About the Book

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

Plot Summary

Swann's Way

By Marcel Proust

‘Swann's Way’ is the first of seven volumes of Marcel Proust's ‘In Search of Lost Time’. In this book, Proust tells a semi-autobiographical tale of his childhood, being the narrator of 'Swann's Way'.

‘In Search of Lost Time’ explores the passage of time and the absence of meaning in the world as it follows the narrator’s childhood memories and experiences into adulthood in high-society France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is volume one of a seven-volume French memoir that has been translated into English and made available in several editions. An unnamed narrator who is assumed to be the author tells the story of ‘Swann’s Way.’

‘Swann’s Way’ is divided into four parts.

Part One Summary of Swann’s Way

The narrator remembers a moment in the early 20th century when he was a child. Because of his many similarities to Marcel Proust, some readers refer to this narrator as Marcel. ‘Swann’s Way’s’ narrator, however, is never referred to as Marcel and never states his name. Marcel thinks back to his early years and remembers the pain he used to feel when he couldn’t fall asleep. He discusses some unusual sleep-related states of consciousness, such as nodding off while reading and waking up in the wrong place. Marcel also considers how habitual views shape one’s environment as he remembers his bedrooms in Paris, Venice, and the beach hamlet of Balbec, as well as in the made-up French village of Combray.

Marcel has little luck falling asleep with a magic lantern. He yearns for his mother to give him a comforting goodnight kiss, yet this yearning is tense. Since his mother appears to simply tolerate the behavior and his father disapproves of it, he is terrified of receiving derision for expressing such a foolish wish. Marcel makes an effort to hide how much he treasures those moments. He also anticipates the moment when the kiss will end, and he will be back alone in the night because he longs for it so much.

The story’s emphasis shifts back to Marcel’s adult life in the present. When he had problems falling asleep in the past, he would often consider Combray, although his recollections were fuzzy. To him, Combray appeared “dead.” His mother serves him tea and a madeleine, a tiny sweet confection, one day. He has “an amazing pleasure” right away from the scent and flavor, but at first, he is unsure of why. He gradually recalls that at Combray, his Aunt Leonie used to serve him a small madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea. Right there, this taste transports him right back to Combray. It’s as if “the entirety of Combray and its environs… burst into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

Part Two Summary of Swann’s Way

Aunt Leonie is one of Marcel’s fondest recollections of Combray. After losing her husband, Leonie is devastated and spends the day in bed with a severe case of hypochondria. She attempts to gain the sympathy of her family by verbally listing all of her ailments.

This idea prompts the narrator to discuss the church in Combray and its Gothic style. Marcel is in awe of the numerous tapestries and stained glass windows that line the church’s interior, each of which tells a unique tale of kings, queens, and saints. According to Marcel, his uncle Adolphe’s study, where he used to read, was the only area of his grandparents’ home that he was not permitted to access. Marcel enjoys the theater and carefully considers which plays to visit, perusing playbills on the streets of Paris. One particular day, he wants to discuss a play with his uncle, but another guest is in the house.

As soon as Swann and his friend Bloch introduce Marcel to the author Bergotte, his universe of books abruptly widens. Bloch is a welcome visitor at Combray despite Marcel’s grandfather making light of his Jewish origins, until one day when he makes fun of Aunt Leonie’s wild adolescence, and the family no longer allows him into their house.

The final section of the “Combray” section concentrates on many of the local figures who not only have an impact on Marcel as a child but also play a significant role in both his and Swann’s adult relationships. Vinteuil, a musician from the area with a reputation for moral conservatism, is one of them. Marcel begins spying on Vinteuil as soon as he is presented. One day, Marcel observes through the window as Vinteuil sets a sheet of music he’s written on his piano in anticipation of being asked to play while his parents are over at Vinteuil’s house.

Part Three Summary of Swann’s Way

Swann becomes the main character of the story, and the scene is now in Paris, close to the time of Marcel’s birth. Odette de Crécy, a flirty young coquette, is introduced to Charles Swann by a friend, who calls her a “ravishing creature” and claims Swann might “come to an understanding” with her.

Odette spends a lot of her time at the Verdurins’ house, which is owned by a vulgar middle-class couple and serves as a salon. An in-salon clique known as “the little clan” is ruled by Mme. Verdurin with imperious authority. Mme. and Dr. Cottard, a young pianist, and his aunt, M. Biche, a painter “then in favor,” M. Brichot, a professor from the Sorbonne University, and M. Saniette, an amateur paleographer who belongs to a wealthy family, are among the members of the salon.

Swann’s romantic attachment to Odette is influenced by two significant incidents. Odette’s appearance initially does not appeal to him, but one evening he notices that she resembles a woman in a mural by the Italian artist Botticelli (1445–1510). Swann believes that Odette resembles one of the daughters, Zipporah, who is depicted in the painting as Jethro’s daughters in the Bible. Swann shares part of his awe for the splendor of the fresco by Botticelli with Odette. Swann pledges himself to “the tiny tribe” at the Verdurins’ by becoming more like Odette. Although he is aware of the Verdurins’ foolishness, he nonetheless views them “through the adoring eyes of love”—his love for Odette. However, after learning that Swann is close with persons like the Duchesse de Guermantes, the Verdurins begin to grow distant from him.

Swann, who is concerned about Odette’s loyalty, seeks advice from Baron de Charlus and Adolphe, Marcel’s uncle. Swann is instructed by Adolphe to avoid Odette for a few days so that her love for him can be reignited by his absence. However, Odette and Swann stop being friends with Adolphe after Odette admits to them that he “tried to take her by violence.” Swann, on the other hand, is certain that “nothing adverse could ever happen” between Charlus and Odette. Swann’s assurance could be attributed to Charlus’ homosexuality, albeit the narrator doesn’t go into detail. Swann utilizes Charlus as a middleman to deliver communications to Odette.

Swann receives an anonymous letter one day. It claims that in addition to Forcheville, Odette has been “the mistress of many men” and several women. Odette “frequent[s] establishments of ill fame,” the letter adds. Swann tries to identify the sender of the letter; he believes it was someone who was acting in his best interests, such as his coachman Rémi or Charlus. Swann immediately rejects the letter’s assertions as untrue, though. Instead, he keeps looking at Odette as she presents herself to him.

He considers Odette’s appearance once more the next morning after having a bizarre dream about her. The fact that he has “wasted years of my life” and that his “biggest love… has been for a woman who did not satisfy me, who was not in my style” astounds him.

Part Four Summary of Swann’s Way

The attention returns to Marcel, who is now an adult. Like in Part 1, he remembers what it was like to be unable to sleep while lying in bed. In the gloom before him, bedrooms from his past appear to take shape. He envisions hotel rooms in the French beach resort of Balbec.

Suddenly, young Marcel in Paris comes into sight. His father permits him to travel to Venice and Florence in the spring because he wants to see Venice or Balbec. He develops a fever, though, as if the excitement has overpowered him. He is deemed to be too ill to travel, according to the doctor. Instead, Marcel settles for taking Françoise on autumnal strolls through the Champs-Élysée park, where he eventually runs into Gilberte, the child of Swann and Odette.

Gilberte exclaims to Marcel one day that she won’t be at the Champs-Élysée the next day or for several weeks. She exhales as she outlines her vacation even though she will be gone for Christmas and New Year’s. Marcel is aware that she doesn’t love him as much as he does her because of her eagerness to leave. Marcel, on the other hand, takes a while to truly understand her disinterest, much like Swann yearning for Odette. Marcel tries to persuade his parents to use the name “Swann” regularly as solace. He also wished that Swann had been invited to supper by his family in Paris, as they had been at Combray.

The tale then turns to a time many years later; Marcel is now an adult. He misses the days gone by. His boyhood haunts and the women’s styles have changed, and the lovely women he used to admire are either gone or have been replaced by their ghostly, geriatric counterparts. Marcel is astounded by how some place names continue to carry a particular allure for him.


Why is the beginning chapter of ‘Swann’s Way’ called ‘Overture’?

The thematic and artistic tone for the remainder of ‘Swann’s Way’ as well as the other books in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ series is established in this opening section, which is aptly titled “Overture.” Proust had a passion for music, and by designating this first piece as an “Overture,” he suggests a direct comparison between his writing and musical notation. ‘Swann’s Way’s’ opening portion outlines the different motifs of the impending work before the distinct movements start, much like a symphony’s introduction.

Is ‘Swann’s Way’ autobiographical?

Partly. ‘Swann’s Way’s’ plot is somewhat autobiographical. Many of the recollections, as well as the narrator’s hopes and concerns, are things Proust himself hoped he could remember from his adolescence. However, Proust was adamant that an author’s life had very little to do with his or her literary creations. Thus, paradoxically, his goal in writing ‘Swann’s Way’ was to draw from his own experiences while keeping as much of his identity separate from that of the character Marcel.

What is the narrator of ‘Swann’s Way’, Marcel, particularly fond of?

Proust’s love of Gothic-style buildings and history, as well as his understanding of contemporary art, are evident in the narrator’s moving description of the Combray church. He makes several allusions to medieval history and romances throughout the book, many of which are depicted in the church’s stained-glass windows and tapestries. The pictures of historical characters that the young Marcel sees in the chapel have sparked his interest in them, including Francis I, Geneviève de Brabant, and the Duchesse de Guermentes.

Is the narrator of ‘Swann’s Way’, Marcel, a homosexual?

It is hard to say for sure. One of the central themes of ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ is homosexuality. Even though Proust never admits that the narrator is homosexual himself, several side characters engage in homosexual relationships, almost always with the young Marcel watching them. Never condemning homosexuality, the narrator instead equates it with voyeurism. In this view, the conclusion of an interaction always necessitates the presence of a third party.

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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