes. It is kept a secret since Swann cannot experience Odette’s lesbian loves, even if he knows about them. He can only be in a heterosexual relationship with Odette.

The Setting of Swann’s Way

The essay “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century” was written by German literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) in the 20th century. Paris is the capital of France, not a particular era, but Benjamin’s essay title alludes to a theme that is also present in ‘Swann’s Way’: Paris’s emergence as the world’s leading city at the end of the 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, when ‘Swann’s Way’ is set, this was still the situation.

The belle époque (“beautiful epoch”) encompasses the years from 1871, when France lost the Franco-Prussian War, until 1914 when World War I officially began. Paris at this time was home to many notable works of art, literature, commerce, science, and philosophy. ‘Swann’s Way’ is set in this period, and it is at this time that both Marcel, the narrator, and Swann’s love affair with Odette take place.


Apart from Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ in ‘In Search of Lost Time’, what else characterized the belle époque?

Édouard Manet (1832–83), Claude Monet (1840–1926), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were among the Impressionist artists who flourished during the belle époque in the arts (1841–1919). Following the Impressionists were the post-Impressionists, who produced works by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). The city resounded to the sounds of brand-new compositions by classical composers Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Georges Bizet (1838-75), and Camille Saint-Sans (1835-1921). Early 20th-century composers Claude Debussy (1862–1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) produced experimental works.

How did the belle époque era influence Marcel Proust’s writing in ‘Swann’s Way’?

Marcel Proust was a skilled art critic who chose particular artists and writing styles to inform his narrative. For instance, Marcel’s obsession with the buildings and surrounding terrain in and around Combray, as well as his allusions to water lilies and flowering fields, are reminiscent of the impressionist paintings of Claude Monet. Additionally, Proust borrows Monet’s interest in the varying light patterns on the church façade.

Who/What inspired Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’?

The investigation of the nature of time was one of the main philosophical trends of Proust’s period. Scientists and artists alike have reexamined the nature of time and the inherent subjectivity of previous interpretations of it in light of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Henri Bergson, one of the most well-known philosophers of the turn of the century, held that “duration” was a more “natural” type of time that “flowed” like music. Bergson’s duration, in contrast to the “homogeneous” time recorded by a clock, had no breaks; rather, it was an interwoven “interpenetration” of moments that were identical to one another. This concept was modified by Proust to support his views regarding time and memory.

Charles Asoluka
About Charles Asoluka
Charles is an experienced content creator, writer, and literary critic. He has written professionally for multiple reputable media organizations. He loves reading Western classics and reviewing them.
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