About the Book

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

Themes and Analysis

Swann's Way

By Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust's 'Swann's Way' incorporates themes of involuntary memory, love, and nostalgia for things past. He uses long-winded monologues, intertextuality, and complex sentences, to get his message across.

‘Swann’s Way’ is the first of a seven-volume series titled ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (also known as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’). Through a sequence of instances of unconscious remembering, the narrator, Marcel, comes to understand that all of the beauty he has previously encountered is still present today. Time is returned, and he begins writing the book the reader just finished in a race against time. He didn’t create anything in his search for lost time, but he did change everything, choosing, combining, and transmuting the facts to bring out their fundamental similarity and universal meaning.

Affective Memory in Swann’s Way

When Marcel dips a madeleine in tea in ‘Swann’s Way,’ Part 1, the flavor reminds him of the place where he used to vacation as a youngster, Combray. This encounter, according to author Marcel Proust, is an “involuntary memory” since Marcel does not intentionally try to remember Combray; instead, the recollections overtake him as a result of his sensory experience. Proust, however, contrasts two activities in the madeleine scenario. On the one hand, Marcel experiences memory passively: “Suddenly the memory returns.” However, Marcel points out that the mind must search in the darkness for what it cannot remember, and it does even more than search: “Seek? Create more than that.” Therefore, Marcel is both the source and the creator of memories.

Marcel, however, does not invent or recreate Combray; his memories are not fabrications. However, for Proust and his fictional alter ego, Marcel, simply allowing memory to bring things back is not sufficient; to protect experiences from the passing of time, those experiences must be converted into an artistic creation. Throughout ‘Swann’s Way’ and ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ Marcel acts in this manner.

Developing into a Writer in Swann’s Way

The plot of ‘Swann’s Way’ centers on Marcel’s yearning to develop into the writer he was meant to be. In several ways, the concept of writing is an adaptation of ‘Swann’s Way’s’ notion of love: A note to his mother is written, and he then states, “Now I was no longer separated from her: an exquisite thread was linking us. Writing allows Marcel to enter a different dimension of life, one that is artistic and in which “every emotion is increased tenfold.”

In contrast to what amusement or hobbies may be for other people, aesthetic experience is, for Marcel, an education for life. Marcel has a true experience through his early love of theater, reading, the outdoors, and Gothic churches. Similar to how Marcel Proust in ‘Swann’s Way’ illustrates the validity of aesthetic experience, French philosopher Henri Bergson, who wed a Proust cousin, argued for the actuality of psychological facts.

Writing is a form of art for Marcel in ‘Swann’s Way’ and the other volumes of ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ as the title of the entire seven-volume novel suggests.

Envy and Love in Swann’s Way

In ‘Swann’s Way,’ the lover uses jealous nagging to learn about the beloved’s secret existence because he or she is unable to possess the beloved. In ‘Swann’s Way’, love fails to achieve its goal because the lover makes detours, beginning in the lover’s imagination and missing the real person.

For instance, Marcel falls in love with Gilberte even before he meets her since she is connected to Bergotte, his favorite author. He imagines that she will introduce him to Bergotte and a world of beauty and art as a result. The ordinary girl he sees every day on the Champs-Elysée does not love him, but when he finally befriends Gilberte, she does not reciprocate his feelings for her; instead, she divides into two; one is a Gilberte of his invention who writes him a lengthy, sincere letter confessing her love for him.

Similar to how Marcel fell in love with the Duchesse de Guermantes before even meeting her, he was drawn to her because of the world in which she resided—for him, she is connected to the myth of “Geneviève de Brabant, ancestress of the Guermantes family,” and is therefore “always wrapped in the mystery of the Merovingian age.” Between 500 and 750, in Gaul (France and Germany), a Frankish (French) dynasty ruled. The Duchesse de Guermantes is a flawed 20th-century woman with a pimple next to her prominent nose and a penchant for crude humor.

In ‘Swann’s Way,’ love follows its path without regard to the lover’s desires or will. Jealousy emerges when a relationship enters the disillusionment stage. In ‘Swann’s Way,’ jealousy is more like a shadowy manifestation of the lover’s desire to come to know the beloved than it is about getting even or punishment. Swann begins attempting to learn everything about Odette after realizing she has grown distant from him. He wants to know where she goes, what Forcheville writes to her, which appointments she lied about, how many men she has loved, and whether she has ever had female lovers (she has).

In the throes of love, the beloved lives in a different world for Swann, just as it does for Marcel. The “Merovingian period” of the Duchesse de Guermantes, or Gilberte’s friendship with the writer Bergotte, is for Marcel that distinct domain. “Odette’s actual existence,” according to Swann, is “her life while he wasn’t there, watching,” in that different realm. Disillusionment sets in during the last stage of love when the lover understands the beloved does not live in a different world and is not waiting to receive the lover.

Anxiety and Manipulation

In the opening line of his book, Proust writes, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” This prompts a detailed discussion of his anxiety about leaving his mother alone at night and his attempts to coerce her into giving him a goodnight kiss, even on nights when the family is joined by guests. His father then suggests that his mother stay the night with him after he has waylaid her in the hallway as she is getting ready for bed, leading to spectacular success.

In the same way that his ill aunt Léonie and all the other lovers in the entire novel utilize the same petty oppression techniques to influence and dominate their loved ones, his anxiousness leads to manipulation.


What is the role of art in ‘Swann’s Way’?

The story frequently goes into considerable detail about the nature of art, which is a motif. According to Proust’s conception of art, everyone is capable of creating art if by this we mean using life experiences to alter them in a way that demonstrates comprehension and maturity. The topics of writing, painting, and music are also covered in great detail. Along with other fictitious artists like the author Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, and the painter Elstir, Morel the violinist, is analyzed to give an example of a particular type of “creative” character.

Is memory a central theme in ‘Swann’s Way’?

The famous madeleine event in the first half of the book serves as an introduction to the novel’s major theme of the importance of memory, and in the last volume, ‘Time Regained’, a flashback resembling the one brought on by the madeleine marks the start of the plot’s resolution. Throughout the book, there are numerous instances of involuntary memory that are similar and are brought on by sensory experiences like sights, sounds, and smells. These instances often bring the narrator’s attention back to an earlier chapter of the book.

What is another major theme in ‘Swann’s Way’?

Proust also underlines the relationship between reading and self-knowledge. He thought that because readers tend to mold the characters they read about, a book’s meaning changes with every reading. Rereading childhood favorites enables readers to recognize how they have evolved. Being a voracious reader, books quickly take precedence over the real world for Marcel. His fascination with works like ‘François le Champi’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’, which both feature a mother and son in a quasi-sexual connection, is a reflection of his worries about his relationship with his mother.

How does ‘Swann’s Way’ fit into the grander work of ‘In Search of Lost Time?’

Proust highlights the potential to rebuild the past through recollection in ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ the greater work of which ‘Swann’s Way’ is the first book, while cautioning that doing so can never fully ease one’s pain in the present.

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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